Hmmm, I think I gave up too soon on the idea of not supporting the pesticide industry, and the herbicide industry, and the cruelty of factory farming, etc. (see my last post, “Food, It’s Complicated”) . You’ve probably heard that saying, “Don’t complain about farmers with your mouth full”. Well, I suppose my caveat should be, “Don’t complain about unsustainable agriculture with your mouth full of industrial food”. So, I think I need to double down on this, even though it’s a tough task. It’s not that our family buys all that much industrial food, but, rather, I think that we could indeed buy only the “best”, most sustainable choices if we put our minds to it, and manage to keep the costs within reason. The whole endeavor is important—because food is a large portion of what we spend money on, our food choices result in an out-sized effect when it comes to how we vote with our dollars, and voting with our dollars is by far the most powerful thing we do. And, I suspect that this is true for the vast majority of families out there—we all spend money on food, day after day, our whole lives. So, while I don’t think I can pull off a cold-turkey switch like I attempted the other week, I think I can chip away at this problem and eventually achieve success.
Like I said the other week, food is complicated, and goes far beyond just the word “organic” (a good article on just this topic— “Leave ‘Organic’ Out of It”). While an organic label is a pretty good indicator, carbon footprints, affordability, whether or not something is grown in huge monocultures, other agricultural aspects like soil conservation practices, social justice, etc., are also factors. Two such factors, that I didn’t discuss last week, are the health aspects of a food, and the amount of non-recyclable, non-compostable waste that a food item generates (otherwise known as “trash”!).
To discuss that latter issue first, that of trash—this really came to my attention when I saw this video last week, about a Chicago restaurant that only created one bag of trash in two years (from Time Magazine article “This is How a Chicago Restaurant Went 100% Trash-Free“)—
Could we accomplish this same thing in our homes, and cook and eat in ways that produce zero trash? Some of this issue of trash pertains to how we consume food (foam disposable plates and Styrofoam cups?), but much of it originates from how the food we buy is packaged. If I bring my own container and buy in bulk at the local Co-op, (and bring my own shopping bags!) my waste from packaging is zero. When food is packaged, much of it is recyclable, but, as I’ve discussed before, even recycling is the “third-best option“, so the less we have to recycle the better. At the “bad” end of the scale there is packaging that isn’t recyclable, and goes straight into the trash.
Then, there are the health aspects of a particular food, which are in most ways unrelated to the sustainability of how that food was produced. It’s not really the purview of this blog to wade into that argument, but I think Michael Pollan sums it up pretty well when he says, “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much”. Organic ice cream, well, it’s probably still junk food.
So, to sum up, here’s perhaps what perfect food is, that Holy Grail of spending dollars to good effect—healthy, sustainably and humanely produced, low carbon footprint, affordable, and trash-free.
Nothing hard about achieving that. Ok, just kidding. To make it more difficult, every single type of food item needs, to some degree, it’s own evaluation. Within these overlapping and sometimes mutually exclusive standards (the best food sometimes isn’t affordable, etc.) a decision needs to be made about the best milk to buy, the best bread to buy, etc. More difficult still, my evaluation can’t be a substitute for yours, unless we live next door to each other, and perhaps not even then. What I can afford and what you can afford, what I can find locally and what you can find locally, etc., are likely to be different for different people in different situations or locations.
So my own particular task as I go forward—to identify, food item by food item, the best items according to my above criteria, and then, to be able to assembly tasty and affordable meals using these ingredients. My gut feeling is that I can do this, but that it’s going to take just a bit of practice, and more time in the beginning than once I get it mastered. And, I won’t be able to get by through subsisting on only dandelion greens and beans; I have three kids who sometimes think their dad’s ideas are kooky, and who can only be pushed so far in the food department before a general family revolt would surely occur. My wife, though an outstanding cook, is pretty busy, and isn’t a fan of daily shopping (my preferred food-acquisition method), so she probably won’t be leading the charge on this. So, it’s going to be up to me.
So here’s my thinking; my general plan of attack—we have a family of five, and currently budget about $800 a month for food. In the past we’ve tried to reduce that amount from time to time, but spending less seems to start dramatically impacting the types of food we buy, and we just aren’t willing to step back to Wonder bread and the very cheapest hotdogs. So the plan—if we spend $2 per person, per meal, then the family could eat for $10 per meal. This comes out to $30 a day, which is $900 a month; a bit more than we budget now. But I think it’s a reasonable aiming point. So the question becomes, what kind of meals can we fix with ingredients that meet all the criteria above, and yet don’t exceed the $2 per person per meal affordability cap? Or, are there meals that cost even less than this, that would leave room in the budget for more expensive food from time to time?
I don’t have time to do this all at once, so I’ll experiment and calculate costs as I have time. I’ll start a recipe list, and when I come upon a great meal that hits all the goals reasonably well, then I’ll add it to the list. Eventually I’ll have a whole repertoire, so to speak, of go-to meals. If I can come up with enough of them, then we can “switch over”, and achieve this goal of only buying sustainably-produced food.
So, last night after I wrote that paragraph above, I did a proof-of-concept attempt for last night’s supper, which I felt would come close to meeting the goals—
Last night’s menu—linguine with mussels and cream sauce. The cost of ingredients—
-1 lb. organic linguine $3.19
-sustainably raised Prince Edward Is. mussels, 2 lbs. $4.90
-8 oz heavy cream* $1.25
-organic peas $2.30
-Parmesan cheese $ .75
-2 cups white wine $1.75
-1 tbsp. butter $ .20
-2 tbsp. flour $ .05
– 1/4 of an onion, organic $ .40
– other spices $ .15
* (side note—opinions about the health aspects of cream and butter are changing)
This made enough for almost exactly five plates like the one in the picture (enough for the whole family, with no leftovers), and it was a tasty meal. I thought the costs looked ok, but when I added them up— $14.94. As in, over my $10 goal. This, and the cream and the wine were conventionally produced. In terms of trash it came out ok, though the mussels got put into a plastic bag at the store so they wouldn’t drip, and the pasta came in a thin-film plastic bag that the local recycling company won’t accept.
I could probably make the cost of this particular meal work if I substituted milk for some of the cream, bought only one pound of mussels, used half the wine but more water to steam the mussels, or made my own pasta. Making pasta is a bit more work, though.
Then, almost on a lark, I did the same calculations with my breakfast this morning, which was a fairly typical one for me-
-two slices of organic, local bread from Red Hen Bakery $ .64
-one organic egg* $. 33
-small slice of local cheddar cheese $ .36
-glass of organic orange juice $1.80
-Fair Trade banana $ .37
-organic mayo $ .20
* the egg was actually from our own chickens, but this is about what eggs cost when I buy the organic ones from the Co-op.
Boom, missed the mark again; this small breakfast totalled up to $3.70; way over my $2 goal. The orange juice was clearly the budget-buster here (but the organic OJ is really good!). I suppose I could drink less than this large glass full, though that alone wouldn’t bring the cost to below $2.
So I’ve got some work to do, and I might start at the other end of the affordability spectrum, with the likes of oatmeal and soups and bean burritos. And though it’s going to be difficult, it’s a worthwhile goal. I’ll keep tinkering with it. Like I said in my last post—it’s important.