{i am not a foodie} A Pledge to Simplicity

I have been shopping at food coops and farmers markets since the 1970s when I was a student in California.  I started a modest vegetable garden in high school, stopped during college, and resumed gardening when we bought our first house.  I did graduate research on the effect of crop rotation on insect populations in farms in northern Illinois so have spent a fair amount of time traipsing around rural landscapes talking to farmers.  After grad school, my husband and I moved “back to the land” in the mid 1980s when everyone else was moving back into town.  In 1988, I apprenticed two days a week at Slack Hollow Farm in Argyle, New York, to learn how to garden effectively.  My husband and I milked goats, made maple syrup and apple cider, raised chickens and were the companions of a soulful twenty-year-old horse.  We cultivated a half-acre garden, necessarily learning to can and preserve food, and paid taxes on 16 more acres of woods, streams and abandoned fields where woodpeckers and puffballs flourished in peace.   Living in the country also made us aware of the extent of rural poverty, which I hadn’t quite grasped before.

Although we no longer have our own big garden, we share-crop on other people’s lawns so that we can keep our private stock of garlic and weird old variety of potato going, as well as provide ourselves and the lawn owners with a stream of vegetables all summer long.  Our relationship to food growing has been an odd long-term commitment, caused in part by our love of messing around in dirt and in part by our sense that we like being self-sufficient in a corner of our lives.

I have recently been informed that I am some kind of Uhr-foodie. I objected strongly to the label. I consider myself as more of a left wing intellectual interested in farming than a foodie.  Personally, I like to eat high quality food that tastes good and doesn’t take up too much time.

This week I have tried to think harder about my relationship to the foodie movement.  Just before Yom Kippur, when I didn’t eat at all, I was staying in New York for a couple of days to check up on two of my three sons.  I went to Occupy Wall Street with one of my kids and looked at the encampment of young unemployed anarchists or whatever they are with sympathy and affection.  I did not dance in their drum circle, but I wiggled my shoulders a little and had there been a march at that moment, I would have joined it.  I considered smoking a hand-rolled cigarette made by a dedicated trio of young men at the People’s Tobacco table, even though I don’t smoke.  I avoided the donated sub sandwiches but ate a bite of donated pizza and left a $27 dollar contribution in the box duct-taped to the pizza table.  There were people camping out and people giving speeches and people picking up specks of imagined trash from the very clean park and people making buttons saying “I support the occupation of Wall Street” which were free if you promised to wear it for the rest of your life.  I took one.

That night my other son made dinner for the three of us and an old friend, temporarily converting his studio apartment in Williamsburg into a dining room.  Being a good mother, I bought the food for Max to cook at a locavore dream store.  Hudson Valley grass-fed beef, locally baked organic bread, Adirondack goat cheese and local organic sweet potatoes.  I happen to know that the farm where the beef was raised is owned by rich people from New York who hired farmers to run the operation.  The meat was $15 a pound and my total bill for dinner plus a few miscellaneous items was $72.  It did not include dessert or wine, since Max, king of chocolate, made his own truffles for dessert and had taken a large bottle of wine from home last time he had visited us.

The next day I took my younger son to the grocery store on his block in the lower east side of Manhattan.  He lives next to some pretty big projects so the grocery store caters to people of limited means.  We bought non-local cucumbers, broccoli, apples, avocados and lettuce, frozen berries, milk, bread, cheese, chicken and tortillas as well as some dried, canned and bottled food. We also bought shampoo, laundry detergent (the most expensive item) and toilet paper. The quality of the fresh food was not great, the prices not great either, but we stocked up and bought as much as we could drag home to his fourth story walk up.  It cost $101 and would last him and his roommate for about a week, as far as fresh food went.  The toilet paper and laundry detergent will last longer.

After shopping, Jacob and I went to our favorite vegan restaurant in Manhattan, Gobo, and blew $50 on lunch, twelve dollars of which was for fair trade organic coffee with soy milk.  It was fabulous, it always is.

Looking at the juxtaposition of food expenditures in my brief NYC visit made me again aware that I am not a fan of fancy local food for the affluent.  I would rather support the anarchists sleeping in the park than the ecologically correct rich people with their hired-help farmers, yet I gave more money to the rich people. I am interested in economic justice but am also interested in the environment and in living a healthy, non-materialist life style. I don’t want to be food-obsessed but am willing to put some time into food in order to promote our own healthy eating, sustainability of the human population and decreased environmental degradation.  As I was trying to think about how to work out my position on food expenditures, I remembered a saying from the 1970s that could use resurrecting about now:  Live simply so others may simply live.

While it is hard to declare myself a simple-lifer since I am also a lawyer who commutes 30 miles to a full time job, it is as close as I can get to a declaration of my relationship to the foodie movement.  I decided that I would take on a new pledge, not a locavore pledge, but an economic and environmental justice pledge.

For the next month I am going to buy sustainable foods while bringing our food costs down to $10 a day, $70 a week, roughly the amount I spent in the inner city super market buying a week’s worth of food for Jacob and, coincidentally, the amount I spent on our upscale locavore dinner. I normally spend about $120 a week for food, or even more depending on what is happening and who is home.  The saved $50 a week will go to support Occupy Wall Street and other economic or environmental justice programs through one of my favorite web sites, Philanthroper.com.  It will take some adjustment to live on $70 a week for environmentally sustainable groceries when I am used to profligate spending. I will have to dust off my dried bean collection. But it will be a good experience and will hopefully help me clarify my personal goal of avoiding upper middle class food fetishim while living well.  And if I am unlucky enough to actually have to live on Social Security when I retire after the stock market completely tanks, it will be a useful practice run.

I’ll report back.


DISCLAMER: This is an Op-Ed piece. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by any or all of the members of From Scratch Club.


22 Comments Add yours

  1. Good for you! I sometimes feel the same way; it’s ironic how eating food closer to its natural state can cost so much more, especially in restaurants. I understand why – it’s more difficult for restaurants to source locally, and quality real food costs more than that from the normal bulk food channels. I don’t mind the term foodie though, to me it means someone who cares about their food. Some of our friends think we’re snobs when we don’t drink Bud Light, but eventually they come around to our home brew.

  2. Deanna says:

    Very cool! I want to try this challenge, too. I’m going to carve out time this week and really examine what I spend per week on food. I’m going to find ways to cut that down… your post is inspiring!

  3. Christine says:

    I love this, Dianna. So beautifully written and thoughtful. This is one I want to print out and put in my binder of manifestos 🙂

  4. Amy says:

    Love to walk in another window on your brain, Dianna. Thanks for daring to spell out your expenditures and thoughts. Money, food and justice are uncomfortable routes to travel — maybe they’re cliffs of a sort, perilous if you look over the edge but navigable with hope?

  5. Britin F. says:

    Excellent post Deanna! Meaningfully spending our food dollars locally, every week, is an activist position we have been employing for many years now. After a major car accident 3 years ago, while only taking in one income, we were flat broke and had to curb our weekly food bill to about $50 (we were vegan and survived well on fresh veg, rice, pasta and legumes, thankfully our daughter was still breast-feeding. I dropped to 115 lbs though – a weight I don’t remember being since junior high). When we got back on our feet a bit and started selling bread at farmers markets, we began to barter for lots of vegetables and have been eating embarrassingly well during market season the last couple of years. One of the reasons we price our lunches at the bakery $7.00 and under, and donate to hunger programs, is because we feel EVERYONE has the right to access affordable, Real Food. Kudos to you for visiting the Wall St. protests and your simple-living pledge!

    1. Britin F. says:

      (oops, sorry I spelled your name wrong, at first I thought Deanna F. wrote this!) 🙂

      1. Dianna says:

        That’s ok, she could do the replies then! Since we have a Deanna and a Dianna, both with double n’s, it is a confusing, as is Christine and Christina.

        I admire your bakery’s lunch policy by the way. That’s great. And I hope to drop to 115 pounds, that would be a very big drop for me!


  6. SallyA says:

    Great post! I totally agree with you!

  7. Dianna says:

    Thanks guys. My husband is thrilled that I am finally looking at the dried corn he grew and thinking about how to eat it. This will be an interesting month.

  8. aletalane says:

    Thanks for this post.

    I am a grad student in Michigan, and have a very strict budget. I probably always will, regardless of the high-flying dreams I have of my future. I have just started a new way of budgeting that so far, is working wonderfully. I leave enough money in my checking account to cover my rent, utilities, phone and credit card bill (which I stopped using long ago and am still suffering from!) and $50 a month ideally goes into savings (I have yet to make that one happen!) I have 2 envelopes that will be used for groceries and entertainment. I allow myself $150/month on food. The importance of supporting local business runs strong through me, and shopping at the local co-op does not allow my budget to stretch too far. This new way of spending is giving me a lesson in sustainable shopping. If I run out of cash, I do not buy food. I never go hungry, and I am learning how to shop more wisely and use up what I already have in my pantry. I buy straight from the farmer when I can because it is important to support them rather than farms nowhere near my region (even though some of those local products are not organic).

    I think it’s important to budget money wisely (not just for food) whether you do it by choice or necessity. I do it for both reasons- I’m pretty sure grad students live below the poverty level!! When you are consciously spending your money, you are able to transform how you spend and allow wisdom to monitor your spending rather than pure desire, want, or even greed.

    Thanks for your wonderfully insightful post

    1. Dianna says:

      Thank you for your wonderfully insightful response to my post. When I was in grad school a study came out that said the two poorest groups in the United States at that time were rural southern black people and grad students. Been there, definitely.

      I was thinking about how not to cheat and I came up with something similar to your system. I thought I would cash a check for $280 at the beginning of the month (I am not starting my plan till the 19th since we are going out of town for a long weekend) and making all of my food expenditures from that cash for four weeks. A separate check for $200 will go toward my donations. If I raid the donations before the end of the month, shame on me. We have a bunch of residual food lying around the house, so I don’t think this will be all that hard the first month. We’ll see if we have the grit to keep going after that.

      I am going to budget separately for going out with friends, which I do maybe once or twice a week. I was just thinking about my grocery bill and not my much valued social life. I could eat people’s left overs, perhaps, but that would be a little weird. This will take some tweaking over time.

  9. suzanne says:

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful approach to eating, shopping, budgeting, & remaining active in the on-going issues of social & environmental justice. I applaud your efforts & am seeking to better my own budgeting – altho’ I must admit, having 3 teenage boys makes this challenging! We grow vegetables in our garden, raise chickens & ducks for eggs, & have wonderful neighbors we trade with (just trades 2 jars of jams i put up for a basket of chanterelles they foraged!). This gives me hope. Many thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Dianna says:

      I had three teenage boys at home 10 years ago. I was lucky to get away with $300 a week in groceries. When my oldest son left home, our grocery bill cut nearly in half. They eat, and need to. And they have friends who eat. Good luck!

  10. Greg says:

    Your post made me think of the piece by Susan Gregory Thomas in NYT this past weekend about becoming “locavore, organic kings” — out of economic necessity.


    1. Dianna says:

      I read that piece while I was writing this one. It was great and helped me
      to think 70$ was actually do-able. I had hit on the number before I read her piece and said, if she can do this with kids at home, I can do it for the two of us. I started to think maybe I was under-reaching! Thanks for the feedback.

  11. Karen says:

    I love love those words. I could exist on beans and rice and coffee I think, however my child would wither without meat. Let me know what you do with the dried corn! (and dont scatter it for the squirrels!)

    1. Dianna says:

      I have a war on with the squirrels around my bird feeder, so I promise not to scatter the corn for them. Michael has been obsessed with indigenous agriculture lately, so I think he will parch it and pound it into mush and cook it with squash and beans. If he had buffalo fat, he might add that, but maybe we’ll use olive oil instead. Being married to an eccentric has its odd moments.

  12. Seth Jacobs says:

    Hey Dianna, nice to see all these thoughts expressed so carefully, and food choices and costs examined clearly. I’m one of the farmers at the farm you interned on. The only thing I would add is this: In North America we generally spend a much lower proportion of our income on food than most of the world, so I’m pondering the goal of making that % even smaller. Where does that leave farmer’s like us, local or otherwise?
    Anyhow, if you run low on carbs, greens, or roots, come on out, help us get the potatoes in, and we’ll load you up and stretch that $70 way out there.
    P.S.-I’ll be at the Occupy Wall Street encampment on Thursday am

    1. Dianna says:

      Thanks Seth. I have no problem spending money to support farms and farmers, that is one of the reason that I suggested my spending would be on sustainable food, not the low quality food that we bought in Jacob’s supermarket. But I do find it absurd to spend $72 on food to cook for dinner. Paying a living wage to farmers is fine by me. Pursuing food fetishism is another thing all together. I shop at the farmers market and intend to keep doing so during my experiment but will pass by the high end stuff that I don’t need anyway. Vegetables are on my a-list.

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