KevinTV

My Food-onomics

04.13.12

My diet is probably the most localized of anybody I know. Some come close, but let’s use me as the example. If I’m Mr. 95+% local food diet guy, and local, good quality foods are by your definition the most expensive foods, I should then have the highest food cost of anybody I know. But the facts are, the opposite is true. Our family’s food budget works out to about $400/month. That’s for a family of 5 [kids 5, 3, 1], which per person works out to $80/person, $2.66/day, or less than $1/meal per person. Thems is the facts.

How? I’m headed there, bear with me a bit. It’s critical to point out here that we’re eating the top quality ingredients we can find here too. Rather than buying my meat at Walmart, I’m buying the best quality pasture raised stuff I can find. Rather than eating veg bred for withstanding transportation, I’m growing those with the best flavor I can find. We even fit in buying organic grain in there – I think if more folks learned the difference between conventional grain farming and organic grain farming, they’d make that leap too.

Which leads me to an important point: the marginal cost of upgrading. Having visited an organic grain farm and concluded that I didn’t want to feed my family conventionally raised grain, I found a local supplier [Sunnyboy and Highwood Crossing for unbleached white flour] that was selling organic flour for $32/20kg bag. I could buy conventional at a box store for $13 or so. So I was multiplying my food cost 200-300% on grain. This seemed illogical to my inner cheap-ass, but then I looked at the bottom line. If we go through 3 bags a year, I was spending $39 before. Going organic would cost $96. A year. So $63 more per year. That’s $5 of my $400 monthly food budget I’m happy to spend to upgrade. Think about some of the things you spend $5/month on. Parking meters maybe? Those same ‘upgrading’ economics apply to many other items, including meats. And for the record, our budget affords us buying heritage organic whole-grain flours from Gold Forest Grains too.

A quick look at inflation and seed cost. My grandma’s 95. She was born in 1917, before the end of WWI. I’m sure a bunch of carrots at the market, if they were there at all, were a few cents. Seed cost would have been fewer cents. Almost a century later that bunch of carrots at a farmers’ market, $5, say. When I’m a senior, it will likely be $10-20. And I’m not begrudging the farmers those prices – they have to pay for their time to feed you. But the seed cost remains pennies. In fact, if you save seed [and Monsanto doesn't sue you for intellectual property theft, that is], seed can still be free. As time passes, I’m convinced the economic value of seeds will become more and more obvious to the average consumer. The spread of end-product cost and seed cost is growing. I’m doing more and more seed saving. Did I mention the free part?

So I’ll cut to the chase on a few items. Let’s start with fruit and veg. Because we pick fruit until we can pick fruit no more with Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton in the fall – saving fruit on the tree or bush that would otherwise get hauled to landfill – our fruit cost has fallen to essentially zero. And no we don’t need to eat apples all winter. Our freezer’s full of sour cherries, black currants, raspberries, apples, apple juice, and more. You could argue that I have to include my cost of gas to harvest fruit, but I’d argue that I don’t, because you wouldn’t include your cost of gas to go to the box store to buy the stuff.

Our annual seed budget for veg is about $100, and I could easily tighten that up if I felt it was necessary. So yes, that $100 bill pays for enough vegetables to feed our family for the year, year round thanks to cold frames and my root cellar [also economical to build]. So substantially all of our fruit and veg for the year costs a whopping $100 or so.  ’But I live in a condo downtown and don’t have a garden‘, say you. Your solution is the Edmonton Organic Growers’ Guild - you can take the LRT to the UoA farm, spend some afternoons and evenings pitching in, and they get grants to pay for seed and tools, so your organic veg is free. There’s that word again: free. And would you believe they’re actually looking for people to take them up on this deal?!?

I’ve done beef-onomics and pork-onomics for years. When I first started buying whole animals, I was highly motivated to figure out if that big expense up front worked out in the end. Turns out for pork that no matter how I spin it, it works out to about $2.25 a lb, give or take a dime or so. Keep in mind, this is pastured, low-density, antibiotic+hormone free, happy pig, and I can shake the hand of the farmer I buy from. Box store pig isn’t any of those things. Yet my $/lb works out to less than the box store. Yes, less. I’ve done the math. So top quality meat for less than box store prices. The catch: you have to actually buy and use a whole animal [ie, not just eat its tenderloin or boneless skinless breast], and spend some time processing it yourself. And therein lies the rub. Time.

Most folks, when I start talking about food economics, will grab ‘time’, and toss it in my face. ‘You must spend every waking hour growing, processing, and preparing your own foods‘, say they. Anybody that knows me knows that’s not true. For example. It takes me 2 hrs to take a side of pig and break it down. That’s wrapped, packed, in a freezer, cleaned down. Folks will spend 2 hrs watching a movie and think nothing of it, so I’ll take that to mean 2 hrs is not a big time commitment. Harvesting apples [did I mention free?] in the fall can be done at a rate of about 100 lbs/hr, say. If you buy apples at the market for $2-3/lb say, than the economic value of your time is $200-300. Per hour. Not a lot of time, but even if it was it’s an economically efficient use of it, even if you get paid a whole lot at your day-job.

But even if it did take a lot of time, I’ll argue til the end of the earth that perhaps we should start to be okay with spending more time handling our own food. Call me crazy. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’ll still get those telling me they have NO spare time, AT ALL. Not one single day on a weekend a year. I think that’s dysfunctional and more is required than a reinvention of your food life. So long as folks own TVs, there are some spare moments in the week. If you’re that person that’s so strapped they need to figure how to best utilize those few precious spare hours per calendar year to maximize their food budget – email me or let me know in the comments. I’ll be happy to help you. But before you fear the time commitment, ask those that do it – grow, process, harvest, cook, and otherwise spend time with their food, and they’re likely to tell you it’s a wholesome, productive, happy-making ‘work’. A therapy of sorts. It’s good for the brain. It’s good for the health. It’s good for the pocket-book.

Willing to share your food budget? Any food items you haven’t found an economical solution for?

22 Responses

  1. Sarah says:

    You are where we’re moving towards. We’ve made the jump to all local meats, don’t consume a whole lot of grain, grow a decent garden through summer and our planning our urban coop. Your website is such a valuable resource! Thanks for dispelling the time and energy myth – true words were never spoken!

  2. Trish says:

    Heavens, yes. All round. And you didn’t even get into the “unaccounted for” externalities that exist with anonymous food from supermarkets.Your closing reminds me of an awesome poster I saw recently. It read, “Gardening. It’s cheaper than therapy. And you get tomatoes.”

  3. Sherri says:

    AMEN to that!!!!! Brilliant post. No comment that I could write would possibly add to it so I’ll simply say “Ditto”.

  4. David says:

    Well done! Excellent breakdown. We’ve always just “known” that we’re saving money by living and eating the way we do, but this year I decided to keep track of where we spend (seed, poultry feed, etc) as well as a loose accounting of that “time” factor you point out so well. Until I get a final tally at year’s end I predict I’ll be referring to your essay here fairly often. Again, well done.

  5. Andrew says:

    Yeah I’ve always found local to be a heck of a lot cheaper, especially if you don’t care about organic or whether or not the meat’s been inspected. Which I don’t really — no game meat is really inspected, so just keep an eye out for the obvious and go from there.

    It can often mean you end up eating a lot of similar food though.

  6. adalynfarm says:

    You forgot to mention the lower medical bills due to cutting the non-nutritious, filler-filled, food like substances out of your diet… Joel Salatin “yep organic is expensive, Have you priced Cancer lately?”

  7. Nice post–good encouragement for me to look into local flour (on my list–just never got to it) and sign up for fruit rescue Edmonton (on my list to do this year).

  8. Fiona in Edmonton says:

    You are my inspiration. We’re also striving to move to a more local-centric way of eating and living. My only problem is my husband is so used to store purchased meats that I’m having a hard time finding a local source he will like. Any source recommends?

    Our 12 month plan is to move to a house that i can grow some of our veg and start more friendships with local farmers for what we can’t produce on our own

    Fiona

  9. We are following our own path, a bit windy and twisty, but going the same place as your family. A funny side affect of all these good tasting ingredients and better eating? It is a bit tough to travel and vacation with the kids now — they turn their nose up at a lot of ‘standard American’ fare these days. They genuinely prefer our own food over just about any diner or fancy sit down restaurant. I keep picturing myself having to check a bag full of a loaf of homemade bread, a few jars of preserves and some local cheeses for emergency rations. ;)

  10. becky3086 says:

    I don’t know how much we spend. I used to and then it got all mixed up with feed costs, seeds, storage and other self sufficient things. I am sure we spend more than we should, probably more than we did when all the kids were here. I really don’t care. Living this way is a bit expensive and I don’t really live the way I want to yet but I’m working on it and I am sure it will be more expensive in the end.
    I don’t add in labor cost and time. I, too, work a lot more on the weekends though I do take a break now and then (mainly because nothing new and interesting has come along in that week to try) and I enjoy a weekend lounging, and maybe even a second weekend but by the third weekend I am bored and going to find something productive to do (which usually leads to something else). Doing something new and interesting is how I enjoy my weekends.

  11. B. Kraatz says:

    I so loved this post. I’m in the midst of tracking all of our food $$s, and trying to understanding where our money goes, where I want it to go, and where I don’t want it to go. Our family is slowly getting there. All local small-farm meat for two years, our own chickens for a year, and (finally) some proper garden beds put in last weekend.

    We eat and we love, and it just seems like we should do both of these things very thoughtfully.

  12. Maryann says:

    Excellent job putting the effort we make in our food consumption into words. Yes and Yes ! If our basic needs are food, shelter and water why wouldn’t we expect to put our time into maintaining those endeavors (must re-plaster my house again this year!) Thanks Kevin

    (If any of you readers would like some space to garden, we still have community garden plots available out here: http://www.goodnote.ca )

  13. Marcus says:

    This is well put Kevin. I think above all, you must enjoy this kind of thing for it to be a long term, life altering journey. Because the truth is, it is a lot of “work.” For me, I enjoy hunting, raising my own food, foraging mushrooms, butchering, wine making, and most of the other things that goes along with this local food thing. It started off as an interest, which turned into a hobby that is starting to become a lifestyle that I treasure. If I saw it as more work and a time sucker, I probably wouldn’t stay with it. Sure, the TV time has taken a hit, but I can live with that.

  14. Kristen says:

    I’m curious where you bought 20 kg of Sunnyboy flour? I was hoping to do the same but am not sure how to do so. Thanks!

  15. Fiona in Edmonton says:

    @Maryan Oh I sometimes wish we had a car as I’d love to have a garden plot at your location.

  16. Kevin says:

    Kristin – you can pick it up at their facility in Camrose. It’s an hour drive, but I have friends that pool orders, go pick up a half-dozen + bags at a time, share amongst friends.

  17. Great timing for follow up reading after Eat Alberta – and exactly what I asked you to do a class on at Eat Alberta – too! So, thank you for the information – it is inspirational and detailed! And you do sacrifice – I didn’t really read about that – but, people these days don’t seem to understand that. What a huge amount of discipline this kind of healthy and inexpensive eating requires… no more “I fell like”… and going to get it. This is just as good for the spirit as for the body! Returning back to this kind of food discipline in our own home the past couple of year with much more extensive preserving, freezing and bulk animal purchasing has dramatically changed the way we eat. We always ate great quality – but it is now so much cheaper. What made me write this was the day you came over to do a class and had the first greens of the new season and you were salivating as you hadn’t had any fresh greens for months. You ate other food that provided the same nutrients that you had – as fresh greens were not in season. And we have done a lot of that as well, the last two years with so many things (not greens as I still get them from the Morinville Greenhouses. etc) but with tomatoes and so much more that just doesn’t taste good unless I grow it myself or it is in season. Huge change in lifestyle, planning and thinking – which is the greatest irony, really.
    Great piece, Kevin.
    V

  18. judy says:

    i love you. This was so well said. I find that eating well in the sense you describe is not so much a matter of time, rather it is planning. always thinking ahead and being prepared.

    somehow with food supply becoming a more and more commercial endeavor, society seems to have lost touch with how much time we really SHOULD allot to sourcing and preparing the food we need to nourish our bodies.

    i had to laugh when Kraft came out with “easy mac” like preparing the original 7 minute KD was a huge time sucking process. they shaved 4 minutes off! sigh, what to do with all that new found free time?

  19. Chantelle says:

    Oooohhh I hear you! I am both busy and lazy and I still find both the time and energy to process at least a portion of my own food. I’m an avid “preserver” in every way…pickling, jamming, canning, freezing and drying, yes this all takes time but I can still find a few hours to do a batch of preserves even once a week until the harvest glut is over. That’s a few hours from raw and unwashed to jarred, sterilized and kitchen cleaned without assistance. If my lazy butt can do it and still run my own business, anyone can! Oh, and here we’re already well into April and am still enjoying canned plums (free from a friend with too many to use), frozen grapes (free from my garden), dried apple rings (small cost from local orchard), organic rye (traded a local grower for some grape jam which was made from my garden)……can’t wait to see how far my food and time budget can stretch this season. I really enjoy your blog, thanks for sharing.

  20. Hilda says:

    The whole time argument always bugs me. I have 3 preschool aged kids, I run a very time consuming business/hobby from home, my husband works full time, and yet I make all our own breads, yogurt, jams, meals, butter, grow our own veg, sew some of kids’ clothes, and have PLENTY of free time to play with my kids, spend time reading, and camping many weekends of the summer. Honestly, my biggest thing with time is how do you NOT have the time? Prioritize people. (or get rid of your cable) Also I’m extremely envious of that $400/month. We’re nowhere near that yet but granted this is the first year we’re doing serious gardening.

  21. TaraZ says:

    If you want fresh greens in the summer, just grow them in your house. I had local (grown in my kitchen) tomatoes in February. All you need is some nice south-facing windows and a bit of space.

  22. NicoleB says:

    $400. You are a superhero. AND, you’ve inspired me. I’m all fired up to chop up a pig….I’m doing this. Thank you Kevin.

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