Back to Business: QR Food Audit

[Here is the much awaited (by me at least) continuation of my Home Resource Use Audit for my lil’ Quiet Riot.]

As you’ve probably noticed, food is my thing. Partly because I think food is one of the areas of our lives where we have the greatest possibility for responsible action. Everyone eats, most of us eat a few times a day. Big things like your home’s electricity, water and heating fuel can seem impenetrable, but the changes that need to be made to our food system can be made in little chunks, millions of small decisions every day which add up.

Perhaps even more importantly, we stand to gain the most direct value from our efforts with food. Almost every more responsible food also offers dramatically better health for you and your family, not to mention just plain better eating. Though some of this is surely a personal bias– I love food. I love growing food, I love preserving food, I love cooking food, I love talking about food, I love looking at food, and I love eating food.

When it comes to making those every day changes, I think homemade food is the first step. Moving the preparation of your meals from factory to home kitchen is good for everyone involved. The next step is homegrown. Although lining your front steps with pots of lettuce has quickly become cliche in this new urban homesteading fad, I do think that growing your own is incredibly useful, even if the scale is tiny. As with anything else, doing it yourself is sobering. No amount of reading can teach you the truths about food production that one summer garden will teach you. Namely that it’s hard. When you consider the amount of work you put into each head of bug eaten lettuce, you will begin to understand the incredibility of the supermarket’s rows of perfect heads for $2 each. You will become more flexible to imperfection and more understanding of the high prices at the farmer’s market.

Most of us are not set up to grow a very significant portion of our food, and so sourcing ingredients is the next important step. I have been working on this for awhile, it’s a confusing topic. Local non-organic? Or organic from Whole Foods? What items are most eligible for the inevitable compromise of a low budget?

I did some research and detailed my own grocery decisions last year in this little series:

Responsible Consumerism: How to Make It Work

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Part 1

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Part 2

A Trip to the Grocery Store

Going back over those posts I saw that I was only spending about $400/month on groceries. My average now is $5-600. Part of that is that we had a freezer and pantry full of wild game and fish brought from Alaska, and now I am buying all our meat at the farmers market (can’t afford fish), but I don’t think I spend more than $80-100/month on meat, the rest I fear is due to the ever increasing list of what we consider “essentials.” Juice for example, I used to buy once in a while as a treat, now it’s a staple. During this Riot, I hope to pare that list back down.

At any rate, on to that audit, right? I had piles of grocery store receipts saved from three (non-consecutive) months and a pretty good estimate for what I spend at the farmer’s market (I always go thinking I’m going to spend just $30, and almost always spend close to $40). Putting a dollar value on our eggs was easy, but I really pulled the garden vegetable dollar amount straight out of my ass.

I counted everything from Whole Foods as “industry organic.” Although they actually sell quite a bit of non-organic stuff (watch those labels!) I am pretty specific about my purchases, why pay Whole Wallet prices for the same stuff I can get at the regular grocery store?

I didn’t add the restaurant expenses into the percentages, because much of what you pay for at a restaurant is service, which seems not applicable to this resource-use study. But leaving it out seems wrong too, especially since it’s most certainly industrial food. I think for the coming months, I will add it into the percentage calculation, but at one third the value. When you spend $15 on dinner, it’s probably not more than $5 worth of food, right?

So, as you can see, a little more than 60% of our diet is industrial organic from Whole Foods. All industry organic is not equal, by any means, and I have done some research. I buy almost exclusively Organic Valley dairy (dairy is a large portion of our grocery bill), based on this Cornucopia Institute report, I do believe Organic Valley has an honest organic standard, whereas I wouldn’t trust Horizon and the other biggies farther than I could throw them. OV’s milk says it’s from “Southwest Farms” which is at least moderately regional. I assume the rest of their dairy line, and everything else I buy from WF, has plenty of miles under it’s belt by the time I bring it home. As well as the copious packaging.

I often waffle back and forth between the local non-organic dairy from the farmers market, and the Organic Valley dairy. Because of having kids, I mostly settle on organic. Pesticides, and all toxins, accumulate in breast milk, and particularly concentrate in the fat. I believe butter is one of the most important things to buy organic. Especially when kids are involved.

However, there is a new vendor at our market, who is about to start selling (non-organic) milk in glass bottles, and I don’t think I can resist that. I hate those big plastic jugs piling up in my consciousness. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been buying plain old crap industry cheese and I intend to switch to farmer’s market cheese even though it’s (deep breath) $12/pound. And I don’t want to hear any more comments from any readers in Wisconsin who can get 5 kinds of local cheese for $6/lb. Go away from me with that information.

As far as the garden goes, the flush season is upon us here in southern Louisiana but I am sadly behind the curve. Remember my earnest decision to actually follow my garden plan this season? Well, given the events of September 2011 in our particular household, I missed the boat. Late September and early October is the time to be in the garden in our climate, and I was anywhere but. I killed a whole flat of starts, and was too late with planting the next. I will still have a fine garden this fall, I’ve got green beans, cucumbers, peppers and collards coming on now, and broccoli, cabbage and beets on the horizon. But I have missed my chance for peas, potatoes, brussell sprouts, onions, leeks and carrots. Thankfully, “spring” planting starts here in January (!!!), so I have one more chance at this New Orleans gardening business.

Thank goodness.

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.

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!