Britt saw my coffee hour display that highlighted the link between palm oil and deforestation. I have a sweet tooth, but I pass up today’s long shelf-life cheap cookies that are made with palm oil. Britt knew that I get most of my groceries at a food cooperative in town. I like the way they prioritize sustainability, fair trade, eating with the local seasons, and concern for workers’ rights, health, and pay.
“It’s good what they do,” Britt said. “But I just can’t afford to shop there.” She knows I’m not wealthy. The look on her face said, Are you nuts?
Is Better Food a Luxury?
Britt is not alone in her thinking. Many of us are concerned about the downsides of processed foods, of foods grown in pesticide-soaked monocultures, of fruits and vegetables flown or trucked from great distance, animal products provided by methods detrimental to animal and worker, soil and water. But with many of us finding our incomes stagnant, we may feel stuck with buying the cheapest food available, however compromised. Besides, our food system is big and entrenched; what can one person do? Aren’t organic foods, farmers markets, and fair trade foods so expensive as to be luxuries? Sometimes when the month is ending and the wallet is thin, I can agree. On those days I ask myself if my husband and I can afford to eat the way we do. What, indeed, makes me feel that the co-op is affordable for a majority of my food purchases?
Where there’s a will there’s supposed to be a way, and that has gradually become true for me. I didn’t try to turn on a dime. I didn’t try to set rigid rules for myself that put away decades of blissfully unconscious habits and the budget that had adapted to those habits. But I want to challenge the idea that the budget is necessarily the main constraint driving buying habits. How we spend our income follows from our goals or ambitions as well as our needs. And possibly from the advertisers lullaby, such as the ad that says, “Live the life without paying the price.” It can also follow our cultural penchant for games, one of which could be called “I win,” as I heard a woman say: “I can afford to pay more, but I like to win.” If we want to spend with a greater sense of purpose, we may still doubt whether we can.
Find Your Own Trade-offs
I started simply, adjusting my shopping by feel. For every change that increased an expenditure, I made a roughly corresponding change downward for something else. For instance, I at first had mental difficulty in switching to organically or locally produced milk (either is good) at an extra couple of dollars. That change was eased by not buying face lotions—a couple of drops of sunflower oil is now my moisturizer. I quit buying those cheap cookies, though they are everywhere, and the crackers made by a giant firm with a bad ethical record. I found tasty counterparts from responsible brands. To balance that shift, I have shoes repaired to postpone replacing them, and postpone other purchases as well. It’s a start.
How did I come by the ethical record of that corporation that makes the crackers I’d been used to buying? Sources I trust include “The Better World Shopping Guide” by sociology professor Ellis Jones, whose tiny book compiles research by reputable non-governmental organizations together with much digging of his own. Better World Shopper.
Create new habits
Like me, you might find yourself making only one change at a time. Be patient. Here are some other tips to make it easier to live into your values.
- Eat what you buy. Leslie Samuelrich of the Green Century Funds (GCF), a non-profit activist investment firm, said in March, “An astounding 40% of all food produced here in the United States is wasted, with significant consequences for our environment and our communities. If food waste were a nation, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, right behind the U.S. and China.” (https://www.greencentury.com/.) She was talking about GCF’s efforts to get a giant retailer to adopt more sustainable ways, but we have a part to play at home, too. Don’t suffer through lettuce that’s gone bitter. Just try to plan. Look at what you have on hand with an eye to creatively incorporating it into your meals so that less and less is discarded. When you do discard, discard to the compost, not the landfill.
- Shop smart. Take advantage of the bulk food aisle. It may be a bit more bother to bring your own bottle for maple syrup, but filling that bottle from a spigot is kind of fun. Soaking and cooking beans is almost as easy as reaching for canned. I’ve started milling whole oats rather than buying pricier packages of steel-cut—it only takes seconds in a dedicated coffee grinder. Throughout the store, take advantage of sales and seasons and be prepared to adjust your menu plans.
- Cook. The more you cook, the more natural it becomes to keep a frugal kitchen. You’ll be adding leftovers to lunches or suppers, employing substitutions in a recipe, saving that half lemon for use another day. Also, as you know, expensive foods can be “stretched.” Six ounces of raw salmon serves four in a quiche or frittata. A double batch of soup yields some for tonight, some for a day or three later, some for the freezer, and some to give away. Classic navy bean soup with smoked ham hock never fails me. Worried about finding the time? There are all kinds of time-saving tips out there. One I like is to take a Saturday morning and roast a variety of vegetables (and meat roast if you like), then use them for the next five days in grain or brown rice bowls. Condiments and sauce starters may help you, too, and many of them keep a very long time. Eat lower on the food chain. I’ve kept meat in my diet, but not every day, and I serve smaller portions—the cost of grass-fed will then be more comparable to larger servings of cheap feedlot meats, and when surrounded by delicious vegetable preparations, my husband and I find we have a more delightful meal than putting meat in a starring role.
- Reduce plastic usage. You absolutely can. It may not save you a lot, but it will help get us off the petroleum carousel. Oil companies are counting on our habitual use of plastics as they build huge new plastics factories for the oil we use less of in our cars. I particularly like finding storage hacks that do away with plastic wrap. Lots of recipes tell you to “cover tightly with plastic wrap.” Instead, you can cover a bowl with a plate. You can wrap half an onion or disk of pie crust in waxed paper slipped into a bread bag, which then can be re-used and the waxed paper composted. And your freezer is your friend. I buy enough blueberries in July from a grower to keep us in inexpensive daily blueberries till the following summer. Then I re-use my freezer bags for a new crop. And with less garbage, we save on pickup fees.
- Be easy on yourself. When the budget feels strained, shop at a different store with lower prices. I’ve found one I’m happy with—a major supermarket responsive to trends like organics, healthy foods, and small brands. Another way to be easy on yourself: Trust your own judgment. Not every exhortation is accurate. Maybe you take as gospel the “Dirty Dozen”—the vegetables that supposedly must be bought organic due to pesticide residues on conventional counterparts. Carrie Dennett (https://www.nutritionbycarrie.com/), the nutrition columnist, has come out with a persuasive critique of that widespread advice. Also, stay engaged because things change: organic standards can get watered down, the success of the fair trade movement may invite corporate take-over, and on the other hand, major brands may actually improve their supply chains in response to consumer sensitivities. Be easy on other family members, too—patience also helps bring them along.
For my part, I find much pleasure in following closer-to-the-Earth habits. Even when alone in my kitchen, I feel I’m in the company of like-minded folks. I won’t press Britt, just as she doesn’t push me on issues she leads. We both know a better future will be arrived at through many paths.
But I might make her some of my really good soup.
Jean Waight is a memoir writer and Washington State University Extension Carbon Masters volunteer. She began blogging about greening up in 2009. Her other writings have appeared in the Red Wheelbarrow Writers anthology, “Memory into Memoir,” in Cirque: A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim, in Whatcom Watch, in Ruminate, and, following her M.A. in Sociology, she published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. She is currently at work on a book about finding a progressive church. https://JeanWaight.com. And on Twitter @JeanWaight.