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The real price of food

I bought a really awesome cookbook a while back.  For a while I had been looking actively for old cookbooks, both because I think they look good and because I find older ways of cooking interesting.  During this search I found a reprint (so not a real "old" book, but it's still cool) of the original "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book."  There's really nothing of note, nutritionally or culinarily speaking, in the cookbook but there are some interesting ideas.  They present seven food groups instead of four (this predates the "food pyramid"), and I have to say that these seven are far more appealing to me than our model today.  The vegetables are broken into three groups- green and yellow vegetables, citrus and salad greens, and (interestingly) starchy vegetables and fruits.  I think this is far more productive than grouping them all together.  The remaining food groups are grains and cereals, dairy products, BUTTER (it's own food group!), and meat, poultry, beans, fish, and eggs.  It recommends 3 or 4 eggs a week (love this, although I say an egg a day) and three (or more, but I would leave the "or more" out) servings of grains per day. 

But the really interesting idea it presents is concerning the food budget.  I wasn't aware that, at that time, it was common practice to spend 25% of a family's income on food.  I had never looked at our food budget as a percentage of what we made, so at first I wasn't shocked by this.  Then I figured what 25% of our take home income was.... it's over twice what I spend on groceries.  Well over.

I've read and heard more about this since- 25% of a family's salary was considered "budgeting" back then, so you could take that to mean that some (and possibly many) spent more than that.  While this blows me away initially, it does make since because families had fewer expenses otherwise- they had far less debt and less, well, junk to pay for.  No cable bill, no internet or cell phone bills to pay.  So they could afford to pay more for food.

But thinking about this more, it started to bother me.  Are we so insistent on having these things, these things that we think we "need," that we are willing to compromise our nutrition for them?  The top two reasons people cite for not eating healthier whole foods are "they cost too much" and "they take too much time."  But what if people cut their other costs (which would arguably increase the quality of people's lives, not diminish it) and focused more of their resources on good, sustainably and responsibly raised, whole, nourishing foods?  Isn't any amount of money spent on good health a good one?  Isn't providing the best foods for your children worth the extra expense?

Yes, I am asking these questions of anyone who happens to read this, but I am also asking them to myself.  I have markedly improved the way that we eat over the past few years, but I know that there are still big steps I need to take and frankly I had hit a roadblock- a financial one.  Because I have it so deeply ingrained in myself that I need to be frugal with our food.  So certain changes that need to be made in our house- the move to whole, raw, homogenized milk (which I delayed at first due to the kids' allergy, but which now needs to be addressed), the move to local organic produce- have not yet been made. 

The example I need to follow is the one I set when I changed our fats.  I used to use canola oil, vegetable shortening, and margarine.  They are cheaper, and they were what I was around growing up.  But when I read Nourishing Traditions one of the first changes I made was our fats.  I started using only butter, coconut oil, and palm shortening.  Eventually I also started using bacon fat (when we started eating bacon from my inlaws, which I know is responsibly raised).  I tried lard, but wasn't a fan of the taste (I need to try it again, because it is one of the cheapest of the options and is a great source of vitamin D).  These are not cheap fats, most particularly cold pressed virgin coconut oil and palm shortening.  But apparently it was important enough to me to make this change, and after the initial sticker shock I haven't thought twice about spending a little more.

And sometimes I do think that it takes a lesson truly sinking in before someone can have a change.  Sometimes, unfortunately, this happens after a tragedy.  In my case (thankfully) this isn't what happened.  I read about the problems with homogenized milk over a year ago.  However, they really truly didn't sink in.  I don't drink milk (I did even buy a quart of raw milk since so many rave about the taste, but I still could live without it) and my kids couldn't have it at the time.  My husband drinks a fair amount, but I (and this is a very selfish statement, so brace yourself) couldn't justify the expense of buying something that he didn't care one way or the other about (he thinks I'm a bit of a nutjob and doesn't believe homogenized milk is bad, in other words).  But in February I was talking to my brother-in-law about milk and it's health benefits- he comes from a family where every meal was accompanied by milk, and him and my SIL go through a gallon every two days.  I mentioned to him that while milk is generally a healthy beverage there are some studies linking the fat in homogenized milk as being a major contributor to heart disease, whereas the fat in non-homogenized milk does not.  Something I had known for over a year.  And something inside me clicked.  My kids still aren't drinking much milk, but Izzy asks for a glass occasionally, they eat it on their cereal (another thing I need to change- eliminating cereal) occasionally, and they eat yogurt.  And I started looking at my husband's milk drinking differently- sure, he could care less about whether his milk is homogenized or not, but I care, and I truly believe non-homogenized would be better for him.  So what kind of a wife am I to not be willing to buy it for him?  How would I feel in twenty or thirty years if he develops heart disease?  Not.  Good.  To put it lightly.

It takes this kind of mental click, though, to make a change for life.  Sure, we could have been benefiting from raw or non-homogenized milk over the past year had I had this click earlier; but had I tried to make the change before the "click," I would have been resentful towards the amount of money we spent on milk and likely would have eventually justified returning to conventional milk.  Now that I've suffered through this crisis of conscience I'm not likely to second guess my milk purchases... although it may be physically painful the first few times.

So if I remind myself of how important these changes are to our health and how much of an improvement simply changing our fats has made, I should be able to do it.  I do still think it is a worthy pursuit to approach these in the most frugal manner possible, by buying in bulk and making as many products as possible at home.  But I need to stop using my budget as an excuse to not invest in my family's health.


Nadia said...

I'm with you on spending a little (or sometimes a lot) more money for the benefit of our health. What irks me is people that I know that quite literally throw money away on food items because they can afford it but don't even consider healthier alternatives, such as organic.

We recently went through a small budget crisis and we had to reconsider where some of our money was being spent. However, the one area I refused to change was my food shopping. Some things are just too important to give up ;)

Brandislee said...

Yes, that drives me crazy, too- people will spend $3 on a bag of chips but balk at spending that much on a dozen free range eggs- but you can get a lot more nourishment from the eggs. Or soda- it's not super expensive, but a family of four that drinks 3-4 sodas a day (and often it's more than that) will spend $20 or more a month on soda, which provides negative nutrition.

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