Can sustainable food survive the recession?

January 1, 2009 at 1:06 pm Leave a comment

Business is way down at Chatham Marketplace, our locavore natural foods co-op and cafe. Like many shops and eateries,  it’s feeling the impact of consumers spending less even on the daily necessities like groceries. It’s not that people have decided to eat less food (though that’s often a favorite New Year’s resolution). But when the going gets tough, savvy shoppers have to make tough choices about where to spend their limited dollars. Consumers are dining out less or choosing fastfood and frozen pizza over more costly natural cuisine. They seem to be cooking at home more and filling up on cheaper groceries, such as the generic store brand at the supermarket, or the discounted fare at Wal-Mart and Costco. It’s no accident that Wal-Mart and McDonalds are the only two of the 30 Dow Industrials whose stock prices did NOT fall by more than 10% in the past year, according to the New York Times today.

So how can those who grow and market sustainable food survive the recession? By emphasizing that sustainable farming and cooking are part of the solution, not the problem. The first order of business is acknowledging that natural whole foods often DO cost more than the mass-produced, less healthy, federally-subsidized commodies at the supermarket. And that this is a challenge for folks who are juggling tight budgets and accustomed to comparative-price shopping, with price being the primary consideration.

The second and crucial step is showing consumers that despite the higher product cost, it’s possible to feed your houshold healthy food on a tight budget and that doing so will make you feel better and help local farmers and businesses, maybe even save you some healthcare dollars in the long run. A friend recently pointed out to me that Europeans spend twice as much as we do on food, but half as much on health care. 

Maybe I can’t afford as much artisanal bread as I’d like, but that’s no excuse to buy junk bread. Instead I’ve made a resolution to try baking my own bread at least once in awhile. I’ll buy the best organic and locally ground flour (from Lindley Mill) at Chatham Marketplace.  And while hormone-free, organic meats are pricey, often twice as expensive as the unhealthy option that’s shipped here from who knows where, I know that its worthy buying when I’m using less meat in my diet these days. We can afford the free-range chicken and grass-fed beef if we choose not to make meat the center of the meal. The healthiest plate is the one heaped with organic veggies and whole grains, with meat playing a supporting role rather than being the star. 

I also know that milk, beans, flour and other staples are cheaper or at least as cheap at my local food co-op as they are in the chain supermarket, so there’s no excuse for me NOT to buy these items regularly at Chatham Marketplace.

Even the harried working parent with hungry kids to feed between soccer practice and school, can save money by cooking ahead on the week-ends and heating up leftover casseroles rather than stopping for Chicken McNuggets on the fly.  By managing our food dollars wisely, we can eat healthier at home and when we do dine out, we can afford to patronize the locally owned restaurant that serves local seasonal cuisine.

Other options are to buy food directly from the farmer, either at the farmers’ markets or through a communty-supported agriculture (CSA) program.  

We may not always be able to choose local and natural, but we can make it a priority. By shifting more of our food dollars to natural, whole, local food, we can enhance our health, support our local farmers, and enjoy better food, despite the recession. 

This doesn’t mean giving up on seeking better farm and food policies at the national and state levels, including subsidizing sustainable farming so that whole food becomes more price competitive. But meanwhile, I’m looking at the new year as a chance to start over –break bad food and spending habits, make better choices more often, and savor the flavor of meals at home and occasionally at local eateries focused around local whole food. If we all resolve to do this, we’ll not only survive the down economy, we, and our community, might just be better off.

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Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Time to subscribe to a local CSA farm Thank you, Eva Clayton

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