The Lowdown on Spending Less for Your Food but Getting More
The last several years have brought wave after wave of new information about the food we put in our mouths and how it gets there. From Fast Food Nation to The Omnivore's Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, it can seem like there's more bad news every time we turn around. We eat too much. We eat the wrong things. Our food has additives we wouldn't recognize if they slapped us across the face in broad daylight.
It's a daunting prospect to plow through all of this material to figure out what's real, what's paranoid, and what choices we want to make for the future. Whether we do that hard work or listen to the voices of others who have done it, many of us have developed convictions about eating less, eating local, and eating organic.
These convictions about what we will and will not put in our mouths are all well and good when we're sitting at home making the grocery list, but what happens when we're standing in the grocery store debating between the conventional tomatoes, at .99 cents a pound, or the organic ones, which can run $2.49 and up? When our convictions about food clash with our convictions about money, who wins?
Luckily, it doesn't have to be a knock-down, drag-out battle, because it's not a win-or-lose situation. In fact, it's quite possible to find the best quality food for yourself and your family without violating either set of mores.
Don't Shop the Stores
While most grocery chains now carry organic products (and many are beginning to carry local ones, too!), the prices they sell these healthy foods for is much higher than the prices you'd find the same items selling for in other venues. Check out your local farmer's market (find one in your area at LocalHarvest). These venues usually don't have the same markup that the chain store has because you're buying directly from the farmers. Without the middleman, you get wholesale prices on the same high quality items.
Pick and Choose
If there's not a farmer's market available in your area, or you can't get there because of time, transportation, or other reasons, pick the items that you buy local and/or organic and purchase conventionally the rest of the time. The Environmental Working Group has tested most of the more common fruits and vegetables for all sorts of pesticide and soil contaminants and offers this handy buying guide that lists the 12 items most likely to be contaminated as well as the 12 least likely. If you take it with you when you shop, you can avoid pesticides and needlessly high prices, all in one swoop (They also offer the whole list of all the foods they tested and their relative pesticide load, if that's more your style).
Try a CSA
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) started in Japan and has spread across the world. When you participate, you pay a fee for a share of the farm. They are able to use this money as capital for their food production, and in turn you receive a box of locally grown, organic fruit and/or vegetables an a regular basis. CSA boxes are an adventure. You'll get to try all kinds of produce that you might not even see in a grocery store, let alone pick up, bag, and take home. With decent internet access, you can always find recipes, and you can even find photos to identify items you don't recognize. On top of the fun factor, most CSA's do their best to keep their prices competitive with those available at the farmer's market, and some make a point to price their boxes lower, to reward those who choose to invest in the farm that way. Find a CSA near you via LocalHarvest, once again.
Grow Your Own
If you pick the produce out of your own garden, you not only have the satisfaction of having participated in making something you can eat (which is a lot cooler to experience than it sounds), but you also know exactly how the pests were controlled and you can calculate how much you're spending. JD, over at GetRichSlowly, has done just this. You can read about his conclusions from his 2008 garden, or track his progress this year. As it turns out, many of the things you can grow yourself will turn out to be cheaper than the ones you can buy.
Do Your Best
Depending on where you live, finding easily accessible produce that makes you feel good about what you're eating and about your wallet may be easy, or it may be quite difficult. Whether you're as successful as you'd like to be or not, that thought counts for something. How you approach food is important, not only because the food itself is so important, but also because you'll be the first person to jump, vote, lobby, or whatever when opportunities to get the food you want do come to town. And they are coming. Slowly but surely, Americans are choosing to change the way they eat.
Have you found any stellar ways to save on high-quality food? Let us know in the comments!