I’ve been wanting to do a post on eating sustainably on a budget for a long time. This post is not going to try and convince anyone of why they should buy and eat sustainably grown or raised food. I think you should. I think everyone should. But that is not what this post is all about. If you’ve ever thought to yourself “Gosh, I’d love to eat locally/seasonally/sustainably, but it’s so damn expensive” then this post is for you. If you eat sustainably sometimes, but would like to do so more often without going broke, this post is for you. If you would love to eat sustainably more often but have a spouse who isn’t on board, this post is for you. So if the title of this post made you roll your eyes, maybe you should move on just this once. Or, stick around. Maybe it’s not so bad after all.
Let’s do this thing. So, how do we do it?
Well, first things first. There are a few things that can come in handy when you’re starting out on this process of figuring out just how this whole sustainable eating thing works.
You might notice a lot of things labelled “all natural”, “organic”, “ethically raised” or the like at your local grocery store. What does it mean? By no means exhaustive, this is a short list of what some of the most commonly used terms are:
“All Natural” — This term is purposefully vague. It can mean anything from “this item contains no genentically modified organisms” to “this item contains every preservative known to man, but doesn’t have high fructose corn cyrup”. Sometimes it means something, often it means nothing. But it nearly always costs more. Read the labels on something labelled “all natural” very carefully to be sure it isn’t just a conventional food in hippie packaging.
“Organic” — This term, on the other hand, has strictly regulated standards for it’s use. For produce to be labeled as organic, it cannot be grown in a way that uses any chemical herbicide, fertilizer, or pesticide. For eggs and dairy, it means that the chicken or cow producing the product was fed a diet of organic feed (either grass or grain), and for cows specifically, it means they were not given any artifical hormones (which are transferred to milk and other dairy). For meat, it means the animal was fed a diet of organically grown feed and has not been treated with added hormones or antibiotics.
“Pastured” — This term refers to animal products, rather than produce. For eggs, dairy, or meat to be labeled as pastured, the animal must have spent the majority of its life before slaughter free-range on a pasture of some kind (it varies from chicken, cow, or pig to what a natural pasture entails). Pastured meat, eggs, and dairy tend to be higher in Omega 3 fatty acids (the good kind) because of the plant life (as opposed to grain) that the animals ate during their lifetime.
Those are the big three which can be confusing. Another label you might come across is “without added hormones or antibiotics” which is pretty self explanatory.
2. What’s Important? Or, Use Your Brain.
You can walk through a grocery store in nearly any place and come across everything from hormone-free beef, organic cheerios, to cage-free eggs, to organic ketchup. Do you need organic ketchup? I don’t know, maybe you do. I don’t. But I do need milk that doesn’t contain hormones which will make my daughter go into puberty early. Every family has to decide what is the most important when it comes to eating sustainably. Unless you have an inexhaustible supply of money for food, you will probably not be able to afford to buy every.single.thing sustainable/organic/local.
That’s ok. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Figure out what the important things are for your family. Just as an example, I’ll tell you what we do.
We buy pastured eggs from the farmer’s market when we can, and get cage-free from the grocery when we can’t get to the farm market.
We buy meat that is (at minimum) raised without added hormones and antibiotics, and when possible is pastured, free-range meat. We try to buy as much meat as we can from the farmer’s market, because it tends to be pastured rather than grain-fed, and local to Indiana, rather than shipped long distances to our grocery.
We have Oberwis milk delivered each week. It is produced on small-scale independent farms which contract with Oberwis, and they are free-range cows raised without added hormones or antibiotics.
For produce, we buy local and seasonal from the farmer’s markets during the growing season (here it’s April to November), and buy from the grocery during the winter months. We buy Organic from the grocery when we can, but not always. We eat a LOT of frozen veggies in the winter because they are not much lower in nutrients, and are not shipped thousands of miles from South America (have you ever looked at the stickers on those tomatoes in January, or the bell peppers in March? They all come from Argentina or Holland). We do mostly all frozen fruit (except for citrus) during the winter months.
We buy organic dairy products (cheese, yogurt, etc.) when we can.
We only buy sustainably raised seafood and fish, which means we eat a lot less fish, but we enjoy it more when we do.
We buy sustainably made packaged foods when they are on sale (and if the only alternative is a product containing HFCS). We buy conventional for most of our packaged foods (unless there’s a big sale on Puffins!).
Another helpful idea for deciding which things are worth buying organic or not is the “Dirty Dozen“. This is a list of the twelve fruits and veggies which have the highest levels of pesticides, and which one should get sustainably when possible.
Another way to think about it is this: try to get anything which has a skin that you eat organic or pesticide-free (if certified organic isn’t available). Also, a frozen version of the same food will often have a lower level of pesticides.
Like I said above, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just make one or two small changes at a time, after you decide which changes best fit your family.
3. Sticker Shock
Eating sustainably costs more than eating conventionally. It just does, because it costs more money to produce food without the use of chemicals, pesticides, on wide open pastures as opposed to crowded feed lots, and using natural practices for keeping animals healthy. I’ll be the first one to tell you that there is a lot of processed crap out there that just happens to be made with organic ingredients. It doesn’t mean you have to buy it. But for the things that do matter to you and your family (see #2), you will probably have to pay a little more than you pay for conventional items of the same kind.
Chicken should not cost $.99 a pound. Because unless (a) the famer is getting ripped off big time and/or (b) the chickens are raised and slaughtered in poor conditions, it costs more than $.99 a pound to produce it and bring it to market. The same goes for nearly every other “whole food” (produce, meat, dairy, eggs, etc.) you find in a store.
However, just because it costs a little more in general doesn’t mean there are not ways to save money when buying sustainably grown/raised food.
Part II of this post will look at many ways to save money on the sustainable foods you would like more of for your family. What specifically, are foods you would be interested to know of some ideas for saving money? I plan to talk about meat, dairy, eggs, and produce in Part II. Please let me know what questions you might have about specific foods, or anything else related to sustainable eating!