No-Frills Five, Gone Seven

I didn’t post about it, but yes, I did do my No-Frills Five in February. And the end of March is approaching, so it’s time again. This month, Consumption Rebellion is kicking my ass from five to seven. Which necessarily will include a weekend. This will make it much more challenging for me, which is good, right? That’s the point.

Including a weekend means, for one, I have to tell My Man about it. Yes, I did the last two fivers without even telling him. He’s in class all week, so it was easy to keep my little limitations to myself. I still won’t ask him to join me, I believe to each their own. But I can’t be letting him pay for dinner, and call that a challenge. So, no family spending anyway. And weekends are of course when we usually do something fun like go out to dinner or ice cream. Mostly I don’t want to deprive myself of this weekly indulgence. For lots of reasons I feel it’s justified at this point in my life. But, just once, wouldn’t it be good to take a picnic to the park instead?

This month I will be going a step farther in the No-Frills spirit. No consumption of homemade frills either. That means I can’t make my own brownies instead of going to the bakery for a treat. No treat. Get it? I will also nix my afternoon cuppa, and you know how I feel about that. Not the morning cuppa though. That one’s till death do us part.

And I’ve got my caveats, but I’m not gonna list every damn one. I’ll break my vows if I feel I need to. It’s my own damn challenge to my own damn self, thank you very much.

If anyone cares to join me in any way, whatever you can muster, make up your own soft-core challenge. Write your own rules. Decide to give up just one thing. Be small and proud.

A Trip to the Grocery Store

On my way home from a big stock up trip to the store yesterday, new double stroller loaded down with fifty pounds of groceries, I had the idea that it’d be fun to give y’all a Peeping Tom view of my actual real life consumer habits and compromises.

This is the bottom cargo area of our new stroller. Purty roomy, eh? I also had a big bag slung over the handlebar.

Even though I was already half an hour late with dinner, I spread my plunder out on the table for y’all to peep. Keep in mind this was a Whole Foods trip. I do also shop at the Winn-Dixie occassionally for onions, yeast, and a few other things which just aren’t worth getting at WF. Also important to note is the fact that we are meat eaters, but notice no meat in the pile? That’s because we brought all our own fish and wild game with us from Alaska. Not that that’s the ecologically sound thing to do, better would be to source local good meat and fish. But, that’s what we did. And I don’t regret it. Anyway, it means that our grocery bill is significantly lower than if we had to buy responsible meat.

This represents $121 worth of food. I’ve been spending about $400/month on groceries, to give you an idea. We do eat out about once a week, plus a stop or two at the bakery. About $200 for those luxuries. Makes a total of $600/month for food. Not too bad really, for a family of three (or four if you count my nursing appetite!) eating mostly organic, free range and fair trade. But you’ll notice almost no pre-prepared foods in my grocery haul. That’s an essential factor. To answer the original question (although we do buy ice cream frequently here because the little fridge freezer doesn’t get cold enough to use the ice cream maker), we can afford to eat organic because instead of buying the organic pre-prepared thing, I buy the raw ingredients and make it at home.

So here it is, a typical trip to the store:

From the back left corner we have,

  • milk Organic Valley. I had been buying the local dairy milk, but although it’s surely better than regular commercial milk, it’s not any little family farm, it’s a big company, not organic and though they say they pasture their cows “when the weather is appropriate,” who’s to know? I’m torn on this one. A toss up. The Organic Valley milk does say it’s from “Southwest Pastures.”
  • whole wheat pastry flour organic because that’s my only choice. It is pretty expensive compared to the other wheat flour, but if you’ve ever used pastry flour, you know you can’t go back.
  • plain whole wheat flour non-organic. $3.50 if I remember right. That’s one of my compromises. I did try the King Arthur wheat flour, and it made a better bread, but I’m going to try just adding a bit more gluten and see if it makes this cheaper flour as good.
  • sugar ouy vey! I have gone back and forth and back and forth (literally) between the “dried” cane sugar in the bulk bins which is not fair-trade or even organic but a much more whole, healthy food than this cheaper but fair trade but bleached white sugar. What’s a girl to do?! They do have a fair trade “dried” sugar, but it’s in a teeny little bag and four times as expensive! I think I might continue to put the healthy stuff in the granola because it’s the Toddler who mostly eats that. Then use the responsible, nutritional disaster sugar for the desserts that mostly us big already fucked bodies consume…
  • just to the right and in front of that sugar is a big jar of molasses (FT and OG) which I am thinking I can add back into the white sugar in hopes of recovering a trace of nutrition.
  • coffee we’ve been getting the bulk Whole Foods brand of coffee. Fair trade of course. It’s $10/lb, which is quite a lot compared to the big Costco bags we used to get, also fair trade. But doubtlessly more responsible, right? Maybe? Oooo, they just started having “coffee cards” and when you buy five pounds of bulk, you get a pound free! That there is my fifth pound! Woo hoo! Next one’s on them! Hey, $10 is $10.
  • honey non-OG, but…. this is as far as I know, a great place to compromise.
  • maple syrup. From their bulk barrel. Always expensive, but so, so good. And good for you!
  • a can of enchilada sauce. There were two, but one went straight into dinner. We have a lot of home canned meat. A great quick meal for us is canned meat mixed with enchilada sauce and layered between corn tortillas. Takes about ten minutes to throw together, then while it bakes I make up a Mexican slaw with cabbage, onion, grated carrot and cilantro if I happen to have some. Dress with lemon or lime, white balsamic vinegar, olive oil and salt. Oh, so yummy!
  • that big mysterious bag dead center is cornmeal, organic. When I can remember I bring my own bags for bulk stuff. This bulk cornmeal was way cheaper than the prepackaged stuff, but make sure to check prices ‘cuz this is definitely not always the case. I’ve got to write this out for myself, because I always end up traipsing back and forth from the bulk bins to the baking products side, comparing prices.
  • salsa. Not organic. Not much to say about that.
  • cheese. Not organic. I mentioned my cheese conundrum earlier.
  • butter, yes, organic. And I even resisted the Horizon brand which was on sale for $4 (this OG Valley was $6) because of the previously mentioned Cornucopia Dairy Review.
  • Bengal Spice tea. The Toddler’s latest thing is tea parties. I let her pick her own box, and not surprisingly she chose the Tiger Tea.
  • spring mix. Organic. Spring mix is one of my fairly frequent treats to myself. I’d just as soon not eat a regular lettuce salad, even if it’s decent leaf lettuce. There needs to be some flavor to those leaves! Fortunately, WF sells it bulk, by the pound. Unfortunately, this probably means they throw a shit ton away.
  • golden beets, apples and oranges. When I go grocery shopping, I usually have “vegetables and fruit” on my list. Doesn’t matter so much what kind, I like almost all of ’em. I look to see what’s on sale. If it’s cheap it’s probably in season, or they ordered too much and are trying to get rid of it so they have to throw less away. Either way, I’ll take it. When you compare prices, consider how much of the thing is actually edible. For example, these beets are almost entirely edible, whereas asparagus you throw about 1/3 the weight (therefore cost) into your compost bin. The apples are one thing I buy almost exclusively organic. The oranges were non, but they are lower on the list, plus you peel them. They were also on sale, for $1/lb…

(If you’re wondering why the proportion of veggies in my pile of food is small, it’s partly because we get veggies at the farmer’s market often, and also because I use a lot of frozen veggies. Frozen veggies are ever so gauche, but in my renegade way, I like to champion their cause. Consider this:

  1. For your health, the veggies are frozen relatively quickly after picking, unlike the “fresh” veggies which could have suffered weeks or even months of sitting around. Vegetables aspirate (breathe) and lose nutrients the longer they sit. Of course, something is lost with the freezing too, but it probably about equals out.
  2. For your pocketbook, they are usually about between $1 and $3/lb, depending if they’re organic or non. This sounds like fresh veggie prices, but since there is no waste, they are actually cheaper. Some things like spinach are lots cheaper.
  3. For your time, there is nothing quicker and easier than dumping a bag of frozen veggies into the pan. And when you’re a mama, there happens a lot of Moments where it’s all you can do to get food on the table, and if the vegetable kingdom is present, in any form, you get a gold star.)

Now, back to the conversation at hand.

  • just to the left of the apples is a bag of hard red wheat berries. I adore that Ezekiel sprouted grain bread, even though it’s always stale and dry from the store. I’ve long envisioned what a fresh loaf would taste like. A few months ago I made my first attempt (failed at 100% sprouted, but made some great, nubby 10%) and then life got a little crazy, and I had to table to idea. Well, I’m ready to try again, and I will keep you updated.
  • to the right we have a very long story, that I just don’t have time for right now. Whole wheat pasta. Suffice to say, if you hate the stuff like I did, don’t give up! Keep trying different brands. It apparently does not have to be mushy, pasty and otherwise disgusting!
  • Lastly we have eggs. I try to get farmers market eggs whenever I can, though they’ve often sold out by the time I get there. With eggs there’s less to guess at. Just taste ’em. If the yolks are pale and the flavor mild, they’re penned up. If the yolk are deep yellow and the flavor good, they’re decently kept. If the yolks are orange, and the flavor so rich it’s almost meaty, you’ve got some happy hens. The “free-range” certification by the way does get them out of cages they can’t even turn around in, but it doesn’t exactly give them free range by any normal person’s standards. But, if all you’ve got for eggs is the store, it’s the best you can do.

Okay! Holy Crapporama! This post took me three days to finish. I’m ready to move on.

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Part 1

So now that we’ve determined that shopping at Whole Foods and washing your dog with organic rosemary ginger shampoo doesn’t mean you can check “Being Green” off your list, where does that leave us?

Oh yeah, at the time-consuming conclusion that we need to actually think about what we buy.

Reduce our needs and wants. Make what we can at home. And for the rest, do our best to educate ourselves about the industries we’re supporting with those hard-earned greenbacks.

I think I’d better start by saying a few things about myself. I have been, in my past, super hard-core about not buying bad stuff. Also spent a fair number of days in my youth slain by overwhelming compassion/depression for the world in it’s all its FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition) glory. For better or for worse, the intensity has subsided. I do my best, but I’m a long shot from any ideal.

This post is not intended to inspire guilt, to make you feel lesser, or allow you to feel better, than anyone else. We’re all working with what we’ve got.

Fair-Trade? Who Cares

I think it’s interesting that the organic movement has taken off like a rocket, and even animal rights issues are pretty popular. But human rights? No one wants to talk about it. I mean really, it’s weird. Save the rainforest, but screw you buddy.

How many times have you heard about global warming, just in the last two weeks? And how many times have you heard about chocolate and child slavery? Ever? The US in particular does not want to talk about slavery except as something that we, oh great nation that we are, abolished long ago. Caring people in other countries seem to open their mouths occasionally, but not us.

If you’ve never heard the words chocolate and slavery go together, I hate to be the harbinger of bad news, but, here it is. The cacao industry is tops on the list of human rights violations, and no, “slavery” is not an misnomer. There’s a good introduction to the issue at Chocolate Work, and a more detailed and thorough overview at Stop Chocolate Slavery.

So, topping my personal list of Responsible Consumer Priorities is fair-trade chocolate. I have no doubt that fair trade isn’t as fair as one might hope, but it’s a long shot better than slavery!

For more information on the fair-trade principles, check out Global Exchange.

Also important to buy fair trade are coffee, sugar and tea. I’m not sure why it’s these addictive luxuries that inspire some of the most egregious human rights violations. Perhaps because they’re such big industries, worth so much money.

A note on fair-trade versus organic. My husband and I traveled in Nicaragua a few years ago (okay, several) and spent a little time in a fair-trade coffee growing area. It helped me to understand why I would often find one or the other, but not both certifications on the same coffee. The producers, at least in that region, were very small, family farms. The families were dirt poor, to be sure. Absolute poverty by American standards, but doing pretty good by Nicaraguan standards. They appeared to own their own land, which is huge. Anyway, being so small it’s easy to see how they cannot afford to do something like certify organic. And though they very well might use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, I can say that the farms I saw had very natural, diverse plantings (as opposed to giant mono-cropping) which would minimize the need for expensive chemicals.

Free Range, Cage Free and Organic Dairy

Animal products are next on my own list. This one has multiple persuasive arguments. For one, there is the animals themselves, subjected to the very worst slavery imaginable. I doubt I need to explain much about this to anyone reading this blog. But if anyone needs convincing a quick search on “factory farms” ought to do the trick. Many people become vegetarians, but continue to eat dairy. Although I can understand making priorities (obviously), to me dairying is every bit as cruel, and involves plenty of outright death as well.

If the animals’ rights are not enough to sway you, consider that consuming hormones and antibiotics on a daily basis is like signing yourself up for one giant science experiment. Maybe it will turn out to be no big deal….? Fats are big carriers and concentrators of chemicals, so to me this means that butter tops my dairy list.

I am not qualified to say much of anything on the commercially available humane meat subject. Until last August, I’d always lived in Alaska, and limited myself to wild meat and fish. When we moved here I came bearing two gigantic, fifty pound coolers full of salmon and moose. Not to mention 9 cases of home canned same. I was not about to be without my good proteins! Especially since I was about to give birth and knew as a nursing mama I’d want to eat lots of meat, and that my little growing daughter can hardly get enough fish.

But I am fairly sure that seeking out a local farm would be far, far superior to anything you could buy at the store, no matter the certification. This would doubtlessly take some research, but that’s the whole point.

I do have to interject a little tirade here. Whole Foods, full of lots of organic everything, and boasting a big, aesthetically pleasing meat counter that makes you want to lay all hesitations aside and trust that they’ve figured it out for you, has almost no organic meat, let alone free-range or grass-fed. The first time I went over to peruse their selection, I was shocked. I kept going back and forth, every item had a nice big sign telling you all about how natural it was, no hormones, no antibiotics, no additives, blah, blah, blah. And I have no doubt that most people who buy meat there assume it is organic and free range. Both my mom when she was visiting and, last night, my husband have said “Isn’t everything they sell organic?” No! Oh, that really pisses me off. Only about half of their products are organic, but I’m sure many of their customers allow themselves to be misled.

Anyway, the gist of that is, don’t trust big business! They’re going to try to pull the wool over your eyes every chance they get.

However! Dairy is one thing I have looked into, because I use a lot of half and half for my coffee, butter for my baked goods, and milk for my daughter. I had assumed, based on my big business distrust, that all those regular names at the store were about equal. But since Organic Valley was a bit more expensive than Horizon or the O Organics brands, I thought maybe I’d better look into it. I found this great rundown of dairy companies by organic watchdog Cornucopia. I was pleased to find that although the latter two brands did in fact get the very low ratings I was expecting, Organic Valley got a four (out of five). “Excellent.”

Yesterday when I looked up this list again (the first time was in Cordova) I was pretty interested to find that the Whole Foods brand ‘365’ also got a four. Hmmm, maybe they’re not as bad as I’d thought. Or they just have to worry more than say, Safeway, about their customer base looking into things.

Though I went for years without it, I’ve lately become more and more dependent on cheese in my life. In Cordova I ordered a lot of staples through a bulk foods company (more on that later) and would often order 10 pounds of cheese at a time, and freeze it in 1 lb blocks. That worked great, and the price was pretty good. Otherwise, for some reason, organic cheese at the store is super expensive, and I am ashamed to admit, it’s one of the things we’ve been buying non-organic since the move. I do have my MIL send a block of Tillamook whenever she sends a package. I’ve heard very good things about Tillamook, from people who’ve lived in the area, and been to the factory. It is farmer owned, for whatever that’s worth. Not organic, and probably not free-range (I’ve never seen free-range cheese, or dairy at all), but possibly an improvement on standard commercial factory farm dairy…? It doesn’t take much!

By the way, the “Organic” certification does include a minimum of animal care requirements. Nothing to write home about, I still choose free-range over organic if I have to choose, but it’s something.

Now, how’s about vegetables?

Coming Soon!

Responsible Consumerism: How to Make it Work

Yesterday, I got my new favorite book in the mail. I ripped open the envelope and proceeded to ignore every one of my beautiful family members while I devoured the first few pages.

Radical Homemakers promises to be everything I could have hoped for. I can’t believe I almost let this link founder in my inbox until complete oblivion. How close I came to missing out on someone championing my cause, with far more eloquence and research than I could ever muster!

It’s got me thinking a mile a minute. It is a bit hard to slow down enough to tackle one of the many post issues on my list. Doesn’t anyone want to come over and do my Radical job for me, so I can just sit around and theorize about it?

When my sister was visiting for Mardi Gras, we were sneaking dessert one night after the kiddos went to bed, and she asked, out of genuine curiosity, “How can you afford to eat organic ice cream?”

This is an interesting way to begin this conversation because, for one, we don’t usually buy organic ice cream. And for two, not buying organic ice cream would be one of the ways we can afford to eat organic. Capice?

It got me motivated to write a post I’ve had in my brain for over a year. I think this is an issue a lot of people new to the green homemaking arts wonder about. Organic, fair-trade and sustainable products are more expensive. How can a family expect to have a lower than average (ie: single) income and buy higher than average priced products.

The answer is many fold. But the over-arching answer is– prioritize.

The organic thing has really gone crazy. I mean, I knew this before, but living 4 blocks from a Whole Foods, here in New Orleans, has really pushed the point home to me. There is organic everything. Marketed towards yuppies who, if you haven’t noticed before, actually prefer to pay a higher price for something in general, and especially if they can use the thing to assuage their inherent guilt. Which I feel is a real danger of the organic movement. Buying organic shampoo does not mean you are saving the Earth. Replacing all the same average American products with their organic counterparts would take a huge income. Every dollar spent is another log on the fire of The System. Pretty much.

The advertising world is, I believe, the real and true source of absolute power in our world today, and they scare the living shit out of me to be honest. When I walk into Whole Foods, I feel snared. I can’t help but like the look, the set-up, the labels. Everything is geared toward people like us (sort of like us) and I hate, hate that it works on me. But work it does.

The desire to change the world is a fad, to be sure. But it’s also just a basic human desire. To do good. To leave a good place for your kiddos. “They” know that. “They” know how to use that. The green shift has provided just another, tremendously effective, advertising ploy.

People have been taught to chant “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” but it carries no meaning. The first, and most important of the three has been completely disregarded. The second can be used to sell stuff, so it has maintained marginal import. The third is the only one that has really caught on, because it fits perfectly fine into our consumer world. In fact, the more you consume, the more you get to feel good about recycling, right? Bonus!

I think that we could make a new little mantra, for those of us trying to live as responsibly as we can on meager budgets. Reduce, make your own, prioritize.

Reduce what you need (and want!) as much as you can. This is still and always the most important thing, and the still and always the hardest to do. We are so enmeshed in the ‘want more, you deserve it’ advertising we grew up with, it is truly challenging to limit ourselves. I limit myself far more than your average American, but still not hardly enough. It’s especially difficult to keep challenging yourself once you’ve already gotten the basics down. When you look around and see how much less you need than everyone around you, it’s easy to get complacent. But we have to keep chanting to ourselves, “Less, less, less.”

Make your own is the fun part. It’s where you get to learn new skills, be creative, enjoy the fruits of your labors. There’s loads of make-your-own-every-kind-of-thing blogs out there. It’s also relatively easy. The skills are straightforward, and can be researched. But remember that this has to come after reducing. Make your own ice cream, after you have tried as hard as you can to want less ice cream. I’m really good at the make your own part, but learning to make less of my own, or just generally lower my living standards, is a never-ending challenge. Especially in the food department. It’s cool to make your own ice cream, but the fair-trade sugar you use still comes from a third world country where everybody’s more or less fucked. Even if they’re less fucked, it still gets transported thousands of miles via cheap, Earth degrading fossil fuel extraction. It is simply not sustainable for people in northern climes to eat sugar. Even in the places the sugar comes from, it would traditionally be an occasional treat because of how time intensive it’s production is.

Lastly, even after you’ve reduced as much as you can and made your own of what’s left, you’re likely to have a grocery list. And this is where prioritize comes in. Unless you are super kick-ass, and don’t buy anything, like Riana and her family, you’ll need to sort yourself out as a responsible consumer. If you’ve really gotten your list of needs down, you might be able to afford to buy everything from the highest quality producers. But likely, you’ll have to make some compromises. I have done a little research about this, and thought I ought to share my opinion on the wheres and whens.

But for now, I’ve tangentially written myself right out of time. And I need to go be the real life mama housewife I love to preach about.

Next on Apron Strings:

Setting Your Consumer Priorities!

Inaugural No-Frills Wrap Up

Thanks for all those great comments, it’s good to feel like you’ve got company when the going gets crazy. Oh how our ‘close the door, mama’s screaming’ society does us a disservice! If only we really knew how mundanely normal our angst was!

Alrighty. Back to our regularly scheduled program. Or something like it.

You may remember my No-Frills Five wimpy ass challenge ended Friday. And how was it, you might inquire? Well, interesting… Being so wimpy, it was pretty darn easy. Only really noticed it a few times. But the times I did were illuminating. There were three separate times I would otherwise have considered walking to our adorable local bakery for treats. Each time, there was something going haywire and I was thinking to “fix” it by buying treats. Hmmm. One of those times there was supposed to be a parade a few blocks over (we live in New Orleans, remember? Parades are very big here), I got the kiddos all dressed up and ready to go (and you know what that entails) and we walked over and hung around for 15 minutes before we finally found out it had been cancelled because of weather. Here is where I totally would have taken my sweet little girl, all dressed in her cherry red rain slicker and paper crown and ready for a parade, out for a cupcake. That option not available, I finally coerced her into going home and we made our own damn parade in the living room with all her stuffed animals and dolls and toy instruments.

So, although it wasn’t a very difficult challenge, I’d say it was worthwhile. And I suspect that, like carrying a 5 gallon bucket of water some distance, it might get heavier the farther I go. In other words, the regularity of it (once/month) might make it even more worthwhile over time. 5 days out of 30 is one sixth of my days, and that could add up to being significant.

Here is where I started to move on to the related topic of computer rules, but I’ve decided to save it for another post, because, hark, I hear my beloved Toddler waking up!

Root of All Evil, November

Yes, I have continued with the receipt saving from last month. The grocery total is pretty similar, but the “Stuff” category is a whopper, and then, of course, our little Beach Vacation really burned up some cash, almost 100 buckaroos per day. Yikes! Although, when you count last months bike splurge, the out-of-pocket totals are shockingly similar, only $24 off.

Please refer to last month’s inaugural Budgeting post for an explanation of the Hubby Factor, ie: why the below totals do not reflect our true family totals.

November Out of Pocket

  • groceries– $382
  • eating out + food treats– $177
  • gas (not counting road trip)– $30
  • entertainment– $19
  • road trip– $366
  • stuff– $385

Total Out of Pocket– $1,359

**stuff includes

  • $50 toilet sprayer for washing diapers
  • $55 cloth diapers for toddler
  • $28 canning jars
  • $110 thrift store cold weather clothes + household
  • $31 stereo so I can have music while I wash dishes!
  • $25 camera batteries
  • the remaining $86 is just misc small stuff– tools, diapers (we use disposables at night) and household stuff


  • rent $1175
  • phones $110
  • internet $48
  • water/trash $44
  • recycling $15
  • gas/electric $92

Total bills– $1,484