Sunday, September 26, 2010

We are what we eat.

The book, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, describes different food lifestyles and expenditures of families all over the world along with terrific photos of the families with all of the food they eat in a week. You can check it out on Google Books or just look at the photos (with credits). I thought this was a really intriguing idea so this week, after finishing up our grocery shopping, my husband took a picture of me with all the food we bought for the week. We expect this food to provide us with two servings each of seven breakfasts, five (or six) lunches, and six dinners. On the dinner menu for this week is Garden salad and homemade baked beans with wild boar bacon and a side of fresh-baked corn bread (Sun/Mon), Baked salmon with green beans and baked sweet potato (Wed/Thurs), and Portabella mushroom sliders with grilled corn on the cob (Fri/Sat).

How much for how much?

For all the food you see in the picture, we spent $82.97 total. Organic food grown within four miles of our house cost us $8.97 (front row, right); food from our garden we counted as zero cost. The rest of our organic products cost $39.51 (front row, left), and we spent $39.55 on non-organic foods including our wild boar bacon and wild-caught salmon (back row). The U.S. Census Bureau reports estimates of the amount spent weekly by a family of two, aged 19 – 50, for four different diet plans determined by income. The diets, called thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, and liberal, are determined by the USDA based on a combination of the types of foods that people in different income ranges report eating and federal guidelines for a nutritious diet. The U.S. Census reported that, in December 2008, the “Weekly Food Cost of a Nutritious Diet” for the thrifty diet was $83 whereas the low-cost plan was $105.60. For August 2010, the most recent report available from the USDA, the “Cost of food at home” for the thrifty diet was $80 and low-cost was $101.90. That means our food expenditure, despite including many organic products, is right around the thrifty estimate. That makes it seem like our diet would be considered affordable to the people for whom the USDA designed the thrifty plan. However, buying organic is usually considered a luxury that low-income families simply cannot afford. Perhaps the thrifty diet calculations are off, or maybe the people reporting what they eat make very different choices that turn out to be about as expensive as ours. Or maybe it's an issue of access?

How typical is this number?

This week, we ate a little less meat than normal. The meat products we will eat in upcoming weeks are more expensive by $4 - $18. That would put us in between the thrifty and low-cost plans. We also did not include foods we already had in our house, such as olive oil, even if we plan use them in meals this week. We assume the cost will balance out since we also don’t expect to finish every product we purchased by the end of this week. Coffee is the only product we purchased for which we adjusted the price; we generally drink a canister of coffee in two weeks, so the cost was cut in half.

The Census and USDA numbers are calculated with the assumption that all food consumed during the week is eaten at home. For us, this is true for all but one dinner and one or two lunches. Thus, while our total food expenditure for the week will be a little higher than our grocery purchases for this week, it’s still a valid comparison given that most people don’t eat all their food at home either.

What this picture says to me.

My husband and I have changed our diets a lot over the last five years, and it is quite evident in this photo! People used to refer to me as the girl with the Dr. Pepper because I was seemingly never without a can or bottle of the stuff. I haven’t regularly consumed soda in over a year now so you won’t find any of it in this picture! I also see a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables than I would have a few years back, and all of it is organically grown and pesticide-free. Our animal product purchases have greatly decreased. I’m lactose-intolerant so no cheese, butter, or milk makes it into our house. We only buy eggs from ethical farms and are currently out. And of course, we only use a small amount of meat, none of it conventional! Along with our dietary changes, there have been significant physical changes. Since adopting a diet low in animal products and processed foods but high in whole, fresh fruits and vegetables, I have run a half-marathon, completed a sprint triathlon, and dropped two dress sizes. I would say the sacrifice is worthwhile, but I don’t actually feel like I’ve sacrificed anything. I enjoy my food more now and really love my active, healthy life.

How do you compare?

I would be very curious to see how my family’s expenditures really measure up. That’s where you come in. Just like the book, I’d like to put together a collection of photos of people with a week’s worth of their groceries and the cost of that food. I’m curious to see what types of food choices lead to lower food costs. Given restrictions on photo uploading within comments, I’ll ask anyone interested in participating to please upload their photo and cost estimate to my companion page on Facebook (use the FB widget in the sidebar to access it or search for An Omnivore’s Decision from within Facebook). You will have to “like” the page to contribute, but then you will also get to see all of the shorter tidbits I post there and connect with other people interested in these issues. If you have trouble accessing or posting to the FB page (or if you’d rather send me your info via email), please leave me a comment.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Baron of Meat.

Each morning, I grab a steaming cup of coffee and sit down before my laptop to check email. Ah innovation… Oh wait, it’s mostly junk. I probably receive about a dozen emails from various online retailers whose little “send me offers” checkbox I mysteriously forgot to deselect, multiple reminders about the weekly department seminar, and so on. I generally follow the practice of massive check and delete without even reading them. However, one morning I noticed an email from a retailer I was surprised to hear from: David Samiljan, the owner of Baron’s Meats and Poultry in Alameda, CA. Baron’s is a small butcher shop that carries a wide variety of foods mainly from smaller, more sustainable farms (some of which are even local). Along with providing better options for ethical eaters, Baron’s provides an invaluable resource, Dave himself.

Knowing that his customers value more ethical choices, Dave doesn’t just stop at cuts of meat and wine pairings; he also knows how the farms from which he sources his goods operate. And if he doesn’t know the answer to a customer’s question, he’ll “make a call and find out the answer”. When I visited Baron’s a few weeks ago in search of ethical meat with better store hours than the farmers market, Dave spent about 20 minutes talking to me, explaining the different practices of each farm, and answering my questions about general sustainable practices. If the polyculture eco-minded Marin Sun Farms is on one end of the spectrum, and on the other is the massive monoculture Harris Ranch (drive south on I5 – when you hit the stench of cow manure, look east and check out the seemingly unending fencerows filled with cows laying in muck), where did these other farms fall? While Baron’s does carry some Marin Sun Farms products, most of the farms, Dave explained, fall about in the middle of the spectrum. They are much less diversified than Marin Sun, and many do send their cows to small feedlots where their diets are supplemented with grain. However, the amount of time spent on the feedlot eating grain is generally a much smaller fraction of the animal’s lives than in most conventional operations. Also, for the meat to be called organic, the animals must not be given antibiotics, so those feedlots have to be small to avoid illness taking out the entire group. Dave also confirmed my suspicions about Niman Ranch: that although it used to be an icon in animal welfare and sustainability, it is now a bit closer to the Harris Ranch side of the spectrum than the other farms from which he sources meat and poultry. Dave should know – he worked for Niman Ranch before opening Baron’s. After our chat, I decided to buy meat from Marin Sun Farms (of course), and Eel River (offering 100% grass-fed, organic, and pasture-raised beef). Dave also recommended Five Dot Ranch as a good, sustainable option. Since it would be impractical for me to visit every farm from which I purchase animal products, having a trustworthy and knowledgeable butcher gives me piece of mind that I am making responsible and ethical choices. It also gives me the opportunity to provide feedback that might actually matter. In fact, it is this type of unusual communication that struck me about Dave’s email, or more specifically, the Baron’s Meat and Poultry Newsletter.

The first thing mentioned in the email newsletter was their selection of antibiotic, hormone, and nitrate-free lunchmeat. And then a question… Are there any lunchmeats that we, the customers, would like to see Baron’s add to their stock? The email went on to ask about interest in grass-fed beef as well. Having a vendor ask what type of meat I would prefer to eat was certainly a first for me! In a subsequent newsletter, Dave shared the excellent news that he will be bringing in more grass-fed beef and pointed out that it will only be free range, pastured, green-grass-fed beef. Merely being called grass-fed, which could mean a diet of hay and alfalfa fed to cows confined in a closed shed, will not be good enough for Dave and wouldn’t be for me either! Finally, the email mentioned a unique opportunity to pick up some sustainably-raised lamb that was coming in soon from an organic walnut orchard where sheep have replaced tractors and their manure has replaced fertilizer. The farmer had only three lambs to sell, which is enough to feed many people but not enough to appeal to a large grocery store, which highlights yet another perk of working with a small, independent butcher.

The lessons of my experience with Baron’s Meat and Poultry are two-fold. First, having a butcher who is knowledgeable about sustainability and ethical farming practices takes a lot of the stress and hassle out of purchasing animal products. Seeking out someone like Dave and a place like Baron’s will save you a ton of time and effort in the long run, and may allow you access to a wider variety of foods as well. The second lesson is the power of communication when it comes to improving your access to ethical foods. Marin Sun Farms, Baron’s Meat and Poultry, and many other smaller eco-minded farms and businesses now maintain pages on Facebook and Twitter. By following these pages, you have the opportunity to show your support, offer feedback, and get information about unique offers and special events. It’s an easy way to be a part of the food solution.