Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Three: Food

The topic for day three of Thrift Week is food, glorious food. The average American household spends $6,443 a year on food, plus another $444 on alcoholic drinks. Together, they account for 13.7 percent of the household budget.

Food is another area in which the "eco" part of ecofrugal can sometimes come into conflict with the "frugal" part. Not always, of course. In many cases, the most sustainable food choices are also the cheapest. For example, the biggest-ticket items on many people's grocery bills--meat and prepared or processed foods--are also the ones with the biggest environmental impact. Replacing meat with beans and processed foods with whole foods will save money and help the environment at the same time. But in other cases, the sustainable choice can cost more. An obvious example is organic foods, which can cost anywhere from 20 percent to 100 percent more than their conventional counterparts. A much less obvious one is local, seasonal produce. Logically, if it's the middle of winter, then apples that were grown at an orchard less than 100 miles away and stored in a cold room for the winter should obviously be cheaper than nectarines, a summer fruit, that were shipped all the way from Chile. Yet thanks to the vagaries of supply and demand, it doesn't always work out that way. Here in the so-called Garden State, the big supermarkets (which tend to have lower prices) are more likely to carry imported produce rather than local produce. Thus, you can buy imported nectarines for $2 a pound in February at the Mega-Mart, but to get local apples, you have to go to the natural food store the next town over and pay $2.50 a pound. In a situation like that, what's the frugal choice?

My approach, as with transportation, is to look for the middle ground. Since organic foods cost 60 percent more than conventional foods on average, I've set that as my arbitrary limit on how much more I'm willing to pay for them. If the price differential is less than 60 percent, I consider the organic food to be a good value. If it's more, I'll choose the conventional version--with a few exceptions. For foods with high pesticide levels, like peaches, strawberries, grapes, and peanut butter, I'll always buy organic. The same goes for foods for which conventional growing practices are especially damaging to the environment, like sugar, coffee, and cocoa. (Actually, for coffee and cocoa, the working conditions are a bigger concern than the environment. So I buy Fair Trade, which usually means buying organic as well.)

For most people, eating 100 percent virtuous food may not be practical, or even possible. If you live in an area with a short growing season, there may be no way to feed yourself year-round with only local, organic foods. There are always compromises to make, so I guess it comes down to a question of deciding what you can live with. For me, that means striking a balance between the financial cost and the environmental cost--a balance I continue to adjust over time as circumstances (my own, and the world's) change.
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