How We Eat Real, Organic Food Without Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, & Costco
Not too long ago, I could jump in my car and drive around the corner to my choice of natural, health-minded stores…
My favorite store, Natural Grocers, was literally less than 3 miles from my house. Trader Joe’s, Costco, and Whole Foods weren’t too far away either.
Our raw milk dairy was a pleasant 30-minute drive away, and a nearly year-round farmer’s market in Texas provides variety like you wouldn’t believe (unless, of course, you’re already shopping at a farmer’s market in the South).
Man, I had it easy!
I live in Zone 3. (Translation: My annual “average high temperature” is 48.4° F.) I also live 3.5 hours from the nearest metropolis with TJ’s, Whole Foods, and Costco.
Almost year-round farmer’s markets are not a thing anymore. And I have to make due with what I can find locally, order online, or grow myself.
Finally, I live in a sparsely populated wilderness. This part of the country isn’t even on Whole Foods’ radar, and hell will freeze over before we get a Costco up here.
So yeah, buying groceries before was not a mind-bending exercise. Now, it’s slightly easier than trapeze yoga. But not much.
Why We Need A Variety Of Food Sources
Almost always up for a challenge, I am constantly on the lookout for new sources for our food.
While we would love to grow and raise more of our own food, that’s not something we can just decide to do without proper planning, educating ourselves, and unquestioning commitment.
For instance, we’ve planted a garden for the past 2 summers. This alone has presented its own challenges, such as:
- Our growing season is super short — like mid-June to mid-September for 90% of things that will actually grow in Zone 3.
- Many of our favorite foods (okra, watermelon, and eggplant) just won’t grow here because it isn’t hot enough (hottest summer temp since we’ve lived here: 86° F). And we’re not quite ready to invest in a greenhouse.
- Our property has an excellent garden spot… that was neglected for 8 to 10 years before we got here. Therefore, our soil wasn’t ready to grow things that first summer. Or the second summer. Lots and lots of soil amending — that’s what “gardening” has meant for us so far.
- Deer. Good lord, the deer. The fence is never high enough.
- Neither of us really knows how to garden. There. I said it.
And adding critters to our homestead?
- Animals are a year-round thing. You can’t not go out and feed them or clean their pen/coop/etc. just because it’s -25° F. Or colder.
- Our property needs a few improvements (like turning a shed into a chicken coop) before we’re able to accommodate animals — and we haven’t had time.
- We really like being able to pack up and leave for a weekend if we want. Can’t do that with critters. First world probs, amIright?
Since the majority of our daily diet consists of animal protein and things that grow in the ground, well, right now it’s just not realistic that we would grow/raise all of our own food.
And that’s ok. It’s not a competition or a race, right?
I also have stringent requirements for our food. At least 80% of our food needs to be raised organically and sustainably. Locally raised and foraged food are also things I’m constantly trying to find.
Right now, I buy more for health than I do for season. Honestly, if we were eating 100% seasonally, we wouldn’t ingest a vegetable for 5 months out of the year. That’s not a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
This is why it’s a bit like trapeze yoga for me to source our food. I’m trying to balance our health with our budget and the limited resources available to me.
It kinda makes me tired just writing it all out… LOL!
How We Eat Real, Organic Food Without Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, & Costco
So what are the options available to me? How do we eat real, organic food without access to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Costco? And how do I find the foods we need and still spend a reasonable amount of money on food? (Reasonable is a relative term, no?)
Here’s what’s available to me within 20 miles:
- A fantastic farmer’s market from mid-June to mid-October.
- A local co-operative general store.
- The local-ish chain grocery store that’s like a very small-scale supermarket.
- Friends who raise and grow food and are willing to sell to me or trade with me.
- A CSA.
- A vast wilderness for foraging.
Here’s what’s available to me within 65 miles:
- 3 conventional supermarkets with increasing, but very expensive organic options.
- 2 co-ops that I would consider “health food stores” that sell organic produce and meat, frozen items, organic specialty products like chips and crackers, canned foods, supplements, vitamins, etc.
- A farmer who raises pastured pork and grass-fed beef.
- Another CSA.
- Sam’s Club
- A larger farmer’s market (that I’ve never shopped at).
And here are my online sources:
So… what do I do with all that? Where does our food come from?
Our Community, Farmer’s Market, & Foraging
We know some pretty awesome, crunchy people. And they know a heck of a lot more about gardening and raising food than we do! So we happily buy and trade with them!
Our community takes such good care of us, and we love supporting their small-scale farming businesses because we’ve been to their homes and have seen their happy chickens, beautifully imperfect gardens, and chemical-free properties.
From mid-June to mid-October, I’m taking advantage of allllllll the locally grown, organic produce I can get my hands on! All of our summer and most of our fall produce comes from this one source — well, from the several community members who are vendors.
I make so many fewer trips to town because of this option. I love that we’re supporting our community’s economy and voting for local, sustainable, organic options with our dollars. And for an extrovert like me, the weekly farmer’s market is such a great time for fellowship and camaraderie.
The most beautiful lettuces, radishes, zucchini and squash, broccoli and cauliflower, tomatoes, herbs, sourdough bread, tea blends, home-canned foods, wild rice, and more… I buy as much as I possibly can while it lasts!
I also sell my No-Bake Treats at our farmer’s market, so some of the vendors and I trade our goods which is lots of fun, too!
My “habitat” can’t go without mentioning either. I’m still very new to foraging, yet with the help of friends who generously point things out during hikes, I’m learning to identify berries, mushrooms, and forest plants that are useful for food and medicine.
So far, we’ve foraged plantain, clover, dandelions, and wild violets from our yard, wild raspberries, blueberries, pin cherries, juneberries, wild leeks, high bush cranberries from the woods and surrounding lakes, and various edible mushrooms from spots that will remain top-secret! 😉
We also have 3 apple trees and a chokecherry tree in our yard that we’ve really enjoyed for cider pressing!
And we’ve successfully tapped maple trees and produced syrup for 2 years, so that’s something!
But what do I do the other 8 months of the year — when the temps are too low for growing and the ground is frozen or covered in snow?
Local, Member-Owner Co-ops
We own shares in 3 local, member-owner co-ops. This supports local business and our community’s economy.
These co-ops (2 of which are like “health food stores”) source many of their products from Minnesota farms. So even though these foods aren’t in my immediate area, they do come from within my state and, therefore, support my state’s economy.
These options are also more environmentally friendly because my food isn’t traveling 1,500 miles to get to the store in the first place. Granted, not every item in these stores comes from my state — even organic bananas still come from Mexico, after all.
The most local co-op isn’t like a health food store at all. It’s more of a grocery-hardware-convenience store hybrid. So this is where we check first for everything from nails and light bulbs to rain boots and kombucha (yes, really). This co-op’s produce options are pretty slim, but they do have some local produce during farmer’s market season.
When the farmer’s market isn’t running, these stores are my saving grace.
What about meat?
Local, Grass-Fed Meats, Eggs, & Raw Milk
Thankfully, I’ve been able to find a rancher about an hour away who raises, butchers, and sells grass-fed beef and pork. I also source my pig fat for rendering lard from her.
The majority of our eggs come from our friends who raise totally pastured, soy-free chickens. During the coldest winter months, their chickens don’t lay much, so we do resort to purchasing organic eggs from the regular supermarket, Aldi, or one of the 3 member-owner co-ops.
I buy a fair amount of breakfast sausage, bacon, chicken, Applegate Farms pepperoni, and wild-caught salmon from the 3 member-owner co-ops as well.
We are so blessed to have access to raw milk, cream, and butter from a farm about an hour north of us. We purchase 2 gallons of milk every 2 weeks for $7.50 per gallon. I make our yogurt from raw milk in my Instant Pot!
Lastly, a post about our food wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging that I’ve got about 15 pounds of roadkill venison sitting in my freezer right now. (Yes, really.) 😉
My friend H. happened upon this deer one night just minutes after it had been struck and killed by a car. Since it was still “fresh” (meaning, it hadn’t been laying there for hours), we called the Department of Natural Resources, reported it, and then gutted and skinned it for our own use.
The Hubs and I plan to apply for deer hunting licenses this fall. We have a large herd of deer that roams through our property on a daily basis. They are menaces to our garden, and we would love nothing more than to hunt 2 for our freezer!
Honestly, I don’t shop at them much. Like, not even once a month.
If one of them is having a sale on wild-caught salmon, I’ll stop in. Or, if I need frozen okra or cauliflower (non-organic, best price).
I actually went to “town” last week and didn’t go to a supermarket at all.
Organic foods are becoming more common up here (thankfully), but they’re still outrageously expensive in the supermarkets. And I seriously question the quality of some of these items.
We just discovered Aldi last year when one opened about an hour and a half away from us. I was extremely impressed with the selection of natural and organic products, including Kerry Gold Butter and grass-fed meats! Aldi ALWAYS has the most affordable avocados, too.
So, I don’t go to Aldi every time I go to town; but I do try to stop in there every couple of months. I will buy non-organic produce, like avocados, bananas, and pineapples, from Aldi. They typically have organic spinach, oranges, and carrots, but I don’t go to Aldi for those specific items.
Aldi is one of those places I go when I have time, but I rarely make a special trip for anything. If it was closer, I’d be singing a different tune, however.
I hate admitting this because I would not consider myself pro-Walmart at all. In fact, I haven’t set foot in an actual Walmart in years, and I’m not sad about it at all.
But without a Costco… a girl’s gotta buy some stuff at warehouse prices, ya know?
I stop in Sam’s once every couple months. And I have set things I buy: Bob’s Red Mill superfine almond flour, organic vanilla, organic sweet potatoes, lemons and limes, 5 pounds of organic carrots, and cases of Thai Kitchen coconut milk. And organic eggs when I can’t get any locally.
Online Real Food Sources
As much as I would LOVE for all of our food to come from local businesses and farmers, we just aren’t there yet. Or our community’s not there yet. Or we live in northeastern Minnesota, and maybe we’ll never be there…
However, we love Zevia sugar-free sodas, so we buy cases of 24 off Amazon. 😉
I don’t order from Thrive Market or Vitacost much. Of the 2, I prefer Vitacost and purchase Yogi teas, Enjoy Life chocolate, konjac noodles, gluten-free soy sauce, and sometimes random things that they’re offering at a large discount.
Thrive Market does have good prices on many of our favorite items, and when I have a long enough list, I will place an order. (Maybe 4 or 5 times per year.)
Azure Standard is one of my favorite online food sources. I’ve been a monthly Azure customer for over 6 years, and I was thrilled when I found out about the drop an hour and a half from me. I quickly organized friends and neighbors so that we could order and take turns picking up for each other.
I usually spend between $80 and $160 per month at Azure Standard. For bulk foods like beans, sprouted rice, and popcorn, there’s just not a local option that’s more economical.
Other items I regularly buy from Azure?
- grass-fed, raw cheese
- bulk seasonal produce
- sprouted corn tortillas
- canned wild-caught salmon
- Lily’s chocolate 🙂
- frozen bulk veggies and berries
- bulk oats
The thing I don’t buy from Azure? Meat. It’s too expensive! And why would I when I have a local source?
Perfect Supplements isn’t exactly a food store… but I couldn’t make it without their grass-fed Bovine Gelatin and Hydrolyzed Collagen. Plus, this whole foods vitamin C and quality vitamin D3 are all I use! (Use my exclusive coupon code TODAY10 for an extra 10% off your Perfect Supplements order!)
And finally, we are loyal Wilderness Family Naturals customers and purchase a large amount of pantry staples from them regularly. There are even items, like coconut oil, raw cacao powder, and coconut flour, that I won’t buy anywhere else! WFN staples we keep stocked:
- coconut oil
- olive oil
- coconut flour
- unsweetened, shredded coconut
- soaked & dehydrated nuts and seeds
- bulk herbs and spices
- raw cacao powder
- coconut syrup
Why Not The CSA?
We were members of one of the local CSAs during our first summer here. And it was magnificent! We knew our garden wouldn’t amount to much that year, so it was a great way to ensure access to organic, locally grown produce for the season.
Wait… there’s a but in there…
But this CSA produced an abundance of cucumbers… and little else.
We got strawberries and basil twice, some baby greens, a few peppers, and several squash. The rest was cukes. So I made a lot of fermented pickles that summer.
We weren’t thrilled with the lack of variety. So our second summer, we had 2 choices: join the other CSA or rely on the farmer’s market.
We decided on the latter. And we made it more of a necessity for ourselves to work hard for the success of our garden. (Our garden was actually doing pretty well until the deer got in… 🙁 ).
So, while joining a CSA is a real option for us, we have purposely chosen not to in favor of frequenting the farmer’s market and working harder on our own garden. (This option doesn’t mean we aren’t supporting local farmers. The same farmer who runs the CSA also sells at the market — so we’re supporting them and actually paying more for produce!)
We don’t find ourselves in the big metropolis often…
But when we do, you better believe I take my coolers and make a haul from Trader Joe’s and Costco! 😛 I just can’t keep myself away from the great prices and abundance of organic foods — such a luxury!
That’s how we do it! See? I told you it was a bit like trapeze yoga! Ha!