Shop Sustainable – buying food

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Today we’re going to show you that it is possible to eat healthier on a budget, and we’re also going to talk a bit about the reality behind our food system.

I recently saw the movie Food, Inc. which opens today, June 12th, in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco (Click here for movie and ticket info). In the film is a scene where a family of four buys a fast food meal for $11.38 but say they can’t afford broccoli for $1.29 a pound. That’s understandable, but what could a family of four eat for around $11.38 that might be a little healthier? Let’s look at a chart we created with current prices from Stop and Shop’s Peapod website:

Grocery Item Non-organic(1) Organic (2)
Beans, canned 1.00/1 lb can 1.00/1 lb can
Beans, dry black 1.50/pound 1.79/pound (3)
Bell peppers .89/each 2.99/two-pack
Broccoli 2.89/head 3.19/head
Cabbage, green 2.19/head 2.49/head
Carrots 1.79/2 lbs 3.49 5 lbs
Celery 1.50/pound 2.99/pound
Eggplant 1.49/each 2.99/10 oz pack
Rice, brown 2.69/32 oz 3.19/32 oz
Rice, white 1.99/32 oz 3.19/32 oz
Romaine Lettuce 1.50/head 1.99/head
Summer Squash/
.69/each 2.99/two-pack

(1) Based on Stop and Shop’s Peapod website (accessed 5/29/09)
(2) Based on Stop and Shop’s Peapod website (accessed 5/29/09)
(3) Based on (NY and NJ area) (accessed 6/2/09)

The family of four could eat 2 pounds of conventional white rice and 2 pounds of black beans for $4.99, two foods that, when combined, meet our bodies’ need for high-quality protein. They could go organic and eat 2 pounds of organic brown (or white) rice and 2 pounds of organic black beans for $6.77. Add in a head of broccoli and the total is $7.88 for all conventional and $9.96 for all organic. Both well under the $11.38 the family spent at a fast food drive through, leaving extra money for herbs, spices, or another item.

If you would like to see a comparison of farmers’ market and grocery store prices, check out “Is it possible to shop locally on a budget?” from Farm Aid.

If you look at nutritional values –

1 cup black beans (boiled with salt) – 172g, 227 calories, 1g fat (0g saturated), 0g cholesterol, 408mg sodium, 60% fiber, 15g protein, 20% iron and a good source of thiamin, magnesium, phosphorous, manganese and folate.

1 cup brown rice (medium grain, cooked) – 195g, 218 calories, 2g fat (0g saturated), 0g cholesterol, 2mg sodium, 4g fiber, 5g protein, 6% iron.

1 stalk broccoli (boiled*, without salt) – 280g, 98 calories, 1g fat (0g saturated), 115mg sodium, 0g cholesterol, 9g fiber, 7g protein, 87% vitamin A, 303% vitamin C, 11% calcium, 10% iron. Also a good source of thiamin, pantothenic acid, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, fiber, vitamin E and K, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, potassium and manganese. (*Steaming vegetables is preferable to boiling – more nutrients will be retained. We could only find data for boiled broccoli.)

1 Burger King hamburger sandwich (as an example of a fast food burger) – 121g, 310 calories, 13g fat (5g saturated), 40mg cholesterol, 580mg sodium, 2g fiber, 17g protein, 2% vitamin A, 2% vitamin C, 8% calcium, 20% iron. (Note: Burger King supplied the information and most vitamin and mineral content was not provided.)

To compare the quantity of food (172g beans plus 195g rice and 280g broccoli), you’d need over 5 Burger King hamburger sandwiches (at 121g each) to equal the volume of the beans, rice and broccoli. That means 1550+ calories, 65g fat (25g saturated), 200mg cholesterol, and so on, compared with 502 calories, 4g fat (0g saturated), 0g cholesterol, etc. (Or, conversely, you could reduce the amount of beans, rice and broccoli, to an equivalent of one or two hamburgers, which would bring the price of the healthy meal down considerably.)

This shows that you can consume fewer and far more nutritious calories for less money by shopping and cooking, rather than resorting to fast food, so why do so many people continue to buy and eat fast food? One reason is convenience. We think food should be cheap and fast so pulling through a drive through and shoveling food quickly into our mouth is the way many of us eat. It’s a sign of our over-stressed, over-worked lives. And we’re used to it.

How convenient is it?
What if you cooked your own food, ate at home and took food with you from home to work? Clearly, you would save money and eat healthier food. But, I hear you saying, “I don’t have time” or “I’m always so tired when I get home that I don’t want to cook”. What can you do about that?

A good way to eat healthy with little fuss or mess is to use a rice cooker and a slow cooker (or crock pot). Or perhaps try a pressure cooker to cook beans faster. With the rice and slow cookers, you can find models with timers so you can cook food when you want to. The machines click over to a warm mode when food is done so it will be ready for you when you are. You can come home from work and have your dinner cooked and waiting for you. (We’ll have more about this in a future post on cooking sustainable food.)

Another suggestion is to get a cookbook for quick, healthy meals – or search for recipes online. A lot exist, so you can find recipes that use few ingredients and that can be prepared quickly. It is possible to come home and cook a healthy, delicious meal within 30 minutes. And if you live with roommates or family members, you can get everyone involved in making the meal as a way to spend time together. If you make a little extra food, you can also have it (or a modified version of it) for lunch the next day. For example, if you roast a chicken on Monday night, you can bring a chicken sandwich to work on Tuesday.

Having said all that, though, there is a shift you do have to make. You have to think about what to eat, when to shop, and how to prepare the food. There is no getting around the fact that it takes much less time to drive your car through a take out window than it does to plan menus, shop, and prepare food – but the rewards of these changes are huge, starting with the quality of the food you eating and ending with a healthier body and, very possibly, a longer healthier life.

So you have to want to eat healthier and be willing to make a few adjustments to your schedule to eat better. The best thing to do is to create menus and learn a few healthy meals that you can make quickly with ingredients you can keep around the house, for those days when you really can’t go shopping or you forgot to plan a menu. Once you start eating this way, you will find it’s much more satisfying than eating fast food, and it doesn’t take as much time as you might think.

It’s your choice. But if you do eat fast food, why not try cutting it out a couple times a week? You’ll spend less money and have great tasting, nutritious food that you made yourself. And if you have your own garden, you can harvest part of your meal each day before you eat. It doesn’t get any better than that.

If you’re interested in other ways to stretch your food dollar, check out Recipes & Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals that was created by Pennsylvania State University under contract to the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Four-person families with limited incomes prepared and evaluated these menus and recipes for taste and quality. The booklet also gives you tips on how to eat on a budget.

Buying sustainable and/or organic
So, hopefully, what I’ve been able to show you is that it’s not impossible to cook your own food, even if you’re on a budget. The most important thing is to start eating more fruits and vegetables, and to get into the habit of cooking your own meals. The next step is to look for the healthiest food around.

As we’ve shown you above, there are some organic items in the grocery store that are close in price to the industrial products. If you look for both sustainable and/or organic food, and try to buy as directly from the farm as possible – at a farmers market or farm stand at the farm, for example – you’ll find the prices for organic/sustainable will be even less than those posted above. Remember – eat in season and buy as close to the source as possible.

And understand that it’s almost impossible to change all your eating habits overnight, so start slow and change what you can. Read our post on which organic/sustainable foods you might want to try to incorporate into your diet first.

The reality of our food
There are experts who say that the industrial system of food production is broken. Not flawed, but broken. That means it’s starting to fall apart, and it’s only a matter of time before its effects on all of us become impossible to ignore. If you find that hard to believe, think of the recent banking and car industry failures – did we ever think that could happen? So when people start talking about the food system falling apart, or even expressing concern they think it’s falling apart, we might want to listen.

What does this mean for you? This probably means that, whether you like it or not, food prices will continue to increase, as oil prices and other costs of food production increase. As we mentioned in last week’s post, farmers will plant fewer acres of major crops this year, which means the price of corn will be higher, not just for you but also for farmers who feed it to their livestock. Not only will the price of corn potentially rise, so might meat products and all the other foods that corn is used to produce. If this trend continues, even cheap, industrial, nutrient-lacking, over-processed foods will cost more.

What can you do? Many people believe the solution is to change our food system to one that’s local and sustainable. Even large corporations know there’s a problem and are looking at how they can develop new models for the production and distribution of food.

So start now. Plant a garden or some herbs in your kitchen window, visit a farmers market, or take a cooking class. Make the transition to eating healthier something fun and enjoyable – and take it a step at a time.

(Diane Hatz is the Founder of Sustainable Table, Executive Producer of The Meatrix movies and co-Founder of the Eat Well Guide. This is the 13th installment in her series Sustainable Table’s Guide to Good Food.)

Change Food® works toward a healthier food system for people, animals & the planet.  Learn more about Plant Eat Share – planting food in public spaces. For free.