Food Budgeting and Ethical Eating: Can They Coexist?

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November 1, 2010 by Leah

Day One of the Bailey Budget Initiative is going swimmingly, thanks in large part to the fact that I have no idea where my car keys are.  I can’t drive anywhere, so I can only buy what I can carry on foot or on bike, and I’m not too interested in buying anything anyway.  Aaron discovered as of this morning that he had $150 in his wallet, so instead of deciding it was technically “last month’s” money, we divvied it up as our allotted “free” money.  I’m going to try to save mine.

Surprisingly, now that we have a budget I feel less stressed about money. I still have a lot of work and creativity cut out for me in trying to figure out how to feed us on our CSA fees plus $300. (Actually, our produce CSA box got pushed back from November to December because of early rains in our area, so technically I have $348 to work with this month).  That puts us at about $428 per month for food, which is just under the USDA’s Low-Cost Food Plan threshold for a month.  While I have issues with the USDA (farm subsidies and the food pyramid being two of them), they did a big study several years ago and came up with an index of the cost of a nutritious diet at different levels.  The chart, adjusted for inflation on an annual basis, is a handy benchmark for food budgeting. (The lowest level, “Thrifty,” is what’s used to determine food stamp allotments.)

I’m glad I signed us up for this grassfed beef CSA program, as well as the produce CSA because having pre-set spending for even part of our food made budgeting much easier.  It’s also nice to have a direct line to the farmer who raises our beef, to have amazingly delicious meat on hand in the freezer, and to know we’re actually putting our money where our mouths are in the project currently titled Stop Relying So Damn Much on the Industrial Food System.

This “off the food grid” thing is a work in progress, of course. I’m still buying (grassfed but imported, sigh) cheese, chocolate, and booze from Trader Joe’s, and the occasional chicken at Whole Foods, although I may stop doing that now that they have their animal welfare rating system in place.  (Nothing in our local store is rated over a three, when four is the threshold for pasture-based and five is the threshold for no mutilation.  A rating of “two” goes to animals with an “enriched environment,” which seems like a useless and arbitrary designation.) We get our raw milk from pastured cows and organic whole grain flour from an independent local health food store.  Our eggs come from a local farm.  (I heard the farmer being grilled about the chickens’ diet this weekend at the market and he was like, “no, there’s no soy in the feed we give them, but I can’t vouch for anything else since they run around the farm and eat whatever they find,” which made me even more confident we have the right egg source.) I even found a source for completely pastured meats like chicken, lamb, and pork, but it would mean slogging to Santa Monica on Saturday or Sunday morning early and shelling out lots of money, so that will be an occasional treat (although one we will be enjoying this weekend since our beef order was postponed two weeks). In the mean time, we will be eating beef and eggs and fish and looking into more vegetarian fare. (I have jars of dried legumes just waiting for an excuse.) There are a few almost-ripe tomatoes in our garden, so perhaps we will have some homegrown produce soon, although the early rains that affected the availability of our produce box also ground growth in our garden to a screeching halt.

I wasn’t completely sure how dedicated we were to this new way of eating until we went out for dinner at our favorite Lebanese place on Saturday (it was a “last hurrah before the budget/Aaron thinks we need to get out more” date).  Without discussing it, both of us ordered entirely vegetarian meals.  While we are both cognizant of the mental health benefits of being willing to bend rules, apparently our intention to stop buying industrially farmed meat is one rule by which we will be abiding.  An added bonus?  We spent $45 instead of our usual $70 or more.  I can live with that.


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