Wednesday, April 21, 2010

On Progress

I’m nearly finished with Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’d suggest it to anybody. It’s a fantastic book, full of humor, wisdom, gorgeous prose, and excellent recipes. (Seriously, try the Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp.) Still, I can’t help but feel a little guilty reading the thing.

The author is an ardent gardener and regular buyer of all foods organic, local, and humanely raised. She argues that it costs more up front, but the prices – to the environment, to her family’s health, to the local economy – even out in the long run. She is undoubtedly right on, and I agree completely.

But I also write a blog about inexpensive, nutritious cooking. And sometimes it’s difficult to reconcile ethical choices with workable choices.

Is a cheap banana better for us when it exploits workers in a different hemisphere? If we didn’t buy that banana, would they have jobs at all? Can you realistically expect someone to buy a $17 chicken twenty miles away, when a $3 one exists right around the corner?

Honestly, I don’t know.

I do know I would like that $17 chicken someday. Personally speaking, eating cheaply isn’t my ultimate goal. Eating smart, ethically, healthy, and heartily is my ultimate goal. Eating cheaply is a means of getting there. It's saving us money and instilling respect for what we consume.

As for progress, in the last few years, my household (apartmenthold?) has:
  • Cut our meat consumption by about 60%
  • Increased our vegetable and grain consumption drastically
  • Started eating seasonal produce
  • Started using canvas bags instead of plastic shopping bags
  • Made a conscious attempt to buy foods with less packaging
  • Started washing Ziploc bags
  • Started buying Certified Humanely Raised eggs (instead of those mass-produced thingies)
  • Started buying greenmarket meat when we can (which, I wish was more often)
  • Become hardcore menu planners and list makers
It’s been reflected at Cheap Healthy Good, too. When the site began, it was largely meant for budget dieters. The recipes included only calorie, fat, and price calculations. The articles centered more on the ties between financial solvency and weight. As many blogs tend to be, it was a reflection of where I was at the time: a burgeoning cook, newly fascinated with personal finance, attempting to maintain a recent drop in poundage.

Since then, the focus has changed somewhat. Fiber and protein are included in our recipe numbers now. “Dieting” turned more towards “healthy living.” The spending discussions have begun to include mentions of ethical eating, and maybe coughing up a little bit more cash for quality ingredients.

Are we ethically bulletproof? Nope. It’s a work in progress, and we get occasional flack for using cheap chickens. I am okay with this, though. Because ideally, I like to think our mission statement has evolved.

These days, we’re about more than inexpensive, nutritious cooking; we’re about saving a buck now so we can afford something better later. It's kind of like Dave Ramsey's motto: “Live like no one else, so you can live like no one else.”

And ultimately, the most you can ask of anyone is to do the best he can with what he has, and realize the value in aspiration.

So, what about you, sweet readers? Do you sometimes feel a disconnect between what you're eating, and what you'd like to be eating? What kind of changes have y’all made to your eating habits? What are you just starting? What will you do in the future? I’d love to hear how you’re progressing, as well.

P.S. Read the Kingsolver book. I’m serious.


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The Local Cook said...

LOVED the book. In fact it inspired me to start my blog. I eat primarily local meat and produce. Yes I do spend $17 on a chicken occasionally. But we eat a lot less chicken. Our overall budget for food has gone down. Do I still buy canned chicken occasionally, or go out to eat? Yes. But like you, I see the value in having a goal and working towards it. I can't change overnight, and I dont' expect others to either.

JennyH said...

We loved the book, too. We eat her pizza all the time, grilled or baked. SO good. And it was the book that was most effective at convincing us to do better shopping locally, and producing our own. Highly recommend it.

pat1755 said...

The Kingsolver book is good, but it is also horribly classist -- as is a lot of the current foodie stuff. I appreciate that you are more realistic about what people can actually spend, and I hope you don't change.

faerydogmother said...

Book is on my list of "Things I Want To Get To". Maybe after the quarter at school is over.

I won't buy poorly raised meat anymore. If I can't find quality, humanely raised meat, I don't eat meat. The end. This usually means no meat, but I have the feeling this is the way our diet is going anyway. I have a partner who is all for eating less meat, so that helps. His teenage daughter is another story.

I also buy organic produce and dairy, with the same caveat: if it is too expensive, eat something else. Or eat less. I turned down $7.98/lb. red peppers a couple of days ago, won't kill us to go without till they come down in price.

I am learning to cook, something my mother never taught me. I don't think she knew. I grew up on hamburger helper and tv dinners. I weigh less now at 48 than I did in eighth grade.

A line from a song that I love says "It's time to pay for what we cost". It's time to pay for what food costs. Use it up, eat less, be grateful, be mindful. Cook your own, don't be afraid to make mistakes, learn. It is work, but most things worth doing are.

Joy Manning said...

For me, when it comes to chicken, I just eat it less often. You can have a nonfactory farmed chicken about a fifth as often as you'd otherwise have the $3 bird. Around here, we roast a chicken probably once every six weeks and stretch it as far as possible, making stock, even making little chicken skin crisps. When evaluating cheap factory-produced foods, you do need to remember the hidden costs: government subsidies, health care costs, and the eventual cost of restoring the environment.

I don't think you have make ethical compromises if you can change your mind about how you shop and eat.

That said, it's important to maintain some sense of sanity about it. I sometimes eat chicken of unknown origin when I'm at a restaurant or a guest in someone's home.

Anyone who is thinking about this kind of stuff and attempting to make better choices is on the right track! It isn't all or nothing.

Missy K said...

This post is SO where we are right now. We've decreased our meat consumption, increased our local purchases, drastically reduced the amount of processed food we eat, and just planted our second garden. But. . . we're not quite there on the $17 chicken. The $4 / dozen farm around the corner eggs are a treat. We've read this book (loved it) and watched Food Inc and King Corn and read Michael Pollan and we're on a road, headed in a direction. . . . hopefully toward a time when more sustainable, healthier eating is more accessible for us and lots of other people too.

I really appreciate the evolutionary nature of this blog, because it reflects our own journey. Thanks!

LoriM said...

Kris, I loved this. I agree that making baby steps (and it looks like you've done more than that - good job!) is a lot better than doing nothing.

Totally agree with the "Would they have jobs at all if I didn't buy this banana?" I grew up as an American in a desperately poor country in Africa, and sometimes I don't understand these fair trade issues. I need to study this more.

Really love your blog.

Daniel said...

I hear you Kris. I think this is a path of self-actualization that many home cooks (and food bloggers) go through.

First we try to optimize our budgets and our diets--usually this means cooking a lot more at home. Once we've made some great strides there, the next step for many of us is to think about balancing cost with ethics when we eat.

However, I still believe the biggest, most significant thing nearly everyone can do to help improve our budgets, the ethics of our diets AND reduce the impact we have on the environment is to eat less meat.

Casual Kitchen

Aryn said...

Loved, loved, loved the book. Of course, I read it with the caveat in mind that her family was fortunate to own a family farm already and be in a position to reorganize their lives around it.

But I still think we can take lessons from it. After seeing photos of the damage to the Gulf from pig feedlot run-off, I try to buy only pastured pork. And she made me want to grow my own veggies.

uncanny said...

That's the book that inspired me to make mozzarella!

I still buy chicken at Costco. I am unlikely to give that up any time soon. I do think that it's fine to move in a direction slowly - one expensive ethical purchase helps the industry develop, even if your next purchase is traditionally raised meat. Some organic fair trade bananas once in a while are better than none at all. Same with fair-trade chocolate. The idea that it must be an all-or-none choice kind of makes me crazy. It's okay to vote with your dollars as often as you can, and it's okay to eat a Mars bar now and then.

ChiRed77 said...

Just actually started this book the other day and very excited to see what it's all about. I live in a large Midwestern city so my next step is to get my name on the waiting list for a community garden. Living in a high rise makes it difficult to grow anything but I’m not going to let that get in the way…

C said...

First of all, love your blog; especially the veg recipes.

I'm growing tomatoes, cucs, lettuce, bell peppers, and a [sad looking] eucalyptus plant for the first time in my life. Part of this journey is the exciting experiences- will the eucalyptus plant survive? stay tuned!

$9 for four bison burgers from my local FM. Delicious and lean. It taste like a special kind of burger. I almost feel fancy eating it. lol.

Need to organize the recycling a little bit better.

Next goal: worm composting!

Emily @ Relishments said...

I haven't read the book yet (though it's one of many on my list). I totally understand what you're talking about though--I struggle all the time with the fact that I would love to only eat organic food...or food that I knew who farmed it...or food that was local. But sometimes my budget and schedule aren't big fans of that idea. I do the best I can and try to make gradual improvements to my diet. I'm doing much better than I was a year ago and hopefully I'll continue to improve.

ScienceandtheCity said...

I really appreciate this post. It's pretty in line with how I am operating right now, too - I've made some changes and would like to make more. It's nice that you acknowledge that it's not an all or none game - small changes do make a difference.

Ultimately, I think an attitude like that (that it's okay not to be perfect and that you can make small, significant changes) is going to change more minds and make a bigger difference than someone who thinks that if you aren't doing everything you can you might as well be doing nothing. That kind of thinking is really discouraging.

Linds said...

I loved this book! After reading it I learned to make a few types of cheese and gave up meats produced by huge agri-business. My family still enjoys some meat, but it is a special occasion addition rather than a staple. I really love cooking and this book inspired me to be more adventurous and creative.

For Thanksgiving last year, we spent almost $40 on a heritage turkey from a local farm (which was AMAZING - maybe in part because I hadn't had turkey in so long). I confess it made me a little sick to see the $4 Butterballs at my local grocery store, not because I wanted one, but because I knew that the true cost was WAY more than $4 in terms of subsidies and human and animal suffering.

Taking baby steps myself has made me more aware of my body and its response to what I choose to feed it. The change has helped my family connect to each other as well as to our food and our garden because we spend more time together thinking and talking about nourishment and eating great food.

KMAYS said...

I just want to say a big ol' AMEN to this post. My husband and I are in a similar boat: trying to eat well for cheaply while still enjoying life. It's so hard to choose the $17 chicken instead of the $3 when you're on a budget, even knowing how much better the $17 chicken is in the long one. Thank you for this post.

Ellen @ CheapCooking said...

Yes, we're where you are, making progress and trying to balance today's budget with tomorrow's costs. Loved that book and you just reminded me that my nephew borrowed it and hasn't returned it yet! I do grow a lot of my own vegetables and am making an effort to hit the local farmer's market for more stuff, plus eggs and such. Mindfulness is the answer. The more we think about it, the more likely we are to make good choices I think.

Karen said...

The program Missy K mentioned called "FOOD, INC" just happens to be on PBS tonite at 9pm on P.O.V. (here anyway). I have been wanting to see it so tonite is my chance.

(Looks like it repeats on Sat/Sun early as well.)

Elizabeth said...

I also enjoyed the book. I sometimes find Kingsolver's preachy, but this book largely steered clear of that. The part towards the end re turkeys' sex lives was particularly memorable. I won't say more in case you haven't read it yet.

As to the larger point, I agree with many posters above that it's important not to be rigid or judgmental. Not everyone is in a position to eat organic/pasture raised/local etc., etc. What's most important for health and pocketbook is cooking at home. And I agree with Dan that, from an environmental standpoint, nothing has as great an impact as eating less meat.

Even under the best of circumstances there are tradeoffs to be made. What's better--local and conventional, or organic and far away? Because of physical limitations and deer run amuck,a large garden is no longer practical for me. So I grow vegies in planters on my patio. I'm definitely in $64 tomato territory, but I get such joy from it, and the homegrown vegies are so delicious, it's worth it to me. We all have to make compromises. There's no such thing as zero impact, or perfect ethics, either.

Meredith said...

I really like the content of Kingsolver's book, but not her tone, which struck me as superior and smug even when she wasn't referencing politics.

I much prefer your sense of humor, Kris. Your book on the $17 chicken? That's the one I'll stand in line to buy.

Lisa (newRDcook) said...

I, too, loved this book - it inspired me to not only start a blog, but to join a CSA and regularly shop at my local farmers market. I think the greatest impact it has had is that I now think about my food choices and their larger impact on the environment and the economy. I love getting to know the person who grows the food I eat.

I agree with you (and the majority of others) that taking realistic steps to improve eating habits is important; aspiration is indeed a valuable lesson from AVM. Like Neil Armstrong said on the moon, "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." Food choices are similar!

LB said...

I read the book last year and like someone said above I appreciated that she was pretty upfront about how everything in the book was possible because her family owned a farm and could arrange their lives around it. I also remember her talking about how in the old days (when all eating was seasonal) spring was a time when people risked starvation before the new crops came in and the importance of techniques to preserve the shelf life of foods. Those thoughts have helped me keep with the idea of realistic, incremental changes in how I eat(and remembering that seasonal isn't always possible and not all "processed" food is created equal).

For me another piece of the puzzle is to support and learn from groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (representing fruit & vegetable pickers in Florida). The meat industry is definitely not the only industry that is problematic and local/organic doesn't tell you anything about working conditions for the person who picked your food.

One small step after another...

Diane said...

Liked the content, but found the tone really quite annoying.

I eat very similarly to you. And I was an original locavore back when it was just a local East Bay mailing list for those of us who wanted to support local food resources - and not a national food trend. I give my business to as many local farmers as I can. But while I applaud the increase in food awareness, I worry a bit that it's gone off the deep end and that we, as Americans, are getting as maniacal and target-driven about this goal/issue as we can be about other food issues (like dieting). In general, it's a good trend because food at this time is so heavily counter-balanced the other way towards industrial farming. But feels a bit hyper and unnecessary at times. I read a post from someone recently who refused to use any lemons in her cooking because they came from farther than 100 miles away. Ummmmm...OK. me, I'm not giving up my coffee, which isn't grown anywhere near me.

In the end it should be about eating good, whole & unprocessed healthful foods, well-prepared and enjoying them with our families and friends. Not about worrying if the banana came from too far away to eat.

But like I said, more than not I think this trend is a good thing as it gets people to think & question.

falnfenix said...

my partner and i have been noticing things more about our diet...we've cut out most junk, and are shopping more wisely than before.

we also grow our own produce, which helps to cut down on costs. we grow lettuce and herbs year-round and this year i'll be working on preserving our expected tomato surplus...particularly in the form of ketchup. it's appalling how much crap is in a bottle of ketchup. we're actually growing a variety of tomato that tastes like good ketchup in solid form, so i'm thinking that should be relatively easy to do.

this year's the big year - it'll determine whether we can keep up with what most of our neighbors would consider a large-scale operation. i've converted as much of our yard as possible into veggie garden plots, and we're growing just about every type of veg we can. even corn has a place in our yard.

for the meat side of things we already buy half a local cow annually, and pick up local chickens (whole or parts) when we can. this winter we'll be hunting (to help manage the local deer population AND to fill our freezers), so i imagine we'll be cutting down the half cow purchase.

eventually, we'd like to be farm owners, and rely primarily on ourselves for things like veggies, chickens, and eggs. hopefully that'll happen within 5 years. until that does we'll stick to our current plan. it worked for us last year.

chris s said...

I read Animal, Vegetable and loved it. But I guess she was already preaching to the choir with me. I not only buy $17 chickens I go to the farm and help butcher too. I think the part of the book about butchering with the friends that had just lost a child was especially touching.

Well we don't have the tiniest grocery budget. Because we eat inseason and steadily eat more veggie or very meat light meals, I know we don't spend much more than average and we eat food that is healthier, tastier, and made with more love than many folks.

Sandra said...

Loved the book (and veg recipes) which, along with Pollan, helped me move along my path toward healthy, ethical cooking and eating. I've become a restaurant vegetarian since I don't know the provenance of the meat/chicken so stick to fish or eggs. At home I've found local grass-raised beef and bought half a "happy cow" at a good price and pay out the nose for occasional "happy pig" from Wisconsin (all stocking a basement freezer for use throughout the year) and line-caught tuna. I also pay the upcharge for certified cage-free eggs at my local supermarket. I belong to a local CSA for organic produce, and I found a local woman (laid-off from her Fortune 500 firm) who is doing organic gardening and I visit her once a week during the growing season. Combine this with a lot of mail-order organic grains/beans and thoughtful forays to the chain grocer, and I'm as comfortable as I can be not growing all that I eat. Bottom-line, though, is that it hasn't been cheap stocking up on good food (I've bought much in volume to save shipping on those beans and grains) so I'm working now on "use what you have" and filling in with local produce as it arrives. I'm also enjoying the variety of seasonal recipes on this blog that are helping me to pull together the fresh and the stored. Second bottom line, though, is that I feel so much better (physically and ethically) eating healthy, good food and being able to avoid the junk -- even slowly losing weight -- that I'm comfortable with where I am for now.

ilikecoffee said...

It's blogs like yours that made me start thinking about issues like these. Before I started reading, I thought that all people who ate free-range chickens and "happy cows" were like the girl Ross Gellar from friends describes, "Hi, my name is Rain. I have my own kiln, and my dress is made out of wheat." My family and I are trying to eat more first order foods. We joined a SWEET co-op from a farm a few miles from town, which luckily for us is much cheaper than even the grocery store. I found a farm a few miles from my house that sells me eggs from free range chickens for $1.50/dozen. I'm looking around for locally non-factory farmed meat. I'm growing a garden; I use fewer paper products; I recycle. I can't handle the all or nothing attitude, though, because I can't give up my honey bunches of oats.

MDwebpro said...

Very thought-provoking post, Kris. I received and read the Kingsolver book about a year ago, and it really got me thinking about a lot of food issues I hadn't stopped previously to consider. It also got me reading similar books (e.g., The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan) and seeing films on the processing our food undergoes before we buy it (e.g., Food, Inc.). Like you, I'm trying harder to eat locally and seasonally, and I'm now thinking in terms of the resources spent to produce and ship the food I buy. At the same time, however, $17 chickens and $5 lettuce heads will not be appearing my refrigerator. I'm all for making changes in support of our nation's organic growers, but I'm neither wealthy nor a sucker.

Matteous @ Menu Musings said...

I've eaten completely differently ever since my third semester of college. Before that...well, pizza wasn't pizza unless it had meat on it. Now Inhardly ever eat red meat--in fact, I eat seafood, vegitables and poultry for the most part. I also do my best to buy ethical meats, eggs, etc. I don't drink milk however.

Adult mamals (especially humans) aren't even built to digest milk.

I'm lucky enough to have access to a local farmer's market right off of the main street of my town. Fresh vegitables, breads, herbs,'s wonderful!

I'm also planning in starting a window garden when I get my own place. It's basically a hanging hydroponic garden.

Sally said...

I read this shortly after it was published and enjoyed it. The three things I most remember are:

1. Why farmers grow tobacco.
2. Why some food choices eliminate others (in many parts of the country if you choose to eat seasonally and locally, being vegan will be next to impossible).
3. Why everyone being vegan is no better for the environment than everyone eating large amounts of meat (factory farming).

I don't remember where I read this, but no matter how you eat, critters will be killed in the growing of your food. It will be different critters killed in a different way, but critters will be killed.

Well, priority right now is eating real food on a (very) limited budget. At least in my neck of the woods, that makes organic and pasture-raised meats too dear for any kind of regular consumption. I'm more concerned about the animal products than organic plant foods.

I think that the overwhelming majority of people are going to shop at the grocery store/supermarket. I want to find quality food there.