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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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Looking back over my first week of meals, I was surprised how much of our family's intake still consists of what the Amish call "store foods"--pre-made items like bread and pasta. I'm buying more of these than I'd realized, and it would elevate our SOLE profile if we could cut back. The thing is, these are among the cheapest foods we eat. Dinner, which I dedicate significant time to preparing, is usually scratch-cooked from local foods and generally accounts for the main cost of each day's menu. Breakfast and lunch, however, are quicker affairs--I need to get out of the kitchen for at least part of each day, dammit--and often rely on things I can grab straight from a cabinet, like Joe's O's.

Sighing, I pull out a calculator and the six months worth of grocery records I've accumulated. Joe's O's are 17 cents per serving, and bulk-bin organic oatmeal costs 11.5 cents per serving. So by cooking breakfast for three I save 16 and a half cents, probably more than burned up by the cost of running the stove, not to mention that it's worth waaaaaay more than 16 cents to me to not wash a dirty oatmeal pot. So obviously I use more fossil fuel cooking oatmeal than dumping cereal into a bowl, but how much fuel went into manufacturing, boxing and transporting those Os, and how to account for the cost of that? Holy crap, this is getting complicated.

What it does point out, however, is something that SOLE food advocates don't seem to talk about a lot--how much sheer effort conscientious eating requires. Not only do you spend time researching local food options and sources and shopping multiple suppliers, but once the goods are in the cupboard you must spend a lot of hands-on time rendering those whole ingredients into actual meals. I am starting to understand better how my husband can contemplate a fridge full of food and declare, "There's nothing to eat!" Translation: There's nothing here to eat unless you cook it first.

But cooking is to be my fate, both these next three weeks and forever if I mean to keep my vows of sustainability and cost-reduction.

We do eat a lot of bread, and so I started there. The DIY-types in my circle are all about the no-knead bread, and it's not too hard to figure out that a simple loaf costs $1.33 to make. OK, that's half the cost of the store-brand whole wheat bread I buy; I can make it using locally-ground, if not necessarily grown, grain ( it out!), and as an added bonus, the homemade bread has four ingredients instead of 13, so bye-bye preservatives and mono- and diglycerides, whatever you are. The guys wolf down my first loaf; it is delicious, and so painlessly simple to make that I'm ashamed for not jumping on the no-knead bandwagon long ago. (I know it costs money to heat the oven, money I'm not accounting for in my homemade loaf cost, but let's just offset that against the subsidies that go into the store loaf and call it even).

Shaving half the price off already inexpensive items isn't going to get us through the month, though, and so I take a harder look at my first week's expenditures and, by extension, my own approach to and assumptions about our diet. I can see that one thing hurting us is fresh fruit, which the boys especially enjoy--I've spent 12 bucks on peaches alone. SOLE on a budget means sometimes having to pass up glorious in-season food at peak amazingness, alas, but fortunately our CSA shares begin to include early apples and raspberries, so I'm able to cut back buying on fruit. It also occurs to me that I am not making the most of our CSA bounty, serving the week's vegetables as side dishes or salads when they could instead star as already-paid-for main dishes.

This analysis of my expenditures finally helps me see that, though I'd been planning meals and shopping with lists, the dishes I wanted to cook often required buying ingredients I didn't have. Key to living both SOLE-fully and on a microbudget is to see what is in front of you--what you have on hand, what's on sale, what's in season in Maryland and abundant and selling for cheap--and turning ingredients into meals. I have had it backward, first picking a recipe, then shopping for the necessary stuff. Once again, an embarrassingly obvious tactic that took forever to sink in; in our culture, we are so used to having what we want, when we want it, all year round. In our lavishly stocked grocery stores desire rules the foods we choose, not the weather outside--when tomatoes are offered every month of the year, season becomes irrelevant. It was really hard to break out of this mindset, the hardest part being recognizing it was still operating in the first place, even when I had made conscious efforts to step outside the supermarket.

I found help from the author of The New York Times food column The Minimalist, Mark Bittman. His new-ish book Food Matters translates Michael Pollan's gnomic advice about simultaneously improving our diets and the environment ("Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.") into actual recipes. Bittman's more-vegetable-than-egg frittata plows through last week's leftover CSA chard, tomatoes, and zucchini, and uses only two eggs, so the whole meal-in-a-skillet costs 67 cents. SOLE rating: four stars. Compare that to the Alaskan salmon, couscous, and broccoli we had for dinner one night last week ($10.50, and only SO, no L, E who knows).

Guess I should have read those USDA thrifty-eating materials more closely before mocking them. I'm never going to heed the menu plan, but the most recent Nutrition Assistance Program guide does point out that farmers markets are the place to shop for inexpensive in-season vegetables and that, ahem, you ought to review what you've got on hand and figure out meals to make with those ingredients before going out and buying more. Actually, the advice in the guide is painfully simple: buy in bulk, buy in season, buy whole ingredients (regular rice, rolled oats) instead of premade foods (frozen rice, instant oatmeal). It's going to cost more to apply these rules when shopping at the farmers market or in the natural foods aisle, but the basic approach is sound.

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