Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Is eating ethically/sustainably/locally more expensive?

Over the weekend, I posted a link to an article on one couple's personal challenge to eat ethically AND within the government-established food stamp allotment. Interestingly enough, this article was published just a day before blogger Crunchy Chicken concluded her month-long Food Budget Challenge which similarly was to dispel the myth that "the sustainable food/organic movement is really only affordable by the middle and upper classes" by challenging herself and her readers to eat "sustainably using the Food Stamp Allotment Program Guidelines."

In her challenge "Wrap-Up," Crunchy Chicken (as well as many of the challenge participants) admitted to not quite making it. Crunchy herself, attributes the overspending to restaurant and coffee shop dining.

So the question is... Is eating ethically really possible on a budget as small as the one our government offers it's food stamp participants?

Unofficially, I tracked my personal food spending during the month of April. Per government guidelines, I had $176 to spend. How did I do? I ended up spending $125 on food for the entire month. That includes:
  • $17 for a high quality olive oil from our farmers' market
  • $48 eating out twice a week (lunch dates with my hubby)
  • $30 for local strawberries
  • $7 in splurge items like (onion glaze and dried cranberries at the farmers' market - didn't need them and, well, just splurged at the last minute)
The rest of my $125 was spent on lots of fresh veggies at the farmers' market, local rice that I buy in bulk from Houston, and local wheat berries which I can buy in bulk from Rosebud (TX). I could easily have cut back on olive oil, eating out, and those little splurge items from the market. So, I could easily have eaten on much less that my $125 which is still way below my allotment. 

Although I ate fresh fruit, I kept my fruit intake low (about 1 to 1-1/2 servings per day) and my veggie intake high (about 7-10 servings per day) - mostly because eating local fruit can be much more expensive than eating local veggies. Also missing is meat and dairy, which when bought sustainably-raised can be on the pricy side, and processed foods which can also be expensive to buy organic. I just don't eat them.

So I was able to pull it off, but does that mean it's possible for others? I readily admit, I didn't include my hubby's food bills because I knew it would push us over the two-person limit of $323 - he eats out every day at lunch adding up to about $200/month, and that's before we add in his breakfasts and dinners at home.  Having said that, however, Dave and I have discussed what would happen if money got tight and that eating out would be one of the first things to go. I honestly believe that if we HAD to, we could eat well on our $323 joint food budget.

So, is eating ethically/sustainably/locally more expensive? I am asked this question time and again when I speak to people in the community. Honestly, it's a tricky question to answer, solely because it depends on what we as individuals eat (fresh or packaged, whole or processed, meat and dairy or not). Eating ethically on a budget requires cooking from scratch, rejecting processed foods, and concentrating on quality vegetables, and inexpensive staples like whole grains and dried beans - much like the generations before us prepared food. Today, we have traded these traditional meals for quick-and-easy ones that keep us moving throughout our busy lives. Have we sacrificed something in the process? Does the single parent, working for minimum wage, attending every school function, with so little time to play with the children before falling exhausted into bed each night... Does that single parent even have a choice?

What do you think? Is it realistic? Can we all eat ethically/sustainably/locally on a limited budget or is it truly for those with financial wiggle-room?


Kelsie said...

I'm not a single mom, but I work four jobs and live below the poverty line for my state. I buy as much organic/locally sourced food as possible--all of my staples are organic--and I shop at the farmer's market in season. When something goes on sale (like organic chicken, pasta, or milk), I stock up on as much as I can afford. The perfect solution for people who WANT to prepare fresh food but don't have time to make a production of it each evening is a crock pot. It takes up VERY little space and VERY little energy, and can cook the food all day for you while you go about your business. All you need to do is load it up before bed, stick it in the fridge, and take it out in the morning/plug it in. I think if more people thought about/became more receptive to the idea of a crock pot, we'd have people eating less fast food/pre-made food/convenience foods and more wholesome foods made from simple ingredients.

Also, I use rainy weekends or weekend evenings for things like baking bread or making breakfast muffins that can get me through the week.

Melissa ~ Wife to 1, Mom to 5 said...

You know, we recently visited with a financial planner type person and she was appalled at our food budget ~ $400 a month for a family of 7. (appalled as in "that's too high"). I was feeling pretty good until she said that and I quickly started to try and figure out how to cut it in half (which was her suggestion.) Okay, I don't know what planet she is from, but I cannot feed 7 people on just $200 a month eating the way we eat - which is mostly fresh veggies, fruits and limited meats & breads. So hearing that for 2 of you, the FDA allots $323 makes me feel much, much better. And, our budget is high right now because our garden isn't producing and we didn't can/freeze/dehydrate enough last summer to make it. When our garden is producing at full peak, we spend just a little over $250 a month. But we have our ways of getting shortcuts - we barter a lot of stuff so that helps too. I agree with Kelsie, a crock pot is a fabulous way to make a meal! I like that blog A Year of Crockpotting. Lot's of good recipes there.

Beany said...

In Philly I went all out in 2007-2008 trying to eat all locally exclusively. This included the fresh veggies and fruits, along with fat (butter), sweets (maple syrup and honey), grains, legumes and the occasional meat. For several months we only ate at home, and I found that our food budget practically tripled (from $60/week).

After we moved to San Diego, I wanted to be a bit smarter about it. So I purchased fresh fruits, veggies and cheeses and oils from local vendors, and purchased everything else organically and in bulk, and we easily meet the $323/month guidelines (excluding purchases of meat).

I joined Crunchy's challenge and didn't eat out this month at all and we've been able to meet the guidelines (besides my purchasing a few things in large bulk - soy beans for milk and flour)

The Philly experiment was partly due to my lack of comparison shopping...challenging to do when mode of transportation is bicycle and also due to lack of demand for many of the more esoteric items like the grains. People would much rather buy a 25 lb bag of rice for $10 from an Asian store than buy a few ounces of wild rice harvested in PA for $10..the whole supply demand equation.

I wanted to try living as sustainably as I could in Philly, so car driving was out of the question. So while I could have biked to a farm and stocked up on a lot, the distance (roughly 20 miles round trip) was a bit much.

I think when answering the question, many ignore things like transportation which is an equally important factor to consider. But overall, I'd say it's not impossible to eat ethically and locally within one's budget.

Sorry for the long comment.

Angela said...

I think it's more difficult, but not impossible, to live within those guidelines. I do think it's important to keep cracking away at the myth though- that it is cheaper to buy junk food, because it's not. It's cheaper to cook from scratch, the issue is that a lot of people don't have the time or education to do that, as you say.

One thing I've been thinking about lately is that high schools should reinstitute "home ec." But it shouldn't be just for girls, of course. It would be the contemporary version- when people are taught the basics of how to cook from scratch. A lot of people simply don't know how to do it and buy the packaged, processed stuff which is so expensive. I know we've all seen it at the market- the people with the food stamps are buying the worst food! Home ec was discontinued in the 1970s because it was old-fashioned and as a girl we thought it was sexist. But something of the sort would be beneficial.

I also agree about the crock pot. My mom used to assemble the night before and put it in the refrigerator, and then in the morning it was ready to go. Those meals are cheap and delicious. And thanks to Melissa for the tip on that blog because I'll definitely check it out.

Heather @ SGF said...

Kelsie - Four jobs? Good grief, girl!

Time, I think is the biggest obstacle for people who work yet want to live sustainably and your crockpot idea is fabulous! I wonder if I could get Dave to eat crock pot food...

Melissa - I'd say you're doing wonderfully if you're feeding 7 people on $400! I don't know what you're financial planner was smoking! According to Crunchy's blog you can spend $926 on 7 people. Perhaps there are other ways you could cut back. I'm thinking food isn't one of them...

Beany - when I went all local, that was one of the things I was concerned about - that I'd have to start driving around. I mean, wasn't it more 'green' to just walk the 4 blocks to Kroger and buy everything there? Once I realized what a big difference it was to eat local though, and how easy it is for my area (not much driving around at all), I went for it. Though I admit it's not always this easy - we're lucky to have a year-round farmers' market with a little bit of everything.

The point is to be mindful and you've taken all sorts of things into consideration (like transportation costs).

I think it's possible too and I've been pretty poor (eating lots of beans and rice, peanut butter, etc day after day because there was no money for anything else), but I've never been poor AND responsible for anyone else. I don't know. Maybe we need people trained in food and time management to help these people who are stressed feed their families quality food for less.

Donna said...

Melissa: Is it possible your financial planner thought you were spending $400/week instead of per month? You're doing fantastic!

Green Resolutions said...

I'm so glad this is a topic right now. I haven't watched the budget so much because it gets overwhelming, but now that money is getting tight, I've been wondering how to continue eating organic on a tighter budget while finding local sources. I think the most important thing I get from blogs like yours is encouragement and reassurance that it can be done if I just stick with it long enough to figure it out. Thanks!!

Heather @ SGF said...

Angela - It wasn't entirely dropped in the 70's. I took it in Jr High in the late 80's. I guess it's probably dead now. It would also be nice to have a gardening class. My hubby said that he took one when he was in high school. What a wonderful opportunity to learn something incredibly useful!

Donna - Dave thought so too. The planner must have misunderstood.

Green Resolutions - It does take some effort to figure out what works, where your local food sources are, etc, but it's so worth it. And I do think the key is cooking from scratch. In the article I talked about, the couple cooked on the weekend and froze most of the goodies for quick meals. That and I think the crockpot idea is really worth looking into if you're short on time. Freezing works great for bread too. Sure it takes some time to make from scratch, but make large batches, sliced the bread, and freeze it. We do that all the time and it always tastes fresh an is MUCH cheaper than store bought (not to mention tastier!).

Sadraki said...

Now learning to cook would have been something useful in home ec. It still exists I took it in the late 90s but we learned to sew boxer shorts and that was it. Now if I had an odd need to make lots of men's underwear I doubt I'd remember how and it was a rather odd one skill to learn.

fearlesschef said...

I didn't really keep super close track of how much money we spent on food this past month. I know how much is in my budget at the beginning and end of the month and based on that, we are doing ok. The only place where I feel we wind up spending inordinate amounts of money is on the locally produced milk. I've shopped around and found the lowest priced milk, but it is still significantly more than the Kroger brand. However, generally speaking, I rarely drink milk. Our dairy costs have gone up since I changed my diet to match the Bradley method's recommendations and once the baby is born, I plan to resume my normal eating habits.

One way I think we really are blessed is that the locally raised meats are not expensive here. I read the prices that other people were paying was appalled! Seriously, it is cheaper for me to shop at the local butcher and get exactly what I want without all the added chemicals, etc.

I am curious to see how our budget is effected once I have to feed the baby solid foods. However, he will be eating foods from our garden and pantry, so I'm thinking we should maintain a good balance. We'll see in a few months... there will be posts!

Heather @ SGF said...

Sadraki - boxers? That doesn't sound all that useful :) I remember we were able to make whatever we wanted and then we did a fashion show at the end of the year. I also liked it when we baked. Mmmm!

fearlesschef - local milk was a big deal for us to absorb as well. It was $10 a gallon, but ooh was it good! Now that I'm vegan though, we haven't been ordering local dairy, but it's hard. You really have to be dedicated to local dairy if you're on a tight budget. I'll look forward to your posts.