How to Eat a Healthy Diet Even When You’re on a Budget

There are many alternatives to eating SAD food without breaking the bank

SAD is the acronym for the Standard American Diet, and sad is how a lot of us feel after eating the standard fare we find at our local grocery stores and restaurants.

It’s difficult but not impossible to eat a healthy diet in an unhealthy world

It is not easy to eat a healthy, pesticide-free, chemical-free diet on a budget. Just walk around any grocery store and compare prices between organic produce and conventional sprayed produce.

Clearly, it is much easier and less expensive to buy refined grains, canned and packaged goods full of added sugar, salt, and chemicals than it is to buy fresh, locally grown, whole foods.

But you can begin to substitute at least some of the worst offenders with healthier choices with a little ingenuity.

Eat more plants, save money, grow healthier

Many healthy choices are still inexpensive. On a plant-based or plant-strong diet, you can cut back on meat and dairy consumption and substitute beans, sweet potatoes, and whole grains like quinoa, barley, and whole steel cut oats. These are incredibly inexpensive even in their organic forms.

What about protein concerns?

A plant-based diet can give you all the protein and nutrients you need while making you healthier in the long run.

According to plant-based medical doctor Joel Fuhrman MD, as long as you are eating enough calories per day and eating a wide variety of plant-based whole foods you don’t need to worry about getting enough protein.

The only time you might need to supplement with a plant-based protein powder is if you are over 65 and have issues with absorption or you are an elite athlete training for an event.

But there has been a trend for athletes to overconsume protein using whey powders and keto diets. Although protein is an important part of many metabolic functions in the human body, too much of a good thing can be harmful.

A study on protein consumption in 2013 at the University of Thessaly in Greece, found that taking in more than the daily RDA recommendation may cause adverse health effects including risk of cancer, liver, and bone disorders due to calcium imbalances.

If you take some of the money that you normally spend on meat, fish, dairy, and processed foods and use it for more whole plant-based foods the cost evens out.

As you research your food choices where you live you can gradually ease into a 100 percent whole food, chemical-free diet if that is your goal. 

Does it have to be certified organic?

Often smaller farms do not have the money to get official organic status but if you talk to local growers at your farmers market or your produce buyer at the grocery store they can give you information about the source of the food they sell.

Often you can get high-quality pesticide-free produce and hormone-free animal products even if they do not carry the official “organic” label.

Buy organic or pesticide-free produce by the crate

You can often get good deals on organic foods in bulk at the large grocery outlets in your area if you ask around. Ask your produce person about buying fruits and vegetables by the crate. They might be able to give you a good discount.

Which foods are safe without the organic label?

Get your list of “the dirty dozen”, the worst foods you can buy that have been sprayed with pesticides, and the fifteen safest foods to buy that are not pesticide-free.

Create or join a bulk-buying food coop and buy directly from farmers

If you are single, bulk produce might be too much to eat before it goes bad. This could be an opportunity to network with other like-minded people and buy in bulk together or join a coop.

You could start a group or a yahoo group for direct bulk buying if there isn’t already a group in your area.

Starting a bulk-buying group takes time and energy if you set it up yourself, but it can be a fun community activity and a way to meet like-minded people.

Often urban centers already have large coops that do not cost much to join.  Check out the Coop Directory to find one near you.

Weekly produce box programs

In many urban areas, you can subscribe to get fresh produce delivered from local farms to your door or pick up a weekly produce box at centralized locations with cash or credit card.

Some programs accept the food stamp EBT card. Many Farmer’s markets are also set up to accept EBT cards.

Imperfect Foods is on a mission to stop billions of pounds of food from ending up in landfills every year by delivering healthy but ugly produce to your door. Much of the global climate change problem is due to food waste when you consider wasted water, land, and emissions.

Forage locally

In moderate climates, you can forage year-round. A lot of places have weekly garden swaps.

Food foraging locator sites are available in progressive urban areas and you can always scout out your own neighborhood and start your own blog to network with other urban foragers.

Of course, you must ask the owners before you pick their produce unless it is hanging over onto the public sidewalk. Check the local laws about this in your area.

Many owners are happy to share if you offer to pick some for them too or help out with weeding. This takes time and energy but can be well worth the effort. Make sure you pick fruit in a balanced manner that does not damage plants.

Read more about urban foraging here

Dumpster diving!

Yuck! This can be disgusting; but some stores sort the produce and bread into separate, fairly clean containers and deliberately turn their backs while people go through the trash.

Businesses are not allowed to give away day-old food without going through official food pantries because of the risk of being sued by dumpster divers. It only took one disgruntled dumpster diver with a tummy ache to ruin it for everybody.

If you look around online and check produce stores in your area this can be an OK experience after all! I can’t say I have done much of it myself but there are plenty of experts to learn from.

Grow some of your own food

It is easy to sprout your own fresh greens in jars, or you can go all out and start your own window box, porch, or patio container garden.

I have grown amazing amounts of tomatoes and herbs on balconies without knowing much about gardening or spending much time on the project.

If your landlord will let you, or if you own your home, you could put a garden in the front or back yard or even on your roof if you have a flat area.

If you decide on the roof you must have a structural expert check out the support structure and it may be suggested that you reinforce things a bit before adding heavy soil-filled containers to your roof.

I have seen roof gardening used with great success in the San Francisco Bay Area. But people have greenhouses and winterized gardens in cold climates and have great success. You don’t have to be in a temperate climate to grow food year-round.

A local permaculture organization I have visited in my area is Planting Justice. They reinforced their landlord’s roof with permission. You can contact them and help out and find out just how they worked with the property owner to create a roof garden and beekeeping area on the roof of their apartment.

Starting a garden in your yard takes time but can produce a surprising amount of food in a small area.

You may want to mulch over grass with cardboard and then put down freshly composted soil mixed with ground rock dust and other nutrients.

Or you could rent equipment for one day and “double dig” your yard, replace grass and herbicide-ridden soil with fresh soil and begin to have healthier food pretty quickly.

You will probably want to have your soil tested to make sure that it is safe. If the soil is too toxic in your yard you can use containers of your own. In many areas, free compost is available from the city if you search on google.

If you hate weeding it is a good idea to mulch around all plants. You can often get free mulch dumped off right at your doorstep by tree maintenance companies that have surplus wood chips and other materials that keep weeds from springing up.

Just make sure your mulch is as chemical-free as possible. Google around your local area. There are hundreds of videos on YouTube about how to convert your yard into a garden.

If you have a cement driveway or yard, there are even how-to videos about how to get rid of the cement and convert your space into a growing area.

If you want to gain more knowledge about pesticide-free gardening there are volunteer opportunities in many communities. In most parts of the US, we have lots of urban gardens that welcome volunteers and offer internships or courses for those who can afford them.

Why is it so hard to find inexpensive alternatives to SAD foods?

Just 3 generations ago all we had were fresh local, chemical-free foods! My mom tells me about the truck farms that surrounded Chicago like a green necklace and victory gardens that people planted in every vacant lot when she was growing up during the depression era during WWII.

But gradually it has become more profitable for the big agribusiness model to grow less nutritious foods, using more pesticides, and preservatives so they can ship them farther and so that they have a longer shelf life.

As this recent agribusiness model has grown so has the obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer rate for the USA and other countries that are starting to follow us down the path of degenerate eating by adding more processed foods to their diet.

The US government subsidizes soy, rice, wheat, corn, commercial dairy, and meat companies so they can charge less for hormone and pesticide-laden foods than they actually cost to grow. Learn more about the true cost of food.

It is a complex political tangle of agricultural monopolies, pesticide empires, and chemical companies; all working together to create a nation of sick, tired, and over-fat Americans.

Check out the documentary Cowspiracy to get a better idea of how this tangled-up system got started and how it works. You can read more about food politics at Planting Justice.

You can take action right now 

You don’t need to know every detail about how it all got so crazy to take action. You can start today to help your own and your family’s health.

By voting with your wallet and supporting local farmers and organic and pesticide-free growers you can help to turn the tables and make real food more affordable for everyone.

Resources for organic and pesticide-free food in California and beyond:

Thrive Market has great deals sometimes so it might be worth signing up.

Big Box grocery stores like Costco have a lot of organic options for produce if you buy in large quantities.

Urban Gardening

City Slickers Farms in Oakland, CA, has urban farms and gardens and offers some free assistance to low-income families who want to start gardens. You can volunteer for workdays.

Spiral Gardens, in Berkeley, CA, has weekly volunteer days and community activities as well.

The Ecology Center in Berkeley, CA, has an extensive list of resources for sustainable living and many parts of the country have ecology and sustainable centers.

Urban Farm Guys have created an amazing sustainable urban farming community in Kansas City. They have tons of videos and information on affordable healthy food ideas

Farmers Footprint is an inspirational program to heal the soil with regenerative agriculture and help farmers regain dignity and healthy farms again.

Geoff Lawton has lots of free resources, courses, and videos on permaculture and sustainable growing methods

Food Not Lawns website and book by HC Flores has lots of gardening resources and might even have a chapter in your area

Toby Hemenway is another expert on urban gardens.

Here’s an article about container gardens at Organic Consumers.

Check out Guerilla Gardening for urban foraging tips and other activities.


National Geographic has noticed the trend toward foraging in the USA.

Urban Foraging is an informative book for finding free local produce in your area.

 Now it’s your turn!

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