I've launched into a personal project to eat more sustainably, and I'm taking my whole family of five along with me. Though I have always believed in the good things that can come from simple, healthy food and have oft-repeated the mantra "eat close to the earth," it's only been in the past few months that I've put my family's eating habits into context with our lives, and the world. Reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle convinced me I should stop eating feedlot-raised meats, choosing instead animal products from range-grown cows, pigs, and chickens; reading Plenty, the tale of the 100-mile diet, convinced me of the importance and essential economy of eating in my own "foodshed."
But it was Michael Pollan who reminded me that spending more on food could actually save me money.
The first and loudest response to the prospect of eating sustainably is, "I can't afford it!" And it's true, by and large, purchasing meats, vegetables, fruits and dairy products that are produced by smaller, more sustainable farms will set you back anywhere from a little bit to a LOT more than buying from industrial monocultures and foreign factory farms. Got rice? It's $6 for a packet of wild rice from Oregon in my favorite gourmet market, compared to less than a dollar a pound for white rice from China. Ground beef: $2.99 a pound at Safeway. Ground buffalo grown on the open range in central Oregon: $8.99 a pound at my farmer's market, AND I have to wait in line 20 minutes.
But, let's think about this Pollan-style. According to his research, in 1960 Americans spent 18% of their income on food... and 5% on health care. Today, we spend half of that -- 9.5% -- on food (less than anyone in the world, ever) and 16% on health care. The total is about the same, but, he says, wouldn't we rather spend money on food than blood pressure medication? The cost of chickens who get to run around in a farm yard, and the eggs that come from them; the cost of beef from cattle who have been allowed to graze on pasture their whole lives; the cost of vegetables grown without chemicals in small farms; is the "real price" of food. It's what we should be spending.
Save now by buying hamburgers from feedlot-raised, corn-fed cattle? (Did you know that corn diets cause a bacterial imbalance in cows' stomachs, promoting the growth of diseases? Did you know that chickens who eat worms and slugs and green weeds provide eggs that are vastly richer in healthful nutrients than those from chickens fed on industrial food, in cages or in barns?) You'll pay later (or even sooner) in health care. You'll have diabetes. Heart disease. Cancer. It's been roundly proven that a diet rich in organic vegetables and low in saturated fats and simple carbohydrates (read: highly processed foods from industrial monocultures, stocked with corn syrup and soybean oil) can prevent all the fatal diseases from which Americans are most likely to suffer.
Spend more on food. Spend less on health care (and spend less later, when you're older and aren't earning money any more). Live longer. Be happier in the moment. Why ever not?
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