This post in the series will focus on how to eat a sustainable, mostly local diet, in a way that is affordable. But first, I must encourage you to check out Chile’s latest piece in her series on food security. Many of the things she touches on are relevant to this topic, and there is no need for me to “re-invent the wheel”, so I strongly recommend checking out her post.
Perhaps the biggest way to make a sustainable, local diet affordable is to cook your own meals and eat at home. I cannot stress this enough, Brett and I used to eat out a lot, let’s just say more times a week than we cooked at home, and it was pricey, not to mention unhealthy. Since I’ve started cooking my own meals, I have seen our food expenditures drop. Processed foods, while sometimes cheaper than whole foods, often lack in nutritional value and have a lot more packaging. If you look for organic or “natural” processed items, you are going to pay a premium and the packaging issue remains. I must also state, in my humble opinion, a varied whole foods diet is far more healthful than one largely comprised of processed foods - even the "healthy" ones.
I am assuming most of the people who read this blog (since it is predominately a cooking blog) know how to cook, but if you don’t, start simple – learn basic skills like chopping, sautéing, roasting. From there you open up many doors. For those of you with even basic cooking skills, you have a lot of tools at your disposal. I believe very strongly in “full disclosure” (acknowledging your biases) so I will state for the record: I am a pretty lazy girl most of the time. As much as I love cooking, after working all day, I don’t want to spend forever in the kitchen on weeknights, especially not during the summer when it’s hot. So I have a cache of easy meals, things that don’t require a whole lot of preparation or too many ingredients. If you can’t see yourself getting in the kitchen every night, might I suggest the “one day in hell = a whole week’s worth of easy meals” method. Basically, pick a day of the week, say Sunday, plan on soaking all the beans you wish to eat that week on Saturday night, on Sunday, get up, cook all your beans, cook all your rice, even chop up veggies if you like – you’ll be in the kitchen most of the day, but you’ll have easy meals for the rest of the week. And we’re talking homemade, easy meals.
Another way to save big, both in dollars, and on packaging and energy usage, is to buy your beans and rice in bulk. Most grocery stores have at least a small bulk section, and there you will find a selection of dried beans, rice, legumes, perhaps even nuts, fruit, coffee, and spices. These goods are far cheaper than their canned counterparts and even the 1 lb. packages of beans and rice you can buy from the “regular” section. If you don’t know what you like, take Chile’s advice and just buy a little bit of each at a time until you find out. You won’t waste money or food that way.
Once you’ve determined what you like, buy larger quantities of it. Perhaps there is a local co-op in your area where you can make larger purchases from. This takes planning as buying things in bulk can cost quite a bit up front but if you have the means to do so, or can save to do so (as Brett and I did), you can save even more than you do buying from the bulk section of the supermarket. Brett and I have dedicated a closet to storing our rice and beans. In determining what to buy and how much, we took an inventory of our most oft used and favorite recipes to see what beans and grains were used most often. We then bought 25 lbs. of organic black beans, adzuki beans, pinto beans, and long grain brown rice, and 10 lb. bags of organic Anasazi and cranberry beans. Stored in a tightly sealed containers in a cool, dry place (such as a closet), they will keep for a couple of years. Brett and I also don’t own a car, so doing this is also more convenient for us. In a few trips we can lug home a year’s worth of beans and rice, and we eat a lot of beans and rice, so this saves us lots of time.
Before I go on, I feel like I have to state for the record that I am not advocating the vegetarian or vegan diet; sorry folks, that’s not how I roll. There are better people out there for the job and I personally do not care how others choose to eat; I think it is a personal decision. With that said, however, eating less meat, and more things like beans and rice is another way to save a lot of money on sustainable food. Local meat and dairy products can be quite pricey, and meat in general is just far more expensive than grains and legumes. Perhaps consider having a few meatless meals a week. Need some ideas? Check out my recipe index, and peruse any of the amazing veg*n food blogs on my blogroll.
You might also consider purchasing a CSA share. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. You can find all sorts of great information about CSAs here, but the gist of it is this: you and a farmer enter an agreement where you pay, at the beginning of the season, for a “share” in the farmer’s harvest. You will get a proportionate amount of fresh produce over the duration of the growing season in your area on a weekly basis. Buying a share in a CSA does involve some risk, but being a farmer involves a lot of risk, and I don’t feel bad about sharing it with the farmer. What I mean by risk is, if there are floods, droughts, pests, anything that reduces or destroys the harvest, well, you don’t get any produce. But in a good year, you are likely to get more than you paid for. When produce is abundant, our farmer adds a little extra to the bag, if he’s doing well, he figures we should too, since we put our trust and “faith” in him.
Since you have to pay up front, this is another seemingly “costly” way of eating. At first it felt that way to us, but it is something we wanted to do, so we saved the money, and we have seen the savings ever since. In the end our quarter share of a CSA works out to about $5-6 a week. If any of you read this blog on a regular basis and see the weekly pictures of our CSA booty, you can attest that – as of late – we are getting much more than $5-6 worth of produce. Sometimes, as the lovely Jessy knows, there are more people who want shares in CSAs than are available, and you get “wait-listed”, sometimes for a long time, poor Jessy and her husband Dan have been waiting for 2 years! My advice is to be patient and get on a waiting list, but in the meantime, shop at the farmer’s market. (My fingers are crossed for you guys! Maybe next season!)
The farmer’s market is a great place. There is an atmosphere at the farmer’s market. It is so refreshing to talk to people who actually know about the products they sell, lots of folks gathering and talking, and there is almost always live bluegrass music (this is Missouri). Atmosphere aside, this is the place to find some of the best deals on some of the highest quality produce during the growing season. Most people assume that the farmer’s market is more expensive than the grocery store, and they are right, to an extent. If you buy meat, dairy, bread, or anything like that, these items may be more expensive than the grocery store. In my experience with the bread, it is really about the same. My basic point about this is – if you are buying a premium product – expect to pay a premium price, no matter where you procure it.
Buying in season is very affordable. When sweet corn really starts coming in here, the farmer’s are almost giving it away. Same with tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, squash. There are many resources at your disposal to get an idea of what is grown in your area and when (this is for the US). Buying local has many positive advantages: first, in my opinion, it just plain tastes better; second, fewer miles are traveled from farm to table, saving resources; and third, it is better for your local economy which affects you directly by way of schools, roads, and other public services. Most of a dollar spent locally ends up recycling in the community as the person you gave that dollar to is likely to spend it locally as well. Whereas most of a dollar spent at Wal-Mart immediately leaves town.
A great way to take advantage of the abundance of summer and the low prices of local produce is to preserve it. There are many ways to preserve food from drying and canning to freezing. Sweet corn’s in season? Buy it up, boil it, take it off the cob, and put it in freezer bags. You’ll have local sweet corn for the winter. Consider purchasing a boiling water bath canner if you wish to preserve acidic foods like fruit, pickles, or even tomato products, or a pressure canner if you wish to preserve low-acid foods like veggies or meat. Peppers and fruit can be easily dehydrated in the oven, a dehydrator, or even on your porch or a cool, dry room in your home. Chiles can be dried without a dehydrator. Simply cut a slit in the back of each chile, run a string through the base of the stem, and hang ‘em up someplace that isn't humid. In a couple of weeks, you will have dried chiles. Put them in a bag or container and store them in a cool, dry place. A word of caution: if you do decide to can, be safe, make sure you have the proper equipment, that you read the directions fully, and do not deviate from the recipe (you can still be creative, most recipes will say something like “1 ½ lbs. of hot peppers", you can choose which hot pepper you wish to use). Failure to follow procedures could be harmful and potentially fatal. Do not be scared of canning though. When done properly (i.e. following the directions), it is perfectly safe and a great way to not only save money, but to eat locally even in the dead of winter. If anyone else has any food preservation suggestions or tips, please leave them in the comments area.
The final area I will touch on briefly is gardening. Not only is this a way to save money on (very) local, sustainable food, it is just damn good fun, and a great workout. It’s a great activity to do with children (especially in conjunction with vermicomposting) as well as a partner. Even if you live in very small quarters and don’t have much in the way of sunlight, you can still grow things, limited as the options are. You just have to learn what is possible, and learn to use all space as efficiently as possible. The next and final piece in this series will be a brief introduction to gardening in small spaces.
'Til next time!