I've been feeling like I should clarify what I was trying to say in my previous post, which actually started out as a much longer, more involved post that I never seemed able to finish because it had become too large and unwieldy. Since I tend to suffer from mental paralysis whenever I feel overwhelmed by something, I kept avoiding it until I finally decided that chopping it into smaller bits might help me get at least some of it out there. I see now that that might have left it incomplete and somewhat disjointed, so I thought I'd expand on some of my thoughts before moving on to some recipe posts.
First off, I wasn't at all suggesting that I no longer support organic food and agriculture. There's obviously nothing healthy about eating food grown using chemicals, and it's unsustainable to farm this way. But, just because something is considered "conventional" or "non-organic" doesn't necessarily mean that it was produced using invasive, unsustainable methods (and likewise, just because you can buy something in a "natural foods" store doesn't mean it's better for you or the planet). I think buying locally makes it easier to gain firsthand knowledge of how our food is produced and where it comes from. Sure, that box of California grown lettuce might say "organic" on it, but what the label doesn't mention is that it took several times more energy to package and truck that lettuce to your local grocer than that lettuce actually contains. Will your salad be as nutritious after it's long journey? Not likely.
David Suzuki, one of my heroes and someone whose opinion I trust, has this to say about the organic versus local debate:
"It's best to buy locally grown organic food. But given the choice between imported organic and local produce, buying local is better."
"Since shipping food long distances requires packaging and chemical treatments to prevent rotting and over-ripening, buying locally grown helps reduce the waste, energy and materials needed in this process.
Buying locally grown fruits and veggies also helps conserve precious farmlands and wildlife habitats. In Canada, the best agricultural land is located near our largest cities. Keeping these areas in production conserves fertile land and preserves biological diversity for the future.
Buying locally contributes to the financial viability of nearby farmers and other producers. In the long-run this may ensure access to fresh, seasonal food and greater food awareness among city dwellers.
Fresh food tastes much better than food that’s been stored and shipped across the country--or around the world.
Locally grown produce tends to be fresher and contain higher levels of vitamins than the imported variety. Food that has to be transported long distances is often preserved with waxes, irradiation, gases and synthetic chemicals, such as fungicides and sprout inhibitors."
So, while this is how I usually shop, there are a few things that I do insist on buying organic (whether local or not), potatoes and apples being two of them. This is largely because of the increased risk of pesticide residues with these crops, as well as the fact that our family tends to eat larger quantities of both of these foods. Thankfully, they are both relatively inexpensive to buy organic, and grow in abundance on our local farms.
It's more difficult to find organic berries in our area, but we were lucky enough to find a local farm that practices Integrated Pest Management, and this is where we usually get our blueberries (which tend to have one of the lowest level of pesticide residues even among conventionally grown fruits anyway). I do prefer my strawberries to be organic, however (since conventionally grown ones test very high for pesticide residues), and will often buy small quantities of these when in season to freeze for later use. Blueberries and strawberries were two fruits that I set out establishing in our small garden once we had our own yard, and since I was sneaky and brought the plants with us when we moved, we will hopefully have enough home grown fruit to sustain us in coming years.
Gleaning is another way that we have managed to keep ourselves in unsprayed, low cost fruit. We often raid my in-laws' cherry tree during our summer visits (since my husband is willing to climb to great heights in order to pick them), pick gallons of wild blackberries during our summer holidays, and a girlfriend of mine has a pear tree (which she keeps threatening to chop down) that keeps us in yummy jams and sauces year round. Put the word out that you're willing to do the hard labour, and you'd be surprised what people are willing to give away. The fruit doesn't even have to be perfect - the pears that I get are usually undesirable for eating fresh (scabby, etc), but are just fine to use in cooking.
While I usually spend the extra for organic milk and dairy products (largely because any chemicals that the animal is exposed to are concentrated and excreted in the butterfat), conventional milk in Canada is a little less of a risk than it is in the U.S. Bovine growth hormone has never been approved for use here, and the dairy farmers in my family have told me stories of whole batches of milk being dumped if the smallest trace of antibiotic residue was detected in it. Because of this, I'm not too worried about occasionally buying the non-organic version of a favorite dairy product.
One way that we are able to have organic yogurt, sour cream, and butter at close to the same price as conventional milk is to make our own, as organic milk and cream in their original state are usually much cheaper to buy than their soured/churned counterparts. This way, a litre (quart) of organic yogurt can be had for less than $3, instead of $5 or $6. If you find that organic milk is still too expensive, making your own dairy products with conventional cream and milk will help reduce costs even further.
Another excellent way to avoid the high cost of milk (organic or not) altogether is to make your own soy milk as a substitute, something we have done for years for pennies on the dollar compared to milk.
I realize that not everyone will be open to my next suggestion, but one of the reasons we are able to keep our food expenses so low is that we don't eat meat. My dad was here over the holidays and, knowing what the chances were of me having meat in the house (you can read more about my relationship with meat here), he brought a package of steaks to have for dinner one night. When I saw the "sale price" listed on the sticker, I almost died - I could have fed our family of four for two whole days for the cost of those steaks, and they weren't even organic! Don't get me wrong, while I was a hard-core vegetarian for many years, we do eat fish now, and have been known to partake in the celebratory turkey at Christmas and Thanksgiving. But, since meat has never been a huge part of our diet, none of us particularly miss it, and we are happy to pocket the money that not eating it saves us. Obviously, if you are able to raise your own animals for meat, this doesn't apply, but it's unlikely that we will be joining those ranks anytime soon, so meatless we shall remain.
Eliminating meat from the menu isn't difficult, but it does take a shift in meal planning, and there are dozens of excellent cookbooks full of ideas for budding "money savers" (because this is about saving money, not about converting everyone to vegetarianism) .
Having a solid idea of how much things cost is invaluable when you're trying to save money, so I often take a small notebook with me when I'm shopping to record prices and locations. I dedicate a half a page or so to each item, and jot down the price of that item at various stores. That way, I always know when I see a good price, and whether it's a good enough deal to warrant stocking up.
Here are a few other things that help keep our grocery bill down:
-Our kids drink mostly water now (from the tap) instead of juice. It's better for their teeth anyway (as well as our dental bills)!
-We've cut way back on snack foods, and if we feel like a treat, we'll spend time together baking and trying new recipes instead of splurging on expensive, prepackaged goodies.
-We try to eat smaller amounts at each sitting, making an effort to have leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day (my husband almost never buys a lunch).
-Preparing simple meals with simple ingredients (back to basics).
Using these ideas, we are able to eat a really good, mostly organic diet for between $10 - $15 a day (and we're hoping to take it down lower).
Judging by your excellent comments on my previous post, none of these ideas will be all that new to most of you, but hopefully there will something of use in there for someone.
Before I go, I'd like to share this interview with Jamie Oliver, which aired on CBC recently. He's a real proponent of local (homegrown) food and simple recipes, and has worked hard to make cooking seem less daunting to the home chef. If you haven't seen his latest show yet, do yourself a favor and check it out.