One of the things that has shocked me the most about my week of being technically no longer bound to local food is how much everything costs. Comparatively small amounts of raw calories and products becomes so expensive when they are prepared and packaged by someone else. The price tag for a fairly normal non-local food day seems extremely high to me coming from the land of local food, where bulk goods and cooking ahead prevail.
This is in contrast to the often repeated assertion that local food, and especially organic farmer’s market food is too expensive for most people to afford. This is completely true for many people- the up-front price tag is just too high. But I would argue that when cost out on a per meal basis, local food is actually much cheaper in many circumstances. I know my food budget plummeted during the last year.
Much of this was due to the fact that I know a lot of farmers, and am one myself. Eating some of the produce I grow is a perk of my job that partially compensates me for the nature of the work- which would be all the time, no matter the weather or how long ago in the week my paid hours ran out. I have access to a lot of food, due to the nature of my life choices. I do slightly resent the implication that this privilege means I’m not qualified to speak about the ease or difficulty of local food on a budget though- I live a life of extreme food privilege, but I also had to give up everything for it. This includes not having a job that would allow me to spend more on food overall. It also includes giving up things that many people take for granted, like $1.99 for a soda or $2.00 for a coffee, which adds up fast. It also includes choosing to budget my time to account for cooking and storing food. Which I did on hot plates and without a fridge for the last three months, so it can be done. It takes some knowledge about access, and it takes some know-how, but not much of either considering I could figure it out, and I am a person who can’t braid her own hair at the age of 25.
In the spirit of the EM adventure, I did a little experiment. Here is the break down, in terms of time and money, for both a typical breakfast for during this last year and a typical breakfast for my college years. I used the prices for local food that I charge at the Farmer’s Market- which are my highest prices. The price of food we grow for the school district is sub-wholesale for local food. That means the true cost to me of this breakfast is much lower, because I get access to the food I grow, but factor in having to pay my student loans on a farmer’s income!
On two hot plates in the morning at work, while doing my morning chores, I heat up a small amount of water in a sauce pan on one burner and a kettle of water on the other. When the shallow pan is simmering, I crack in two eggs. They poach in about two minutes. The kettle takes slightly longer at about ten minutes to hot but not boiling, when I pour the water into a mason jar with dried mint and lavender, and add a spoon of Lover’s Lane honey. I grab an apple from my tree out of the bag I keep stashed on my shelf, and stick it in my pocket to eat as I walk around the garden checking the irrigation. I eat the two eggs while my tea steeps, then take the tea and the apple and start my rounds.
Time: About 15 minutes, including the clean up.
I did have the buy the food at the market in this scenario, which means being able to get to Franklin street before 6 on Wednesday.
A dozen organic eggs at the market is $6. I used two, so that’s $1.
I sell bundles of herbs for tea and seasoning at the market for $1 each. There’s enough for about 4 cups of tea in one, so $00.25
A quart of Lover’s Lane honey is $18 at the market. I use big spoons of honey, so lets figure 40 spoonfuls in a quart. That comes to $00.45
Local apples from Gowan’s Oak tree sell for $1.50 lb at the market, (Though you can get better deals in bulk: 20 lbs for $16.50 and 40 lb for $28) and I figure one apple is roughly 1/4lb depending on the variety. So that’s $00.40
Total cost of the meal: $2.10
Equipment needed: a two burner electric hot plate and an outlet, a small pan, a kettle. The hot plate was free- in a box of old stuff I found in the barn. The pan and kettle were thrifted for a few dollars and can be re-used indefinitely.
Waste: None. The tools can be re-used, the egg shells, apple core and tea leaves can be composted.
How I feel afterwards: Normal. Blood sugar stable, satisfied until lunch.
Typical breakfast of days past, re-created for this experiment:
I drive to the coffee house and find parking a couple blocks away. I walk to the coffee shop, and wait in line. I order a bagel with cream cheese and a 12oz chai with honey to go. I wait for it to be made, then I drive to work, sit at my desk and unwrap the bagel, spread the cream cheese and eat it. Then I get up and start my rounds.
Time: 15-20 minutes including drive time. Could be less or more depending on the work rush.
Still need regular grocery shopping time, either at the market or store.
Equipment needed: transportation. People can definitely walk or bike to a coffee shop, or have one immediately at their work, but I didn’t.
Waste: single use cup (can bring your own) paper bag for bagel, plastic tub of cream cheese, plastic knife.
How I feel afterwards: Okay, this is the least fair part of this, because I’m not acclimated at all, but I feel awful. Buzzy and nauseous, and hungry pretty soon afterwards. My stomach made rumbling noises noticeable to my coworkers. I feel like I’ve dumped a ton of sugar directly on my nervous system- which has to be due to the bagel, since there was no sugar in the chai.
So delicious in the moment, so uncomfortable now.
Conclusion: even paying the higher prices at the farmer’s market, you’ll often ultimately end up paying less by buying raw ingredients and doing it yourself, which can be done quick and dirty. The time pretty much washed out, and I found the time waiting for tea to steep at work was more active time than waiting in line, where I couldn’t multitask at all.
I know this is highly variable and many people would eat very different things for breakfast- I wasn’t willing to. I went to my local coffee shop, but prices seem to be about on the same level as Starbucks or Peets. Of course, my local coffee shop carries many local items and I’m not demonizing them at all, just trying to recreate my typical pattern from high school and college without going into a chain store.
My point here is that these purchases are ones I have often seen made by people who are on very tight budgets- my fellow college students almost all ate like this and bought coffee out almost every day, almost universally. The Americorps members I’ve worked with at Noyo Food Forest often bought soft drinks or packaged food items with their tiny food budget of $5 per person per day that were the equivalent price of local meals. A lot of this is due to convenience, and that’s understandable, but the time spent, especially when you team up with a couple people and share cook and clean time, is usually the same or less. For time that isn’t “active” like crock pot cooking, meals for several days or several people can be made in about the same amount of active time as going out to buy a coffee.
Local food costs more up-front than packaged food in a lot of cases. Some things, like meat and cheese, just are straight up more expensive unless you really plan ahead and get in a bulk deal, which requires having money up front, and storage. That isn’t accessible for everyone. But the cost of local organic potatoes per pound is a hell of a lot less than the cost of processed potato chips per pound. The nickles and dimes are what gets us, pretty much always.
As a former hard-core coffee addict, (you’ll notice I got an equivalent priced alternative beverage- I don’t trust myself with coffee even once for science) I really suggest that you try putting aside the amount of money you spend every day, (or twice a day, let’s be honest) and see what it adds up to in a month, and then spend the same amount on local food and see how much you can be fed for the same price.
I’m not a big fan of exercises that say about local food “look how easy and how cheap it is!” It’s not always easy, and it’s not always cheap. What it is is a different set of choices and expenses, with different outcomes. My feeling is that the outcomes of local food can feed us better.