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Rethinking our food priorities

(article, Charlotte Freeman)

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It was the Union Square Greenmarket that convinced me I wasn’t cut out for New York. 

I’d gone to New York to look for a job in publishing, unaware of two crucial facts about the industry: I had to type 85 words a minute with only three errors, and I had to accept a wage scale that presumed my parents were paying my rent. 

In my case, neither was true. So I wound up working for a very small book packager run by the father of a college friend and living with a series of unpleasant roommates in a tiny railroad flat. 

I was very, very poor. If I was vigilant, I had exactly enough money to pay my bills, pay my rent, and eat. My food budget was the only discretionary income I had, and I took to the challenge of learning to eat well on no money in New York City. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="How much are good eggs worth?"]

On weekends, I’d head south on Second Avenue in search of interesting finds. There was the tiny store on 10th or 11th that sold only fresh mozzarella and olives, nothing else. There was the big Italian bakery where I once had a very serious conversation about which biscotti in the 20-foot-long case would be just the perfect biscotti for the free performance of "Tosca" in Central Park. 

But my real lifeline during those two desperately lonely years in New York was the Union Square Greenmarket. On Saturday mornings, I’d drag my wheelie cart over to the Greenmarket and wander in a daze among the tables. 

It wasn’t the produce that I found hypnotizing, although that was lovely, especially the new vegetables I’d never seen. Nor was it the cooking advice freely dispensed by the voluble New Yorkers around me; the day I wondered aloud as to what one would do with cranberry beans, the lady next to me said, “You make pasta fazul!” as if anyone with any sense knew that already. 

No, it was the people working behind the tables. I remember looking at them with envy, thinking, "They live where there’s dirt." 

I made it two years in New York before I left in search of dirt. Fifteen years later, I managed to purchase my own little patch of dirt in Montana, where I’ve been happily growing veggies — and buying what I can’t grow from as many of my neighbors as possible — ever since. 

Our country is mired in some very tough economic times these days, and people are naturally turning to home cooking. Blogs and newspaper food sections are buzzing with articles about eating well on a budget. Fast-food chains are dropping their prices even lower, trying to lure the overworked and exhausted with the promise of quick, easy, and cheap meals. 

Running like an undercurrent through much of this chatter about food and prices and cooking is a sense that, well, organics were a nice luxury during the fat times, but they're just an extravagance during the lean.

Most Culinate readers are familiar with the arguments about the false economies of fast food, the hidden costs of cheap industrial food, and the problematic quantity of petrochemical inputs necessary to support such a system. But we’re all feeling the squeeze. 

It's time to confess: I’ve cheated on my egg lady a little bit this winter, buying ranch eggs at my local health-food store from someone else because they were two dollars cheaper. 

Isabelle’s eggs are expensive — nearly six bucks a dozen. So is her raw milk with cream on top — a gallon costs eight dollars. At the grocery store, I can buy a dozen local commercial eggs for two dollars, and a gallon of commercial milk is, what, three dollars? 

But here’s the thing: Like Thoreau’s wood that warmed him twice, buying eggs and my weekly gallon of milk from Isabelle gives ancillary value. 

Because I don’t drink a whole gallon of milk every week, I’ve learned to make delicious yogurt and ice cream from it. Because I learned to make yogurt in Mason jars, I’ve stopped adding plastic yogurt containers to the waste stream. Because I'm making my own ice cream, I’m eating ice cream that’s considerably better than store-bought ice cream, plus I know everything that went into it. 

If I had kids, would I still be able to pay eight dollars a gallon for milk? I don’t know. I do know that I might try, especially since I know that Isabelle’s milk is absolutely devoid of growth hormones and antibiotics. Again, it's an exercise in true and false economies: How much can you afford to protect your kids from a potential health danger no one really understands? 

In the end, what did I gain by cheating on my egg lady? For two bucks less, I got a big load of guilt, and frankly, the eggs weren’t as good. But the thing that finally brought me to my senses was that, despite the fact that six dollars is a lot for a dozen eggs, the difference was only two dollars.

I found myself willing to sell out someone I know and like for two bucks. I know Isabelle; I know her three kids. They live on what they can make off of their ranch. They provide me with eggs that are darn near the Platonic ideal of what an egg should be: gorgeous eggs with marigold yolks that taste fresh and clean and eggy. 

I’m a resourceful person. There has to be someplace else in my budget where I could shave off two bucks (um, wine?) in order to continue to support someone I know and like, to help keep people in town who contribute to our local community, who are our local community. 

There’s a big opportunity in this downturn for those of us who really care about these things to take a stand. To prove that we know false economy when we see it. To refuse to trade the community we build by supporting farmers' markets and family farms for the cheap sterility of the chain grocery stores.

There’s an opportunity here for us to demonstrate that there’s economy in learning to eat what the people near you can grow — whether that means figuring out what to do with veggies in your CSA box or, like me, learning to make yogurt. 

There’s an opportunity here for us to demonstrate that clean food grown locally is indeed an economic value as well as a social value. 

So as times get tough, let’s try to hang together. Let’s not forsake our farmers' markets and CSAs and local food co-ops. Let’s instead demonstrate that we know real value, and that we’re ready to support it.

p(bio). The author of the novel [%bookLink code=0312254075 "Place Last Seen"], Charlotte Freeman blogs at LivingSmall. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she hikes and gardens and is learning to put up as much of her own food as possible.

reference-image, l