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.

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Part 2

When To Buy Organic

Of course, it would be great if everything we bought was organic. But if you’re short on cash, and aren’t we all, there is a significant difference between crops. This chart is awesome for sussing out you fresh fruits and veggies. I first discovered this two years ago, and was especially interested in the apples being second. Yikes! They seem so innocuous. Potatoes are at about the midway mark, so I make an effort to get them organic. I was surprised to see broccoli and cabbage so low on the list, because they’re prone to a lot of disease and things in the home garden, so I expected they’d be high. And it’s a relief not to worry about onions, we go through tons of ’em! I had remembered carrots being low though, and they’re not. I had been buying those at the Winn-Dixie, and I guess I’d better knock it off.

RANK FRUIT OR VEGGIE SCORE
1 (worst) Peach 100 (highest pesticide load)
2 Apple 93
3 Sweet Bell Pepper 83
4 Celery 82
5 Nectarine 81
6 Strawberries 80
7 Cherries 73
8 Kale 69
9 Lettuce 67
10 Grapes – Imported 66
11 Carrot 63
12 Pear 63
13 Collard Greens 60
14 Spinach 58
15 Potato 56
16 Green Beans 53
17 Summer Squash 53
18 Pepper 51
19 Cucumber 50
20 Raspberries 46
21 Grapes – Domestic 44
22 Plum 44
23 Orange 44
24 Cauliflower 39
25 Tangerine 37
26 Mushrooms 36
27 Banana 34
28 Winter Squash 34
29 Cantaloupe 33
30 Cranberries 33
31 Honeydew Melon 30
32 Grapefruit 29
33 Sweet Potato 29
34 Tomato 29
35 Broccoli 28
36 Watermelon 26
37 Papaya 20
38 Eggplant 20
39 Cabbage 17
40 Kiwi 13
41 Sweet Peas – Frozen 10
42 Asparagus 10
43 Mango 9
44 Pineapple 7
45 Sweet Corn – Frozen 2
46 Avocado 1
47 (best) Onion 1 (lowest pesticide load)

What I haven’t been able to find out about is dry goods. Wheat flour, rice, oatmeal, beans. I’d really like to know, so if anyone out there has any info on the respective “bad-ness” of said crops, please let me know. I’ve been buying non-organic wheat flour lately, because I don’t have a bulk source available, and 5 lb bags are so expensive!

If you eat much soy, check out this Soy Report from the same folks who did that organic dairy review, The Cornucopia Institute.

Buying Bulk

Back in Cordova, I used to order from a company called Azure Standard. They carry most everything that you’d find in a health food store. If you live in the Pacific Northwest they deliver for free (the minimum order is $500, but that is surprisingly easy to fill, especially if you get a few friends in on it). If you live anywhere near to, you might be able to have your order shipped for a reasonable price, via a trucking company. Living in Alaska I had my orders shipped up by barge and even though for heavy stuff like flour the shipping almost doubled the price, it was still worth it. A 50 lb bag of organic high protein whole wheat flour cost $25, add on (for Cordova) $30 for shipping. That’s still only about $1/lb, which was cheaper than the local health food store that only sold flour in 5 lb bags.

I haven’t gotten myself together here yet. There is a food co-op that does bulk orders, I really need to sign up. I asked around and the prices are usually slightly cheaper than Whole Foods. If you have an opportunity to buy bulk, even if the savings do not appear much, they add up. Often if you’re willing to get a ton at once, you can get the organic version for the same price as a little bag of standard stuff at the grocery store. It also instills a different way of thinking about your pantry, and your cooking, which cuts down on trips to the store and impulse buys. These bulk ordering gigs are usually called “Buyer’s Clubs.”

I have to admit, Costco has a very large selection of organic stuff. Of course, I wouldn’t trust ’em farther than I could throw ’em, but it’s gotta be a bit better….?

Lastly, if you’re just starting out buying in bulk, a word of caution. Do not buy 50 lbs of something unless you are sure you’re going to use it! This sounds obvious, but I myself have occasionally wasted some food buying bulk. Just be careful, and plan it out.

I have one last offering for this topic, coming soon:

Solace and Support for Non-Menu Planners!

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!