We are what we eat.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Mia and I are making a concerted effort to reduce our ecological footprint. Going back to when we lived in Iowa City in ’97 we started shopping at The Co-op and started to eat more natural foods. This is also when I first started toying with seasonal vegetarianism (Ever the contrarian, I took summers off to grill brats…) at Mia’s urging. As we matured and read more we shifted to more and more organic foods, and with the birth of our son almost 5 years ago we switched to virtually 100% organic. At first it was stunningly more expensive-but at that time we were still trying to eat the same, just organically. That meant lots of organic packaged and frozen foods, and that meant we had the double whammy of paying for the convienence-and for the organic premium. When we switched to vegetarianism that helped, as did driving out to Whole Foods which had significantly lower prices than the urban markets and the organic foods sections of traditional grocers.

But the main reason Organic is considered more expensive is, well, because it is. Organic Red Peppers are about $4.50/lb. Organic Milk is a little over $5/gallon. Both are easily double their conventional equivalent. I have no problem with that because I know I am not forcing future generations to foot the other half of my bill in soil erosion, cancer epidemics, and collapsed local economies. When some of our friends once asked what charities we give to-we replied “we buy organic foods”. That covers everything from supporting biodiversity to water quality to farmer direct subsidies in domestic Fair Trade pricing. And frankly it is worth every penny.

But that begs the question that Organic really is more expensive lending it to attacks of it being elitist. Before my career took off it was hard to find the money. Or was it? At the time it felt that way-but we found another $50/month for Internet service. Oh and then there was the other $50 for the cell phone. We’ve never had cable, but 90% of Americans do. Chalk up another $75/mo. Don’t get me started on the latte’s. In fact Americans use significantly less of a percentage of their income on food (about 10%) than any other country in the world (15% in Australia, Mexico is about 25%, India a whopping 50%) and half the amount we paid even just 50 years ago. And that is with real wages flat for over 30 years. Basically it comes down to choices. Why is it that we will pay for wuality in our clothes, our cars, our computers, schools, well just about anything, but when it comes to our food we almost invariably side with price as the leading issue on whether or not we’ll purchase it? My, and my parents, generations were raised on incredibly low cost food driven primarily from the shift in Farm Subsidy theory in the 70’s from trying to maintain prices to protect farmers, to trying to drive prices down to protect Big Business in the name of the consumer. The Result? The 99 cent double cheeseburger at Wendy’s, and the death of the small scale American Farm. Adding about $50 to my weekly bill seemed like a very fair trade for helping out my kids, and without cable I am still ahead of the game.

Earlier I mentioned that we were still trying to ‘eat the same’. When we switched from eating a lot of meat to almost none (we won’t make a scene if we’re served chicken at a dinner party) we modified how we ate. If we went from Meat and Potatoes to just Potatoes we’d be malnourished wrecks by now. Of course we studied up on building complete proteins (it’s not hard-add a legume to a whole grain at meals, eat dairy and dark green veggies [veganism is a whole different story]) and spent more thought on our meal planning-especially when raising healthy vegetarian infants. So if we changed our eating habits when we went Veg, it (now) seems odd that when we switched to Organic it took so long to switch to eating whole foods: those you have to prepare instead of open.

Now let it be said that my wife is a fantastic cook and I am spoiled rotten-we weren’t living on TV dinners and microwave popcorn before! But over the past 6 months or so (almost exactly the amount of time I have had my Insight…hmmm) we have made a concerted effort to prepare more of our own food from scratch. I started baking bread-kneading it by hand and making amazing pancakes from scratch each week with the kids. At the time I was looking for hobbies to fill in for my autoracing after I sold my sports car, but it had a huge impact on our psyche. In truth it goes back farther… to the end of last summer when we had more garden veggies than we knew what to do with (plant 4 zucchini plants at your own peril!) and Mia outdid herself in her succesful quest to let None Go to Waste, and to the summer before that when we subscribed to a CSA which pushed our culinary paradigms with its diversity.

Last month we found Good Harvest and for a variety of reasons chose that moment to switch to buying more bulk, and getting our milk from Crystal Ball Farms, one of the only dairies rated by the Cornucopia Institute at 5 Cows. Crystal Ball sells their milk in reusable glass bottles that you must return for your $1.50/bottle deposit and it is wicked good: I liken it to the the magnitude of the shift in flavor as we got from going from conventional to Organic milk. So we now buy very little that is ‘ready to eat’, instead buying bulk flour, pasta, rice and couscous, seasonal veggies and fruits (only enough to augment the garden), Tempe instead of Quorn, and steel rolled oats instead of organic cereals.

And a funny thing happened… we cut $50 off our grocery budget the first week and have sustained it ever since. I would put our weekly, 100% Organic bill up against almost anyone’s conventional, processed bill for a family of 4. Sure Milk is still $6 gallon (Crystal Ball is the BMW of dairy), but 2lbs of steel rolled oats are like $1.25 and make 3 weeks worth of breakfast, that much organic cereal would be $27. Organic isn’t elitist unless you want your Cake (convienence) and to eat it too (chem free). This is simple economics and there are no free lunches; something has to give. You either get convienent and cheap (while burning up soil fertility and poison our water supply), convienent and expensive (‘best ‘of both), or slow and wholesome, which I maintian is the best of all. Granted, plain oats are rough fare-but throw in a healthy quantity of seasonal fruit (raspberries, apples, strawberries) picked fresh from the garden, add a tsp of vanilla and some sugar and salt and its delicious for pennies a bowl. Good Harvest also has great bulk items-even eggs. For the excruciating pain of putting the eggs into a carton yourself you save over $1/dozen. Organic Peppers may be $5/lb-but only when you try to buy them out of season and get them shipped in from Chile without chemicals and waxes to keep them ‘fresh’. The ones from my garden cost about $0.20 per plant, that is about $0.02 per pepper for higher quality. Now that they are seasonal in the stores the price is halved so even city folk can save money shopping the seasons. Conclusion-Going Organic need not be more expensive-just go Whole Hawg and make a lifestyle switch to Slow Food and reap the numerous benefits both budgetary and ecological. Organic isn’t elitist unless your priorities are on speed.

How far this will take us remains to be seen. When we were at Prairie Dock Farm this week, Greg asked if we had any interest in joining his Dairy Coop-seems that he wants to get a cow next year, not to sell the milk but just for his family. But they don’t need 30 gallons of milk, nor do they want to have to milk it twice a day every day. So he is looking for about 10 families to ‘buy in’ on the cow, each taking a milking time along with all the milk they can glean from ol’ Bossy for the price of 1/10 of a heifer (about $150-200). 2-3 gallons of whole milk would meet our milk needs and let us make our own yogurt and perhaps even some soft cheeses. That just on milk alone could save us $15/wk, meaning a stake would pay itself off in under 3 months. If we made our own yogurt, figure another $10/wk. Add in the benefits of uber local (4 miles) milk and total ownership of its supply chain (hybrid or bike distribution network!), and the only down side is some nebulous concerns over food safety (one raw milk outbreak every 2-3 years despite tens of thousands drinking it daily-that is about the same as the number of people getting samonela from buffet lines) But especially with our kids still under 5 we will research this in a very real way.

This decision is still at least 6 months out so look for updates on my Raw Milk Rsch Project-and knowing that some of my readers drink their own raw milk I would love some insights on risk management.

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