Friday, May 2, 2008

Grocery Shopping- Week One

Because most farmer's markets are held on the weekend, I ended up getting an early start on my local food challenge. Here's what I bought:

Mmmm. Look at those delicious strawberries front and center. Everything in the picture is local except for maybe the yogurt, (I didn't really pay close attention since I'm planning on making my own and just using this as a starter) possibly the cheese, (I was told it came from the base of Mt Mojave so I assumed it was local, but I can't find Mt Mojave on a map anywhere, so who knows), and uh, definitely the cereal.

Right. Now you may be wondering. Why, when she could make her own granola, or oatmeal, or any number of other delicious options, does Arduous buy non local, packaged General Mills cereal that tastes like twigs?

Well, here's the thing. Much as I hate Fiber One, and would love to give it up and eat homemade granola every day, eating Fiber One has caused my cholesterol to drop 40 points. Because I'm at high risk for heart disease, this is something I'm just not willing to mess with. But hey, I'm guessing cholesterol drugs aren't local either, so at least the Fiber One is keeping me off those, right?

I didn't keep track of how much I spent, but I should have. My estimate, based on how much I had in my wallet then, and how much I have in my wallet now, is that I ended up spending about $60. Which isn't horrifying, but it IS almost double my usual weekly grocery bill.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive, especially when you think about cost per calorie. I got two pounds of snow peas for ten dollars. Mind you, these snow peas are maybe the best snow peas I have ever eaten. As a privileged, middle-class childless American, I consider $10 for amazing snow peas well worth it.

But I understand that $10 snow peas aren't in everyone's budget. I mean for $10 you can get 11 McDonald's hamburgers. Or two foot long Subway sandwiches. If we're talking caloric bang for your buck, well farmer's market snow peas just can't compete.

Barbara Kingsolver writes that good food should cost money. And I understand where she's coming from. She knows, first hand, how much labor went into those snow peas. I get it. And yes, as many people like to point out, Americans spend a much smaller percentage of their income on food than we did 30 years ago.

All very well and good. But let's take a look at housing costs, shall we. Or college tuition. It's not really fair to expect us to spend a ton of money on food when 55% of Angelenos are spending over 30% of their income on housing.

Could I afford fresh fruits and vegetables if I had a baby to feed? It's a tough question. I make a decent amount of money. I don't spend my money on unnecessary stuff. I have a fantastic deal on rent, which means that I only spend 27% of my monthly income on housing. And yet, if I had another mouth to feed, I'm not absolutely sure I could afford snow peas.

Should farmers be paid more given the work they do? Absolutely. But should Americans have to pay more for produce? I can't conscionably say yes.


Jennie said...

You raise a common issue and good point about cost, but I think it boils down to priority. You blogged about not being able to save money in the past until you made it about the environment and I think in general people don't make food a priority in their lives. They would rather buy cheap food such as that at McD so that they have money to spend on cable TV and car payments. When one prioritizes they can find the money. Sure there are those who scrape by and can't afford much more than monthly rent, but the average American family is also a very materialistic family.

ScienceMama said...

If you have another mouth to feed you often (though not always) have another income to help you feed it.

There are plenty of people who really can't afford to spend a lot of money on food. But there are lots of people who can afford to buy good produce who don't. And it's not just about choosing to spend their money on a car payment or cable instead of on produce. It's also about choosing to spend $4 on a box of triscuits (which have only minimal nutritional value) instead of $4 on a pint of strawberries. Or $4 on pre-made waffles instead of $4 on cantelope and greek yogurt.

People usually argue that pre-processed foods are cheap, and some of them are (like $1 for a box of nasty mac n' cheese)... but a lot of them are actually quite expensive. Crackers, chips, single serving lean cuisine, cereals, ice cream, soda. It's not just about the size of your grocery bill... it's also about how you spend it.

But also, what the hell? How can your normal grocery bill be $30 a week?

Unknown said...

I read an interview with Micheal Pollan where he said (essentially) that instead of asking why organic or locally produced food is so expensive, we should really be questioning why so much other food is so unnaturally cheap.

On a related note, I remember seeing this news snippet once about how one woman saved like, 50% of her grocery bill by cutting coupons and stuff. They went along shopping with her and I remember thinking "but none of that is actual FOOD!" Sure, she saved money on soda and chips and fruit snacks but is that how she feeds her family? I'm trying to get better at putting my money where my values are and not feel guilty about it.

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

Good for you, buying local AND indulging in a dellicious treat. Has to happen now and again, eh? But dang, we won't have strawberries in Michigan until June so I confess to a little drool and a touch of envy.
How come Science Mama picked on triscuits? They are about the only whole wheat cracker in the store. The ingredient list on my box is:whole wheat, soybean oil, salt. A serving has 3 grams of protein and 3 g of fiber. pretty good, I'd say. But I digress. Looking forward to joining you in this as much as we can.

Natalie said...

I totally agree with Kaitlin (and Michael Pollan) about the unnaturally cheap food-like stuff. How can McD's come from anywhere BUT the nether regions of the food system and be that cheap!? How could that stuff be good for you in any way?

Look how much money you started saving when you became environmentally conscientious about your general consumption. I'm quite sure I spend more on groceries than many of my peers, but I would guess that my overall total monthly spending is actually quite a bit less than theirs.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I bet if you start eating fresh produce like 2 lbs of snow peas(!) that you won't need the high fiber cereal anymore. :)

I agree that much of the "cheap" food is actually really expensive. If might be cheaper per calorie, but not for nutrional value.

I'm so excited that you're finally doing this challenge! I can't wait to hear more about it.

ScienceMama said...

I actually just used triscuits because they're the crackers we buy, so they were the first to jump into my head. If you're going to eat crackers, triscuits are a good choice. I wasn't trying to mock them necessarily, only say that you get more nutritional bang for your buck other places (like produce).

Going Crunchy said...

My grocery bills did go up when we focused on reducing carbs, veerrryyy meat lite and buying quality veggies, fruits and grains. But it isn't that bad overall. I can do a family of 4 for about $80-120 a week including all our household needs like detergent, bags, etc.

But I buy better as I use less. For example, I can buy the more expensive Seven Gen trash bags that aren't virgin plastic as I'm only producing less then one bag of trash a week vs. when I wasn't on the eco train and did 2-3 bags and used doller store plastic bags. It all depends on how you focus.

We actually save a tremendous more on our monthly bill now because we rarely if ever eat out or buy snacks or water or such. We "may" eat at Noodles once a month- - but thats about it. Our "overall" food budget is lower because "dine-o-tainment" money stays in our pot.

We meal plan, save food and are trying to eat better- - not more. It all adds up!

Melissa said...

I agree that it is scarily expensive sometimes to buy the "good" food - I remember seeing organic red peppers earlier this year for $8.50 a pound!! Where we live too, a huge portion of monthly income goes to housing, so we can't easily trim that part of our spending. Part of the way I've dealt with the cost of eating well is to plan a few extra meals on my menu each week, and pick which ones I'll make when I get to the store, based on which items are more or less expensive that week. I still spend quite a lot on food, but it helps ease the pinch.

Sam said...

I think Green LA girl pointed out that Santa Monica had become very affordable once she got rid of her car and associated expenses with maintaining a car. Imagine if everyone in LA did much more disposable income they would have to patronize farmers' markets. I guess it all comes down to that choice issue.

I spent $100 at the farmers' market today. I did buy a lot of meat so that is a lot of calories that will last more than a week...but I was still a bit taken aback.

We have asparagus season here (which I haven't eaten in a year) but no strawberries. So I am also envious of your stash.

Burbanmom said...

Here's my take on it. Those of us who CAN afford to buy local, organic produce SHOULD do it. We should buy as much as we can locally. These farmers need to be supported or they will be gone and we'll ALL be left with just industrial food.

To help with the less fortunate, see if you can work with the local food banks to donate portions of your CSA basket or to help create a community garden for the poor. Small steps, indeed, but would still get some of that healthy produce into the hands of the poor.

Jennifer said...

There is prepackaged luxury, and then there is prepackaged crap.

The crap is what is cheaper than whole foods. (Both are nutritionally deficient).

Sadly, when you can buy a box of Rice-a-Roni for $.50 or a Little Juan Burrito for $.25 and have a meal for $.25 a person (actual food prices from 3 years ago when I was in college) well it's what happens when there is only $10 or $20 in the food budget for the week.

Fresh foods do cost money. The packaged onees are mass produced out of bulk cheap ingredients.

Green Bean said...

It is a good point, Arduous, but I swear that I spend far less on our food now than I did before "going loco". Admittedly, I was shopping at Whole Foods and we ate more take out/prepared meals before and people who are struggling would likely not do that. However, when you make a lot of your own food, stop eating take out and prepare food, it cuts back alot. As Katrina at Kale for Sale also pointed out to me, we aren't in the supermarket so we don't make those impulse buys - the cookies, the fruit snacks, what have you. Finally, the food is healthier so, in the longer term, we'll likely stay out of the doctor's office more and need less medicine.

As Michael Pollan wrote in In Defense of Food, “Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon [as] you begin to treat that expenditure not just as shopping but also as a kind of vote – a vote for health in the largest sense – food no longer seems like the smartest place to economize.” Looking at the diabetes epidemic and all the thousands of overweight people we saw on vacation, I think he's right.

Anonymous said...

Our experience has been that fresh food does cost more than boxed food. There is a hidden factor that comes into the cost equation - government subsidy. Every year our government subsidizes commodity crops - corn, soybean, etc. However produce is not subsidized.

No wonder corn makes its way into all the boxed food, because it is cheap, it is artificially cheap. It's weird to think that we are supposed to have a market driven economy. Yet the government policies in many ways dictate how most of us eat.

My opinion is that either we need to take farm subsidy off the table, or we need to subsidize produce as well. Do we need a produce lobby group to get that done? :)

erin said...

damnnnnn that stuff looks tasty

Green Bean said...

I wanted to add that, when you buy farmers market produce at the height of its season, it usually is cheaper than storebought. Snowpeas - at least in Nor Cal - are just coming into season.

When strawberries first came into season, it was $35 a flat. Now it is $18-20.

EcoBurban said...

It's a good point... I have 4 not-so-little-anymore mouths to feed. Boys, every single one of them. They can easily eat two dinners. One before baseball practice, one after. I try, try, try to buy organic whenever possible and I am now switching to local whenever possible. But sometimes, it's just not. I can't afford $6 for six pieces of string cheese. That's one day of packing lunches and they love the string cheese. So, that might be a costco purchase where for $8 I get 48 pieces of string cheese. However, organic eggs, milk, cereal, oatmeal, apples and many other standard items are only slightly more to go organic. So, I balance it out as best possible. You can't throw the baby out with the bathwater, so I do what I can. When the farmer's markets are in full swing here (michigan - so we are talking mid-june!) much of the produce is more economically priced for a large family. We don't eat McDonalds, subway or even drink soda... and it is sad that a liter of soda is cheaper than a liter of healthy juice. But, this eating local challenge is opening my eyes to new places and ways to find the foods we need for a price we can afford. It just takes time...