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Buying cheap becomes a habit, it is learned behaviour... it leaves you in a trap.

Determined to feed my children nutritious food after all the buzz in Amsterdam over “plofkip— literally exploding chicken — and antibiotic-fed everything, I wheeled my shopping cart through the newest outpost of Marqt, the Netherlands’ trendy healthy market.

Two small biodegradable shopping bags and 93 euros ($116) later, I headed for the comfort of my kitchen to whip up some Simple Crispy Roast Chicken and Zesty Quinoa Salad, admiring my overflowing vegetable drawer and spelt-filled bread bin.

Two days later, the cupboards — and the fridge — were bare, again.

Huge appetites are the norm in my family, but does the higher cost of healthier food destine most people to shop at budget supermarkets, where the same bill can see a family through a week’s worth of, arguably less-healthy, food?

“Organic foods will always be more expensive because they are niche items and not mass produced,” explained Brian Thompson, senior nutrition officer with the UN Food & Agriculture Organization. “All obstacles in the food production chain — such as lower yields, sourcing products and having to prove foods are not contaminated by GMOs [genetically modified organisms] — will add additional costs and drive up the price.”

With the European Union passing historic legislation in January that allows member states to decide for themselves whether to ban GMO crops, that obstacle may become even bigger: Countries that use genetically modified crops will have the burden of making sure seeds and pollen don’t cross the borders into nations that ban them.

As more people buy organic or sustainable food, he says, the prices should come down. “If you have increased demand for particular food items, such as free-range chicken or organic carrots, an economy of scale comes into the picture,” said Thompson, who adds that less than 10% of food falls into the organic category in today’s developed markets. “The more you grow, the less the unit price costs and that savings can be passed on to the consumer.”

But will they fall enough to lure bargain-hunting shoppers over to the organic aisle?

Research shows that people develop preferences and stick to them, especially if they are rewarded, according to Gerrit Antonides, professor of Economics of Consumers and Households at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“Buying cheap becomes a habit, it is learned behaviour,” said Antonides. “If you buy something healthy, the punishment is highly visible because it’s more expensive, whereas the health benefits are not so visible and only realised later. It leaves you in a trap.”

It’s a trap I am admittedly ensnared in. With my monthly food expenditure starting to overtake my mortgage payments, I find myself running to the mass supermarket to stock up.

Which may not be such a bad thing, according to Thompson. “There’s no scientific evidence that organic food is healthier,” he said. In addition, some of the higher pricing in health-food stores is mere marketing of “the image and lifestyle” that consumers want, Thompson said.

That’s good to take into account, but I’m still an organic convert.  As the cashier rings up my bill, the words of Dutch superstar chef Jonathan Karpathios ring in my head: “Food can’t be cheap. If it is, then it’s been forced to grow unnaturally fast or been doused in pesticides.”

Planning ahead

With such conflicting advice, it’s hard to know when to splash out for organic and when it’s OK not to. For the moment, I’m making choices to help stretch my food allowance: I head to organic-local-sustainable shops for my daughters’ lunchmeat, bread and much of my produce. And I still head to the commercial supermarket chains to load up on canned goods, beverages and most dairy products.

“The key to frugal cooking,” said Dutch food writer Karin Engelbrecht, “is to avoid packaged food, buy seasonal produce and learn to cook from scratch again … cook how your grandmother cooked.”

Engelbrecht divides her purchasing power between local butchers and bakers, farmer’s markets, street markets and healthy stores such as Marqt. She searches out sales and cheaper, “unloved or forgotten” cuts of meat, such as shoulder of lamb or pork collar respectively, which with a little time and effort, she said, are as tasty as pricier cuts. 

“If not organic, look for local, seasonal and free range,” she advised. “It’s not an ideal world. You must compromise a little.”

Anything with a skin, such as peppers or apples, she buys organic to reduce pesticide residue. For items like bananas or avocados, with skin you peel and discard, she doesn’t. There are many internet sites that will help guide you through your organic choices; a good place to start is the NGO Environmental Working Group’s list on the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15.

Grow your own

Chef Karpathios advises people to grow their own vegetables in a garden, on a balcony or even in a windowsill. “On one square meter, you can grow two different vegetables that will be enough to feed a family of four for a whole year,” he said. Salad leaves, carrots and beans make good window box fillers, growing even in the smallest of spaces.

He suggests finding a local farmer and trying to visit once a week. For minimal amounts of money, you will walk away with bags full of organic fresh produce. “Start looking for farmer’s markets and seasonal products, too, which will be cheaper,” he said. “But you have to put in the time to eat healthy.”

In the US and some other countries, CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture groups, are increasingly popular for organic or local produce buys. Sign up for a season and receive a weekly delivery of fresh produce, and sometimes, fruits or even meat. The cost is typically between $18 and $25 per week. Remainders programmes are good options for low-income families. For instance, Gather Baltimore in the US collects edible, unsold or excess produce (up to 30,000 lbs per week) from farmer’s market vendors, farms and produce distributors and delivers it to people living in lower income areas of the city. The bags of food — which in many cases have enough fresh vegetables for a week or more — cost $6 (less if you bring your own bag).

Also increasingly popular in the US, the Netherlands  and some other countries: Services that deliver everything you need to prepare an organic or locally-sourced meal (including recipes and ingredients) —right to your front door. Some examples include dekrat.nl

or streekbox.nl in the Netherlands, and

blueapron.com or plated.com in the US. The cost of three meals for two people starts at about 30 euros ($35) for the Netherlands companies and about $60 for US companies.

Navigating the food chain

Local and national nutrition organisations also offer tips and guidelines. The government-funded Netherlands Nutrition Centre, for example,  works with the country’s budget bureau to calculate precisely how much money you’ll need to spend for a nutritious day’s eating and then provides tips for how to go about it.

Spokeswoman Patricia Schutte says they recommend spending 5 to7 euros ($3.99 to $5.59) per day per person. “It’s not possible to eat healthy on 3 euros a day,” she said. But you can make a euro go a long way: “Have a shopping list so you don’t get distracted, buy frozen vegetables that are lower in price but have the same nutrition as fresh ones and measure your food before cooking it to avoid waste, although if you have leftovers, use them for a new meal.”

Down the road

Encouragingly, Marqt’s founder Quirijn Bolle says that as the market has matured, his average price per product has decreased by 30% since he opened his first store in 2008. Although Marqt’s prices — like those of the popular Whole Foods— are still higher than your average supermarket, “there is a price point we as a society should be wanting,” he said. “A quality point with a sustainable standard.”

That leads me to think that maybe I’m asking the wrong question. As I confess my astronomical food bills to Karpathios, he points out that in Mediterranean countries, people spend more than 25% of their income on food. In the Netherlands, that number is 13%, less than that of any of its neighbours. 

“People spend more on clothes than they do on food,” he told me. “I’m proud of you.” 

Food for thought indeed.

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