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Eating organically (and responsibly) on a food-stamp budget

By Michelle Gienow |

Michelle Gienow
The author's 6-year-old son Jack picks a squash at the CSA the family joined to get sustainable, organic, local and sorta ethical produce.

For the past three years, following the typical Michael Pollan-fueled, now-I've-seen-the-locavore-light conversion experience, I've been trying hard to feed my family good food. It's more difficult than it sounds; the supermarkets are full of tempting, affordable foodlike products that ultimately owe more to industry than agriculture, once you start reading the labels. It took me an embarrassingly long while to figure out that buying foods so basic that they don't have a label is the key.

I found myself shopping less and less at the grocery store and instead buying directly from the farmers who actually produce the food, sometimes at the farmers market, sometimes at the farms themselves. Thus it is always local and usually also organic--in practice, if not formal certification--and, helpfully, affordable. I tracked down these farmers, and know about the food I'm buying, because I'm interested and I ask. In doing this I am, as Pollan urges, voting for systemic change with my food dollars, though in my case that's sort of a side bonus. This kind of conscious buying has come to be known as SOLE food, for Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical.

In case you've been living under a culinary and environmental blackout for the past couple years, here's why SOLE food is worth investing in: Our current meat-centric diet, with its reliance on highly processed fats, refined grains, and industrial inventions like high-fructose corn syrup, is literally killing us. This diet is the main reason why one of every three adult Americans is now overweight, and obesity--which parties with its morbid pals diabetes, cardiac disease, and high blood pressure--is drowning ever more of us every year. (A study in the January 2008 issue of the International Journal of Obesity estimates that, if current trends continue, 86.3 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese by the year 2030.)

Handing over our nation's nourishment to agribusiness companies that earn more from processing the food than by growing it is not only making us fatter and sicker, it's also degrading the environment. Monocultures of corn, wheat, and soybeans can thrive only on massive inputs of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, the manufacture of which requires massive amounts of fossil fuel. Once applied, these chemicals don't go away--the ones we don't consume directly in our food aggregate in our soil and water supply along with the antibiotics and hormones used in factory-farmed livestock production. Meanwhile, the industries doing this to us receive billions of dollars each year in taxpayer subsidies.

All of this in explanation of why I pay $7 a gallon for organic, locally grass-fed milk: Yes, it does cost double the price of generic grocery store milk from cows kept God knows where, fed God knows what, and very likely amped up on bovine growth hormone and antibiotics. But I have two young sons whom I would like to see grow up lean and disease-free to inherit a relatively intact planet. To that end, buying sustainably produced, organic-if-you-got-it food from small local farms just seems like the best possible investment of our family's not terribly abundant dollars. Our milk costs twice as much, but I have met these cows and know they're living a good, clean life.

To my great surprise it turns out that holding these priorities makes me--according to sources as diverse as the Hoover Institution, freebie magazine Blue Ridge Outdoors, and my own mother--a member of the economic elite. Or, as Julie Gunlock said in a National Review essay earlier this year, "The truth is, organic food is an expensive luxury item, something bought by those who have the resources."

Well, Julie, hon, our family has taken major pay cuts this year. So just like everyone else these days, we are looking for ways to cut back. Given this brave new economy and our financially fragile place within it, when feeding my family do I now have to choose between my beliefs and my budget?

Only one way to find out.

I decided to log our meals and food expenditures for 30 days, scraping together $342.92 in cash and putting it in an envelope--whatever food I bought had to come out of there, and if the money ended before the 30 days did I would just have to figure out a way to feed us for free. I arrived at that seed money amount after deducting the cost of four weeks of our CSA (community supported agriculture) membership in an organic farm--$83.08--from the $426 maximum food stamp allotment for a Baltimore County family of three. (My husband declined to participate; he is not as devoted as I am to the pursuit of overpriced organic hippie chow, and some of it, he actively loathes. To suit his preferences and save money, his food stash was fairly segregated; we intersected at cookies).

So: one month, 343 bucks. That's $11.43 per day for the three of us, which seemed workable. I was used to spending more, but always knew we could get by on less--not that we really have much choice anymore.

Going in, I established a few ground rules: First, everything counted, cost-wise--even basics like salt and spices. Next, in addition to CSA produce, I was going to be using things from my own garden. I recognize that not everyone wants to raise their own food, but anything my tiny, shade-hampered plot produces could be grown equally well in a few buckets on a city fire escape. Not only that, but the federal food-stamp program allows benefits to be used for purchasing seeds and plants to grow your own food.

Finally, and most importantly, I aimed to buy the best possible item for each need, combining as many elements of SOLE as possible in its origins and purchase. It's pretty impossible to eat purely SOLE everything all the time--food can be local but not sustainable, or organic but not purely ethical. None of the staff at our CSA has health insurance, for example, a violation of the living-wage ethos of that "E." In making these choices, however, I'm also very much into not making myself crazy, so I just try to make the best possible decision for both the planet and our family and then let it go.

I recognized going in that the first day would be financially scary, since so many basics needed to be purchased. So after kicking off Day 1 with a breakfast of generic Cheerios (Joe's O's), CSA blackberries, and Amish milk (respectively: not SOLE at all, SOL with questionable E, and totally SOLE), I made a trip to Wegmans for staples like coffee, cooking oil, and so on that I can't otherwise source locally. I left the Weg feeling sort of depressed that much of what I had purchased--rice noodles, peanuts, store-brand bread--seemed to utterly lack SOLE. At the end of the first day, however, after calculating our food bill, I felt better after realizing that low-SOLE items accounted for less than a quarter of the $96.61 total; everything else--grass-fed meat and dairy products, an $11 dollar quart of honey (yikes, but we use a LOT of honey)--came from close to home, from producers I know personally.

The main point of SOLE food, to me at least, is the local component. According to a Cornell University study, in this country food travels an average of 1,500 miles before arriving in the local supermarket, thereby expending more energy to move the food than it actually contains. For example, it takes 4,000 calories of fossil fuel to ship a 110-calorie head of lettuce from California to the East Coast. Trying to eat mostly locally-produced foods in season saves an awful lot of non-renewable energy in terms of processing, packaging, and transportation. Mid-Atlantic farmers offer wonderful meats and dairy year-round, and we can all relearn to live on local fruit and vegetables in season the way everyone who lived here even 60 years ago had to. Buying locally grown carbs remains a problem, however: This is just not a big grain-producing region anymore, certainly not enough to feed our high-density citizenry. Some food miles, it would seem, are simply a fact of life. You do what you can.

The first shopping trip left me with $246.31 for the remaining 29 days of the month, a number that dwindled quickly on each of the next two days as I purchased more basic ingredients in large-ish quantities. In order to keep accounting simple, I deducted up front the entire cost of anything I bought--like, say, a bottle of organic ketchup--even though it would get used in small amounts throughout the entire month. This meant that in those first three days our per-meal average cost was $16.44, a pretty high number for, say, the grilled cheese sandwiches and carrots we had for lunch on Day 2. Finally, however, by Day 4 there were enough groceries laid out that I spent less than three dollars on that entire day's comestibles. The first week's total was $177.59, a number which includes two Chik-fil-A kiddie meals ($6.38 and so utterly devoid of SOLE that you cannot possibly revile me more than I have already done myself. It was just one of those days; anyone who has young children will understand).

So, after one week, there was $167.33 remaining in my by-now battered envelope. That left $7.87 per day for three people for the next 23 days. Aside from swapping tofu for shrimp in one night's pad thai dinner, we had eaten pretty much as usual. Clearly, this was going to have to change. Since my budget is based on the federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps have been officially called since 2008), I decided to investigate the government's Thrifty Food Plan, the cost of which is used to determine food-stamp benefit amounts.

In its promotional materials for financially challenged meal planners such as myself, the USDA exhorts citizens to "Eat right when money's tight," apparently mainly through eating refined carbs and lots of 'em. The 77-page booklet "Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals," issued by the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and based on the federal food pyramid, offers a two-week menu plan for a family of four based mainly on white flour, white rice, and, urk, margarine. With this as our government's official nutritional advice, is it any wonder we are becoming a nation of fat-asses?

I get it that for some families shopping Wal-Mart might realistically be the only way to put food on the table. Also, there is no way around the simple fact that sustainable agriculture requires more work and garners no government subsidies, so small local farmers simply have to charge more for their produce. But there is a balance to be found; farmers markets are all over the place these days, and in between the artisanal cheeses and five-dollar loaves of sourdough, there are very affordable foods produced by the person standing behind the folding table.

I hesitated to write about my efforts to do SOLE on a food-stamp budget, because I've always cringed at those "reporter going out to do as the poor folks do." But food is something we all need, and like it or not, we all need to start eating differently.

Looking back over my first week of meals, I was surprised how much of our family's intake still consists of what the Amish call "store foods"--pre-made items like bread and pasta. I'm buying more of these than I'd realized, and it would elevate our SOLE profile if we could cut back. The thing is, these are among the cheapest foods we eat. Dinner, which I dedicate significant time to preparing, is usually scratch-cooked from local foods and generally accounts for the main cost of each day's menu. Breakfast and lunch, however, are quicker affairs--I need to get out of the kitchen for at least part of each day, dammit--and often rely on things I can grab straight from a cabinet, like Joe's O's.

Sighing, I pull out a calculator and the six months worth of grocery records I've accumulated. Joe's O's are 17 cents per serving, and bulk-bin organic oatmeal costs 11.5 cents per serving. So by cooking breakfast for three I save 16 and a half cents, probably more than burned up by the cost of running the stove, not to mention that it's worth waaaaaay more than 16 cents to me to not wash a dirty oatmeal pot. So obviously I use more fossil fuel cooking oatmeal than dumping cereal into a bowl, but how much fuel went into manufacturing, boxing and transporting those Os, and how to account for the cost of that? Holy crap, this is getting complicated.

What it does point out, however, is something that SOLE food advocates don't seem to talk about a lot--how much sheer effort conscientious eating requires. Not only do you spend time researching local food options and sources and shopping multiple suppliers, but once the goods are in the cupboard you must spend a lot of hands-on time rendering those whole ingredients into actual meals. I am starting to understand better how my husband can contemplate a fridge full of food and declare, "There's nothing to eat!" Translation: There's nothing here to eat unless you cook it first.

But cooking is to be my fate, both these next three weeks and forever if I mean to keep my vows of sustainability and cost-reduction.

We do eat a lot of bread, and so I started there. The DIY-types in my circle are all about the no-knead bread, and it's not too hard to figure out that a simple loaf costs $1.33 to make. OK, that's half the cost of the store-brand whole wheat bread I buy; I can make it using locally-ground, if not necessarily grown, grain ( it out!), and as an added bonus, the homemade bread has four ingredients instead of 13, so bye-bye preservatives and mono- and diglycerides, whatever you are. The guys wolf down my first loaf; it is delicious, and so painlessly simple to make that I'm ashamed for not jumping on the no-knead bandwagon long ago. (I know it costs money to heat the oven, money I'm not accounting for in my homemade loaf cost, but let's just offset that against the subsidies that go into the store loaf and call it even).

Shaving half the price off already inexpensive items isn't going to get us through the month, though, and so I take a harder look at my first week's expenditures and, by extension, my own approach to and assumptions about our diet. I can see that one thing hurting us is fresh fruit, which the boys especially enjoy--I've spent 12 bucks on peaches alone. SOLE on a budget means sometimes having to pass up glorious in-season food at peak amazingness, alas, but fortunately our CSA shares begin to include early apples and raspberries, so I'm able to cut back buying on fruit. It also occurs to me that I am not making the most of our CSA bounty, serving the week's vegetables as side dishes or salads when they could instead star as already-paid-for main dishes.

This analysis of my expenditures finally helps me see that, though I'd been planning meals and shopping with lists, the dishes I wanted to cook often required buying ingredients I didn't have. Key to living both SOLE-fully and on a microbudget is to see what is in front of you--what you have on hand, what's on sale, what's in season in Maryland and abundant and selling for cheap--and turning ingredients into meals. I have had it backward, first picking a recipe, then shopping for the necessary stuff. Once again, an embarrassingly obvious tactic that took forever to sink in; in our culture, we are so used to having what we want, when we want it, all year round. In our lavishly stocked grocery stores desire rules the foods we choose, not the weather outside--when tomatoes are offered every month of the year, season becomes irrelevant. It was really hard to break out of this mindset, the hardest part being recognizing it was still operating in the first place, even when I had made conscious efforts to step outside the supermarket.

I found help from the author of The New York Times food column The Minimalist, Mark Bittman. His new-ish book Food Matters translates Michael Pollan's gnomic advice about simultaneously improving our diets and the environment ("Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.") into actual recipes. Bittman's more-vegetable-than-egg frittata plows through last week's leftover CSA chard, tomatoes, and zucchini, and uses only two eggs, so the whole meal-in-a-skillet costs 67 cents. SOLE rating: four stars. Compare that to the Alaskan salmon, couscous, and broccoli we had for dinner one night last week ($10.50, and only SO, no L, E who knows).

Guess I should have read those USDA thrifty-eating materials more closely before mocking them. I'm never going to heed the menu plan, but the most recent Nutrition Assistance Program guide does point out that farmers markets are the place to shop for inexpensive in-season vegetables and that, ahem, you ought to review what you've got on hand and figure out meals to make with those ingredients before going out and buying more. Actually, the advice in the guide is painfully simple: buy in bulk, buy in season, buy whole ingredients (regular rice, rolled oats) instead of premade foods (frozen rice, instant oatmeal). It's going to cost more to apply these rules when shopping at the farmers market or in the natural foods aisle, but the basic approach is sound.

Not even my mom wants a blow-by-blow of every meal we ate for the last three weeks of my tracking-every-penny project, but I can tell you that we made it--just barely, but still SOLEfully. Despite buying as carefully as I could, we went into the final week (which was actually nine days long, given the 30-day timeline) with my total budget at $28.42, or $3.15 per day for three hungry humans. I was going to have to purchase another $7 gallon of milk out of that, and despite my attempts to get by on a bare minimum of caffeine, coffee was running dangerously low.

On the plus side, we had two CSA pickups in that time frame, so veggies were taken care of, and the bulk buys I had made early on left us with a decent supply of dried legumes and whole grains like brown rice, couscous, and oats, plus plenty of flour. This week was going to be all about combining things, possibly in unexpected new ways.

They were also going to be largely vegetarian, but that didn't mean a spartan week of rice and beans. In order to keep things interesting, I delved into Asian and Indian cookbooks at the library, drawing on economical cuisines where meat is more of a flavoring than a filling. We dined on fried rice (very popular, and a great way to sneak vegetables into young children), curried eggplant (not so popular), and sopa verde (mixed reviews). The final week also contained a community picnic where we were supposed to bring a dish to feed a dozen, and I panicked--no way could I afford the ingredients for any of my pot luck standbys. After getting a grip, however, I took a look at our fridge contents, raided the garden, and made a giant batch of gazpacho as our contribution--a dish that took advantage of a late-summer overabundance of tomatoes and cucumbers, plus a few staples I had on hand. At the end of our 30 days there were still a few coins jingling in the food-money envelope.

Had my month's food budget been $428 credit on an Independence card instead of cash in an envelope, the scenario would have been admittedly different. There's no doubt that living on the federal SNAP benefits makes shopping SOLEfully harder: Although the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) supplementary nutrition program provides vouchers for use at farmers markets, food stamps do not currently offer that option--using food stamp funds to buy directly from farmers or join a CSA is out. Aside from using part of the allowance to buy seeds or plants for a home garden and growing vegetables, food stamp recipients are basically dependent on retail shopping.

My only moment of serious SOLE-searching doubt came on Day 26, when both the Joe's O's and coffee ran out. O's are their own food group in our house--breakfast standby, all-day snack, and nightly bedtime ritual--and I have long considered them an essential, but if I don't drink coffee I get a headache (yes, I'm a pathetic addict). With my remaining $5.65, I calculated I had enough to buy both O's and conventional coffee, or enough shade-grown beans to see me through.

No Joe's O's would mean a little-guy riot, and I had really wanted to shield them from any big changes due to our grocery cutbacks. But our planet's migratory songbirds are threatened due to habitat destruction caused by industrial-scale coffee farming, with its heavy pesticide use and clear-cutting of rainforests. I've read that each cup of conventional coffee equals the death of a songbird. I'd have a hard time getting the guys to understand this equation, but I decided to proxy-vote for them on behalf of the birdies: I bought the shade-grown, skipped the Joe's O's, put up with the inevitable protests and whining, and extolled the wonders of oatmeal with lots of honey to a skeptical pint-size audience. Everyone survived--especially, it's hoped, a few warblers.

Such a paltry little dilemma--how fortunate am I that the closest the wolf gets to our door is needing to choose between breakfast cereal and ecologically sound java? But it's moments of choice like this where we can each make our small ripple in the pond. Too often, we look at giant problems like loss of the rainforest, climate change, or the monolith of our industrial-food system, and feel like we can't do anything to change such dire and intractable things. But we can make a difference each and every time we buy our food, which we all must do one way or another. If you care at all that your food dollars are supporting morally or ethically objectionable practices--factory farms, environmental destruction--you can withhold your support from those purchases and vote with your food budget for a better alternative. Whether that is via food stamps or on a fat bankroll, the responsibility of choosing a better food system and a healthy ecosystem rests on us all.

With each food dollar spent, we are all casting an essential vote. You can't buy a senator, the way the agribusiness lobbyists can, but you can say yes to locally grown tomatoes.

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