Navigating the grocery store.
Photo: Creatas/Thinkstock
Is it possible to make smart yet economical choices in a world where we must coexist with a $1 double cheeseburger? writer Lynn Okura attempts to heed the advice in the documentary Food, Inc. by eating locally, ethically and organically—oh, and on a budget.
A few years ago, an organic bakery opened up a just a couple of blocks from my apartment. I, for one, was baffled. Organic chicken I get. Organic tomatoes, sure. But organic cupcakes? The organic movement was getting a little too trendy for my taste, and I was finding it hard to grasp.

I'm still confused about organic frosting, but I've decided to educate myself. After seeing Michael Pollan on The Oprah Winfrey Show, my fiancé and I watched the documentary Food, Inc. together. It's smart, eye-opening and refreshing in that it doesn't feature a celebrity telling me the "cool" thing to eat. It also made us realize that a lot of what we have been consuming isn't really food. Low-wage labor and practices have made food more affordable, but not more nutritional. I've been living in a bubble, wherein the only thing that mattered about my food choices was how they would effect the size of my wallet and my thighs.

The truth about the way foods are grown and processed is something I'd avoided. I can't even handle the Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial, so watching a documentary about the animals I eat was not high on my to-do list.

The good news is that our food system is full of choices. I hope to make better decisions now, but I'll admit—I'm a little lost. Now that I've seen Food, Inc., I can't go back to the way I used to eat. I'm left to figure out how I to implement healthy foods into my already busy, budgeted lifestyle. Less processed foods! Free-range meats! Cage-free eggs!

My trip begins at my local grocery store, Dominick's. It's not a specialty store, just your regular ole grocery chain, similar to a Safeway, Food Emporium or Winn-Dixie. I went in with a few goals in mind:
  • Buy less packaged, processed foods full of ingredients my grandma wouldn't recognize, as Pollan says. I never bothered to look at the ingredients before. Sure, I'd turn the box around, but it was always to look at the calories, fat and sometimes the carbohydrates. Maybe sodium. It's amazing what you find when you read the ingredients.
  • Buy more fruits, vegetables and foods that are overall healthy, low in fat and nutritious.
  • Buy free-range meats that do not contain antibiotics and hormones.
Is it possible to shop for real food on a budget? Let's find out
Up first: fruits and vegetables. I wasn't expecting to find much, but when I took the time to look, I found a good selection of organic produce. I've always assumed organic was more expensive and never bothered to price check. As it turns out, the organic bananas are 20 cents more than nonorganic bananas. Organic oranges, 40 cents more. Tomatoes, 50 cents. Celery,15 cents. We're talking small change here! Opting for organic is feeling really easy right now.

My best discovery is the apples. Regular Fuji apples (my favorite) are $1.99 per pound. The organic Fuji apples just so happen to be on sale—for the exact same price. Score! One point for me.

Blueberries are on Dr. Oz's anti-aging checklist for their antioxidants, and I've recently begun to eat them for breakfast mixed with yogurt and granola. I've been very pleased with this healthy new me—until I examined the label a little more closely. My blueberries hail from...Chile. So much for eating locally; minus one point for me. I live in Chicago, where there is still snow on the ground and no farmer's markets to visit until summer. I search the store in hope that I can find at least semi-local blueberries, but no dice. Confession: I bought them anyway. 

Something to keep in mind: A printable list of produce worth buying organic PDF  based on pesticide contaminations levels.

Following the perimeter of the store, my next stop is the meat department. It starts off well. I pick up a package of ground turkey meat, clearly marked as organic: "No antibiotics ever administered, vegetarian feed, humanely raised and no growth hormones." Sounds good to me, and at $4.49 per pound, it's only $1 more than the nonorganic ground turkey.

Chicken is up next, and it's a moral minefield. A package of brand-name chicken is on sale for $2.99 per pound. The organic chicken, stating "no antibiotics, free range, vegetarian feed and no hormones added" is $8.99 per pound. Triple the price!

My thrifty side is panicking, but I can't bring myself to buy the cheap chicken—I think Food, Inc. has changed my taste buds. (It could be the guilt.) My solution: I buy neither. By no means am I turning vegetarian, but I'm starting to think I don't need to eat as much meat as I have been in the past—a shocking concept for me.

I stay away. For this week, my budget isn't going to allow for grass-fed steak, and I'm okay with that.

I'm happy to see my grocery store carries three options of cage-free eggs. The most expensive dozen stands out with its "USDA approved" label, but the other cartons use the exact same cage-free, no-hormone wording. None claim to be free farmed, which would have been ideal. As I'm standing in the refrigerated section for far too long, a couple comes up next to me. They are also looking for cage-free eggs, but clearly aren't willing to spend 10 minutes thinking about it. "Let's just pick one," he says. "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe." I notice they pick the cheapest cage-free dozen, and I grab the same. At least they have a system.

Doesn't "low fat" equal "healthy?"
Packaged Goods and Pasta
Chips, crackers and other packaged snack foods are always in my cupboards. They're convenient, delicious and there is a low-fat version of every chip, cracker or cookie I could ever want. I'm beginning to realize that equating low fat (and nothing else) with health has been my problem. In my attempts to eat healthy, I wonder if I've been doing just the opposite.

I consider weaning myself off packaged products altogether and eating leafy greens between meals. I'm curious how much money I would save if I stopped stocking my shelves with these products. Two seconds later, I'm back to reality and looking for a box of crackers to snack on. My goal is to find a reasonably low-calorie snack that doesn't list "partially hydrogenated oil" as an ingredient. This proves to be difficult, but I eventually find a box of organic roasted garlic and rosemary crackers that I conclude to be a relatively guilt-less snack.

Wheeling my cart over to the pasta aisle, I find that organic whole wheat pasta is on sale. It's even slightly less expensive than the regular kind, believe it or not. Whole wheat pasta with sautéed spinach, mushrooms, garlic and olive oil is one of my favorite (and easiest) meals to make.

The Frozen Food Aisle
Something tells me I'm not going to have much luck with the microwaveable meals that I've relied on in the past, so I head over to the veggie burgers and meatless meals. As with everything else, I read the backs of the packages and find that some brands seem have more questionable ingredients than others. I've tried many meat-free options in the past and have recently found a brand I love called Dr. Praeger's. The veggie burgers are loaded with vegetables and only ingredients I recognize. I'm a big fan of the taste and hope I've found an inexpensive, healthy staple to my diet.

Moving on to milk, the price difference between organic and nonorganic is obvious—a gallon of fat-free organic milk is $5.99, while regular fat-free milk is $2.49. What's more, the organic nonfat yogurt I buy is exactly double the price of the nonorganic, which is on sale. As I'm reading the labels, I notice the vanilla yogurt has a whopping 26 grams of sugar per cup, while the plain has only 9 grams. I put the vanilla down and pat myself on the back for noticing.

My fridge is already stocked with cheese (my weakness) but I still want to examine the packages. Some of the ingredients in the processed cheeses I have been eating worry me. I'm going to have to find a middle ground between low-fat, processed cheese and high-fat, organic cheese. I fear the answer may be to eat less cheese.

Drinks, Soft Drinks and Juices
I skip this aisle completely. You know what's cheap? Water. A year ago, my sister and I decided that we would stop buying all drink products, other than milk. Drinking water saves me about $25 a month, or $300 a year.

It's more than two hours later, and my cart isn't very full. I didn't spend much, but it's probably because most of what I picked up went back onto the shelf. When all was said and done, I spent $47.19 on foods that were mainly organic, or at least "real" food. Had I dismissed the challenge and gone the cheapest route on my items, I could have saved $5.39. Significant? No. Over time? Yes, but I'm hoping to look for ways to save elsewhere.

Shopping for real food is confusing and time consuming...but, ultimately, rewarding. I'm still new at this, and I'm not going to be perfect, but I'm willing to readjust my habits and look for food that has a positive impact on my health, the planet and the people who work to produce it. I still love cheeseburgers, my mom's meatloaf and hot dogs at baseball games, but if I can make better choices most of the time, I can justify an indulgence every once in a while, right?

How do you think Lynn did at the grocery store? Read Food & Water Watch's critique of her shopping experience. Have you changed your shopping habits after watching Food, Inc.? Share your comments and tips for navigating the grocery store below.

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