Difficult Decisions: Shopping Ethically Within Your Budget  

By Rose Brazil Few with Dan Sealy

So, you want to buy food using your ethical beliefs: locally produced, organic, no plastic packaging, fair employment, vegan. That is a lot to pack into a trip to the grocery store and stay within a budget, but many people have just such a list in mind each time they decide what to add to their cart. 

During this Covid year, Environmental Studies student, Rose Brazil Few, worked with Northcoast Environmental Center Board member, Dan Sealy, to develop a project to get a sense of how those ethical choices impact the cost of shopping. “As an environmental studies major, I have been told the importance of eating ethical, local, organic produce. But this so-called ‘healthier’ and more ‘sustainable’ lifestyle is often thought of as more expensive and not realistic for people on a budget. I wanted to see if this was true, and if so where can people get the most value for their money?” 

Rose developed her methods over time using an iterative process. “When designing this project, these variables (availability and food unit size) had to be acknowledged yet could not overcomplicate the data. I wanted this project to give a realistic picture of what a trip to the grocery store looks like for both a family and a student.”

Rose settled on one ethical variable: buying organic. “When creating a ‘basic grocery list’ we wanted to represent people with different diets. We looked at a vegan student, and also a family that would need to feed children that ate meat and dairy. We included items that each person would buy and also some items that would overlap for both households. There is both a dairy cheddar cheese and a vegan cheese, and both whole milk and almond milk. We did include meat such as beef and chicken in this list that a vegetarian would not be purchasing but they would likely get more vegetables to replace such items.”  As Rose collected her information, she had to make some decisions. “This project was constantly changing as data was being collected. There are many variables that can affect the outcome of this project, and while they have to be considered, they cannot overcomplicate the data.”

Financial Limitations

As of October 1, 2019, the maximum monthly CalFresh supplemental allotment for a one-person household in California was $194. It was $355 for a two-person household, $509 for a three-person household, $646 for a four-person household, $768 for a five-person household, etc. These are critical numbers for many local families without other reliable sources of income. There is, of course, assistance available to residents of Humboldt County. The federally funded USDA Food and Nutrition Service (or SNAP AKA “food stamps”) is administered in California by its “CalFresh” program.  California also operates the California Food Assistance Program (CFAP) for immigrants not eligible for federal SNAP / food stamp benefits. Additionally, the federal government funds both the School Breakfast and Lunch Program and a program for pregnant women, lactating women and young children called the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant and Children (WIC).  In addition, there are food assistance programs provided by local non-profit organizations. 

The number of Humboldt County residents receiving food stamp benefits has risen from just under 10,000 households in 2000 to almost 20,000 in 2021. 

Developing Methods to Collect Data 

After discussing several ways to capture the shopping dilemma, Rose decided to construct a shopping list that each type of shopper might take to the store. It was not an exhaustive list nor based on nutritional needs per se though with a bow to a variety of foods and nutrition. No frills.

Rose then did comparison shopping at stores in the local area, ranging from a small locally-owned organic store, regional chain and national chain grocery stores.  Though she knows that many shoppers use farmers markets and other sources, she needed to stay focused on an uncomplicated test.

“To gather my data, I visited five grocery stores in the Arcata area. I looked at the lowest-priced option for each item, and then the price of the organic option of that item. This organic vs. non-organic study is just one example of the ethical decisions shoppers might face while shopping. (From the outset, this project was not conducted to promote one store over another so names of stores visited have not been included, only types of stores.) 

What did she find? 

So, looking at the data, if a single person only shopped at local grocery stores for organic options, they could only shop for their groceries approx. 1.5 times a month on CalFresh without other financial or food resources. But, if they only looked for the cheapest options, without thinking about their ethical considerations, the number of grocery trips can increase to up to 4 times a month.”



  • There are many factors that people consider while shopping for their food 
  • Being able to shop ethically should not be limited to the upper-class
  • We need to work towards food justice and make sure that everybody has access to affordable and ethical options

When asked what she learned from this exercise, she replied: “The project findings pretty much confirmed my hypothesis that the local natural food stores would be higher priced when compared to larger chain grocery stores. But it did surprise me that the regional chain was actually cheaper than the national chain that I looked at. Through this project, I was also able to see how important ethical concerns are when shopping and some of the disparities in what you are able to get when on a budget.”

Rose sees opportunities for students to continue this exercise. She suggests: “A good next step would be to look at some other ethical questions like diet, local options, or packaging. I also would like this project to be more applicable to food inequalities and to further explore how resources such as food stamps can help local households.”

Any student interested in engaging in follow-up study please contact us at nec@yournec.org with Attention Dan Sealy in the subject line.