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

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