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Eating organically (and responsibly) on a food-stamp budget

Michelle Gienow
The author's 6-year-old son Jack picks a squash at the CSA the family joined to get sustainable, organic, local and sorta ethical produce.

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 10/7/2009

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For the past three years, following the typical Michael Pollan-fueled, now-I've-seen-the-locavore-light conversion experience, I've been trying hard to feed my family good food. It's more difficult than it sounds; the supermarkets are full of tempting, affordable foodlike products that ultimately owe more to industry than agriculture, once you start reading the labels. It took me an embarrassingly long while to figure out that buying foods so basic that they don't have a label is the key.

I found myself shopping less and less at the grocery store and instead buying directly from the farmers who actually produce the food, sometimes at the farmers market, sometimes at the farms themselves. Thus it is always local and usually also organic--in practice, if not formal certification--and, helpfully, affordable. I tracked down these farmers, and know about the food I'm buying, because I'm interested and I ask. In doing this I am, as Pollan urges, voting for systemic change with my food dollars, though in my case that's sort of a side bonus. This kind of conscious buying has come to be known as SOLE food, for Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical.

In case you've been living under a culinary and environmental blackout for the past couple years, here's why SOLE food is worth investing in: Our current meat-centric diet, with its reliance on highly processed fats, refined grains, and industrial inventions like high-fructose corn syrup, is literally killing us. This diet is the main reason why one of every three adult Americans is now overweight, and obesity--which parties with its morbid pals diabetes, cardiac disease, and high blood pressure--is drowning ever more of us every year. (A study in the January 2008 issue of the International Journal of Obesity estimates that, if current trends continue, 86.3 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese by the year 2030.)

Handing over our nation's nourishment to agribusiness companies that earn more from processing the food than by growing it is not only making us fatter and sicker, it's also degrading the environment. Monocultures of corn, wheat, and soybeans can thrive only on massive inputs of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, the manufacture of which requires massive amounts of fossil fuel. Once applied, these chemicals don't go away--the ones we don't consume directly in our food aggregate in our soil and water supply along with the antibiotics and hormones used in factory-farmed livestock production. Meanwhile, the industries doing this to us receive billions of dollars each year in taxpayer subsidies.

All of this in explanation of why I pay $7 a gallon for organic, locally grass-fed milk: Yes, it does cost double the price of generic grocery store milk from cows kept God knows where, fed God knows what, and very likely amped up on bovine growth hormone and antibiotics. But I have two young sons whom I would like to see grow up lean and disease-free to inherit a relatively intact planet. To that end, buying sustainably produced, organic-if-you-got-it food from small local farms just seems like the best possible investment of our family's not terribly abundant dollars. Our milk costs twice as much, but I have met these cows and know they're living a good, clean life.

To my great surprise it turns out that holding these priorities makes me--according to sources as diverse as the Hoover Institution, freebie magazine Blue Ridge Outdoors, and my own mother--a member of the economic elite. Or, as Julie Gunlock said in a National Review essay earlier this year, "The truth is, organic food is an expensive luxury item, something bought by those who have the resources."

Well, Julie, hon, our family has taken major pay cuts this year. So just like everyone else these days, we are looking for ways to cut back. Given this brave new economy and our financially fragile place within it, when feeding my family do I now have to choose between my beliefs and my budget?

Only one way to find out.

I decided to log our meals and food expenditures for 30 days, scraping together $342.92 in cash and putting it in an envelope--whatever food I bought had to come out of there, and if the money ended before the 30 days did I would just have to figure out a way to feed us for free. I arrived at that seed money amount after deducting the cost of four weeks of our CSA (community supported agriculture) membership in an organic farm--$83.08--from the $426 maximum food stamp allotment for a Baltimore County family of three. (My husband declined to participate; he is not as devoted as I am to the pursuit of overpriced organic hippie chow, and some of it, he actively loathes. To suit his preferences and save money, his food stash was fairly segregated; we intersected at cookies).

So: one month, 343 bucks. That's $11.43 per day for the three of us, which seemed workable. I was used to spending more, but always knew we could get by on less--not that we really have much choice anymore.

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