Saturday, June 7, 2008

Eating Well in Troubled Times

One of the things I loved about reading News From Nowhere was Morris's descriptions of eating within the community "Guest" was visiting. Wholesome, nourishing food served by happy folk in pleasant surroundings:

. . . we fell to our breakfast, which was simple enough, but most delicately cooked, and set on the table with much daintiness. The bread was particularly good, and was of several different kinds, from the big, rather course, dark-colored, sweet-tasting farmhouse loaf, which was most to my liking, to the thin pipe-stems of wheaten crust, such as I have eaten in Turin. (Chapter III)

But it's getting tougher to look at food as much more than another pain in the pocketbook, despite the fact that (as I've noted previously) in terms of real costs, we're still paying too little.

A story on Thursday's All Things Considered (As Food Prices Rise, There is No Dancing in the Aisles) caused a bit of a stir--especially about the upper middle-class mom's complaining about not being able to buy organic food at Whole Foods Market anymore. She also complained about the prepared foods at the local supermarket, because everything available was "breaded" and there were many fewer choices. That told me a great deal right there.

At the other end of the spectrum was the mom who has to feed her three kids on less than $800 a month (and that's not just her food budget; that's the whole budget). She's given up twelve-grain bread for white, does without paper towels, bottled water, chips, cookies, candy, and toiletries of any kind. The story doesn't say what she does buy (other than white bread), but it probably includes meat (most likely cheap hamburger, which was a staple of my childhood when we were out of money), and perhaps some cheap prepared foods designed to make the meat go further. Shopping at places like the Mennonite grocery is certainly a help, but I truly wonder if part of the problem isn't one of education, or lack thereof, on food and nutrition.

I still haven't reached the point where I'm pinching pennies, because I'm used to paying more for what I eat--since where food comes from and its nutritional value are both philosophical considerations that inform my eating habits. I shop both at Whole Foods and Costco, and I buy premium natural dog and cat food at PetsMart. But we're a two-person, two-income family of empty nesters, who do little else but enjoy one another's company at home when we're not helping to turn the next generation into productive members of the workforce.

I do grow some of my own food (mostly herbs, but also tomatoes and peppers in season, and I'm trying squash this year--not very successfully), and should grow more, but that would require transforming my back yard into a farm, and I'm not ready (yet) to do so. The pecan trees that provided the bumper crop last year shade a large percentage of the available space, and the Carbon Sink (previously known as the Accidental Garden) has taken that area out of cultivation.

At any rate, I started thinking of what I might do with only $400 per month to spend on food, and several solutions came to mind. These are all strategies I have used in the past, including the time in Philadelphia when I lived on a food budget of $50 for each of two months (in the early '70s; it included feeding two cats and two adults, and entertaining several friends at least once a month). My usual food budget was around $75, and what I gave up was primarily booze.

First, never go to the supermarket hungry or without the week's basic menu in mind. The meal plan should not be set in stone because flexibility allows you to take advantage of special deals. But have an outline of meals and know what is missing from the pantry.

Second, whenever possible, buy unprocessed foods in favor of processed. Many chain supermarkets like Tom Thumb (Safeway) and Kroger offer store-brand organic products, so it's possible to buy dried beans, brown rice, pasta, and other fiber-sources that can serve as staples. My local Tom Thumb has a bulk-buy section (modeled after the ones at Whole Foods and Sprouts), that offers brown rice, barley, several kinds of beans, pasta, nuts, and dried fruit. These should form the basis of the diet anyway, and they're incredibly versatile. For the occasional need for quick food, buy a couple of cans of organic beans (kidney, chickpeas, cannellini, pinto). They're much more expensive than dried beans, but nutritious and still relatively inexpensive compared to the brand-named versions. Cook up a batch of beans or rice or whatever to keep in the fridge and use them within a couple of days in salads, pasta combos, and stir frys.

Third, buy organic produce when possible, but don't buy your lettuce pre-torn--buy the whole head of Romaine (NOT iceberg) and do your washing and tearing at home, where you can put it into a handy container to use as the basis for salads every day. Some fruits and veg are less problematic when not organically grown--those whose skins aren't eaten, so if you have to skimp, buy conventionally grown versions of bananas, but buy organic versions of the rest if possible. If you can get deals on frozen organic veg and fruit, take advantage of them, but canned versions (except in the case of tomatoes and beans) are seldom satisfactory. By the way, it's so easy to make a good pasta sauce from canned tomatoes and tomato paste that buying the stuff in bottles hardly ever makes sense.

Fourth, buy whole grain flour and yeast and make your own bread. Even if you have little time you can still make bread. And children need to be taught this very basic human activity anyway. Bread-making binds families and creates irreplaceable memories that involve taste, smell, and love.

If you can't afford fresh organic skim milk, buy it dried and reconstitute it at home. Use it sparingly for drinking, but make your own yogurt (buy a small tub of really good plain Greek style to use as a starter). Re-hydrated dried milk can be refreshing and it's quite possible to acquire a taste for it. I didn't have fresh milk for the entire five years during which I lived in Taiwan, and I lived to tell the tale. When my son was small, we had very little money to spend on food, so dried milk was a staple. Babies and toddlers can be nursed, so cow's milk is not an absolute necessity.

Finally, if you're not already a vegetarian, buy meat to use only as a flavoring (here's a blog where a mom gives the same advice). And buy lean pork (loins) in tenderloins or roasts, and cut them up into small cubes when you get home, to freeze for use in stews, soups, and stir-frys. Buy chickens whole, and use everything--cut them up or roast them whole and base meals around the bits. Freeze leftovers, including the carcass, for later meals and soup stock. Buy lean cuts of beef (again as roasts), but primarily for use in stews, soups, and stock. Buy fish when you can get a deal, but make sure it's sustainably raised or harvested. Keep canned tuna and salmon on hand, because it's much more versatile than fresh. Again, buy the store organic brand or check the label for sources.

A basic rule about food is that the more you make from scratch, the more money you'll save. If you involve the whole family in the cooking process (and in the cleaning up), you'll be teaching them more than they could ever learn in school on the subject, and you'll start your kids on the road to self-sufficiency when they leave the nest.

It's really instructive to see what other people do about feeding themselves, so check out this site on what people eat around the world (and how much it costs them). It's pretty clear from the photos that those with the lowest food costs are the ones who severely limit the number of processed foods they consume.

One of the best ways to manage food costs is to become aware of the role of food in the economy. The New York Times has a page of articles on this topic: The Food Chain, which provides a mini-course in the business of food, and information that can help even those with a tiny budget make wiser, more ethical decisions about what they eat.

Community gardens and co-ops can help people save money and put more nutritious food on the table. Unfortunately, the Community-Supported Agriculture movement has become so popular that most CSAs have waiting lists. If you can't join one, shop local farmers' markets where they're available, because then you're completely cutting out the middle man and paying farmers directly. Prices can be substantially lower (and quality immensely higher) than supermarket food. Farmers' markets have become really trendy lately, and thus more abundant--and Dallas has one of the best.

Food is a basic need, both in terms of sustaining our bodies and in sustaining our families and communities. Perhaps the rising costs will help forge new attitudes about it in this country and become the proverbial blessing in disguise. If people start banding together to grow and share food in order to survive, perhaps the "crisis" will retrain our thinking about how and what we eat. But the solution is certainly not to start eating gummy white processed bread. That doesn't sustain anyone but Mrs. Baird.

Next time: Cooking Well--some thoughts and sources on cooking and eating what we've managed to buy.

Photo credit: Vegetarian Diet, from the Agricultural Research Service, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The quoted passage is from the 1970 Routledge edition, edited by James Redmond (p. 12).


Everything Natural Pet Food said...

Great information and advice. I like this site and will read it again.

jenzai studio said...

Thanks for the community garden link. I've been thinking about approaching our church with the idea of starting one there; maybe this will give me the impetus to actually do something. I've always loved the idea of the community garden, especially the mentoring aspect of it, as I am a complete retard when it comes to pretty much everything outdoors. I have a mental block about gardening the way some people do about math. Weird, huh?

Any chance I could convince you to host another little soiree at your house this summer? We had such a lovely time there in December, and I could really use a little adult conversation while sharing food and drink. We'll bring goodies to share and I swear I won't let my children abscond with a handful of cookies this time!

Owlfarmer said...

Glad the community garden info was helpful. As gas, etc., prices go up, this is a feasible way to augment both food supplies and communities. The only thing I'm really surprised about is how long it's taking us to catch up with the rest of the world.

After the nice long break from school (a whole month!) we should have the yard and house in better shape and will probably host some sort of a shindig to celebrate what we've done. We've got a wedding scheduled at the end of September (one of my daughter's childhood chums), so the carbon sink and adjacent areas will have to be tamed a bit. We're looking forward to being able to have people over again.

Also, I'm glad your kids made off with cookies! Better them than me!

Anonymous said...

oh goodie! I just saw your comment on my comment, and will eagerly await news of a shindig.