Monday, February 9, 2009

Economic Leverage in Hard Times: Part 2—Food

This is the second installment of my series on how everyone can get more of the life they want while at the same time spending less money to make it happen. My motivation is that most folks today need to be more careful about their economic choices, and I have some good news. Through what's been learned about cooperative sharing in community, it''ll be possible for most of us to continue to enhance the quality of our life while at the same time cutting back on cash outlays. To be sure, my suggestions will require some lifestyle changes. Yet what I'm offering is meant to be widely accessible, and does not involve a change in personality or altering one's core values. In Part 1 (posted Feb 5) I focused on Housing. Today I'll tackle Food.

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The "typical" American family spends about 14% of its budget on Food (which includes eating out). Here are a half dozen suggestions for how to realize some substantial savings:

1. Grow a Garden
While not everyone is drawn to the mysticism of fingernails made dirty by grubbing around in your own backyard, gardening offers a plethora of potential:

a) Food you grow is much cheaper than food you buy.

b) Food you grow is much fresher (and tastier) than food you buy (though if you get from a local growers, this difference may be minor). I never knew how delicious a lima bean could be until we grew our own and ate them fresh. And today (after living in a Missouri community for 35 years which has always gardened) I refuse to eat tomatoes that have been grown in Mexico or California and taste like cardboard. Puh-lease.

c) To the extent that you turn your yard into garden, there will be less yard work (though, of course, there will now be "garden work" instead).

d) You don't have to do this alone (or as a single family unit); you can participate in (or organize) a community or neighborhood garden (Hint: it's a terrific use of vacant lots and cities will often bless this: neighborhood gardens cut down on crime, reduce litter, and improve civic pride.). In addition to the social benefits, you can divvy up who grows what, specializing in the crops you do best or enjoy most; and it's possible to take turns watering, or watching crops for each other when people are away.

e) Think about the aphorism: You are what you eat. Wouldn't you rather have personal knowledge about the raw materials you are using to build and maintain your health and very being?

f) Gardening can provide relatively low-stress physical exercise and can be a productive and satisfying way to direct some of the extra time you have if you experience a drop in available paid work. (As they say in the current Radio Shack commercials, "Don't just buy stuff; do stuff!")

2. Eating in Season
Food is cheaper when it's in season (not to mention more nutritious and delicious). Somehow, our culture has gotten used to expecting fresh tomatoes and and little baskets of raspberries to be available all year round. While choice is a good thing, buying these products fresh in February is ridiculous. In MIssouri, those tomatoes have been picked green and were hauled at least 2000 miles to get to a store near us (even if they were grown organically, they still taste like cardboard). The raspberries are worse; God knows what they were sprayed with and they probably came from Chile by airplane.

3. Preservation Parties
Since not everyone lives in the Sun Belt, where food can more or less be grown year-round, it doesn't work to commit to eating food in season without a concept for how to eat in winter. While Sandhill is happy to have a greenhouse that provides a modest amount of much-appreciated fresh greens in winter, that's an occasional treat, and nowhere near enough to sustain body and soul. So we preserve food in times of abundance to have a full larder for winter.

The economics of this are fairly straight forward. Leaving aside the obvious cash benefits of growing your own food, you'll save gobs of money by purchasing surplus in times of plenty and preserving what you don't eat immediately for later use, when that crop is no longer in season.

At Sandhill we do this in a variety of ways: canning, freezing, drying, and pickling. We've gradually learned which methods work best for which crop (balancing nutrition, palatability, energy costs, and personal preferences) and take considerable pride in eating a diet that is 80% homegrown.

Similar to the point I made in Point 1d) above, don't overlook the potential of turning this work into a party. Instead of feeling overwhlemed by the prospect of processing six 5-gallon buckets of ready-to-ooze vine-ripened tomatoes all by yourself in the heat of August (you can hear Big Mama Thornton in the background, singing "…and it felt, just like a ball 'n' chain"), break out a case of home brew and invite the neighbors over for a tomato party! You'll have those Early Girls and Romas in the jars and sealed before you know it. The trick here is seeing the social potential in the preservation imperative, transforming obligation into opportunity. (It's not cheating, really, and the tomatoes won't taste any better if you suffered while putting them up.)

Make it from Scratch
When people characterize America as a Fast Food Nation, what they're referring to is our addiction to convenience (and sugar, salt, and fat). But can we afford it? Leaving aside the health analysis (if Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary Super Size Me didn't open you eyes to the health risks of fast food, I'm not sure anything can), it's just plain expensive to pay others to process your food. Every time you step back to more basic ingredients and do the measuring, mixing, and cooking yourself, you save money. (And in my view, pride in the effort is an attractve seaoning.)

5. Meal Sharing
One of the major reservations people wil have with my suggestions
above is that they take too much time. While you may have that time inadvertently if your company has folded or your job has been outsourced to Pakistan, what if you haven't? Here's a suggestion that will save you time as well as money:

Get together with local friends (maybe next-door neighbors) and start a meal co-op. To make it simple, suppose you had a group of seven couples who wanted to participate. If each of you cooked one dinner a week, that was large enough to feed everyone, you'd only have to cook once and the other six days others would do it for you. While there wouldn't necessarly be any savings in the total amount of food prepared, it takes far less time to cook one meal for 14 than it does to cook seven times for just two.

Obviously, this can be scaled in many ways, but the principle remains the same. The more meal sharing you do, the more time savings you can achieve. There's a lovely article in Communities magazine #139 (summer 2008) describing this concept: Cook One Meal and Eat for a Week by Joelle Novey.

Taking it a step further, you can also eat together (and clean up together), creating yet more social occasions. In addition, having someone else prepare your meal (which can be pretty fabulous of you've got some good cooks in the mix) can be a reasonable psychic substitute for the variety and relaxation that we often go to restaurants to find. To the extent that you can get the
eating out experience without leaving home, it can man substantal savings in your entertainment budget.

6. Celebration Cooking
As my last suggestion in this genre, I recommend you look for chances to combine some of the notions above and increase the frequency of homemade meals featuring local ingredients that are the centerpiece of rituals or celebrations (think seder and birthday parties).

Breaking bread together (matzos if it's a seder) is a social ritual that goes back as far as humanity. It doesn't take money to make a moment special; it takes love and attention. Food—especially that which has been grown, preserved, and cooked by the hands of the participants—provides a universal vehicle for delivery. Make the most of it.
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Finally, a word about barter. There are a lot of people who won't be drawn to gardening, food preservation, or even cooking. Nonetheless, there are still ways you can take advantage of the advice in this blog. Think about offering skills and services you are more adept at (or enjoy more) in exchange for others providing food.

Maybe you could be part of the meal sharing group by agreeing to do all the dishes at the Sunday afternoon potluck. Maybe you could do someone's plumbing in exchange for a year's supply of pickles. Or do their taxes for tomatoes. How about back rubs for rutabagas? You get the idea. You're only limited by your imagination and a coincidence of needs. In the economic times we're entering, we'll need to be relying more on both our creativity and our neighbors. Why not get started now?

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