Getting to Know Food: Cost/Benefit: Money (Part 3)

First, get into your head that you’re paying it forward. Even if you spend a bit more money right now, or if you lay down $100 in groceries for one week, you may be saving yourself at least $20/day in take-out meals, not to mention gas, time and finally, your ethical sensibilities.

This is the argument for spending more to not only put your money where it matters, but where it will serve the health of yourself and the environment.

The organic label is easy to find these days. Most common of the certifications is USDA Organic, with other well-known certifying agencies being Oregon Tilth and QAI. I tend to go for Oregon Tilth or QAI out of their reputation for being more stringent in their requirements, but in a pinch, USDA Organic is there. This label is slapped on a lot of foods. My biology prof at University of Illinois at Chicago (who worked for the likes of Monsanto and Dow) told the ugly truth about organic: the large Big Ag companies know organic sells, and they’ll carpetbomb their land with toxic pesticides, wait three years, pay for the certification, then move on to their next square plot of land to do the same, rotating the organic swatches for profit, meanwhile continuing to poison the land. We want the words green, organic, natural to mean something – but they’ve all become marketing buzz words.

This is why I generally try to buy from smaller, local farms and producers instead of large organic producers (mostly in California for domestic produce.) I also tend to shy away from prepared anything. It’s not hard to tear up lettuce, rinse it, spin it, and put it in a bag for the week. And then I know the source, unlike the bagged spinach that has passed through so many hands that if there was an outbreak, pinpointing it would be impossible. I try to always go towards organic – but if I have the farmers at the farmers market there in front of me, I’ll ask how they grow, why they grow that way. Sometimes small farmers won’t pay to have their stuff certified organic, but grow it that way anyway. I like to have this connection to my food – it, for me, adds to accountability.

In the dry goods department is where the biggest time comes in. It’s label reading. Michael Pollan is credited with saying, “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” For some of us younger folks, think even great-grandmother. Buying cereal is an exercise in elimination. I look for less than five ingredients, high fiber content, low sugar content, reasonable serving size (3/4 cup for me), and reasonable calories for me (<150 cal). No preservatives or artificial crap, no soy, no weird things that I really have no business eating in my cereal (palm oil), no absurd fortifications (I take a multivite, thanks). The best choice would be a nice bowl of steel-cut oatmeal, but sometimes that’s too much for me to make in the morning (without a Zojirushi NS-ZCC10) Seriously, have you really looked at what they put in what masquerades as food?

The last refuge for the do-gooder aspiring home cook is Trader Joe’s, and the dozens of stores who have housebranded organic items. Remember the days of the black and white cans of generic food? I remember wondering why they matched the bar codes on the sides of the cans, and imagined the food tasting just like the package. Those days are gone, and now we have President’s Choice, Safeway Selects, Whole Foods 365, Trader Joe’s. Talking to anyone, the most beloved of the generic brands is Trader Joe’s. It’s got the boutique-y sheen of a small store, the promise of value and quality, and in truth, they are just like everyone else in that their house brand comes from sources obscured to their customers. Why does this matter? Because it isn’t until the private label producer is outed that you find out who the source is, and what they’ve been up to.

When you look at big meat recalls (like some of the recent beef recalls regarding beef tongues sold with tonsils attached (BSE risk) and an e. coli recall) often list the final retailers as being in different social strata. Trader Joe’s has a different cache from Giant – yet they sold the same beef that was recalled. I hear people loving to shop at Trader Joe’s because they feel that they offer something special – but do they really? Where does the food come from? How can you tell? Is the place on the label (Austin, TX) just the corporate HQ (for Whole Foods Market) or was that 365 salsa made in New York City? (Get the rope.)

Buying whole, local food (and local bulk grains, etc.) not only gives you the ability to have a personal relationship with the producer, but you also cut out the middleman, handing the money sometimes straight to the farmer, to put back into growing the things you love. When you buy local meats from pastured animals, you can actually check in on the farm, have the assurance that the meat isn’t coming from Cargill, buying from one of the many industrial feedlots that slaughter thousands of cows per day.

My goodness, this can get spendy pretty quick, can’t it. No house brands, local, organic – this can double some people’s food bill!

My answer – it’s still cheaper than eating out, if you were to eat the same quality foods outside the house (even if it’s not organic). It’s better for you, your local economy, and the environment (don’t forget to bring your shopping bags!). If you do it right, those of you reading this who have aspirations of weight-loss might find the mantra of Michael Pollan to be of great use, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Over this past weekend, I was talking with Jon about a $50 challenge for a weeks worth of meals for the two of us, mostly from the farmer’s market. The staples: 1 whole chicken (4 lbs), 2 lb of beans, 2 lbs of rice and fresh vegetables. A farmer’s market chicken will run about $20, but the rice and beans probably only $15, tops, giving us quite a bounty of fresh vegetables to throw in. Chicken and rice soup, roast chicken, vegetarian bean chili, chicken on top of salad greens, beans and rice, chicken and olive oil on pasta – there’s lots of options. We’ll probably end up using an extra $20 worth of food we have stashed up (like we do), which includes onions, canned tomatoes, garlic. But still, A mostly farmer’s market week for less than $75 for two people. There can be leftovers for lunch, even!

I know this can seem overwhelming, and if you’re not sold yet, at least think about it next time you go grocery shopping. What are you buying? What are you putting in your body? Why are you doing it? Does it really taste good?

Stay tuned for Part Four: Benefit: Get Fit and Save the World?
See previously: Part Two: Cost/Benefit: Time, Part One: Source