As you find your way on your health journey, getting your food choices sorted can be what Charles Duhigg calls a keystone habit in his book The Power of Habit: a keystone habit is one that not only creates a desired change—it also has a cascade of other good habits that follow in its wake.
Figuring out how to eat healthy is one of the most common goals clients approach me with, and as a health coach, I don’t promote a specific diet other than recommending that my clients eat food that is cooked from scratch at home using ingredients that are as whole as possible, as close to nature as they can find.
This is the final column of the SOLE food series, in which we took a look at up-leveling your food choices another notch once you’re already in the habit of eating that way. If you’re just joining us, there are four previous columns you can check out that cover the SOLE acronym: seasonal, organic, local, and ethical.
“Noble goals,” you might be thinking, “but it’s all so expensive….”
As I mentioned in the post about organic food, Americans have somehow become convinced that food should be cheap. As a culture, we want the best house, the flashiest car, the highest fashion, the newest technology, but we cringe at spending money on something as important as food.
Committing to eating SOLE food when possible turns eating into a more mindful process, a way we can invest in the future—our own, our community’s, humanity’s, and the planet’s.
It’s always intrigued and irked me that sustainably grown, less-processed foods can cost more than the highly-processed ones: wouldn’t it make more sense for them to be cheaper since they involve fewer ingredients and less handling?
Anyway, what follows is a discussion of why SOLE foods can cost more and how to — as my stepfather would say — get your nickel’s worth.
The (perceived) high cost of organic food can be off-putting to many; however, there are studies that show that at farmers’ markets, organic produce can be more affordable. If you are on a very tight budget, visit the Environmental Working Group’s website, where they keep a list of “The Dirty Dozen” (produce most contaminated by pesticides) and “The Clean Fifteen” (produce on which you can probably compromise and buy the conventional variety).
We are blessed to live in an area that boasts numerous farmers’ markets! Shopping at the farmers’ market has the advantage of what Michael Pollan calls “shaking the hand that feeds you.” Become a regular at the market, chat with farmers, and ask them questions. If they aren’t too busy, they love to share their wisdom and recipes with you.
Most of them will answer you honestly when you ask about their farming methods, and you will often find that many of them are in principle organic farmers, but they just can’t afford the incredibly steep fees involved in being certified as such or they have lost faith in what organic certification actually stands for.
Some of these farmers practice a form of agriculture they call “ecological,” which tends to be even more sustainable and environmentally sound that “organic” and takes into consideration an entire food ecosystem, from inputs such as soil, seeds, and water to workers (pollinators to humans) to consumers and everything/everyone in between.
Produce is often less expensive at farmers’ markets, and these are some of the few places in America where you can occasionally still haggle! To make your dollar stretch even further, shop at the end of the market day: most farmers are willing to let things go at a reduced price then, since it may be a bit wilted and they won’t have to haul it back home.
If you have freezer space, think about buying a flat or case of a particularly favorite fruit or vegetable (most farmers will give deep discounts during the peak of the season since you’re taking highly perishable produce off their hands).
That said, be fair and keep in mind the question of ethics! Small and mid-sized farmers need to feed their families, too. Visit their farms, see how they grow their goods, and you’ll come to appreciate their prices as fair.
Community-supported agriculture ventures (CSAs) are growing all over the country. The basic principle is that you buy a share in a farm, paying an agreed-upon amount up front. The farmer then has money to invest in seeds and plants and has an idea of how much s/he will need to produce and how many people s/he’s feeding.
When the harvesting starts, you are entitled to a share of the produce, divided among all the members. There are some farmers starting to run meat CSAs and fishermen who run fish CSAs as well.
What I love about the CSA model beyond the fact that it provides SOLE food is that it really encourages your evolution as a cook: you now have to cook based on what you got in the box that week!
A word of caution: buying a share in a CSA does not come risk-free. You’ve just purchased a share in a farm. If a crop fails that year due to drought, flood, disease, or pests, your share of it will be greatly reduced … but take heart: since most CSAs grow a large variety of crops, you’ll probably still get a fair amount of food.
Of course, the reverse is also true: a huge harvest means you get more than you thought you paid for, so get ready to freeze some produce for use during the winter months.
Another stretch-your-dollar-even-further tip: if you are not a CSA member but you know farmers who operate CSA pickups at a farmers’ market, check in with them at the end of the day. Very often, unclaimed shares are forfeit, so the farmer will either sell them at a greatly reduced price or even give them away since they are already paid for.
Again, try to be fair: if you don’t really need a discount, don’t ask for one: some unclaimed shares go to the truly underserved.
If you have significant freezer space, try buying your meat in bulk from a local producer. At first glance, it seems costly because as with a CSA, you often pay a deposit, then a large amount when you pick up the meat, but then you’re done with shopping for meat for the year: when you need something, you go to the freezer instead of the grocery store.
Get ready to grow as a cook: the meat processors your local farmer works with are usually small local businesses, too, and they are more than happy to explain the cutting order (what cuts you can get from your animal) in terms you can easily understand. While you can order certain familiar cuts, you’ll also learn about some you may never have heard of: you’ll learn to cook all the parts of the animal and expand your repertoire beyond the more familiar ground meat and steaks and chops.
In addition to CSAs, buying clubs are popping up all over the country as well. The idea behind a buying club is that a group of buyers comes together to place a single order large enough to qualify for a reduced price (sometimes as low as wholesale) and to justify the shipping logistics. This sort of purchasing is great for buying something that is not locally produced while still supporting smaller producers.
For example, I purchase olive oil from California and ocean fish from Washington State through buying clubs. The drawback to a buying club is that someone has to deal with the logistics of placing the order, arranging for its delivery, and distributing it to the buyers according to what they ordered. Some producers are willing to take on the payment logistics through a website; other clubs have someone designated to collect the payments from all the members and submit them to the producer. Some operate on a volunteer basis; others pay the manager for the work.
If you are looking for more ways in which to support your local farmers and producers and possibly lower your food cost while getting superior-quality products, check out Local Harvest, where you can find listings of a wide variety of direct-from-the-farm possibilities by searching your ZIP code. Another (Michigan-specific) resource is Taste the Local Difference.
And from the department of shameless self-promotion: If you are put off by the idea of switching to SOLE foods because it feels intimidating to cook unfamiliar produce and cuts of meat, look no further than my Fl!p Your K!tchen cookbook: each chapter introduction provides a culinary school curriculum “repackaged” for the home cook (even a beginner), and in addition to covering even more information about SOLE food, the general introduction describes a meal planning system that will soon have you cooking from scratch on a regular basis.
Drop me a comment and tell me your best tips for buying SOLE food on a budget.
Ann Arbor’s Liza Baker, a WLAA health columnist, is a health coach, cookbook author, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work on her website and/or join the (Sorta) Secret Sisterhood, her membership site for women over 40.