In Checkout Line, Lou Bendrick cooks up answers to reader questions about how to green their food choices and other diet-related quandaries. Lettuce know what food worries keep you up at night.


Dear Lou,

With the economic crunch, how is it going to be possible to afford healthy foods for my family, especially organics? It’s not like I can go foraging in the medians of the major roadways.

Karl from Southern California

Blur in isle 4

Take the fast lane to organic.

 

Dear Karl,

I’m not going to lie to you: Sticking to your budget while eating organically is going to take some work. But I can already tell that you are up for the task. You not only have the good sense to want high-quality food for your family, but you also know enough to stay out of the rubble and shell casings of Southern California’s freeway medians.

I have a good feeling about you, Karl. Together, we can circumnavigate the perverse food system that is making many good Americans fall prey to the so-called recession diet, which amounts to buying off-brand marshmallow cereal. (Sigh.)

So, let’s roll up our sleeves (not that you need them where you live) and get to work.

• Have a plan before you get to the store. If you don’t have a household budget, start one now. If you need help, track your finances on Wesabe where you’ll also get tips and support from its virtual community.

Once you know how much discretionary income you have, make “food” a budget item to defend. “There are a lot of other things you can look at to get rid of before you are cutting your food budget,” says Jen Rogers, a family finance expert, news anchor for Reuters, and (following the president’s lead, I’m all for transparency here) my sister-in-law.

“The absolute last thing that you are going to cut is food. You are going to cut all of your discretionary spending first,” she says. “You are going to cut your cable bill, you are going to cut your magazines, before you actually cut what you eat.”

Okay! Now that you’ve killed TiVo, it’s time to:

• Perform organic triage. Do the pesticides bother you? Hormones in conventional meat? The treatment of animals? J.D. Roth, founder of the blog Get Rich Slowly advises: “Prioritize based on your own values and focus on those areas where organics make the most sense to you.” Roth says many of his readers put organic milk at the top of their lists. Me? I’ll sometimes buy conventional produce (and scrub it) if isn’t on the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” list.

Hold on Karl, we’re not going to the store yet. No matter what you think of PETA, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with the mirror and:

• Rethink meat. If you eat meat, you probably know that conventionally raised meat is inhumane, hard on the environment, and expensive. When pediatrician and author Alan Greene ate only organic foods for three years he chose to cut back on meat to save money. You can, too, by adding meatless meals to your diet using cheap, easy staples such as beans and rice. If you do buy meat, buy cheaper cuts of organic meat, such as a rump roast (!), or consider enlisting your friends to “cowpool” — buy a large, discounted quantity of organic or local, pasture-raised meat.

Not enough room in your kitchen freezer? “I’ve seen freezers for a hundred bucks on eBay — somebody can’t wait to get rid of it,” says way-honed fitness expert Mark Sisson, who often blogs about thrifty ways to get high-quality protein, his budgetary priority. “So even if you add in the cost of your eBay freezer and the cost of a quarter cow, you’re still ahead of having purchased it at the butcher, and you’ve got a better cut of beef.” If you don’t want red meat but you’re not vegan, look for organic or local eggs. “Eggs are a great source of protein,” says Sisson. “And they are not expensive on a gram-for-gram of protein basis.”

Next, grab the kids, some scissors and …

• Clip coupons. You heard it here first: Couponing will replace incentivizing as the new, hot, made-up gerund. Clip (or print) only those coupons you need — not for new stuff that looks cool (remember, coupons are marketing tools). Finding coupons for organics isn’t as easy as sifting through the newspaper circulars, so look for in-store fliers at natural food and grocery stores and in healthy lifestyle magazines (share a subscription with a buddy). If there’s an organic brand you really like, check the company’s web site for special offers.

Okay, Karl, game on! Grab your canvas bags and let’s:

• Shop strategically. Take your list to the store and stick to it. Never shop when you’re hungry. (Last time I went to the grocery store on an empty stomach I returned with three different flavors of soy pudding– and I don’t like soy pudding.) Ignore the in-store brownie samples — you’re better than that. Shop as much as you can in the outer aisles, where fresh food usually is located, and less in the center aisles, where processed stuff lurks. Ignoring the impulse items near the cash register will make your kids sulk, so perk them up by vowing to:

• Shop outside the conventional grocery store. Seek kid-friendly farmers markets, farm stands, and U-pick farms. Or join a CSA to find organic or sustainable and local food in season when it’s at peak flavor and most affordable. If you find something you love at the right price, buy more than you need and store it by freezing, canning, or drying (cutting cable TV out of your budget will free up time to do this).

Don’t think you have to avoid natural-food grocery stores. Of the more than 1,700 “365 Everyday Value” products that Whole Foods offers, about 1,200 are organic. Despite its nickname as “Whole Paycheck,” the natural foods giant is now wooing tightwads like me with “value tours” and Whole Deal value guides that include coupons, budget recipes and tips.

And don’t assume that conventional store prices are lower. In this product-to-product comparison, Whole Foods products are thriftier. Who knew!

While you’re at a natural foods store, don’t forget to:

• Bulk up. “A lot of times I think buying in bulk has a stigma,” says Roth. “People just don’t want to do it. And yet if they would buy bulk goods they could keep their grocery spending lower.” According to Barry Hirsch, a natural value guru (really) for Whole Foods, buying from bulk bins is about 20 percent cheaper than buying packaged goods. Of course, there are other benefits. “With our bulk bins you buy as much or as little as you want, and there’s less packaging, which is better for the environment.”

I am an awkwardly titled “Bulk Bin Queen,” and I buy my grains, cereals, nuts, beans, tea, and spices from bulk bins.

Now, you must:

• Cook more. Are you literally eating your 401(k) funds by dining out too much? In general, cooking at home is cheaper and healthier than eating out, and cooking from scratch is healthier than opening a box. The trade-off is that home-cooked meals take more tim
e. Try doubling your recipes and freezing half for an easy later meal.

Get a slow cooker (the name crock pot, like “prune,” has been banished) and start meals before going to work. Or cook a bunch of meals once a month and freeze them. If you’re not much of a cook, pick easy, familiar recipes and involve the whole family. Need an un-intimidating cookbook? Go to the library (thrifty is the new sexy!) and borrow any cookbook by Mark Bittman.

Now untie your apron, because it’s time to:

• Grow something. If you’re lucky enough to have a little land, imagine it as an edible landscape that might save you a bundle. Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, grows several kitchen gardens on his modest one-third-acre lot in Maine. By weighing all of his organic harvest and doing careful price comparisons, Doiron and his wife estimated that last season’s harvest was worth $2,400!

He admits that this estimate doesn’t include the cost of labor, but says, “I’m also not factoring in the gym membership that I didn’t have to buy or the country club membership that I didn’t have to buy.” Are you getting the implications of this Karl, ye of hardiness zone 9?

If you have a yard, I implore you to abandon this column and grab a trowel. If you don’t have a yard, consider a container garden for tomatoes or herbs, or find a nearby community garden.

I am hereby muzzled by my word count. I’ll count on the Gristmill bloggers to carry on with more resourceful tips.

Best of luck,
Lou Bendrick
Former Southern California resident