In the past couple of years, in particular, I have begun paying more attention to where and how my food is grown. I try to buy local, organic produce whenever it's reasonably affordable. But sometimes it isn't—and there are other complicating factors in this equation, like what kind of organic is it? How far did this organic food travel to reach me?
Meat and fish offer a more complicated puzzle, I find.
- Thanks to Michael Pollan and others, we now better understand the problems associated with corn-fed beef. While grass-fed beef is becoming more readily available—at least in this area—I'm not sure how the prices compare.
- Chicken is a real challenge. While I can buy a roasted 3-lb. chicken for $4.99 at Costco ($4.99!)—and I sometimes do—thanks to Pollan, I now know rather more than I wish I did about the industrial production of chicken. If I want an organic chicken, Trader Joe's sells them for $3.99/pound (roughly 2½ times the Costco price)—or, in a more extravagant mode, Niman Ranch will sell me a pair that have been "humanely raised in a sustainable environment" for $57 (through Sur La Table)! Niman Ranch aside, we're clearly talking about a very different price range for chicken I can feel good about buying and eating. And because our industrial food system has made cheap chicken seem normal, it goes against the grain (so to speak) to pay so much for meat that I've learned to believe should be inexpensive.
- And what about eggs? Cage-free! Free-range! All-vegetarian feed! Organic! Omega-3-enhanced! It's hard to tell what these various claims really mean about the way the birds are treated. I do know that I don't like paying $6 a dozen at the farmers' market for eggs that don't taste much different from the $1.99 ones from Trader Joe's. Sigh.
- There are lots of issues around seafood production and harvesting, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program provides helpful information to allow us to make informed choices. (I'm distressed to learn, though, that my favorite tilapia from Indonesia turns out to be on the "avoid" list...)
But how well could I do this on a much more meager budget? Could I still eat healthy, delicious, satisfying meals? Would I be able to afford any organic produce? I'm tempted to take on the experiment... In the meantime, these are a few strategies that I think might help someone in this situation:
- Learn to cook. Yes, from scratch. This may seem obvious, but too many Americans have grown up relying on ready-made foods, instead of preparing meals for themselves. Nuking a Lean Cuisine entrée does not constitute cooking.
- Eat plants. Both Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman suggest that eating a primarily vegetarian diet is the best solution for both our individual health and the health of the planet. At the very least, cutting our meat consumption in half would make a huge difference. Check out Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food. Or think about trying Graham Hill's strategy of weekday vegetarianism.
- Don't be a purist. Alice Waters may be able to afford to disdain anything not local and organic, but most of us don't have that luxury. So we need to choose our battles and make reasonable compromises. The occasional $4.99 Costco chicken, for example—whose cost, of course, includes the price of cooking gas, is a case in point.
- Let lower-cost ingredients be the focus of your meal. Use more expensive items as sauces and condiments. (Epicurious suggests various ways of cooking these Top 10 Money-Saving Ingredients.) In a lot of traditional Asian cooking, rice is not only the staple food, but it is in essence what's for dinner. Everything else is just gravy. A Hmong woman I worked in Philadelphia often invited me to stay for lunch, and I was at first surprised to see how highly seasoned all her foods were—very spicy, salty, tangy, etc.—until I realized how they were eaten: as condiments eaten in small amounts as flavoring for your big bowl of steamed rice.
- Make informed choices about which kinds of organic produce to buy: enjoy the "clean 15" and avoid the "dirty dozen." (Download EWG's "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides.") Listen to Dr. Andrew Weil talking about the importance of eating organic, and how to be strategic about your shopping.
- Keep organic produce costs lower by hitting the last 20 minutes of the farmer's market or by joining one of those organic box farm delivery services or by planting a garden. (Read an interesting article about mushroom farming in New York City.)