Eating well on the cheap

Good food is not a luxury, it is a necessity. We need delicious, nutritious, vibrant, wholesome food to nurture healthy bodies, minds and spirits. Here we are, fretting over the sorry state of healthcare, yet how do we truly expect to improve public health if we omit food from the equation?

My grand-parents grew up eating like kings. They were not part of the elite. They had access to fresh, natural food grown on the family farm. Ditto for my baby-boomer parents, who were spared the supermarket/fast-food lifestyle and grew up knowing nothing else but the fare procured straight from the source, meat and all: the family farm, the urban garden and the farmers’ market.

Very few of us are so lucky nowadays as to live on or near a farm, or in the vicinity of a vegetable garden. Food is cheaper than in any previous generation and ready-to-eat food is ubiquitous. Yet most of us in America are confronted with a paradoxical issue : access to food that can truly nourish us is a challenge.

Food deserts”, both urban and rural, abound in America. In those areas, food can be purchased only from fast-food chains, liquor stores and gas stations. Fresh produce is not an option. “Organic” does not refer to food.

In the land of malls and supermarkets, one has to forfeit convenience to find natural food that has not traveled 1500 miles on average before getting there.

As for big urban centers, like San Francisco and New York, they boast more and more farmers’ markets. The food they offer was grown in the area, which means that it is typically fresher and tastier than what you’ll find at a store. Most of it was grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.  It’s also out of reach for many.

Or so we believe.

“I don’t know anyone who eats better than our live-in baby-sitter. She lost her professional job due to an illness that she treats through an impeccable diet. She eats a 100% natural, high-quality, local, organic diet on food stamps only”, said Jessica Prentice, author and co-owner of Three-Stone Hearth, at an event hosted last night in San Francisco by the Commonwealth Club’s Bay Gourmet Forum.

Thankfully, alternatives to food stamps are plentiful. All it takes is a little bit of creativity. Here are a few tips brought to the attention of the audience, last night, by New-Yorker Leda Merideth, author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget:

  • volunteering at your local farmers’ market or favorite CSA farm for discounts or even free food.
  • trading your unique skills for food at the farmers’s market and/or CSA farm.
  • eating what’s in season (when the crop is plentiful, hence cheaper, and tastes best).
  • walking through the whole farmers’ market before buying anything so as to get a better idea of where the better deals are—then deciding on one or two items that you want to treat yourself to.

On top of that, let’s remember what was common sense for my grand-parents’ generation:

  • learn to rely on cheap traditional staple foods, like potatoes and cabbage, which you can augment with various garnishes.
  • a crop is the cheapest at the peak of its season: buy it by the caseload and preserve it (jams, preserves, dried goods, etc.).
  • make the most of vegetables like beets, radishes and carrots: their leaves alone can provide a dish onto themselves!
  • no need for lamb everyday: unless your doctor insists otherwise, you really don’t need to eat meat daily. If you choose to, you can still go for high-quality meat (pastured, free-range) without breaking the bank: instead of the best, most expensive morsels, which are best kept for Holidays and special occasions, you can get as much nutritive value from “lower” (ie. much cheaper) cuts ideally suited to scrumptious stews, soups and sauces. And be open to widen your repertoire to meat with a bad reputation: “Mutton is half the price of lamb, yet it tastes the same when used in a stew”, mentioned Jessica Prentice.

Eventually, we’re going to have to face this truth: food from conventional agriculture is priced artificially low—what with government subsidies and “externalized” costs such as the damages caused to the health of people and planet. For the foreseeable future, quality food, grown in accordance with sustainability principles, is bound to come at a premium compared to the commodity-type produce and meat sold at supermarkets. It is up to us to decide what type of agricultural practices and food system we want to support with our wallet.

Here’s my pitch: the extra-cost of sustainable food not only gets us better nutrition and taste, but also better connections to the land and the people. “It’s a very rich experience to look at your plate and know everyone on that plate”, reflected cook and author Deborah Madison last night.

So let’s be creative to keep our food budget under control AND support our local farmers whose responsibility it is to keep us, and the land, healthy. After all, we all belong together.

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2 Responses to Eating well on the cheap

  1. quilting says:

    I can’t find how to subscribe to the comments via RSS . I want to keep up to date on this, how do I do that?

    • Laetitia Mailhes says:

      Simply scroll down to the “Meta” section in the right hand-side column and click on “Comments RSS” to subscribe. Thank you for your interest!

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