Real food, Real budget

Behind everything we consume, there is a face.  Somewhere, there are real people growing the food we eat with their own hands. The choices we make in sourcing our food determine if these people are thousands of miles away or just down the street. The more connected we are to them, the more knowledge we have over what we are putting in our bodies. Knowledge gives us the power to control what we consume and who we support through our consumption.

Take a drive through California’s Central Valley where most of the country’s grocery supply is grown and you can’t miss the giant brown fields with sad looking soil and little color diversification. Quantity and output are prioritized over soil health. The chemicals and fertilizers used focus on maximization of output rather than nutrient content of the soil and produce.

Smaller, sustainable farms focus on soil health which means produce is grown in soil that has real, living nutrients.  So, a carrot really isn’t a carrot. It can be vastly different based on soil health, farming practices and harvest time. While they may look similar, one contains valuable nutrients and is bursting with flavor while the other is practically flavorless and lacking vibrant color and nutrition.

The question is, how you do end up with the real carrot on your plate? Farmers markets are the best place to start!

The produce offered at a farmer’s market has often been harvested that morning or the night before. When produce is picked at it's peak ripeness, it has reached it's full potential of nutrient content as well as flavor.

When produce requires shipment across the country, it’s generally picked before it’s fully ripe in order to prevent spoilage during transit or while it sits on the store shelves waiting for a new home.

There seems to be a general belief that eating healthier or organically is significantly more expensive than the alternative. While it’s certain that organic farming has more associated costs and time than blasting a field with chemicals, there are a variety of ways that local and organic food choices can be even more affordable than buying mass produced food in the grocery store. When it comes to farms and farmers markets, there are a few habits that can go a long way in helping stretch your budget further without compromising the quality of what you are buying:

  1. Stick to items that are abundantly in season. When items like peppers, tomatoes and squash take off, they are generally being harvested at a faster rate than can be sold, even at busier markets. The result is fresh produce priced to move! Things like winter squash can last for months if stored in a cool spot. Items like peppers, herbs and tomatoes that have a shorter life can be turned into simple sauces to refrigerate or freeze. If you are more ambitious, produce can be pickled or canned to store for months to come.
  2. Get to know your farmer! Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It gives them an opportunity to showcase their hard work and talk about the things they are most proud of. Many times, they will let you know when items are in abundance and if they can offer additional incentive on these items or “seconds” which might have a slight blemish. In the case of grass fed ground beef, many farmers offer $1-$3 off per pound if you buy 5 pounds or more. It requires a minimal amount of freezer space and the savings can go a long way.
  3. U-pick! Farms throughout the country offer the opportunity to pick your own produce. This is an excellent way to score blueberries, cherries, peaches, apples, pumpkins and more. It’s not uncommon to get organic produce in this format from $1-$2/lb which would typically run more than double at the market. Labor is one of the most expensive components of organic farming. Cutting out this component can be a win for both the farmer and the consumer.

A word on staples and dry goods:

  • Create a plan that works for your budget to buy one new staple item per week, per pay period or per month. Items like high quality olive oil, grass fed ghee and even high quality spices and sea salt can certainly be higher ticket items. However, once you buy them, you have several months supply depending on how many you are cooking for. This way you build your arsenal a little at a time, and eventually have a nice collection of go-to fats, spices and condiments.
  • Do a little research on local dry goods such as whole grains, oats, nuts, flax, quinoa, legumes and rice. Most corners of the country have at least one of these categories covered and some have an abundance. These items are generally cheaper, cleaner and freshly milled when bought close to home. It’s not uncommon for things like rice and nuts to be upwards of two years old by the time you grab them from the store shelf. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to have freshly milled rice in flavor, texture and nutrition.

Industrial agriculture has set expectations that food should cost next to nothing. In recent decades, people have grown farther from their food sources, closer to convenience and less understanding of the costs associated with real farming and real food. 

Mass producing food comes at a cost to the environment, health of agricultural workers, treatment of animals, and our health as consumers. It’s the abuse of these very things that allow the food system in this country to sell food for well below what farmers who are respecting their land, animals and employees could ever afford to sell their food for. This by no means makes real food inaccessible but in many cases it requires a little more effort, research and creativity to feed ourselves the nourishment we all truly deserve. The hope is that you can use one of the ideas mentioned here and take one step towards finding the balance that works for your health, your budget and the world you want to live in.

 Properly preparing:

You’ve done the work! Your beautiful produce and grass fed beef made it to your kitchen. Now what? Whether you prefer making meals one at a time or meal prepping for the week, there are a few key kitchen habits that will ensure the food you have worked hard to source offers your body the best possible nutrition:

  • Eat some foods raw if tolerated. Things like bell peppers, carrots and celery provide enzymes that assist in breaking down your meal. Shooting for a mixture of raw and cooked foods each day is ideal.Experiment with different cooking methods. This will keep flavors and textures interesting but will also provide a variety of nutritional outcomes. Steaming, sautéing, roasting and grilling all offer different enhancements and losses of certain vitamins. Rotating methods encourages a balance of available nutrients.
  • Keep in mind proper heating levels for various oils which have a broad range from fragile to stable based on their fatty acid profiles and levels of antioxidants. (Nutritional Therapy Association [NTA], 2020). Olive Oil, ghee, butter and coconut oil are suitable for cooking while most nut and seed oils are fragile and are appropriate as finishing oils or dressings.
  • Attempt to soak or sprout as many nuts, seeds, grains and legumes as possible to increase available nutrients, help with digestion and decrease anti-nutrients which can interfere with both digestion and nutrient absorption. Before the industrialization of food, the majority of traditional cultures soaked, sprouted or fermented these foods before eating them. (Nutritional Therapy Association [NTA], 2020)
  • Try to avoid Teflon and aluminum coated pans that can contaminate your beautiful, clean food. Cast iron is an inexpensive way to begin this transition. These are long lasting pans and can be found for $20 or less.
  • Avoid storing in plastic when possible, especially hot foods which can cause plastics to break down and leach nasty chemicals. Glass containers including Mason jars are an economical and safe way to store food and can be found at vintage shops, garage sales or discount stores such as Home Goods. Beeswax wraps and parchment paper are handy for simple items such as cut fruit or veggies. A great strategy is to add one healthier piece at a time while disposing of one undesirable piece.

The goal is certainly not to throw away every pan or piece of plastic, or perfection. Small changes add up to big changes and they all get you closer to where you want to be. The journey to wellness is a magical one and should be enjoyed. Take it one day at a time!

References

Nutritional Therapy Nutritional Therapy Association. (2020). Basics of Nutrition Student Guide [PDF document]. Retrieved from: https://nta.brightspace.com/d2l/le/content/10544/viewContent/114828/View

Nutritional Therapy Nutritional Therapy Association. (2020). Culinary Wellness Part 1 Student Guide [PDF document]. Retrieved from: https://nta.brightspace.com/d2l/le/content/10544/viewContent/114845/View