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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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Going in, I established a few ground rules: First, everything counted, cost-wise--even basics like salt and spices. Next, in addition to CSA produce, I was going to be using things from my own garden. I recognize that not everyone wants to raise their own food, but anything my tiny, shade-hampered plot produces could be grown equally well in a few buckets on a city fire escape. Not only that, but the federal food-stamp program allows benefits to be used for purchasing seeds and plants to grow your own food.

Finally, and most importantly, I aimed to buy the best possible item for each need, combining as many elements of SOLE as possible in its origins and purchase. It's pretty impossible to eat purely SOLE everything all the time--food can be local but not sustainable, or organic but not purely ethical. None of the staff at our CSA has health insurance, for example, a violation of the living-wage ethos of that "E." In making these choices, however, I'm also very much into not making myself crazy, so I just try to make the best possible decision for both the planet and our family and then let it go.

I recognized going in that the first day would be financially scary, since so many basics needed to be purchased. So after kicking off Day 1 with a breakfast of generic Cheerios (Joe's O's), CSA blackberries, and Amish milk (respectively: not SOLE at all, SOL with questionable E, and totally SOLE), I made a trip to Wegmans for staples like coffee, cooking oil, and so on that I can't otherwise source locally. I left the Weg feeling sort of depressed that much of what I had purchased--rice noodles, peanuts, store-brand bread--seemed to utterly lack SOLE. At the end of the first day, however, after calculating our food bill, I felt better after realizing that low-SOLE items accounted for less than a quarter of the $96.61 total; everything else--grass-fed meat and dairy products, an $11 dollar quart of honey (yikes, but we use a LOT of honey)--came from close to home, from producers I know personally.

The main point of SOLE food, to me at least, is the local component. According to a Cornell University study, in this country food travels an average of 1,500 miles before arriving in the local supermarket, thereby expending more energy to move the food than it actually contains. For example, it takes 4,000 calories of fossil fuel to ship a 110-calorie head of lettuce from California to the East Coast. Trying to eat mostly locally-produced foods in season saves an awful lot of non-renewable energy in terms of processing, packaging, and transportation. Mid-Atlantic farmers offer wonderful meats and dairy year-round, and we can all relearn to live on local fruit and vegetables in season the way everyone who lived here even 60 years ago had to. Buying locally grown carbs remains a problem, however: This is just not a big grain-producing region anymore, certainly not enough to feed our high-density citizenry. Some food miles, it would seem, are simply a fact of life. You do what you can.

The first shopping trip left me with $246.31 for the remaining 29 days of the month, a number that dwindled quickly on each of the next two days as I purchased more basic ingredients in large-ish quantities. In order to keep accounting simple, I deducted up front the entire cost of anything I bought--like, say, a bottle of organic ketchup--even though it would get used in small amounts throughout the entire month. This meant that in those first three days our per-meal average cost was $16.44, a pretty high number for, say, the grilled cheese sandwiches and carrots we had for lunch on Day 2. Finally, however, by Day 4 there were enough groceries laid out that I spent less than three dollars on that entire day's comestibles. The first week's total was $177.59, a number which includes two Chik-fil-A kiddie meals ($6.38 and so utterly devoid of SOLE that you cannot possibly revile me more than I have already done myself. It was just one of those days; anyone who has young children will understand).

So, after one week, there was $167.33 remaining in my by-now battered envelope. That left $7.87 per day for three people for the next 23 days. Aside from swapping tofu for shrimp in one night's pad thai dinner, we had eaten pretty much as usual. Clearly, this was going to have to change. Since my budget is based on the federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps have been officially called since 2008), I decided to investigate the government's Thrifty Food Plan, the cost of which is used to determine food-stamp benefit amounts.

In its promotional materials for financially challenged meal planners such as myself, the USDA exhorts citizens to "Eat right when money's tight," apparently mainly through eating refined carbs and lots of 'em. The 77-page booklet "Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals," issued by the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and based on the federal food pyramid, offers a two-week menu plan for a family of four based mainly on white flour, white rice, and, urk, margarine. With this as our government's official nutritional advice, is it any wonder we are becoming a nation of fat-asses?

I get it that for some families shopping Wal-Mart might realistically be the only way to put food on the table. Also, there is no way around the simple fact that sustainable agriculture requires more work and garners no government subsidies, so small local farmers simply have to charge more for their produce. But there is a balance to be found; farmers markets are all over the place these days, and in between the artisanal cheeses and five-dollar loaves of sourdough, there are very affordable foods produced by the person standing behind the folding table.

I hesitated to write about my efforts to do SOLE on a food-stamp budget, because I've always cringed at those "reporter going out to do as the poor folks do." But food is something we all need, and like it or not, we all need to start eating differently.

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