I can't even count the number of times that I have had someone ask me how we can afford to feed a family of eight on one income. One military income. And what they don't usually know is that we eat fresh, organic, healthy foods and I rarely use coupons. How do we do that on such a limited budget? Because we are basically locavores.
A majority of what we what our family eats each week arrives on my doorstep on Thursday mornings in a brown cardboard box. It's always like unwrapping a special gift when we look inside our box and see what foods we'll enjoy in the next few days. Where does this mystery box come from? From a CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and it's a beautiful thing. All across the country, farms of all sizes offer their bounty to local customers who pay for a share of the crops.
CSAs support local farms and are better for everyone involved, from producer to consumer. Instead of buying produce that's been trucked or flown across the country, we get fresh, local produce that was grown right in our area. This also means that we eat foods that are in season. Right now we are eating a lot of root vegetables, apples, and pears. It's a throwback to our past, when families grew and gathered their own food and had to eat what they could store through the winter.
Eating local foods is better for the environment because the foods require less energy to pack and transport. Local foods are also better for the families eating them because they are fresher and don't have to be artificially ripened (which is a scary process) and most have been minimally treated with pesticides and other chemicals because these foods are being grown during their natural growing seasons and not mass-produced for year-round consumption.
In fact, all of our produce comes from our CSA box or our local farmer's market. And it's all organic. Our CSA box has enough fruits and vegetables to last us an entire week and I can pick up anything else I want at the farmer's market or even have it added to our CSA box. Most of what we eat is produce! It might sound crazy, but my kids love vegetables. Brussels sprouts, spinach, broccoli, sunchokes, parsnips, kale, beets, beans, and cabbage are the foods of choice right now. Yes, my kids eat kale and they love it!
I grew up eating boxed macaroni and cheese and frozen fish sticks. I didn't have my first taste of salsa until I was nineteen. I had never tasted chili until I was in my twenties. My idea of vegetables was frozen corn or carrots. I didn't know any better and this was what I thought was good for me. When I had kids of my own, everything changed. I remember another new mom telling me that she fed her kids a raw diet and they didn't drink milk. I started reading and learning about diet, nutrition, and "green" living. I stopped using harmful chemical cleaners and started eating healthier foods. I have read a lot of books about natural living, but one of my favorites is a new book called "The Conscious Kitchen." It goes over (in great detail) the reasons for choosing local, organic foods and has tips for finding sources for them. It also discusses the healthy ways to cook the foods and keep a green kitchen. (Teflon-coated pans? Ick! How about a nice cast-iron skillet instead?)
Another key to keeping our food budget low is eating meatless meals several nights a week. We're not vegetarians, although I was one for 8 years. (I started eating meat again when I was pregnant with Matthew. It was Jason's fault, of course.) We eat meat a few nights a week. Meat is more expensive than produce and so we limit it.
The meat that we do eat comes from CSAs and the farmer's market. Next year we will have a 1/4 share of a cow (already butchered and wrapped) to stock our garage freezer. Right now, I buy smaller amounts of meat and store it in the freezer. The meat that we do eat is local, grass-fed beef and organic, free-range chicken or pork.
We don't buy meat in the grocery store. (In fact, I buy less than 25% of what we eat at the grocery store.) Grocery store meat terrifies me. Why? Feed lots terrify me. Have you ever seen a feed lot? I have seen them in real life. Cows stand in their own feces with their bodies crammed together in wide, brown expanses of dirt without a trace of grass to be seen. That is not how cows are supposed to live. Cows are meant to eat grass, not soy or animal by-products like they are often feed in feedlots. Feedlot cows have to be treated with antibiotics because they get sick living under those awful conditions. Antibiotics scare me too. (C. Diff, anyone?) But that's a whole other post... someday I'll write about how antibiotics nearly killed me.
Besides the obvious benefits of eating meat that is free of hormones, antibiotics, and pesticide residue, the meat just tastes better and is better for the environment. Grass fed beef has a delicious flavor. I love acorn-finished pork. Free range chicken even looks more appealing than the bleach-dipped, chlorine-smelling chicken sold in the grocery store. (Blech!) We love buffalo and yak too, although we don't have those locally here in Washington.
Most of our family's diet consists of produce, but we do eat our fair share of eggs and yogurt as well. I have been known to have an omelet every morning some weeks. Sometimes we'll have omelets for dinner and I'll make them with spinach and onions and sprinkle them with (organic) cheese. Our eggs come from either the CSA, the farmer's market, or the grocery store, depending on how quickly I run out of eggs between shopping trips. The eggs are always free range and organic. I wish I could be like my friend Michele and have my own fresh eggs in my backyard, but I deal with enough poop already, so that isn't happening right now. My kids eat (organic) yogurt almost every day and we buy it in bulk-plain so that we can flavor it with cinnamon and granola or fruit.
Our family does not each much cheese (although I love cheese) and we don't drink milk. What cheese I do use for cooking is organic and often local. I do use milk for cooking and the kids have it several times a week with their cereal or in hot chocolate. I buy organic (usually local) milk, although we have used raw milk in the past. Despite what the advertisements might make you think, humans do not need cow's milk to survive. How absurd is that? To think that humans would have to rely on the milk of another species for survival? It just doesn't make sense. Human babies need human milk, and yes, I'm one of those moms that nurses my babies until they self-wean. Most of my kids had never even tasted cow's milk until they were 2 years old. (And they didn't eat any food until they were a year old, but again, that's a whole other post.) We do not eat soy of any kind. We limit milk and consume cheese in moderation.
The rest of our food comes from whole grains and the herbs, spices, and oils that we use for flavoring. I love freshly baked bread but don't have a bread machine anymore, so I am guilty of buying bread (organic) right now. I use organic, whole wheat flour for all of my baking and I make almost everything from scratch. I do use store-bought pasta because honestly, who has time to make their own pasta? Anyone? I love cooking with quinoa and a household staple- rice. We have oatmeal several times a week, which I buy in bulk (I love Costco for that!) and the organic, steel cut oats are perfect with apples, cinnamon, and coconut milk drizzled on top. I also like to hide ground flax seeds or wheat germ in just about everything I bake and in oatmeal. Even Jason can't tell the difference! (I hide veggies sometimes too.) I buy herbs and spices from the farmer's market and if they are fresh, I freeze them. I also use a lot of organic olive oil for cooking. I even use an olive oil sprayer to spritz oil on my iron skillet when making omelets or when baking, so I never need to use cooking sprays or toxic, non-stick pans.
Many (most?) of you probably think I'm crazy. Or if you've been reading my blog long enough, you already knew that. But I promise that there are good reasons for eating local, organic foods and it's not as difficult or expensive as you think. In fact, I feed our entire family of 8 for around $400 a month. I just prepare the meals myself, using as few pre-packaged ingredients as possible. The local farmers are my best friends. I get excited when I score some delicious raw honey or when something new shows up in my CSA box (like sunchokes) and I have to try out new recipes. I say that I hate to cook (and sometimes I do) but I love to eat. And I'm committed to eating the healthiest foods I can find.
My own mother does not agree with the way we eat. She won't even eat the food in my house. She will actually pack her own food (plastic fruit cups, bags of fake mashed potatoes), etc. when she comes to visit. I'm not one to judge someone else's choices, so I keep my mouth shut. It kills me sometimes though. She definitely thinks that I'm insane. She won't change her ways, but I would give anything to get her to read "The Conscious Kitchen." Maybe someday...
Check out LocalHarvest for information on CSAs in your area. Many farmer's markets are not active in the winter (unless you live somewhere like Arizona-how I loved the farmer's market there!) but find out about your local farmer's market. Find other families in your area and split a share of beef with them so that you can fill your freezer with good, fresh meat from a local farm. Take your kids to see a nearby farm where the food is grown. My kids have more respect for food after visiting so many farms and seeing where our food comes from. Forget clipping coupons and challenge yourself to go a week (or month, or two) without using any canned or pre-packaged foods. Try a vegetable that you have never had (or even heard of) before. You will probably be surprised at how cheap (and easy) it can be to eat healthier foods.