Veg*n Cooking and Other Random Musings: On Gradually Achieving a Sustainable Local Diet - (Mostly) Local, Sustainable, and Affordable

Thursday, July 17, 2008

On Gradually Achieving a Sustainable Local Diet - (Mostly) Local, Sustainable, and Affordable

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!


Bianca said...

I heart bulk food! Not only is it cheaper and uses less packaging, but it looks really pretty stored in reusable glass jars in my pantry!

Alice (in Veganland) said...

I'm getting addicted to these posts :-) I can't even wait to get home to read them! (I'm at work, don't tell anyone :-)).

Really, these posts are changing a bit more the way I see the world, and my ideas of a sustainable lifestyle.

Sadly, I don't find bulk food in any store where I live, but I love the farmer's market, and I'm thinking of canning some tomatoes for the winter! or maybe making my own jam?

Now, if only I had more free time...(but that is NOT going to stop me!)

I bring my own lunch to work, and it doesn't even cost me a lot of time on Sunday. Cook beans for the week, cook brown rice for the week, store, freeze some if it's too much. I feel guilty for enjoying my cheap tasty meals so much :-).

Thanks a lot for giving such good posts to read.

Heather @ SGF said...

When my hubby and I were dating, we ate out lunch and dinner. After we were living together, it was just lunch (we we both at home at night, in the same place, and just too lazy to go out again - he he). But then I realized how much money was going in to those lunch meals. He at least eats out with friends. I was, for the most part, taking my purchased lunch to work and eating there by myself. Now, I'm pretty cheap. I was only spending about $100 a month on food for me (M-F), but still - That's $100. It was soon after I started my local eating experiment and started making soup to pack for lunch. Our food bill went way down.

Another thing I have to keep in mind in keeping our bill down is to be realistic about what I can eat per week. I've finally gotten to the point where I"m not overbuying at the market.

jessy said...

another great post, Jennifer. thank you! and it really is a bit frustrating that dan & i can't seem to get on any CSAs around here - but i guess that's a good thing since it means that at least other people are already taking advantage of 'em. :) tomorrow i'm heading to the local farmer's market with some friends to get some local veg. then i'm going to take some time tomorrow to meal plan and then shop for the rest on sunday. dan & i are really good about meal planning for lunches and dinners, but this time i'm switching it up by buying local goodies FIRST and THEN getting what i need to complete the meals - instead of just going to the grocery store and getting everything there. i'm excited to be supporting local goodness! thanks again for the motivation & inspiration!

dan & i used to dine out a lot, too. it got pretty ridiculous! now we eat out occasionally, and when we do we'll split a dish sometimes, and i always remember to bring some containers to take our leftovers home in. we're good about eating the leftovers, too. most of them are even more tasty the second day anyways! :)

bulk food - i always forget about bulk! and i love that our local natural food stores around us let you bring in your own containers for bulk items, too! looks like another great tip i need to rememeber to take advantage of! and canning, freezing, and drying are awesome ideas, too! oh - i found a great site on food preservation: (it's got tons of good information!)

thanks again, Jennifer! and i'll let you know what loot i score at the farmer's market, too! hoooooray! can't wait for your piece on gardening! it's gonna be awesome!

selina said...

i am really loving these posts. they are helping me.

i've started buying some things in bulk. there is a place over in the next town (probably 20 miles away...the opposite direction from my house) that has some bulk bins. i dont remember what they have though.

i actually think buying in bulk is fun. i havent gotten to the make everything on sunday part. because sundays are usually my lazy days. not that it takes a lot to cooks beans & rice. im just lazy i guess.

i was just wondering if after your finished with your sustainable diet series if you could talk about where you guys buy your clothes from.

selina said...

oh & i almost always eat dinenr & lunch at home. my food is better anyways. :)

lately our splurge is the homemade root beer from the local root beer stand thats only open in summer.

Vegan_Noodle said...

Thanks for all of these great tips Jennifer!! I'm trying to be more conscious of these things...

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Bianca - Me too! And it does, doesn't it? We have our closet full of containers of beans, I love looking in there and seeing those Anasazi beans with their cow patterns.

Alice - Hehe, I hope there aren't withdrawal symptoms. :-) Oh, I am responding to these comments at work, so your secret is safe with me.

Alice I am so glad, this is why I put my thoughts out there, I am no expert, I don't know everything, but I do know what has worked for us, and a lot of it is expectation and perception. That this has had an impact on you makes me feel so good, I was hoping somebody would get SOMETHING out of these posts, I never expected the wonderful commentary and suggestions from other bloggers that I've gotten.

I'm so glad you are enjoying the farmer's market. And great idea! You'll be able to enjoy fresh local tomatoes even in the dead of winter.

Hey, if you want to make jam, but don't want to have to can it, check out Selina's (of Vegans ROCK!!) blog, she recently posted about freezer jam.

I know, me too, if I had more time I would make my own tortillas, tortilla chips, flat breads, all that! But I am working at making better use of the time I DO have, so I can get more done.

That's awesome! We don't do the "one day in hell" thing, but we have before when we were both working. With Brett just going to school, he just cooks those things as we need them.

DO NOT FEEL BAD FOR ENJOYING YOUR CHEAP MEALS! Feel incredibly proud at the tasty meals you are creating from local goods that also happen to be inexpensive. That is awesome!

No problem, thank YOU for taking the time to write out such a thoughtful response. You made my day. ;-)

Heather - It does get really expensive, and I don't know about you, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of creating my own tasty meals. I recall a comment you posted recently on one of the other blogs about missing being poor. Although I was sad that you sacrificed and your ex enjoyed the "good stuff" (he better have at least appreciated it), I can completely understand that, though I am still fairly poor. To me, it is rewarding to realize, "Hey we don't have a whole lot of money", but figure out ways to make it work. And Brett and I do it together which makes living frugal a lot more fun. And even though we aren't as poor now as we were when I was in college, I still live like I am, I want to get my debts paid off!

That is good, it takes awhile though doesn't it?

Jessy - Thanks. I know how frustrating that has to be, that's why I had to talk about your situation. I feel so bad! But you are right, at least people are taking advantage, and hopefully you guys will get your opportunity soon.

OH GOOD! Let me know how that works out for you. If you saved any money, wasted less food, or enjoyed your meals more. And what a fun idea going with friends, why not make living sustainably festive?

It does get ridiculous. We aren't eating out this month due to the Quit Now Challenge, and we had already significantly reduced our eating out, but I am hoping after this month without, it will be much more of a treat and "every once in awhile" kind of thing.

Great idea about bringing containers for leftovers. That way you don't have to use their Styrofoam and stuff. I usually carry a large tote everywhere any way, I'll have to take a tupperware next time we go out to eat.

Bulk food is excellent. That is so cool about being able to bring your own containers. I think I might see if we can do that at our grocer.

That website is amazing, it gives you all the information you need, and even some recipes. I also highly recommend the Ball Blue Book of Canning, after all these years it is still the best source.

I'm excited to here how the market goes.

Hehe. I should be getting the gardening piece out sometime before mid next week, I might get industrious this weekend, who knows, but it'll be out there soon enough.

Selina - I'm really glad to hear that. I never know if I am just "beating a dead horse" telling you all things you already know or making myself look stupid. You always have to prepare for the fact that you could be wrong!

Good for you! Wow, that's a far drive. Perhaps once you know what you guys like you can go out there and really stock up. Just remember to store them tightly sealed in a cool, dry place to keep critters and bugs and such away from them.

It doesn't have to be a Sunday, I was just using that as an example. I actually don't use this method any more either. It worked great for us when both Brett and I were working, but since he's home going to school full-time, he just cooks stuff as needed. (And I'm really lazy too, that's why I suggested this. You bust your butt one day, then you can be lazy the rest of the week.)

Sure! I'd be happy to. Most of what we do is in keeping our clothes in good shape so they last, but no, I wouldn't mind doing that at all.

I bet you are right, your food is probably loads better. I often find myself disappointed that I paid for a meal that wasn't all that great. Except for El Rancho, the local Mexican restaurant, it is flippin' perfect!

That is a splurge you should feel alright about. It's a local, seasonal treat, no guilt there!

Vegan_Noodle - No problem. If you ever have any questions, you know where to find me. :-)

selina said...

i have a thumb drive. i never thought to use it on the laptop. silly me. i actually have one that has a usb port on one side & the port for the camera memory card on the other side. i cant use it at work (they pretty much have blocked everything) but i can use it on the laptop.

i used almonds. i really really like pine nuts but they aren't cheap. and i hate walnuts so i opted for almonds.

i usually get 2+ weeks out of a 13.2 gallon tank but rarely do i actually write down the mpg. jason just installed a hydrogen thing in his car that gets him better gas mileage so i wanted to see what mine was because i think we going to install it on my car. i only live 4.5 miles from work and other then the farmers market which is 10 miles away thats pretty much all the driving i do.


selina said...

so out of curiousity i mapped the place that has some of the bulk foods (i'll have to go there again to see what they really have) is 15mi. from my house & 10 mi. from work. not too terribly bad since i wouldnt be going there all the time. the farmers market is 11 miles away from my house & i go there every saturday.

next year i will be able to take a bus there. :)

Anonymous said...

Another great post!


The Lazy Vegan said...

This is really well written and thought out. Eating local is something I'm working on, but I get frustrated with it very easily.

Chessa said...

Thank you for this very thoughtful post! It was a great reminder to me to recommit to taking things just that extra step - preserving local food in season, utilizing bulk more (I'm so stoked that my local natural foods store has liquid bulk, too! Oils, maple syrup, soy sauce, etc!!) and generally just being more mindful of our impact. And saving a buck or two never hurts. ;)

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Selina - We all have our moments. ;-) That sucks about your job, we are able to do that at my office.

Almonds? That IS an interesting idea. I like pine nuts too, but, at least here, they are really pricey and are generally imported. I'm sorry you hate walnuts. Especially since you have a walnut tree. :-( Does Jason at least like them?

That's pretty cool about what Jason is doing to his car, you'll have to keep me up to date as to how it is going and if you put it on your car. It's nice living close to your job.

Hey, that is really cool about the bus! Once you get an idea of what is there, you can get a larger quantity, and only have to go every once in awhile. Hooray for your expanding bus line!

Courtney - Thank you!

Lazy Vegan - Thank you. What about eating locally frustrates you? Is it the selection? Cost? Inconvenience?

Chessa - Thank you very much, all you guys' comments are making me blush.

You are really lucky to have bulk liquids! Seriously! I would love to be able to get bulk syrups or shoyu.

I'm glad this post has made you think about going the extra step, we are trying to as well, hence my writing this series, and you are right, saving a few bucks is never a bad thing. :-)