LuLu FlickrPhoto courtesy of Lulu via Flickr

Eating healthy – let alone choosing organic – as a college student can be a challenge not only for our budgets but also in our various living situations (read about my experience here). Boiling ramen noodles in our apartments every night is definitely easy, but definitely not very healthy. Many of you students out there are probably, like me, working to get through school and living on a tight budget. However, I can assure you that eating organic foods isn’t out of reach, and I have a few tips to help you take a step in the right direction.

1) Natural means nothing

One of the biggest mistakes people make when they want to eat healthier or organic is buying food that is labeled “natural” instead of “organic.” Foods labeled “natural” may cost less than “organic,” but Organic Sealremember this: NATURAL MEANS NOTHING. It’s true. Food manufacturers can put the word natural on just about any product they want. Don’t be fooled! Phrases such as “100% natural,” “pesticide free,” “beyond organic,” “cage free,” etc. are not regulated at all!
Organic is the only word that actually has regulations that everyone who touches the food must follow inorder to for a product to say that it is organic. Look for this seal to know that your product is certified organic by the USDA according to very specific regulations:

2) Prioritize your Purchases

As a student, you know there is no way that your entire shopping cart can be filled with organic food; however, there are ways to maximize your spending money and buy the most essential organic foods. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has lists called the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen,” which identify the foods that have the most and least pesticide residue on them. If you are on a tight budget, you could purchase organic strawberries and apples – two crops that use the highest quantities and most dangerous chemicals – and buy conventional avocados and cantaloupes, which are far less likely to have pesticide residue.

You can also identify which foods you eat most often. Milk, eggs, bread and cereal are foods that we college students tend to consume a lot of, so buying organic products of these core items can be a great start to incorporating organic foods into your diet while also staying under budget.

3) Transform your Social Eating Habits

Eating is a social activity. I never thought this would be a problem, but it’s hard to avoid your friends asking you to go out to eat at restaurants, snack during a movie, eat junk food during a study session, or go as a group to the dining hall. It’s tempting to just say no, but eating together is normal and enjoyable! So instead of avoiding the situation, try encouraging your friends to join you on your journey to eat healthy and incorporate organic foods into your life.

Instead of going out to dinner, go to the grocery store together and have everyone purchase one organic ingredient. Then, go back to someone’s house to cook a meal together! Also, try to keep organic snacks in your bag for study sessions or for when you’re on-the-go so you don’t have to rely on vending machines or eating out on the fly.

4) Join the Real Food Challenge

At some point while reading this, you have probably thought, “Hey Shelby, these are all super awesome tips, but I can’t eat organic. I am forced to eat at the dining hall where I have limited options.” Well, fear not my friend, for I have thought of you!

A great way to not only get involved on your campus but also help other students eat better is to either start or join the Real Food Challenge (RFC) at your university. RFC is currently working “to shift $1 billion of existing university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food and toward local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources—what we call ‘real food’—by 2020.”

To start a campaign, all you have to do is gather a few friends who are committed to the Real Food Challenge, and you will be on your way to becoming a leader at your university by advocating for positive change.

5) Intern with Organic Valley

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Interns participate in learning experiences throughout the summer including a farm tour

As an intern at Organic Valley, I can say that, so far, this opportunity has been amazing. I’ve not only learned about the strides that Organic Valley is making in the organic world, but I’ve also learned more about the benefits that organic foods offer in general, such as increased omega-3s in milk, reduced pesticide exposure, and Organic Valley’s regional production model, which makes sure that food is distributed and sold close to the farm where it was produced. (Oh, and as an intern, you also get free Organic
Valley milk and cheese–what a perk!)

When you are surrounded by a community dedicated to making the world better for family farms, the health of animals, humans, and the environment, you realize that paying a little extra for organic food isn’t just for yourself—it’s for a cause much greater. And that is probably my greatest tip of all: recognize that even though the cost may be higher, it’s for a good reason.

Even if you are a college student without much money in your pocket, every dollar you spend helps a farmer stay on his or her land. Through this experience, I have learned that the currency in my pocket has multifaceted levels of power. The reasons why organic costs more make sense to me now—the extra bit I spend supports a healthier, fairer food system both for me and for farmers.