Thursday, October 19, 2006

Local on a budget

I've been simmering with Laurie's comment on my "What we can do" post, below, ever since she posted it. She asked if I had any suggestions for buying local food on a budget. I suppose I didn't answer it right away because I really don't have a good answer for her. But I've been there, done that. We lived in Boston and Paul was in seminary and taking in a part-time salary to cover all our expenses. Zachary was born in Boston and it was difficult to cover everything financially. But I didn't have the awareness yet of all the big corporations taking over that I do now. I was only just starting to think about organics, and like Laurie, I'd look at the organic section in the supermarket and then I'd look at the price tag and I say, not this time. We barely had enough money to cover the basics, not extravagances like organic groceries.

I suppose my not-very-helpful suggestions to someone in a position like that is that I think food is something that I now am willing to pay a higher price for than just about anything else. It's what goes into our bodies every day. Everything else I am willing to go second-hand on--clothes, cars, furniture, and on many of these things you can get better quality second-hand things for less than buying new. But cheap food, which you can't buy second-hand (or at least, you don't want to!) does nothing to help our ailing system. It continues the cycle of poverty. The average farm worker dies at age 49. We want to pay very little for food, which is passed on to the people who grow and harvest it.

We have been in a binge of watching The West Wing on DVD lately (though we just finished the second season and I'm ready for a break!). One one episode, President Bartlett is confronted by dairy farmers, who are upset because he signed a bill that kept milk prices low. He told them that he stood behind his choice, not because he thought they should be poorly paid, but because he felt that all kids should be drinking milk. While I am behind his desire, to feed all the children of the US, I don't believe this is the way to go about it. It again continues the cycle of poverty. The better way to do this would be to level the playing field, at least somewhat. People shouldn't have to choose between buying milk and not having enough money to pay the rent, or buying fruit-flavored sugary drink and having enough.

Paul and I were talking about Walmart this morning. I was telling him about an article in the Utne reader I started to read in a doctor's office, about yeah, you hate Walmart, as any good liberal does, but what if you found out that they're the best big business in environmental issues, in organics, etc.? Paul said he heard about Walmart going into the organics business. Their slogan was something like that everyone should be able to choose organics. How enticing! I have to admit, there is something to that. And yet, it's just business as usual. What can get people in their doors? Promising stuff that we want.

Paul said that the word "organic" has come to mean something to him--not just organically grown, but locally produced by small family farmers. Yet there is a huge industry built around big farm industry going organic. This has an appeal, in that the food is lower cost. But it is at a greater cost to all of us--less diversity, less local business, money being poured into the coffers of big business yet again. Not to speak of the impact of food being grown far away and being trucked to you, hundreds of miles of gas being used up, the pollution from all that going right into our air and drinking water.

So, I suppose the only advice I have for you, Laurie, is to buy locally produced, organic, small family farmed food whenever you can, and in whatever increasing amount you can over the years. Perhaps you could forge relationships with a family farm and barter for food, or work for food. Growing it yourself is another option.

We were talking with one of the women at the Dorothy Day House that I wrote about last month. She is a single woman who lives at the Dorothy Day House, and works as a nurse, but not all year long. She purposely earns only enough so that she can live on her income without paying any taxes. She wants to live in simplicity and also doesn't want to be funding war and other things that aren't in line with her values. We came across this concept in the book Radical Simplicity but I think she was the first person we ever met who is doing this. It's an amazing concept. I think, first of all, it's much easier to do this if you don't have kids. But also it would encourage relationships, and in fact it would be necessary to have relationships, with people who you can trade with. Now, this is actually illegal in the US but I think it's an idea that we've gotten way too far from; the idea of bartering goods and services. I think it would be less work and less money exchanged to operate in this way. Thing is, we're not set up for that anymore. We're set up to go to the major department store and buy cheap stuff rather than to the local craftsperson and trade with them for things we need. But I truly think that's the only way out of this big corporation mess we've gotten ourselves into.

So, here's my less-than-helpful wishful-thinking answer to you, Laurie. Anyone else have any ideas?


Mimi said...

I agree, local producers as much as possible, but I admit, especially in my younger, poorer days (and even now, actually) I do buy a lot at the local Fred Meyer.

Mimi said...

Oooh, and I should add - look into having milk delivered - local, fresh, and much cheaper than the organic at the store.

karrie said...

One upside to the expensive-in-most ways city of Boston is the many famer's markets we have. (Several new ones in recent years too.)

I'll have to look up the link, but there are coop-like organizations you can join for a relatively small fee and in return you get a box of organic, locally riased produce in season each week. Its a great way to try new produce.

Can she grow anything on her own? Tomatoes in a planter? Herbs?

karrie said...

Also, while still a big corporation, Costco has much better labor practices than Wal*mart, and they also have started carrying lots of organic and natural foods. Sharing a membership with another family would be cost effective.

Here is a blurb I found and c+p about the CEO:
Costco chief executive Jim Sinegal, 68, is a Democrat who says Bush's $1.7 trillion in tax cuts unfairly benefit the wealthy. He opposed the Iraq war and supports Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts for president. And he's the only chief executive of a company in the Standard & Poor's 500 index to donate money to independent political groups formed to oust Bush, Internal Revenue Service records show.

Laurie said...

Reading your post was really an encouragement. I came back to the States with such high aspirations for buying local/organic/fair trade only to have the realities of prices vs. grad school budget hit. I think maybe the key for us now is just to do what we can. I'm looking for some more freelance work to do from home, and as more money comes in I hope to allocate some of it to changing some of the things we buy.

karrie, you're right--the farmer's markets are great, and I've been going to one in the nearby neighborhood of Chelsea. The only thing is that it seems most of them shut down in the winter.

We're also on the waiting list for a plot in the community garden next to our house, so maybe in the Spring we can plant some of our own. We have a balcony that we could put pots out on in the spring too. I would love to get the link to the coop organization.

Mimi, I'll look into local milk delivery--I've seen some trucks that look like milk delivery.

i think part of our problem is still being new here, and not knowing where to start when looking for affordable fair trade/local options. Not having a car (and having a 2-year-old to tote along on subway and bus) also limits where we can go and how much we can carry. But I actually don't like driving and love using public transportation!

Anyway, even beyond the information in the post it was a great encouragement to me today to read your blog and see my name. We're still very new here and are suffering with a bit of loneliness, and it's nice to feel thought about by a virtual-but-real friend. Hope we can meet in real life one day!

Elizabeth said...

I'm glad you were encouraged, Laurie! I didn't feel like I was giving very practical suggestions. I think doing what you can is all you can do. It's what any of us can do.

I think Karrie is referring to the concept of CSA--Community Supported Agriculture. I've written about it before here:
and a quick google search reveals this website which lists CSA in lots of states, including Massachussetts:

Hope this helps!

Elizabeth said...

Oh, and I meant to also say that I expect to meet you at some point. We definitely plan on a trip to Boston within the next few years. :-)

karrie said...

Yup, CSA is the link I was thinking of.

Laurie: Where are you?(If you don't mind me asking. I'm in Union Square and have a 2 yo son.) The Farmer's Market in Davis Square in Somerville runs through late-November. Also, if you eat meat, one of the vendors sells their own locally raised stuff. A friend of mine raves about it.

Also, do you know about Zipcar?

We own a car now, but we were members for awhile. Very convenient--you can reserve a car online and pick it up without any hassle.

Feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions. karriew(AT)

monica said...

it is so great to hear this discussion, as i struggle with these issues during my short trips to the US. one thing i have done here in Romania to save money and that i hope i would do in the states, if i ever lived there long term again, is to take advantage of in season produce and can, dry or freeze as much as possible. This year was the most preserving i have ever done, (jams, compot, frozen veggies, zakuska, applesauce) and i can honestly say that the work is worth it when i can go to my pantry in the dead of winter and get a can of apricot jam i made from the tree in my yard when it was sunny and hot. That way you enjoy the farmers market all year long.

Susan said...

I agree with you Elizabeth, but I still say I refuse to pay 3.50 for a pint of cherries at farmers market.
I sometimes sneak into WalMart (Im afraid my son will see me and kill me) I have seen their "organic" meat section, and have bought on occasion. I usually buy my meat from Trader Joes. I think its better than WalMart. We dont eat a lot of meat anyway.
I do can,and buy fresh fruit in season, and buy lots at Costco, but Im afraid Im not very "aware."

SVB said...

I would love to see the politics behind food prices change! Lets stop the explotation of the illegal workers and pay real wages to the field workers. Lets stop the gross pollution caused by the chemical industry.
And lets see our health care costs decline as everyone breathes healthier air and eats food that has been raised/grown to be eaten instead of being raised/grown as cheaply as possible.
a stitch in time, saves nine
oh and a side benefit would be yummier food too.!