How We Eat Real, Organic Food Without Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, & Costco
When you live far from the big city, you don’t have regular access to organic or whole foods. What to do? That’s exactly the position my family is in, yet we continue to source real, organic food without Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or Costco!
Just 4 years 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 provided variety like you wouldn’t believe.
Man, I had it easy!
I don’t live anywhere near Natural Grocers, TJ’s, Whole Foods, or Costco.
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 where I could shop at Trader Joe’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 4 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).
- 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.
- Last summer, we added a tiny greenhouse. As in 6′ x 8′. And, while it can get up to 100 degrees on a 70-degree day, it doesn’t stay super warm at night.
- Deer. Good lord, the deer. After the first 2 years, we invested the time and money to build a 7-foot fence, which has (fingers crossed) kept them out so far.
- Neither of us really knows how to garden. There. I said it. But we know a heck of a lot more now than we did 4 years ago!
What about 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?
What my requirements are for our food…
I also have stringent requirements for our food.
I want as much of our food as possible to be organically AND sustainably grown.
Furthermore, it’s important to me that as much of our food as possible comes from local sources. By local, I mean:
- grown within our state (Minnesota)
- purchased or traded with friends or neighbors
- purchased from the farmers market or through a CSA
- grown or raised in our yard
- acquired from another local source, farm, or garden
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. However, I have figured out how to dehydrate the kale that we grow, so that’s one more step toward having locally grown, organic food year-round!
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 member-owned co-ops that I would consider “health food stores”
- 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).
- An Azure Standard drop site about 45 minutes away
And here are my online sources:
So… what do I do with all that? Where does our food come from?
Here are our top sources for organic food because we don’t have access to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or Costco.
#1 — Our Own Garden
Like I mentioned above, we’ve been attempting to grow some of our own food. And this is VERY seasonal — like 4 months tops.
Slowly, our soil has improved to the point that we’ve been able to successfully grow
- snap peas
- a variety of lettuces
- squash and zucchini
- herbs like mint, basil, thyme, chives, and sage
We also have a couple of apple trees, a chokecherry tree, and some raspberry canes on our property that were here before we bought the place. So, we take care of them and enjoy the fruits they offer.
And in March and April, we’ve successfully tapped maple trees and produced syrup for 3 years, providing enough of a whole sweetener to last us each year!
Because our soil still needs work, we’ve moderately grown
- scarlet runner beans
And, we’ve attempted, but failed at
- winter squash
We keep trying, searching for heirloom seeds that do well in colder climates, asking questions and getting advice from friends who are better at gardening than we are, and adding more compost, more poop, more straw, and more mulch to our garden to improve our soil.
Still, just having these foods at our fingertips saves money and allows us to eat food that we know exactly how it was grown — no pesticides, no herbicides, no GMOS, etc.
#2 — Our Community & Farmer’s Market
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! (Well, the stuff I’m not great at growing or didn’t plant myself.)
A large portion of our summer and fall produce comes from community members and friends who are vendors at the farmers market.
I make way fewer trips to town because of this option.
We’re supporting our community’s economy and voting for local, sustainable, organic options with our dollars. Plus, 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!
#3 — Foraging & Roadkill
Although a small percentage of our food comes from foraging, my “habitat” can’t go without mentioning.
I’m still very new to foraging, yet with the help of friends who generously point things out during hikes or taken me on adventures, I’m learning to identify berries, mushrooms, and forest plants that are useful for food and medicine.
From our yard, we’ve foraged plantain, clover, dandelions, and wild violets.
Nearby, we’ve found 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! 😉
Lastly, a post about foraged, local wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging that I’ve had about 15 pounds of roadkill venison sitting in my freezer. (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.
And, should I or one of my friends hit a deer — and it’s useable meat — that’ll go in my freezer, too.
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?
#4 — 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 basically 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, I consider them local.
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.
In the winter months, I buy most of our produce from these co-ops because they sell organic and source from within Minnesota when possible.
What about meat, eggs, and milk?
#4 — 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 other sources, such as Aldi, the health food stores, or even the closest supermarket (when we’re desperate).
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 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 $8 per gallon.
#5 — Supermarkets, Usually Aldi
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.
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.
Aldi has only been an option for about a year, but it’s still over 60 miles away.
Though I don’t go often, I am 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.
#6 — 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 place an order from Thrive Market about once a month and have saved SOOOOOOO much money since becoming a member of Thrive 6 years ago. Thrive Market is like online Whole Foods with Costco prices. Their selection is constantly growing, and their shipping is pretty quick, too.
Azure Standard is one of my favorite online food sources. I’ve been a monthly Azure customer for over 6 years, and I started a drop 45 minutes away. 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, popcorn, yogurt, and rolled oats, 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
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 ALLTHETHINGS for an extra 10% off your Perfect Supplements order!)
And finally, we are loyal Wildly Organic 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, like:
- coconut oil
- olive oil
- coconut flour
- unsweetened, shredded coconut
- soaked & dehydrated nuts and seeds
- raw cacao powder
- coconut syrup
We don’t find ourselves in the big metropolis often… Maybe 2 or 3 times per year.
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!
So, did I leave anything out? If you want to know something about where we get our food without access to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Costco, just ask!
Originally published April 3, 2017 and updated May 17, 2019.
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