I’ve been a bit out of cooking commission, and will likely continue to be, for a while. I was in a bad car accident back in March (which broke my hand), and have been severely limited in my ability to cook like I used to.
In the meantime, I wanted to talk a bit about food sourcing and where I buy what I eat. Historically, I’ve not had the most flush bank account to be able to spend money on food without thinking seriously about how much the unit price of a meal or serving will be with all the ingredients I’ve bought. Money has pretty much always been tight, as it generally is when you work in the non-profit world and/or you are a student. I used to do almost all my grocery shopping at places like Rainbow Foods, or Cub Foods, because it was all I could afford, and I had to prioritize money over sourcing. Yes, I cared about high-quality, good food, I cared about sustainability, but I wasn’t in a place where I could afford it. Or perhaps I wasn’t in a place where I was ready to align my politics with my wallet.
Part of this is related to my upbringing. I grew up near an important and historical co-op in Atlanta, Sevananda, but my family could never afford to shop there. With four kids spaced such that at any given moment, one was always in college, my family had a tight food budget too. We shopped at the local equivalent of Rainbow – Kroger’s – but also at a place called Dekalb Farmer’s Market, where in my later years, organic foods started being offered at prices comparable to conventional foods. So, growing into responsible adulthood, I carried forward many of the same attitudes and strategies towards grocery shopping.
But it’s deeper than that. I think my tendency to shop in the way I have is not only based on the kind of ethics I grew up with or the reality of my bank account. It’s also reactionary. There’s quite a bit of self-righteousness wrapped up in food politics sometimes, and it’s unfortunate, because it’s alienating rather than welcoming. So alienating, in fact, that I spent a good portion of my energy immediately after college dismissing or avoiding interpersonal interactions with folks who I viewed as proselytizers. Macalester was full of them, and I felt in a way, as if I had to detox from their politics in order to really center myself and find my own.
Somewhere in this last year, I had a shift. I realized I care quite a bit about food and about the quality and taste of ingredients – not to mention the ethics – and that I maybe would be interested in starting to do some shopping in a different way, and to do a little cost comparison. For years already, I had already been going more local by buying most of my produce at farmer’s markets during the summers. But in January of 2011, I joined the Wedge Co-op and gradually started doing some of my shopping there and at the Seward Co-op.
I won’t share my color-coded budget with grocery item breakouts with you, comparing the costs of food at the Wedge with those at Rainbow, but I did find that generally speaking, co-ops are more expensive than Rainbow. However, if you are shopping at Rainbow and buying mostly organics, they are more expensive there than at the co-op. Interestingly, over time I looked at my budget and found that I was spending, on average, about the same amount of money on groceries at the co-op as I had been previously at Rainbow.
But even if I hadn’t been spending the same amount – if the co-ops were indeed costing me more – I was now ok with that. I’d made a shift. See, the curious thing I noticed when I first started shopping more – and eventually, almost exclusively – at the co-op, is that I found myself needing to buy less food. The food I was buying tasted better, was more nourishing, and stretched longer. How wonderful! What positive reinforcement for my decision-making. I was more satisfied – on a physical and emotional level – by what I was putting into my body.
And so I feel like I’m a convert. One who was philosophically in tune, but financially resistant, to making this change for some time. And now I’m willing to put my money more readily into the hands of local farmers and food producers. I’m working within the same financial confines, but my priorities have shifted. If I need to spend more money on food, so be it – I’ll look elsewhere to cut extra money out of my overarching budget.
I’m not exactly shouting this from the rooftops, and I won’t judge you if you buy your food at Rainbow or Cub or Aldi or wherever. I understand: I’ve been there. But slowly and surely, you’ll notice a shift in my kitchen, a change in my cabinets, and an improvement on that dinner plate. And I’ll step back and do what I’m best at: letting the food speak for itself.