Monday, May 01, 2006

Eating Cheap/Eating Local

I have mixed feelings about posting this. Will I lose all my readers? (All five of you.) But here it goes.

I can't get too excited about the eat local challenge. I'm hardly qualified to talk about eating local/organic--most of the time, I don't, because I can't afford it too often It doesn't help that I'm a conservative, careful spender by nature. Yes, I could stretch my income to buy pricier organic groceries, but I'm not about to eat through my 401(k) contribution, those six months of living expenses or grad school tuition.

Six dollar eggs are an occasional treat, not a weekly purchase. I do stop by the Outpost, the local organic co-op, for good yogurt; Sendiks, the local gourmet fancy food chain, for decent bread, specialty stuff or to splurge on cheese. Still, after walking into Sendiks, the first thing I check out is the reduced produce shelf. You never know what exciting cheapies you might find there--today, I got a yellow and an orange pepper for a buck. I shop like an old lady, buying meat, vegetables, fruit and seafood on special.

I suppose I am all for eating local. I wish I could buy organic meat without flinching at the price, happily paying more to support sustainable organic farming. But ultimately, the call to eat local/organic affects me like a campaign to bike to work. It's a nice idea, but... And although I like to cook and eat well, I don't think I have the makings of a foodie. Savings trump organic asparagus!

So I am far more sympathetic to the poverty line challenge. It's closer to my frugal little heart. After immigrating to America in the early nineties, my parents' food budget was pretty small, possibly poverty line, yet the four of us (parents, grandfather, me) ate reasonably well because my mom is a careful and economic shopper and a decent cook. Our meals certainly fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as chicken, pork and beef. I don't buy the complaint that it's very hard to eat well or healthy on a budget. On the other hand, it does take some work and imagination.

Consider this tomato bean soup. My mom has made this sort of soup at least once a week when I was growing up. A big bowl, with seconds--why not?--and some decent bread makes a satisfying, nutritious meal and leaves plenty of leftovers for everyone's lunch the next day. How much does this soup cost to make? A half a bag of dried navy beans is about 60 cents; a onion, a couple of carrots, two cloves of garlic and some celery stalks might run you 50-60 cents. A can of tomatoes--let's say $1.50, if you're getting the halfway decent kind. A couple of cents for a few tablespoons of vegetable or okay olive oil. The stock is made from 3-4 lbs supermarket chicken, always bought on sale for less than a dollar per pound, plus the usual cheap veggies--carrots, celery, etc. Let's say 4-5 dollars for the 16 or 18 cups of stock. A bay leaf, a little salt, pepper, paprika or red pepper flakes won't set you back much.

Still, that's $8, tops, for a big, nutritious, yummy pot of soup. (Eight dollars might buy only two meals at a fast food place.) Yes, the veggies aren't local or organic and yes, the chicken has been pumped with hormones, antibiotics and has led a nasty, brutal and short life. But isn't this kind of homemade, cheap food infinitely better than McDonald's or endless peanut butter on Wonder Bread sandwiches? I'd think that lack of planning, lack of basic cooking skills and sheer laziness is a far bigger enemy of the poor than second-rate supermarket ingredients.

I think I eat pretty well on my budget. My meals are pretty creative; I'm a decent beginner cook; I can afford to experiment and splurge often enough. (Here I am pleading poverty, yet my shopping lists over the last few weeks included the following just-for-fun goodies: A can of anchovies with capers; fresh pineapple; asparagus; tahini; fancy cheese; red curry paste; black bean sauce.) Still, it's irritating to wait for certain foods, especially seafood or meat, to go on sale when I want to eat them now. A visit to the to the local organic or 'goumet' market sometimes leaves me dejected and unsatisfied. Really, you'd think that not being able to afford organic beef is some kind of great tragedy in life.

Don't pity me, though. I am moving up in the world and one day I, too, shall eat local and organic. See you at Whole Foods in a few years!


Anonymous said...

Hi Yulinka, thanks for picking up on this challenge, and for the thoughtful comments. The economics of eating local is actually one of the big reasons I got interested in doing a poverty line challenge, so we'll see how my week on each challenge lines up.

BTW, I love your Russian cooking theme. I grew up on a lot of the same stuff!

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Mrs. M. said...

Raspberry Sour--

Thanks for stopping by. I just discovered your blog and I'm really enjoying it.

Now that I think of it, I *will* be eating local in July and August, thanks to my mom's backyard garden.


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