Friday, October 31, 2014

Sowing Seeds and Making Connections

I wish I could say that the first thing I did after deciding that we should be eating better was to leap into action.  Unfortunately, it wouldn't be true.  The first thing I did was to mope and whine to myself and my husband that it was too hard and that we just couldn't afford to eat better.  The second, and by far more productive, thing I did was to look long and hard at where our food dollars were going.  While it was true that they were pretty much all going towards healthy foods, many of which were still in a fairly raw state and thus about as cheap as they could get there was still some waste that could be cut and plenty of room for more beans and rice (which the kids happen to LOVE).  I could save a few dollars a week by making my own bread, granola bars, and broth, but that didn't really cover things like organic milk or free-range eggs or the double produce share from our local CSA that we would need to feed our family.  While I was still in the feeling sorry for myself stage a friend called and said the words I always love to hear "Can you babysit for me later this week?  I can pay you in eggs."  You see, this friend has amazing kids that play so well with my kids that babysitting for a couple of hours really doesn't feel like work.  Plus, her family keeps backyard chickens that produce exactly the kinds of eggs that I like to eat and enjoys a good loaf of homemade bread even when they don't need babysitting.  That simple request was the kick in the pants I need to start getting creative.  I realized that even though I couldn't grow all the food we needed, even the small things that I can do add up and can be traded with others in a way that both of us win.

Capturing rainwater for the garden. 
That realization got me thinking about our grocery budget, our kitchen and our backyard in a whole new way.  I realized that even if I couldn't grow everything we needed, every little bit would help.  I planted a small garden from seed to minimize the upfront investment and thus the risk of my black thumb setting us back even more than before.  I realized that even a few fresh herbs would let me dress up the otherwise boring meals made up of cheap staples that we'd be eating while we saved towards bulk purchases.  I started looking up local farmers and ranchers on and Local Harvest so that I could get an idea of just how much I would need to spend each week/month/year to feed us all.  The more I looked, the more I realized that the expensive part of eating locally grown, organic food was just getting started, not the day to day eating.  Grass-fed beef can be had for under $7/lb, humanely raised pigs for under $6/lb and grass-fed lamb or goat for around $8/lb provided you buy a whole animal directly from the farmer and have it professionally processed (the cost of processing is included in that number).  Honestly, that isn't much more than you would pay for conventional versions of the same meat at the grocery store.  The problem with that is two-fold.  First of all, while the unit price is pretty reasonable, when you are buying dozens or even hundreds of pounds of meat all at once it adds up quickly.  The second problem is where on earth to store that much meat.  We have a dedicated freezer, but even that will still only hold half a cow with little room for anything else.  Thankfully we have friends.  I started talking to everyone I could think of that might listen and found some other families that were interested in sharing the meat.  Once we had friends who were willing to split the cost and the meat we all started saving.  It took months, both to save the money and for the animals to grow, but a just a few weeks ago I took delivery on a whole hog all neatly wrapped up in butcher paper and our plans for a more fresh, local, organic diet really started getting traction.
This is just the hog...
Once we had meat I was able to take the part of our grocery budget that I had been spending on conventional meat to get us through and redirect it towards a CSA share.  Now that our garden is more established I can sometimes walk out the backdoor for meal ideas instead of looking at the grocery ads which has allowed me to route more money towards the CSA share.  Add the money that I'm saving by baking my own sourdough bread and other baked goods and the $40/week that a double CSA share* costs is suddenly affordable while still saving for next year's meat.  Now that we are getting a CSA share and have a freezer full of meat and a garden with flowers and herbs and a sourdough starter begging to be baked into bread every week we don't need to buy nearly as much from the grocery store.  Suddenly we are sitting down to dinner some nights and realizing that everything on the table is not only organically grown, but that we can name the people who grew or made most of we have on our plates.  When we pick up our CSA share from the same group that my husband and I picked up our first CSA share 7 years ago the faces are the same and we are remembered despite the fact that we had taken a break for 1.5 years.  When we bite into the amazingly tasty pork chops I smile, not just because they taste better than any pork I have had in a long time, but also because I remember watching the piglets play and nap in the shade of some huge trees when we visited the farm where they were raised last June.  I don't have to forget about the cruelties of commercial hog raising because this hog lived a life that I know won't give anyone nightmares, not even my highly sensitive 3 year old.  When I watch my kids lick their plates to get the last of the applesauce, I don't have to worry about checking the ingredients list for corn syrup, instead I can remember picking the apples with my husband as the kids helped and played in the mud in the orchard.  I can remember hanging out in the kitchen with my husband late into the night as we peeled, cooked and canned over 100lbs of apples.  I can smile, knowing that I have dozens more jars stashed under our bed to (hopefully) get us through until the apples are ready again next fall.
Making applesauce together.
We still have more to do.  I haven't planted our winter garden yet and we'd really like to get some beef in our freezer instead of just pork.  I'd like to find a better source for milk than the factory farm organic that we are currently buying.  I need to order a turkey for Thanksgiving and figure out how to cure the sweet potatoes that are almost done growing in the flowerbed.  I need to figure out how to make bread from freshly ground, whole wheat instead of just using flour from the store.  I need to roast up the pumpkins from our CSA that the kids decorated for Halloween (they used stickers) so that I can make the pumpkin bread that we love eating for breakfast and snacks in the fall and winter.  However, as I stand typing this in a kitchen that smells of baking bread and simmering soup I know that we are already further than I realized towards our goal of eating well.  I also know that I can't wait to see where we wind up.
Butternut squash blossom from
the garden
*Remember that I am feeding a family of 5 and it is not uncommon for us to have a couple of extra mouth at our table for a few meals each week.  If you are a single person or a couple that doesn't entertain very often your costs will be MUCH lower.
Black-eyed peas growing in my garden

Thursday, October 23, 2014

We Are What We Eat

This is a phrase that I have been thinking about a lot lately.  It is a phrase that has been around for as long as I can remember, but it wasn't until I was reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (or rather listening to it while driving across the MidWest) that I really started to take it seriously.  You see, Pollan points out that we are quite literally what we eat.  All of the carbon molecules, amino acids, fats, sugars, etc that our bodies use to build new cells, run the ones we have and repair old ones come from the foods that we eat and the liquids that we drink.  I always knew that my husband and I felt better when we were eating a healthy, balanced diet.  However, I never really thought about the fact that the very carbon atoms that build my children's bodies come directly from the food that they eat as do the protein that builds their muscles, the fats that turn into hormones, and the sugars that turn into energy for their cells so that they can run and play, grow and learn.  We all know that eating a good breakfast is important for school success and that it is hard for anyone to concentrate when they are hungry, but it is easy to get stuck in the mentality that food is little more than tasty fuel for our brains and bodies.


It would not be fair to say that this is a novel concept to me.  In college I studied wildlife biology.  I took classes that talked about how different grasses nourished game and livestock in different ways.  I also learned over and over again about how our cells work and how our bodies digest our food and turn it into the building blocks of life.  I even had classes about how different types of common livestock animals have bodies designed for specific types of diets and all of the things that can happen if they get the wrong kind of food for too long.  I knew about CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) where grass eating cows are packed into tight spaces and fed lots of corn/antibiotics/animal byproducts/etc instead of hay.  I have driven by large scale dairies and CAFOs that could be smelled many miles before they could be seen.  I even knew a little bit about commercial hog production, though the little bit I knew about that was enough to keep me from wanting to learn more.  I also worked for years doing computer stuff for our local cooperative extension service.  I posted the warnings when the EPA decided to pull certain pesticides off of the list of allowed chemicals because they caused too many health problems for those applying them.  I saw a tiny bit of the backlash from conventional farmers who felt that they could not grow crops without these chemicals.  I saw the extension service working to help farmers who were dependent on "roundup ready" crops figure out what to do when the weeds became resistant to the only herbicide that those farmers knew to use.  I really had no excuse for sticking my head in the sand and pretending that all food is created equal.
This is a swale I saw in Iowa while on our roadtrip.  I was
so excited to see good land management that I took a picture.
Despite all of this and a love of good food I never really thought too much about it once I had kids because I was too busy thinking about other things like how to raise them into the best adults that I can.  That isn't to say that I've been feeding my kids junk.  We try to eat meals as a family, snacks are frequently fruits and veggies and some sort of non-grain plant food pretty much always appears at the dinner table.  We are lucky enough to live in a region with a year round growing season in a neighborhood where fresh produce is used to draw people into the grocery store so despite a very tight grocery budget we still eat pretty well by modern American standards.

However, I have always been a little bit of a "slow food" person at heart as well as a lover of books (especially nonfiction) and bit by bit I have been realizing that changes need to happen.  At this point I am responsible for raising three amazing children* and I am the main person responsible for making sure that they get what they need in terms of food, shelter, clothing, teaching, love and responsibility to grow into amazing adults. (Yes, my husband helps, but he is also at work all day earning the living that supports the rest of us.) However, the kinds of changes that need to happen are ones that I have been told over and over again can't happen on a tight food budget.  I really want to start feeding my kids mostly organically produced fruits and veggies.  I want to feed them milk, cheese and yogurt from cows that have eaten grass.  I want their eggs to come from chickens that have been allowed to roam free, and not just packed into a giant shed with a little door they could theoretically go out if they could find it and weren't too demoralized to care.  I want the meat we eat (because we really are omnivores here and feel better with meat in our diet) to come from animals that have been humanely raised and allowed to eat the diet that they evolved to eat.  So how do I do it?  How do I feed a family of five organic produce, grass-fed meat and organic dairy products on a seriously tight food budget**?

The answer to that involves planning, saving, cooking and some creativity.  I started the planning and saving phase back in April after that fateful road trip and things are just now coming together, but it is totally worth it so far.  I am hoping to share my journey with anyone who is interested and would love to answer any questions that come up along the way.  I would also love it if this post and those that I hope will follow it inspire someone to eat even a little bit better or to spend their food dollars in a slightly more sustainable way.  Who's with me?

* Yes, yes, bad blogger, no cookie. I had a baby that didn't ever get mentioned here, but if I have any followers left that don't know me in real life I'll be shocked.  I'm pretty sure the 3ish visits this blog sees each week are all from my dad.  Hi Dad!
**When I say seriously tight I mean it.  When I first started budgeting I looked up what people got in the way of food stamps and used that as my jumping off point.  I increased it when we needed to and decreased it when we had extra and needed something elsewhere.  I haven't checked recently, but last I did our food budget is below the USDA numbers for frugal shoppers feeding a family of 4.  That said, cash is an important part of how I have made grocery shopping at this level work as is living in a place where we can literally grow food crops year round and the local farmers can too.  I honestly don't know if someone who is limited to food stamps or living in a climate that has harsh winters would be able to make this work on the budget that we are using.  However, these tips may still be useful in helping others in those sorts of situations move in the same direction.