Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Green Budget Living: Food

As costs of raw materials and fuel rise, the food industry is making shoppers pay. We’re facing ever-higher grocery prices, and some manufacturers are compounding the injury by employing sleight of hand. Perhaps you’ve noticed some peanut butter, orange juice and mayonnaise for sale in slightly smaller containers, at the same price you paid for the larger ones. For more examples, check out http://consumerist.com/.

Meanwhile, Whole Foods supermarket stock has fallen, due, in part, to the perception that sustainably produced food is too expensive in this weak economy. That’s the myth. In reality, many organic and locally grown foods are priced competitively. At farmers’ markets, which require that foods come from farms no farther away than a hundred-odd miles, portions and prices tend to err on the side of generosity. A study by an economics professor at Seattle University, reports the Seattle Times, found that farmers' market produce was slightly less expensive, on average, pound for pound, than its supermarket counterparts.

Certainly, if one eats local in season, one can discover the same thing for oneself. And what a pleasure! For four weeks, I’ve been eating perfectly sun-ripened golden apricots and delectable white “donut” peaches from Redjacket Orchards at our local New York City farmers’ market; the price for both is $5 a heaping quart, or a little over 2 lbs. At the supermarket down the block, which thankfully sources some local foods, the same apricots and peaches are $6 for less than a pound and half (1.3 lbs), while hard California peaches cost the same as ripe local ones. An added benefit: Red Jacket uses integrated pest management, which relies on beneficial insects to control pests and allows pesticides only as a last resort. Conventional peaches have the highest dangerous pesticide residues of any crop, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

More price comparisons: Underripe Washington State apricots, flown 2,500miles, are twice the price of local, at $5/ lb. Blueberries, now in season at the greenmarket, are $3 for an overflowing pint, and $3.99 for a flat-top pint in most supermarkets.

Following are some tips for eating healthily and economically.

1. Save money and eat better by buying local

In a recent example of how consumer demand is steering the economy, Wal-mart just committed to buying $400 million worth of local foods. On average, non-local food travels 1640 kilometers from farm to store. That’s a lot of fuel burned and carbon emitted. Now, in peak harvest season, free your diet from the weight of these greenhouse gases by shopping at the farmers’ market and buying local produce when it appears in supermarkets. To find a farmers’ market near you, type in your zip code at http://www.localharvest.org/.

2. Buy organic when you can afford it.

Organic is not always more expensive. Wal-mart continues its commitment to buying organic, which you can also find in Costco. In the frozen meals section, Amy’s organic meals are priced in the same range as Stouffer’s, Lean Cuisine and other conventional brands, from $3.99- $4.99 a box. We buy organic tofu for half the price in our neighborhood Whole Foods as in our conventional supermarket. Plus, organic is posed to be priced ever more competitively because it uses less petrochemical inputs dependent on the price of oil.

When organic is more expensive, be selective. Buy it where it matters, in the types of produce that, if conventionally produced, carry the most dangerous pesticide residues. Peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines and strawberries top EWG’s list of foods better bought organic. Download the full list and handy wallet card at http://www.foodnews.org/walletguide.php

3. Buy whole, not processed, foods. When you do buy processed foods, doublecheck how many ounces you’re getting for the price.

4. Eat less red meat. Sources of protein such as tofu and beans are generally 30-40 percent cheaper than animal products. Replace at least one red meat meal a week with an all-vegetarian meal. And a study published this April found that , on average, red meat is around 150% more greenhouse-gas-intensive than chicken or fish. For the full study, click here.

5. Clip “green” coupons online and pick up and use fliers at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and your local co-op and health food stores.

6. Make your own cookies, cakes and pies. And, make hay (and preserve fruits and tomatoes) while the sun shines!

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