Shop Sustainable – Money

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We’ve talked about finding sustainable food and how to find time to cook in previous posts.  This week, we’re going to talk about money.  Some sustainable food advocates seem to think we all have a lot of money and can eat organic sustainable food all the time.  But, for most of us, that’s simply not the case. So what can you do?

Make choices. You need to decide how much money you can budget for sustainable food, determine which sustainably produced foods you’re going to eat, and decide whether you’re going to choose organic, sustainable, local, or industrially produced items.

Almost everyone is cutting back these days, and for good reason.  Many people are out of work and many more are worried they might not have a job in the future; we’ve started watching everything we spend.

How much?
Your first decision is how much money to spend on food each week.  Making a budget helps – you can even go so far as to literally put money aside for food purchases.

If you’re looking for ways to increase your food budget but you don’t have extra money coming in, look at your current spending habits and see if you can cut back anywhere.  For example:

•    If you buy a $3 cup of coffee five times a week, that’s $65 extra dollars a month if you stopped drinking coffee, but, more realistically, if you can cut back to spending $1 a day five times a week on coffee, you’ll save $43 a month.  Buy a coffee grinder and machine, some Fair Trade coffee beans, and take your own coffee to work in a reusable metal travel mug.  Use it for refills later in the day.  You’ll not only get great tasting sustainable coffee, you’ll be helping the environment by not using all those disposable cups.

•    Cut back on eating out.  According to the US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics report “Consumer Expenditures in 2007”, the average “consumer unit” (which is 2.5 people) spent $6,133 on food in 2007, both in and out of the home.  $2,668 was spent on eating out, which comes to $51 per week, or approximately $20 per person.  Even though this amount seems low, if you can cut back just $5 a week on food purchased outside the home, you would have an extra $260 for sustainable food by the end of the year.

•    If you’re still drinking bottled water, learn about the downside of bottled and the benefits of tap.  Buy a Pur or Brita filter and use a pitcher or attach to your faucet.  I use a pitcher but am not a fan of plastic so I immediately transfer the water to glass Mason jars.  I always have refrigerated and room temperature water on hand.  On the go I use a re-usable water container (metal are best – I prefer Sigg, though they are a bit of an investment).  Using filtered water instead of buying a $1.50 bottle of water five times a week will save you $390 a year.

•    Separately, these figures might not seem like a lot, but when you start to add up saving $43 on coffee + $22 on not eating out + $33 on not drinking bottled water, you’re looking at saving almost $100 per month.  Look for little things that you can cut back on, without totally denying yourself everything.

There are other things you can do to save money on your food costs.  Ideally, you will want to purchase local sustainable and/or organic food, but these tips will help you stretch your food dollars, no matter what kind of food you’re buying.

•    Meatless Mondays. Go meatless just one day a week (or more if you want to!)  There’s a great program called Meatless Monday at that offers tips and recipes for satisfying, delicious, meatless meals each week.  Cutting back on meat will give you more money to purchase sustainably-raised meat for the other days, and you’ll be doing something good for your health.

•    Fortify your foods. Mix less expensive, yet nutritious, ingredients in with your meals.  Making chili?  Add plenty of beans to the meat and you’ll have a great-tasting, delicious, healthy meal that will cost much less to make.  Use dried beans and you’ll save even more!  Making eggs?  Make a frittata and add rice, pasta or potatoes.  If you’re making meatloaf, try putting oats into the mixture.  Using grains like potatoes, rice or (whole wheat) pasta in your dishes can help stretch them further – and they’re ideal foods because not only are they filling, they tend to absorb flavors, not overpower the dish you’re creating.  Get creative and come up with your own recipes!

•    Cook from scratch. Make your own salad dressing, bake muffins, or try your hand at baking bread.  Forget frozen dinners, even the organic ones.  Besides the cost, they’re just not as good as cooking yourself.  And try to stay away from boxed meals or dishes – make your macaroni and cheese or casseroles from scratch.

•    Buy in bulk. Assuming you have space, bulk items tend to be less expensive, but compare prices before you buy.  And make sure to stick to your shopping list!  You’re not being frugal if you buy food that is on sale and end up not eating it.

•    Buy meat in quantity. Buy a whole chicken and use it all, including using the carcass to make chicken stock that you can freeze.  If you have freezer space, buy half a cow or pig and freeze portions.  See if any friends or neighbors might want to go in on a whole animal, and buy one from a sustainable family farmer in your area.  And for those cuts of meat that might be a little tough, search online for some good marinade recipes or use a slow cooker.

•    Buy in season. Buying local foods in season is less expensive than buying those same products out of season.  When you’re buying in season, freeze what you can for the months ahead.

•    Watch your waste. Either cook just enough for your meal, or cook in bulk and freeze portions.  (I prefer using glass Pyrex containers to freeze food in.)

•    Rinse. Do we really need everything to be pre-washed?  Organic spinach is much less expensive if you don’t buy it packaged and pre-washed.

•    Menu plan. If you know what you’re buying before you go to the grocery store, you’ll tend to spend less, so planning your menus out a week or two in advance and using a shopping list can help save  money – and reduce what you throw when it goes bad.  There are actually menu planning services that you can use that not only help you with menus but also put together a shopping list for you.  Just search online for “menu planning service”.  Please note that these services do charge a monthly fee.

•    Clip coupons. Some people feel that coupons may not be worth the time and effort involved in finding and saving them, but this depends on your individual circumstances.  At a minimum, look for coupons in your local paper, store circular, or while you’re shopping.  Many people find the internet an easy and convenient way to find coupons and special sales on their favorite products, including organic products, and many health food stores and food co-ops accept coupons.

•    Join a food co-op where you receive a member discount for purchases.

•    Grow your own. And lastly, the most inexpensive (and fun!) way to obtain your food is to grow your own.  Plant a garden and see how delicious your food is when you eat it minutes after you pick it or dig it out of the ground.  If you have extra that you don’t want to can or freeze, share with neighbors, give your excess bounty to co-workers, start your own produce stand or donate it to your local soup kitchen!

As you can see, there are many ways to save money on your food costs.  And when you shop, remember to look for the cost of the nutrients that you’ll be putting in your body.  A one dollar box of processed food with little nutrient value is not worth the dollar you’re spending – you’re eating useless calories that may temporarily fill you up, but will leave you hungrier in the long run because your body does not get the nutrients it needs.  Your body needs fuel and that comes from nutritious food, not empty calories.  So think in terms of nutrient dollars, not food dollars.  You’ll not only save money; you may save on huge medical bills down the road.

Next week we’ll continue with the financial reality of eating local, sustainable and organic food, and try to help you figure out what you can incorporate into your budget.

(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 ninth installment in her series Sustainable Table’s Guide to Good Food.)

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