Special Reprint: Willy Street Co-op
Would you just like to spend less on food and bank the savings for your old age? You can do this and still eat well and organically with just a little effort.
If you watch television advertising or read popular magazines, you might think that the only way to eat well without spending a fortune is to pick up all the name brand products you can find, but if you shop this way the only wallets you will fatten are those of big business. At the same time you will probably be consuming far too much sodium, sugar and fat for good health.
Artificially low prices
Why do prices for conventional grocery items often seem so much lower than prices for the same foods produced in a sustainable way? The biggest food corporations are heavily subsidized by the government—we supply those funds with our tax dollars. Corporations often choose to focus solely on increasing profits for their shareholders, rather than increasing wages for workers or paying to repair environmental damage they have created. Conventional agriculture relies heavily on chemical pesticides and fertilizers to increase yields cheaply, but does not count the cost to the environment. And big agribusiness lacks competition—only ten companies produce over half the products found in a conventional supermarket! Industrial-style food production does not return a fair price to farmers either—the wheat that goes into a loaf of conventional, big-name bread earns the farmer only about six cents. On average, well over 70 percent of the cost of most food is added after the item leaves the farm. There are many other hidden factors in the cost of food, but as you can see, brand-name supermarket prices are artificially low.
A wise investment
When you choose to buy foods that are sustainably produced, especially those that are local, you are often supporting small, family farms. Those growers receive a much larger share of the selling price than someone contracted to a corporation does. They usually invest more in labor, less in technology; more in land stewardship and less in chemicals; and they invest in the local economy with their own purchases—big corporations usually take their money away with them to corporate headquarters.
But you need to invest in your own bottom line, right?
Whether you are cooking for a family or just for yourself, we can help you get the most for your money. Fifteen dollars won’t get you caviar and foie gras for four, or even McDonald’s for the whole family, but it can get you some pretty good dinners.
Research from the University of Washington shows that the overall cost of food consumed at home has not really changed since 1980, but during that time, the cost of soft drinks has dropped 30 percent and other sweets 20 percent, and the prices for fresh fruits and vegetables have increased up to 50 percent. This is mainly due to huge subsidies to corn growers and the proliferation of the use of high-fructose corn syrup. What it means to your bottom line is that processed ‘treats’ might be eating up your food budget. The USDA’s market basket figures for December 2005 indicate a national average cost of $190 weekly to feed a family of four using their “moderate-cost” food plan. That works out to $27.14 daily, which seems generous if you are cooking mainly “from scratch” at home and easily allows you to prepare an organic dinner for four for under $15.
Tips for keeping your budget under control
• Plan your meals before you shop. Keep an eye on monthly and bi-weekly specials and incorporate sale items into your menus.
• Make a list and stick to it. This helps you avoid blowing the weekly budget. You might decide to allow yourself just one treat—or let your children choose one special thing each week. Many families find it fun to select a fruit or vegetable item that they have never tried before—this can be exciting for the young ones and you can sneak in a nutritional bonus at the same time.
• Don’t shop when you are hungry!
• Keep it simple. Using fewer ingredients means lower costs and allows the taste of the food to shine through, rather than the taste of condiments.
• Make it yourself. Homemade virtually always costs less and tastes better. Homemade pasta sauce, for example, is about half the cost of commercially prepared sauce.
• Shop the bulk aisle for pantry staples. You can buy exactly the quantity you need and save the cost of the packaging. Stock turns over quickly in the bulk aisle, assuring you a fresh product.
• Use the perishables you buy. That really good deal on cabbage isn’t so good if you end up composting it.
• If you eat meat, consider using it only a few times each week. This will save you a considerable amount of money and has the added benefit of slashing your saturated fat intake.
• Use meat as a smaller fraction of your meal. Rather than serving a quarter-pound per person, add one half-pound of ground beef to a pot of chili or pasta sauce for four people. In recommended dietary styles, such as the Asian or Mediterranean diets, meat is used infrequently and more as a flavoring agent or condiment rather than the main item on the plate.
• Use your leftovers. Many things actually taste better after a day in the refrigerator allows the flavors to blend and mellow. Leftovers are an instant free lunch, or can be refrigerated or frozen for a later dinner.
• Give some thought to how you cook and how you want to eat. Are there some specific tools or appliances that would help you achieve your dietary goals? A food processor makes vegetable prep easier for some people, while others prefer a good knife. A slow cooker can be simmering dinner while you are at work or maybe a pressure cooker would be a good investment—I use mine to cook up a few pounds of dry organic beans in about 15 minutes and then I freeze them in pints until I need them, rather than buying canned beans. The process saves me some money and I think home-cooked beans have a better flavor. A pressure cooker steams beets in 12 minutes, makes beautiful applesauce in only three minutes, and lentil soup in about ten minutes and the new styles on the market are safe and easy to use.
• If you are concerned about the amount of money you spend on convenience items, such as frozen veggie burgers, it may be time to make your own. Experiment with a few recipes, or create your own. The finished patties can be frozen on a baking sheet, then stored in an airtight freezer bag and pulled out individually to heat when needed.
• Local, seasonal produce is usually a better value than imported, so plan your menus accordingly. The side benefit is that really fresh, seasonal produce tastes much better and retains more nutrients.
• Ethnic specialties featuring whole grains, beans and vegetables are often less expensive to prepare than meat-and-potatoes fare.
Eating organic on a dime
Lisa Kivirist and her husband John Ivanko own the environmentally sustainable Inn Serendipity near Monroe, WI. (www.innserendipity.com). They are also the authors of Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life (www.ruralrenaissance.org), which is a treasure trove of information on living, eating and working sustainably and without the need for a big paycheck. Both websites will give you many great ideas for maximizing your own budget without compromising your principles. In a recent class at the Willy Street Co-op, Lisa shared many of her favorite ways to eat organic on a dime. She suggests that one way to stay on budget is, “Identifying your priorities and interests, and basing your food budgets and time around those. If you’re coming home from work and need quick supper options, by all means double-batch cook and freeze. Stock up on the items you use the most —a simple concept but one I always need to remind myself. We try to eat through our pantry every winter, using up all those things we saved up—and saving money and eating creatively in the process.”
Lisa and John are also avid gardeners. Much of their food and that for the Inn is homegrown. They strongly recommend freezing local produce in season and then enjoying that bounty all winter. One of their favorite recipes to prepare in quantity for the freezer is beet burgers—check out the recipe below.
Costing sample menus
The five sample menus shown here were priced out at Tidal Creek Co-op. Pricing for common spices and condiments is not included—we’ll assume you keep the basics in your pantry. Some convenience foods are included and you will see that those items are more expensive than simple whole-foods meals. Making these foods from scratch will save money. Some items, such as pasta, may also cost less if you are careful to buy everything in its bulk version, rather than in packaged portions. If you choose to add dessert items or other prepared foods, the cost will also be higher. These menus are all designed to serve a family of four and all include main dishes that reheat well as leftovers. Bon Appetit!
Spicy Soba Noodles
• Soba noodles, Eden, 1 pkg., $2.79
• Peanut butter, bulk, 1/4 cup, 37¢
• Tamari, bulk, 1/4 cup, 41¢
• Molasses, bulk, 3 Tbs., 51¢
• Toasted sesame oil, Eden, 1/4 cup, 92¢
• Garlic, 2 cloves minced, 15¢
• Ginger, 1 Tbs. fresh minced, 18¢
• Crushed red pepper, 1/2 tsp., 21¢
• Green onions, sliced 1/2 bunch, 50¢
• Kale, 1 bunch fresh, $1.99
• Garlic, 2 cloves minced, 15¢
• Toasted sesame oil, Eden, 2 tsp., 15¢
• Mandarin oranges, 4 fresh, $3.69
TOTAL FOR MEAL #1: $12.02
Spicy Dal and Rice
• Red lentils, 1/2 lb., 89¢
• Ginger, 1 Tbs. fresh minced, 18¢
• Garlic, 1 Tbs. minced, 30¢
• Crushed red pepper flakes, 1 tsp., 21¢
• Lemon curry powder, 1 Tbs., 42¢
• Green onions, 1/2 bunch sliced, 50¢
• Tomato, 1 fresh peeled and chopped, $1.65
• Baby spinach, Newman’s Own, 1/2 pkg.,$3.69
• Basmati rice, bulk, 1/2 lb., $1.29
• Carrots, Tipi, 3 raw cut in sticks, 50¢
• Kiwi, 3/4 lb. fresh, $3.56
• Mango sorbet, Natural Choice, 1 pint, $4.39
TOTAL FOR MEAL #2: $17.58
• Whole wheat spaghetti, Bionature, 1 pkg., $2.79
• Pasta sauce, Muir Glen, 1 jar, $3.99
• Parmesan cheese, Bel Gioioso*, 1 oz., 82¢
• Meatless meatballs, Nate’s, 1/2 pkg., $2.49
• French bread, Kamm’s Farm, 1/2 loaf, 95¢
• Carrots, Tipi 3 raw, 50¢
• Broccoli, roasted, 3 cups, $5.24
TOTAL FOR MEAL #5 $16.78
Brats and Beans
• Chicken/Apple Brats, Applegate Farms, 1 pkg., $6.69
• Wheat buns, Rudi’s, 4 buns, $1.99
• Frozen french fries, Cascadian Farm, 1 pkg., $2.79
• Baked beans, Walnut Acres, 1 can, $2.29
• Gingersnaps, Mi-del, 16 cookies, $1.49
• Canned pineapple, Native Forest, 1 can, $2.99
TOTAL FOR MEAL # 4: $18.24