This week’s feature was written by CUESA’s Director of Education, Julie Cummins.
Last week I participated in the Pennywise Eat Local Challenge with the goal of eating a varied and satisfying local diet on a budget. Why would I do such a thing? Because I believe in knowing where my food comes from and buying it from local farms I trust. Because people say that local food is too expensive, and I don’t think that’s true; I want to demonstrate that a local diet (by my definition, within roughly 100 miles) is within the reach of the average American. Because I like games: I love to challenge myself, experiment, and learn something in the process.
I had $68 for the week—the amount of money an average American spends on food eaten in the home and out. That may sound like a lot, but for a 9-to-5er who doesn’t always have time to cook, it can be a stretch. A convenient lunch of an $8 sandwich and $2 drink, besides not being local, would bust my entire day’s budget.
In addition to the $9.71 per day prescribed by the challenge, I took on the goal of spending no more than one hour per day preparing my food. Last year during the month-long Eat Local Challenge, I got so sick of cooking that I didn’t even want to pick up a skillet for at least a month afterwards. This time around, I wanted to see if I could eat local without spending an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen.
I didn’t worry too much about my budget; I bought what sounded good, and my end-of-the-week totals show I had $3.71 to spare. I spent five hours preparing food during the week and about two and a half hours cleaning up. That totals an hour and four minutes per day. Not an unreasonable amount of time, but more than most busy Americans want to spend: the average American spends half an hour per day on food preparation and cleanup. According to the book Fast Food Nation, the average American also consumes three hamburgers and four orders of fries per week. What’s an extra half hour of cooking in the name of health?
My meals for the week consisted of fruits, vegetables, nuts, cheeses, eggs, beans, and grains from farmers’ markets, supplemented with a few items from the local grocery (milk, yogurt, rice pasta, butter, etc.). I don’t eat much meat, but substituting some of my vegetables with chicken or ground beef would have been totally feasible within the allotted budget. I ate a varied and satisfying diet, fell in love with the spring flavors of strawberries and peas, and even made a couple of desserts to satisfy my demanding sweet tooth. I got tired of my own leftovers and ignored the occasional urge to buy takeout or indulge in a chocolate bar, but in general the challenge was easy and similar to my usual food regime. I tried new recipes, shared a lot of food with others, felt good about relying on my local foodshed for nourishment, and learned a few things.
Here are some thoughts I collected on eating local foods while saving time and money:
- When cooking with local farmers’ market ingredients, save time by keeping it simple. The raw ingredients are packed with flavor, so why mess with a good thing? A basket of strawberries needs no further preparation.
- Plan ahead! If you can avoid having to go back to the store for a forgotten item, you’ll save time and fuel.
- Double the recipe and then eat the leftovers. Prevent food boredom by doctoring up the leftovers in creative ways. For example, if you’re making a stir fry and rice, make extra, and use the leftover rice to make rice pudding or fried rice. Add a dressing to the stir fry and eat it cold as a salad for lunch the next day.
- Reduce waste by using the whole vegetable. Beet tops and chard stems are delicious! Leek tops are usable if you cook them well, such as in a soup. Save vegetable trimmings in a bag in the freezer and when the bag is full, boil them down into a broth.
- Buy things at the peak of the season. Early in the season, prices are sometimes higher.
- Shop around for the best value for your dollar. Even at the farmers’ market, prices vary, and so does flavor.
- Eating local doesn’t have to be an absolute, but when you are cooking anyway, why not use all local ingredients?
- When eating out, ask where the ingredients come from. The more we let restaurants know we care, the more they will respond by sourcing their ingredients from local farms.
CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »