Sustainable Eating on a Budget: Part I

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.

1. Vocabulary

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.

They are:

Imported nectarines
Imported grapes
Bell peppers

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!

12 thoughts on “Sustainable Eating on a Budget: Part I

  1. This is SUCH an awesome post! Very timely for me, as I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I still need to work on this quite a bit. When I’m thinking about it, I often come back to the same question: what about the poor? What about, for example, the single mother who’s working two jobs and on a tight budget and who has very little time to plan meals, shop sensibly, and prepare healthy food? The thought keeps nagging me that there must be some kind of answer for her. Not a perfect answer, but an answer that will help her and her children to eat more healthfully and have less risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc. Perhaps a considerable amount of the solution is encouraging people who *do* have the means to eat more sustainably to do that so the industry can respond to the demand (which is already happening to an extent).

  2. Also, Louise, I know many of our local farmer’s markets accept vouchers which are basically a form of food stamps. If people who receive aid want to use the farm markets, they can get these vouchers and many of the vendors accept them. Also, in Indy, we have a co-op grocery which has recently opened in a neighborhood without much access to local, sustainable food, and they take food stamps, wic, and offer free cooking classes for making healthy meals with sustainable foods.
    The concerns you raise are so important, because in a sense, the poor and struggling are the people who need access to sustainable foods the most. They are at higher risk for food-related illnesses, and their children for childhood obesiety.

    A woman I did my MA with has started a blog about sustainable food as social justice issue. It’s called Peas and Justice. It’s a very cool blog.

  3. I love this post. You did a great job of explaining simple ways that people can adjust their purchasing habits to eat more sustainably. The vocabulary breakdown and the dirty dozen list are also great tools to use when shopping. Like you say, products can be labeled with purposefully confusing terms to lure people in who are looking for healthier, more sustainable food. I’d also suggest looking into Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs and finding ways to grow your own food. Even growing a small potted plants in your kitchen can help cut costs while also providing you with tasty organic herbs or edible flowers..

    Also–thanks so much for the shout out! I tried sharing your blog post on our facebook page, but facebook seems to have changed their settings.

  4. I’ve got a post in the works on this too, but my biggest suggestion to avoid sticker shock is to do it gradually. About every month or so I’d replace something with it’s organic/more healthy alternative. Over all (since we’re eating less prepacked and more fresh) I think our total grocery bill has only increase about $20.

    I also found it helpful to think in terms of a tradeoff as in “OMG I can’t afford $6/gallon milk. Wait a second, the cost difference is the cost of a soda at the check out line, what a good tradeoff. I CAN afford $6 milk.”

  5. p.s. we also have many of our farmers market vendors who accept EBT cards and I think it’s the next wave of social justice to education those struggling financially to understand the nutritional value of their food as related to it’s cost.

  6. Great post!! I just learned that grass-fed beef is also higher in an essential omega-6 fatty acid that helps to fight cancer! I think that one of the keys to eating well on a budget, along with prioritizing, is planning ahead. If you buy what’s in season, you pay a lot less for it. Old-fashioned food preservation methods, like canning, are making a huge comeback, and help in little ways – I was able to get all the way through the winter on local tomatoes that I had canned in September! I’ve also noticed that with weekly meal planning (and a little creativity) we save a good amount. Looking forward to more posts about this!

  7. Thanks for directing me to Peas and Justice, Sarah! That’s awesome!
    There are a lot of farmers’ markets around here, but I don’t think they have any voucher system in place so people can use food stamps. There is a group of folks here in town trying to organize a food co-op, so hopefully it will get of the ground and accept vouchers. I couldn’t agree more that the poor and struggling are the ones who need access the most.
    I think education (like those classes you wrote about) is a crucial component, too. Most of the poor around me are the rural poor, who actually live right near plenty of farms! Yet, many of the people I encountered when I was teaching in a depressed area had a steady diet of fast food and pop (or soda, as they say here — have you converted to the Midwestern term yet? 😉 ). Sheetz’s business boomed every month when people received their food stamps; they’d use them to buy not only cold subs, but chips and soda and other junk foods. I would hear about all these things at work and then pass tons of happy pasturing cows on my way home. It really frustrated me, because there was so much quality food right there, in many cases much cheaper than what you find in an urban area, yet so many of the families who most needed to take advantage of it never did. I just don’t think they knew what was available, how to get it, and why it was so much healthier than the (much more expensive, really) junk food they were used to buying.

  8. Ooh, I’m excited for this series! We’ve moved to mostly sustainable/natural/whathaveyou foods, with a grocery bill to prove it. I LOVE your point to prioritize for your own family and not to let perfect be the enemy of good enough – when I read too many blogs and books on this topic, I start to feel like I’m failing because we aren’t 100% there – even though I know that realistically we never will be and that’s okay. I do think we need to work on our winter produce consumption, because we do still buy it fresh (as “fresh” as it can be). Any tips on frozen fruits? I haven’t really gone there before.

    And I love Molly’s comment above about the increased cost being the equivalent of a soda in the check-out line!

  9. A timely topic.
    U. S. Farm raised catfish is a recommended fish. You can buy it at Kroger for $3.49 a pound for the nuggets and about $5 or $6 a pound for fillets. It can be flavored in about any way you want.
    Kroger brand now has cage free chicken. I recently bought boneless skinless thighs for $3.50 a pound. The standard, non cage free, was $2.50 a pound. I think that the price difference is not too bad.
    My older sister has been vegetarian since back in the 1970’s. She stresses that we should eat cage free, not free range chicken. She said that free range poultry is raised in small cages during their early weeks. When they finally have the chance to be “free range”, they are too habituated to the tiny cages. They rarely or never take advantage of the “free range”. Cage free chickens have not started out in cages. Of course, my sister does not eat chicken. She also advises against Atlantic farm raised salmon.
    This Old Farm in Colfax, IN butches and sells pastured meat from local farmers. They have ways of selling it in Indy. check out the website.
    I agree with Louise. Those who can afford to should buy the sustainably grown and ethically grown. With demand, prices come down.

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