12.14.2009

Research the best options for buying responsible food on a budget

I like the ideas of local, fair-trade and organic. These ideas all represent the belief that producing food doesn’t need to take a lot of resources and that the quality of food and food production is important. These terms for defining how food is produced aren’t perfect, but they are better than the unlabeled “traditional” foods.

There are so many options, how do I know which is best? Local or organic? Fair-trade or equal trade? I have struggled with these ideas to the point where I had stopped caring and decided just to buy what was cheapest. Price is quantifiable.


However, I do care about my food. I do care about what the money from our food budget supports. And we are by no means so poor that we don’t have options or so under educated that we can be ignorant.
My body mass index (BMI) is right on the edge of healthy and overweight. I could spend the same amount of money and buy less calories worth of food and have it all be organic. I would eat less and would probably be healthier for it. But that would be denying myself something I enjoy: food. I like to eat and I really like to eat tasty food.
I have written this post and rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. Putting down in words how I buy food is complicated. I’ve struggled with it. There is a lot of information out there and a lot of options. Writing up a food manifesto of how I choose to purchase food has been something I have wanted to do for a while. I want a definitive decree. It will make it easier to explain to others why I make these food choices. This set of food rules should be easy to explain and straight forward. So here’s what I got.
I have been struggling with how I balance buying the most volume of tasty food with buying it in a socially responsible way. I decided on the Occum’s Razor approach – the simplest solution is best.  I will define that I prefer to buy foods that take the least amount of resources for growing, processing and transporting. The foods that I care the most about purchasing responsibly therefore are the ones that take the most resources:
· Animal Products - meat, eggs and dairy
· Heavily Processed (Convenience) Foods
· Foods Shipped in from outside the US
So when I go shopping I first choose simple whole foods: lettuce, potatoes, onions, peppers, beans, flour, butter, eggs, tomatoes. I try very hard to limit buying cereals, pre-made sauces, canned soups, that sort of thing. The fewer ingredients on the package label the more simple it is and therefore it is better.
As far as packaging goes, I try to buy things with less wrapping and packaging. Buying big or in bulk makes sense if I can store the items. Rice, flour, sugar, beans, canned tomatoes all take less packaging when bought in bigger quantities. And there is the added bonus bulk is often cheaper per unit.
Then, I look at where these foods came from. I don’t buy asparagus shipped from Chili. I live in the central part of the United States so I’m looking for food from the central states. In the winter this is more difficult and I find myself buying from California and Florida.
I do consider price. I’m also balancing a $200 per month grocery budget. If the organic local sweet potatoes are really expensive, I buy less than I wanted or look at my next best option, local sweet potatoes. Or I decided that I could probably achieve the same effect with butternut squash which is a lower price per pound.
Animal products take a tremendous amount of resources. The chicken has to be incubated, fed, watered, vaccinated, sheltered and cared for, then there is the cost of transportation, slaughtering, and then transportation again. I choose to buy locally produced in the case of meat, eggs and dairy. The shorter the route from the farm to me (again with Occum’s Razor) is the best. I also prefer to buy these in their simplest form: whole chicken, whole milk, eggs. I have cut back on my use of these food items because they are hard to come by locally and/or are expensive. 
I feel that if I can’t buy animal products in a responsible manner then I don’t need them. It has put our diet towards the vegetarian end of the spectrum. I don’t feel deprived.

So after all this discussion, here is my short but sweet food buying mantra:
Buy simply produced and processed food that has traveled the
least distance.
Ta da!
I’m curious if I am missing anything and how other people decide what food to buy. Anyone else have food buying thoughts they will share?

3 comments:

  1. Sarah Carney12/14/2009

    Hello, Foy!

    I really appreciate that you spend energy, thought and your time trying to make your food buying reflect your values.

    It's very easy in all parts of our life to take what's on the shelf nearest us, and follow the habits our society teaches us. I am guilty of this as well.


    I think about food buying in a similar way, but am only at the very starting stages of beginning to put it into practice. Mainly: I want to buy food in a way that reflects my values. I believe it is wrong to hurt animals, and so I have been doing my best to make sure I don't make choices that conflict with that value. I do not buy meat. I also have been trying not to buy dairy or eggs.

    I think you make a good point that to do this kind of thing well (buying food responsibly) we sacrifice convenience. The system isn't quite set up to support those kinds of choices. So I need to spend more time in research, more time in shopping, and way more time in the kitchen. So that I'm buying, preparing and eating food in ways that reflect my values.

    Thanks for the article.

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  2. Good job expressing yourself. My primary values include self-reliance, feeding my family well, and making conscious choices. For me, that means buying local which is easy in the summer and fall, but harder in the winter. I don't get the social responsibility thing. Seems like someone else, some "them" figures out what is socially responsible and lets us know. It doesn't always match what I think. I've talked alot about this, too. Visit me at DinnerAtTheOsbornes.blogspot.com if you want. LeAnn

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  3. Foy,
    When we moved out to McCallsburg mom and I became friends with Mark and Connie Tjelmeland who raise prairie and free range chickens. They might be people that you would be intrested in talking to in your quest for local and affordable food. They are wonderful people and she has a wonderful garden every summer and does a lot of canning and cooking. Just a thought that came to me while reading your blog.

    Colleen

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