Friday, November 5, 2010

Food for Thought

There’s so much talk about food these days. It should be higher quality — no, make that affordable for all. Wait...what about the unseen costs? Okay, well, sustainable then. And ethical.

Each of us must decide on our hierarchy of values when it comes to the food we buy. Do we want quality, low price, taste or convenience most? If quality (such as “organic” only) is always at the top of your list, you’ve most likely accepted the additional costs associated with that. If taste is all that matters, maybe you’ve noticed the consequence on your waistline. Rarely, if ever, can you get all of your values met.

I’ve always been a frugal person concerned with my finances. A few years ago I attended a seminar by Janine Bolon focusing on how to lower your overhead and get out of debt. There was a lively discussion about grocery shopping and how much Americans pay for food. The room was split. There were vocal health advocates arguing against cheap food on one side while another side was arguing that beans are beans regardless of brand. At the time I didn’t know what to think or whose side to take. We’re only talking about food, right? With hindsight and a little more research behind me, I say both groups have a valid point.

There are many products at your local grocery store that are not cheap. Of those products, some are priced for convenience and have little nutritional value, while some are priced for the extra care taken in choosing more complete, unprocessed food ingredients. At the same time, there are cheap products. Of the cheap foods, some are processed and dead, while others are down at the bottom of the food chain and very nutritious. I’m talking about beans, lentils, rice, oats and other simple pantry staples. These are the kinds of food that 80% of humanity lives on.

These staples aren't exciting. Few celebrity foodies build a brand around simple, affordable eating because its not profitable for them. That's where this blog is a little different. My goal is to help my readers lower their food bill and eat better by adding more nutritious foods that are not expensive or time-consuming. The argument that healthy food is too expensive and unaffordable for most people drives me nuts. The real key is moving your calories down the food chain. This does not mean that everyone must accept an extreme dietary revolution. Simply substitute a few meals a week, or maybe only one to start, with simpler foods from lower down the food chain. Stay tuned to this blog for recipes and price comparisons to help you on your way.

1. Shah, Anup. “Poverty Facts and Stats.” Global Issues, Updated: 20 Sep. 2010. Accessed: 22 Oct. 2010.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Defining Quality

In the context of food, the word quality is often used as a vague term. One person might use the word when referring to nutrient density while another really means fresh from the farm. But what does quality really mean? Let’s break it down.

Food quality is usually defined by a combination of attributes. Here are a few that come to my mind:

Nutrient dense
Ethically raised
Sustainably grown and harvested
Raw and unprocessed
Lacking pesticides, harmful chemicals or other additives
Fresh off the vine

Individually, all these characteristics mean something different. In a marketplace where offerings range from conventional, manufactured “fast” food to high-end, beyond organic “slow” food, it’s important to define your own quality standard and what you’re willing to pay for it. It would be great if we all had unlimited means to support the farmers and food companies that are passionately offering us better food choices. But the reality is that most of us must consider price as an important decision-making factor when we shop.

I had a roommate in college who always bought the most expensive product on the shelf when we were grocery shopping. Her rationale was that if it costs more, it must be higher quality. I admired her standard but knew that it couldn’t be that simple, and I certainly couldn’t afford to adopt such a high bar. I was raised in a family of humble means and was trained to always buy the cheapest product on the shelf. I began to think more critically about what I was getting for my money.

Over the last few years I’ve been motivated to do a considerable amount of research on the role of diet in health. This has led to learning more about our food supply and all of the costs and consequences associated with the agribusiness model. I’m convinced that quality does matter, but I’m still defining what my quality standard is and how much of it I can afford. I’m learning about gardening by participating in a community garden, most of my diet is coming from lower down the food chain and I’m shopping around more to see what products and prices are available. I feel far more aware now than when I started, but will always be learning.

So, I’m curious. What is your quality standard and what are you paying for it?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Highlights from the Garden

This October marks the completion of my first real garden. I've dabbled in container gardening in the past, focusing mainly on herbs, but have finally ventured on to a real community garden where I've been able to shovel manure side-by-side with old guys in overalls. Farmer Bart has been a great mentor and I've learned so much. Here are a few of the season's highlights.

Quotes from Farmer Bart
After a long morning of watching me shovel dirt and manure into my box, Farmer Bart said "just don't strain your milk!" eventually followed by "you'll get so much muscle in your shoulders you'll be poopin' it out."

Practical Lessons for Next Year
Soil matters. More organic material (leaves) to thin out the clay.
Roots need oxygen, not just water and nutrients.
Start seeds earlier, plant earlier. Harvest earlier!
Peppers grow up, not out like tomatillos, which need a lot more space.
Cantaloupe needs more vertical space and support for it's wandering vines.
Bigger cages and more space for my tomatoes.
Black fabric is worth all the initial effort. Weeding sucks.
Get soaker hoses. Watering under black fabric is a pain.

Nothing compares to fresh-picked produce. I will never eat canned tomato soup again. My first cantaloupe literally made me cry. I grew these from seeds. I can do anything. Worth every bead of sweat. Can't wait until next year!