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17 tips for buying organic food on the cheap
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3. Buy a share in a community-supported agriculture program.
When you buy a share in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, you pay a portion of a local farm's operating expenses. In return, you receive weekly boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables in the upcoming harvest.

"You can't get it any fresher. You're getting it straight from the farm, sometimes picked that morning," says Ruth Katz, executive director of Just Food in New York City. "It's usually organic and it's much more delicious because it's so fresh. And you're supporting local farms."

A share in a CSA costs about $300 to $400 upfront for a 24- to 26-week growing season. Many CSA programs accept weekly or monthly payments, and you may be able to buy a half-share rather than a whole share.

Check Web sites such as Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Food Routes and LocalHarvest to find a CSA near you.

4. Join a co-op.
A food cooperative is a member-owned business that provides groceries and other products to its members at a discount. Many of the products lining the shelves of co-ops are organic and much of the produce comes from local family farms.

Joining a co-op is often as easy as signing up and paying some dues. Co-op members that volunteer to work may get additional discounts on any products they buy.

To find a co-op near you, check out Web sites such as Cooperative Grocer and LocalHarvest.

If there's no co-op in your area, you can always start your own. A brochure from Cooperative Grocers' Information Network shows you how.

5. Join a buying club.
A buying club is a great way to get the organic food you want on the cheap. In a buying club, you may be able to get 30 percent to 40 percent off the retail price. Buying-club members purchase food and other organic products in bulk and then split the stash.

"These buying clubs are the best-kept secrets in America," Cummins says.

Ask a co-op near you about starting a buying club with your friends and neighbors. Some co-op grocers will let you order right from their store. Ask a local natural food store where they get their stuff and then contact the distributor directly.

"Some distributors deliver to individuals or groups of individuals who have a minimum amount of an order," says Katherine DiMatteo, a senior adviser with the Organic Trade Association.

6. Buy in bulk.
Whether you're shopping at a natural foods store, supermarket or co-op, buying in bulk is a great way to stretch your food dollar.

For beans, grains, lentils and nuts, head straight for the bulk containers. Just make sure you have a cool, dry place in your kitchen to store your dry goods for a few months. You can save on storage space by splitting your stash with a friend.

Be sure to bring your calculator along on any bulk shopping run. Not every item you can buy in bulk is worth the bother. Do the math.

7. Buy big in-season.
The absolute best time to buy an organic fruit or vegetable is at the peak of its growing season.

"As the season progresses there's more produce and the price has a tendency to shift downward, sometimes dramatically," DiMatteo says. "That's the best time to buy."

And that's the best time to buy big. Load up on all your favorite organic fruits and veggies at dirt-cheap prices.

Next: "share your bounty with friends and family ..."
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