Real food, Real budget

Behind everything we consume, there is a face. Somewhere, there are real people with actual dirt stained hands, growing the food we eat. The choices we make in sourcing our food determines if these people are thousands of miles away or just down the road. 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 in these massive operations focus on maximization of output rather than nutrient content of 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 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 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. This helps 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 healthy 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 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 and potatoes can last for months if stored in a cool spot. Items like peppers, herbs and tomatoes that have shorter shelf lives 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. This gives them an opportunity to showcase their hard work and talk about the products they are most proud of. Many times, they will let you know when items are in abundance and if they can offer quantity discounts or “seconds” which come with minor blemishes. 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 that price 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. With this method, you build your arsenal a little at a time, and eventually have a solid 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.

Final Thoughts:

Industrial agriculture has set the expectation 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 things that allow the food system in this country to sell food for far less than 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 it often requires more effort, research and creativity to feed ourselves the nourishment we all 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.

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