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The rising price of eating well

Column by Hal Walter

Diet – September 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

FRENCH FOOD PHILOSOPHER Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1825: “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”

In 2008, Brillat-Savarin might peer into the depths of our shopping carts, shake his head, and tell us that what we are is broke. He might also note that many in our society are overweight and unhealthy, primarily the result of eating too many highly processed foods.

To be sure, food prices are up, along with fuel and just about everything else. For those of us living in Central Colorado, rising food costs are a double whammy, and for those who live a ways out of town, they can be a triple whammy. Food, already expensive, can cost more at local groceries because of transportation costs. Further, many of us have to drive into town just to get to these stores, and some of us routinely take longer trips to take advantage of shopping in larger population centers. For example, I make a trip to Pueblo at least once weekly to buy certain things at Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers, where I find not only organic produce, but also prices of some things to be more reasonable than at a big grocery.

Some people think I am a food snob, but then I’m willing to have an entire extra part-time job in order to eat well. I try to maintain a balanced diet from mostly low-glycemic real food, more than half of it organic. Most of my carbohydrates come from fruits and vegetables and I try to eat ten daily servings of these, including a raw salad. If I can get local produce, that’s even better. In the summer, Sunflower Natural Foods has been carrying a fair amount of local produce from Javernick Family Farms in Cañon City, and occasionally spinach and other greens grown in the Wet Mountain Valley.

I also consume considerable high-quality protein foods such as eggs and meats (mostly from local sources), as well as nuts and smaller amounts of dairy products like cheese and yogurt. As for fat, I use extra-virgin olive oil, organic butter, and locally available organic lard.

I save some money because I eat very few grain products, especially those made from wheat. You will rarely see in my grocery cart any packaged refined wheat or wheat-flour products like bread, muffins, pasta, bagels, cakes, cookies or boxed cereals. I also do not buy any cow’s milk, vegetable oil (corn, safflower, sunflower, etc.) or margarine.

In looking over our past weeks’food receipts, what struck me is that, while food prices definitely have increased, it still can be amazingly affordable to eat well. But that does not mean it’s cheap.

Some items I buy have increased dramatically in price, but a little planning and creativity have allowed me to work around this. For example, the price for a decent bottle of extra-virgin olive oil has gone up by several dollars in recent months. But Vitamin Cottage often has olive oil on sale at last year’s price, so I stock up on a couple of bottles until the next sale.

Similarly, the price of an organic chicken has skyrocketed in recent months, so now I buy “natural free-range” thighs, much less expensive per pound than a whole chicken.

EGGS HAVE GONE UP slightly, but I recently bought a dozen laying hens. Now, instead of buying eggs I buy chicken feed, which also has risen dramatically, but I get very high-quality eggs at prices lower than what I would pay at the grocery.

Produce prices have gone up a bit, but then they tend to fluctuate seasonally. If there is any produce buying habit I have changed due to price increases, it is to be more selective in my choices, and also buying some, like green beans, frozen.

I eat a daily salad and have virtually given up on the packaged “mixed baby greens,” which are frankly not that good and very pricey, opting instead for the infinitely more economical head lettuces. Over the past few weeks I have bought huge heads of fresh, crunchy organic leaf lettuce for an incredible 99 cents each. I’ve also planted a garden of salad greens, including spinach, chard and arugula, and that has dramatically offset the price of leafy vegetables.

Oddly, a certain dark chocolate that I buy has remained at $2 a bar for several years, and the organic coffee I buy has also been hanging in there at $8.99 a pound.

As an example of what it costs to eat like this, I’ll describe a daily menu as an example, and break down the costs. These prices do not include incidentals I keep in my kitchen such as sea salt, spices and other items like the aforementioned olive oil and butter, all of which cost a lot upon the initial purchase but tend to last a long time.

FOR BREAKFAST I EAT EGGS with vegetables almost every day. It’s best to buy organic or get your own chickens. Regardless of whether you pay the grocer or pay the feed store, you will find these eggs are not cheap. Organic eggs at the store are around $4 a dozen now. I figure with feed I’m paying $2.50 per dozen for my eggs. Even at those prices there is no cheaper or better protein to start your day. Throw in half an organic tomato (another 50 cents) and half an avocado (85 cents) and a slice of flourless toast at 33 cents, and you have a great breakfast for under $2.50.

I’m not worried about cholesterol but that’s another story. Just know that I’ve eaten several eggs daily for more than ten years and have tracked my improved blood-lipid profiles to show the positive health effects, including an HDL “good” cholesterol score of 87.

On to snack time. One small organic banana with a tablespoon of almond butter — about 50 cents total. Or, splurge and try a goat-yogurt smoothie with half a banana and frozen blueberries for $1.67.

It’s true there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but I often try to cook a little extra for dinner and save it for lunch the next day. Recently I’ve had lunches of grilled local organic bratwurst and roasted free-range chicken thighs, both with roasted zucchini, onion, bell pepper and carrot. These meals came in well under $3 even with a small side salad.

No leftovers? How about a big all-organic salad of green leaf lettuce, avocado, tomato, and red onion for $1.75, plus a scoop of ricotta cheese (85 cents) or organic cottage cheese ($1.04)? There’s another healthy lunch for under $3.

Afternoon snack is often an organic apple and a quarter cup of organic almonds. It’s totally portable and will set you back about $1.44.

For dinner I’ve already let on about the bratwurst and chicken thighs, but I also eat a fair amount of natural grassfed beef, which I buy locally by the half for under $5 a pound. This means I get hamburger, steaks and roasts at about hamburger prices. The meat is raised to higher standards than organic, and the price has not increased over the last year.

For dinner let’s have roasted spaghetti squash with a red meat sauce. The ingredients are one spaghetti squash, one pound hamburger, a can of organic crushed tomatoes, an organic onion, organic tomato paste and organic vegetable broth. It adds up to $12.60. I recently made this dinner and it was enough for a family of three for two nights, meaning those meals were $2.10 per serving. Variations include using ground pork instead of beef, which saves $1, or adding a can of cannellini beans, which adds about $1.

I also estimated the cost of some other meals I routinely make, ranging from tacos to chili to a beef roast with vegetables and grilled wild salmon on a bed of greens. All of them came in between $2 and $3 per serving.

Dessert is 1/3 bar of dark chocolate for 66 cents.

Looking over the grocery receipts, I also see a number of other expenses that do not figure into these meals and snacks, but do figure prominently in the grocery bill. My son and I are on a very reduced gluten diet, and so we sometimes buy a loaf of gluten-free bread at $5. My son likes carrot juice at about $5 for a half-gallon, and goat milk for $2.79 a quart. We also use organic heavy whipping cream in the coffee around here at $2.99/pint for about a week’s worth. When you total it all up, it appears there is a weekly shopping trip for about $150. One or two smaller trips to the store will push that bill up to over $200 a week.

IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS you can eat healthfully for between $9 and $13 a day, which is between $63 and $91 a week per person. The extras for a family of three will almost certainly reach $800 a month, which is right in there with the mortgage payment. Of course none of this includes the price of commuting to get the food home, which of course depends on the vehicle you drive and the distance you live from a store.

That’s probably a higher proportion of income than most Americans spend for food, but I still find my grocery bill more palatable than eating poorly and risking poor health as a result. Brillat-Savarin would most certainly agree.

Hal Walter eats and lives in the Wet Mountains.