Sole Food

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

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 at the grocery store and instead buying directly from the farmers who actually produce the food, sometimes at farmers markets, sometimes at the farms themselves. Thus it is always local and usually also organic (in practice, if not formal certification) — and affordable. This kind of conscious buying has come to be known as SOLE food, for Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical.

Our current meat-centric diet — with its reliance on highly processed fats, refined grains and industrial inventions like high-fructose corn syrup — is 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 more of us every year.

Handing over our nation's nourishment to agribusiness companies that earn more from processing the food than 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 is why I pay $7 a gallon for organic, local 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 my great surprise, it turns out that holding these priorities makes me — according to sources as diverse as the conservative Hoover Institution, freebie magazine Blue Ridge Outdoors and my own mother — a member of the economic elite. Or, as Julie Gunlock wrote 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 scraped together $342.92 in cash and put it in an envelope. For 30 days, 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 community-supported agriculture (CSA) membership in an organic farm from the $426 maximum food-stamp allotment for a family of three. (My husband declined to participate; he is not as devoted as I am to the pursuit of overpriced organic hippie chow. To suit his preferences and save money, his food stash was 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.

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. And 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 virtually 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.

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 a supermarket for staples like coffee, cooking oil and so on that I can't otherwise source locally. I left feeling sort of depressed that much of what I had purchased — rice noodles, peanuts, store-brand bread — seemed to utterly lack SOLE. But 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.

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. So eating locally produced foods in season saves an awful lot of non-renewable energy in terms of processing, packaging and transportation. Midwest farmers offer wonderful meats and dairy year-round, and we can all re-learn to live on local fruits and vegetables in season the way everyone who lived here even 60 years ago had to.

In order to keep accounting simple, I deducted upfront 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 $3 on that entire day's comestibles. The first week's total was $177.59, a number which includes two Chik-fil-A kiddie meals. (They cost $6.38 and were utterly devoid of SOLE. It was just one of those days; anyone with 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.

Looking back over my first week of meals, I was surprised how much of our family's intake still consisted of what the Amish call "store foods" — pre-made items like bread and pasta. 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 pulled out a calculator and the six months worth of grocery records I'd 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'd 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'd use more fossil fuel cooking oatmeal than dumping cereal into a bowl, but how much fuel went into manufacturing, boxing and transporting those O's, and how to account for the cost of that? Holy crap, I thought, this is getting complicated.

SOLE food advocates don't talk much about how much sheer effort conscientious eating requires. Not only do you spend time researching local-food options and sources and shopping multiple suppliers, but you must spend a lot of hands-on time rendering those whole ingredients into actual meals. But cooking was to be my fate.

We eat a lot of bread, so I started there. The DIY-types in my circle are all about the no-knead bread. A simple loaf costs $1.33 to make, half the cost of the store-brand whole-wheat bread. 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 wolfed down my first loaf; it was 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, 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 wasn't going to get us through the month, though, so I took a harder look at my first week's expenditures and, by extension, my own approach to and assumptions about our diet. I saw that one thing hurting us was fresh fruit, which the boys especially enjoy — I'd 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 began to include early apples and raspberries, so I was able to cut back on fruit buying. It also occurred to me that I was 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 helped 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 you have on hand, what's on sale, what's in season and abundant and selling for cheap, and turning ingredients into meals. I 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 lavishly stocked grocery stores, desire rules the foods we choose, not the weather outside; season becomes irrelevant. It was really hard to break out of this mindset. The hardest part was recognizing it was operating in the first place, even when I 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 plowed through a week's leftover CSA chard, tomatoes and zucchini, and used only two eggs, so the whole meal-in-a-skillet cost 67 cents. SOLE rating: four stars. Compare that to the Alaskan salmon, couscous and broccoli we had for dinner another night ($10.50, and only SO, no L, E who knows).

Not even my mom wants a blow-by-blow of every meal we ate for the past 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 potluck standbys. After getting a grip, however, I took a look at our fridge contents, raided the garden and made a giant batch of gazpacho, 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. 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 a 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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