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What to Consider When Deciding What to Spend on Food

What to Consider When Deciding What to Spend on Food

Farmers market it Portland, OR

Money is a touchy subject. Even without bringing up finances directly, people like me who encourage others to eat Real Food often get branded as elitist out of hand.

I get it. Finding and affording fresh food can be difficult or impossible for some people, and that is heartbreaking. But I don’t think that should make the entire subject off limits.

Food is a complex topic that includes issues related to health, economics, culture, human rights, animal welfare and the environment/sustainability. We also need to make food decisions multiple times a day in order to survive.

I consider all these things when deciding what to purchase for myself and my family, and know first hand what kinds of tradeoffs come up when choosing what to eat. Over the years both my priorities and financial means have changed dramatically, and ultimately evolved into the system I use today.

Here I’ll take you through my thought process in making food decisions, including how I’ve adapted to lower and higher income levels.

Of course none of this is intended as a judgement or condemnation on anyone else’s decisions. Everyone’s values are personal and equally valid, and obviously you need to do what works for you and your family.

My goal here is to shed some light on a difficult subject and hope it provides some clarity for those who are trying to make heads or tails of these issues.

But first a bit about me

For context you should know that I don’t come from money, and even calling my family middle class is a stretch. While I grew up in a decent suburban neighborhood, my family sometimes needed help from our church putting food on the table. My dad lived his entire adult life without owning a bank account, let alone a savings account. We did our best, but often had to sell things to make rent.

When I got to college (paid for by scraping together scholarships, student loans and a few jobs), money was really tight. My dad would send me fifty bucks when he could, but there was never any real safety net. It wasn’t unusual for me to live on eggs and canned tuna for the last week of the month. The dieter in me found this to be only moderately inconvenient.

At the time my main priority in food shopping was low price. I shopped at Costco and Trader Joe’s and thought organics were a scam to take money from chemophobic hippies (I know! LOL). I ate a lot of cheap takeout, which in Berkeley was still pretty good, if only moderately healthy.

In grad school things changed a lot. I started becoming a foodist, learned about Real Food and discovered the farmers market. I was a recipient of a fancy NSF graduate fellowship grant that afforded me a luxurious salary of $30,000/year, but because I was living in San Francisco I was still spending over 30% of my income on rent.

Still I ate pretty great. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in SF is one of the best farmers markets in the US, if not the world. I know a lot of people who consider it ludicrously expensive, but that was not my experience at all.

Yes, it’s possible to pay $4.50 for a peach, but it will be the best peach you’ve ever eaten. More important is that I could pack a bag full of kale, radishes, squash, onions, carrots, herbs and other incredible seasonal produce for $30. Fruit, especially ripe seasonal fruit, is expensive. Vegetables are cheap. I actually saved money during this period by cooking way more at home and cutting down on how often I ate meat. I also felt amazing and lost 12 lbs.

Things really changed after I graduated, wrote Foodist and got married. Suddenly I could afford steak and sit-down restaurants whenever I wanted, but by then my priorities had shifted as well.

I had never had to worry much about the ethics of eating before I had disposable income. I mostly bought produce from local organic farmers, a convenient luxury that was a byproduct of where I lived. I knew that industrial meat and dairy production were terrible for the environment and a disgusting form of cruelty to animals, but I couldn’t afford it anyway so there wasn’t any conflict. My biggest splurges were an occasional wedge of fancy cheese and wild Alaskan smoked salmon.

Now that more animal products were literally and figuratively back on the table for me, I wanted to make the most responsible choices I could.

There’s no way around it, ethical food costs more money.

Conventional produce is cheaper because big industrial farms exploit workers (sometimes as literal slave laborers) and demolish the environment with cheap petroleum-based fertilizers and Monsanto’s pesticides and herbicides. Smaller organic farmers must spend the time and energy tending to the soil to keep it healthy, and diversify their fields to prevent weed and bug infestations. More time and resources means more money to produce the same amount of food, and higher prices at the market.

Farmers market fruit tastes better because it is grown in season and picked while ripe, making losses due to bruising much more common. Organic certifications are also expensive. Even more cost.

Grass-fed beef and pasture-raised poultry and eggs require more (higher-quality) land, better feed, and sanitary living conditions. Farmers also face more difficulty and expense in processing these products, because they lack economies of scale. Again, these all cost more.

When I was a brokeass grad student I cared about these issues, but opting out was easy because I couldn’t afford it. Now that I can afford higher-quality, ethically produced products I’m happy to pay extra for the farmers who care enough to grow the best crops and for the animals I eat to live a decent life.

I’m also willing to spend a little extra time sourcing those products, which are not always easy to find.

San Francisco makes a foodist’s life easy, but I’ve found it much more difficult to eat to these standards in New York. Restaurants and grocers that source sustainable, ethically-raised food exist, but it isn’t the default like it is in the Bay Area and I often have to take looooong extra trips to find what I want. And I live in bougie Williamsburg.

I find myself preferring to cook at home even more in NYC than I did in SF, largely because I’m unsure of where restaurants sources their ingredients and it’s kind of obvious they aren’t amazing. A lot of the time I end up eating vegetarian so I don’t have to worry about it.

These experiences have led to me to create a mental hierarchy for my priorities when choosing what to eat. It isn’t perfect, and I make exceptions often, but it helps me to have a framework to think about these issues since I eat pretty darn often.

My priorities when buying food

1. Health

My personal energy (and I’d bet yours too) is highly dependent on how I fuel my body. If I’m not eating a wide array of different kinds of vegetables, legumes, grains and seafood/meats I feel lethargic and foggy, and will usually get sick.

Since feeling crappy impacts 100% of my other responsibilities in life, eating a diverse assortment of Real Foods is my number one priority when it comes to grocery and meal selection.

This has some implications. If I’m traveling or even very busy I don’t always eat local/seasonal/organic/sustainable. I try to avoid these scenarios, but when it comes down to it I’ll take what I can get.

It also means that sometimes I pay stupid prices for room service salads if greens have been hard to come by.

2. Quality

Quality is a very close second to health, largely because they are often related. As someone who prioritizes health to the point where my daily nutrition is almost always well-balanced, quality is often the deciding factor in choosing a specific meal.

What I mean by quality is close to what I mean by Real Food. To me, quality food has been crafted with care and fashioned from real ingredients, rather than mass produced in a factory. However, quality doesn’t always correlate with the healthiest choice.

If I’m traveling in Texas and have a choice between an artisan brisket sandwich from a world class family owned restaurant or a salad from Starbucks, I’ll take the sandwich on most days and hope there isn’t too much sugar in the coleslaw. That said, I wouldn’t make a choice like that two meals in a row, so health still wins down the stretch.

On the ethics side I am not going to repeatedly buy bad tasting chocolate just because it is fair trade. Ideally I’d find a delicious fair trade chocolate, but if I’m bothering with chocolate at all it had better be tasty.

3. Ethics/sustainability

I want to live in a world where the people who grow our food are respected and earn a living wage, and where we don’t pretend animals raised for food are less sentient than pets we keep at home. There are people who raise food this way, and I consider it an honor (not a luxury) to support their work.

I understand that it is not practical to demand this standard for 100% of the food I eat. Ethical and sustainable food is still sadly hard to find in most locations, and can be prohibitively expensive for many people.

That said, I would encourage anyone who does have the means to consider supporting ethical and sustainable food whenever possible. Our support is they only way these practices will be able to grow and reach more people.

I hope to see a day where sustainable food is ubiquitous enough that I can move it to #2 or #1 on this list.

4. Price

When it comes down to it I don’t want low-quality, unhealthy or unsustainable food, so even at a super low price it isn’t worth buying.

That said, it also drives me bonkers when restaurants and grocery stores try to sell mediocre food at artisan prices. I can tell the difference you jerks!

For me, as long as pricing seems fair (or I’m completely desperate for something green) I’m willing to pay for food that fuels my body and soul, and supports my values. I don’t consider stores like Whole Foods a rip off, because they are working so hard to offer transparency where nobody else will. In fact, I’m happy to support their mission.

It’s unfortunate that so many of us need to make such tough decisions in order to feed ourselves and our families. As always, all we can do is our best.

What factors do you consider when deciding what to spend your food dollars on?

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