One of the things I have found challenging as I try to be more intentional and frugal about our food choices is the battle between price and quality. I scour the ads and plan my menu and grocery list every week, looking for things I can buy on sale to cut costs. But I also want high quality ingredients, including organic produce, free-range meat and dairy that is not full of antibiotics and hormones, and food that has not had all the nutrients processed out of it.
Take chicken for example. I can get a 3lb value pack of BSCB (boneless skinless chicken breast) for say, $2 a pound on sale. That's a great price, and that total of $6 can be stretched over several meals. But that pack of meat likely comes from chickens that have been packed into a pen so tight they can't move around, their beaks clipped to prevent injury to themselves or other birds (because they go a little crazy in their claustrophobic environment), and shot up with hormones and antibiotics because they are standing in their own excrement. The meat from these chickens is then pumped full of water to make them appear moist and juicy and give you less actual meat per pound. So while I got it at a cheap price, I got less meat and lower quality. Add on to that the moral implications of the treatment of the animals in light of our Biblical call to be stewards of creation, and I can't justify that purchase, no matter the apparent cost savings.
On the other hand, I could buy a pound of BSCB for about $6 that is organic, free-range, antibiotic- and hormone-free. The chickens eat grass and bugs and run around in a pen in the open air. Their meat is tastier because they eat what God designed them to eat instead of processed corn byproducts and their meat is not pumped full of chemicals and water. Here's a great video I saw recently that gives you an idea of what a free-range chicken life is like. It really shows you the difference. As Jer says, he wants to eat a happy chicken.
So it is better, not just for us, but also for the environment. And this applies not only to meat but also dairy, eggs, and produce. With all the strains of bacteria that are becoming resistant to antibiotics, the last thing we want to do is eat food that has been pumped full of the stuff. And I think we all know enough to say that eating produce covered in pesticides is probably not so great.
But it is only because we have a good income that I can make the choice to purchase higher quality, more expensive food. We spend $100 a month just on organic produce through a CSA program, not to mention the weekly purchases of meat and dairy. And we don't even eat that much meat-we probably have chicken once or twice a week, seafood maybe once a week, and hardly ever eat red meat at home. Still, for two people, we spend a lot of money on food in order to get good ingredients.
I don't know how I would do it on a limited income. What if we had minimum wage jobs? And kids? What if we were on unemployment or welfare? How would we purchase healthy food for our kids with food stamps and government assistance?
Just do a search on "obesity rates in low income households" and you will see the disparity that exists based on income. The cheapest foods are the most calorie rich, nutrient lacking foods out there-the highly processed grains that make up a lot of the middle section of the grocery store. These are the types of foods that leave you feeling hungry but end up as fat in your midsection, leading to heart disease and diabetes. Experts say that the healthy way to eat is to spend the majority of your food budget on the outer edges of the store-the produce section, dairy section, meat, bulk bins of nuts, etc. But those are some of the most expensive items. When you have to feed a family of four on less than $50 a week, spending $6 for a pound of BSCB that might get you through one dinner just isn't going to work.
Another thing to consider is the time involved in healthy cooking. Although I work a full time job, since I have no kids I have the time to sit down and plan a menu, make elaborate meals, and bake my own bread. A working mom has no such luxury. If it were me, getting home from a long day at work, with a couple of cranky kids just picked up from daycare, I wouldn't want to think through roasting a free-range chicken or preparing a vegetarian stir-fry. I certainly wouldn't want to chop veggies if I had to help the kids with their homework, do the laundry, and try to get to sleep early enough so I wouldn't nod off during the important work presentation I had the next day. So out comes the blue box mac and cheese or the frozen fishsticks, full of chemicals and not a lot of vitamins.
So what do we do? As a society we have decided that cheap processing is the way to go, and have left the small local farmer in the dust. While there is a definite movement towards local, organic, and healthy groceries, it seems that is currently the privelege of those who can afford it. When you have fast food dollar menus, why spend what little cash you have on sweet potatoes and leafy greens? When your kids are begging you for the sweet treats that are promoted on TV, how do you convince them that the apple from the local grower is the better option? How do we create a culture that values homecooked meals and healthy living rather than what is fast and convenient?
I don't have answers, I'm just becoming more aware of the questions. Time to read more Wendell Berry.