Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Higher the Calories, The Cheaper the Food?

A Los Angeles Times article from November caught my attention. It seems food policy and obesity experts are worried that as our economy sours, we will buy more highly processed foods, most of which are very unhealthy for our bodies and the land. When money is tight, we trade off fresh fruits, vegetables and meats for cookies and chips. And while we spend less, we get fatter.

Why? We're not stupid. It's about bang for the buck. Processed foods (chips, candies, mac & cheese), on a calorie for calorie basis cost less than low calorie, more nutritious foods (broccoli, apples, salmon).

But where's the logic there? How can machine created foods cost less than something that comes pretty much straight from a tree?

One reason is that with manufactured foods, one can add preservatives to extend shelf life and keep costs low. Think less waste. A second reason is that the government subsidizes the main ingredients, such as corn, wheat, rice, or soybeans.

Here's how this connects to beef, or just meat in general. If we collectively substitute boxed food for fresh food, my fear is that the good folks who actually produce fresh, clean, great tasting meat will be forced economically to return to producing commodity food e.g. beef laden with growth hormones or cheap feed or both.

Troubling.

We can't ask people to spend money they don't have.

But here are some thoughts on how you might be able to keep clean, well-raised meats in your diet and support good farmers, humane treatment, and sustainable practices while you’re at it.

  • We've been successful at keeping costs down by buying even fewer packaged goods than before and maintaining our purchases of high quality meat and fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • Buy meat in bulk and freeze it or, far better, buy meat that's been professionally frozen to begin with. Today's blast-freezing technology freezes meat so quickly that it prevents the formation of ice-crystals that can lead to freezer burn or a loss of liquid during thawing.

  • For steaks, do what many restaurants do, buy a whole piece, e.g. the entire Strip Loin, and have it cut into steaks and vacuum-sealed for you. You can also save by choosing Sirloin or Flat Irons or other less expensive cuts or eating smaller portions – a 12 oz New York Strip Loin steak can easily feed 2 or even 3 people.

  • For stew, try a cross-rib roast and cut it into cubes yourself.

  • If you have a food processor or meat grinder, buy a whole brisket and use this to make delicious homemade ground beef.

As long as the cattle were raised with care and without the use of artificial growth stimulants (hormones, antibiotics) and the beef has been properly aged - at LEAST 7 days (and ideally 14 days or more) - you can get great, flavorful, tender meat. By being smart about the way you buy it, you can also get it for a very good price.

If you have further tips to share, please let me know, I’d welcome guest posts.

Or, if you’re looking for more tips, please send me a note at Carrie [at] oliverranch [dot] com.

11 comments:

Chez Us said...

I just did a piece about how one can eat right, by my standards, for very little money. It has been such a great experiment that we are going to continue it. One can eat healthy, organically, sustainably and local by paying attention and learning how - no junk food here! As well they will MOST likely save money - processed/junk is expensive when you really figure it all out!

glamah16 said...

What a great well written, informative blog. Just the few posts I have read have educated me. I plan to visit more ofte.

we are never full said...

really good piece. i work in a school and i really worry about the food that they feed them now in the cafeteria (90% are on free lunch), i can't imagine what's going to happen when the DOE needs to futher cut budgets. it's just so sad that there is so little education for certain socio economic groups about how to eat cheap and healthy. i think it should be a class you take in school! and it's just so sad that you can usually find a fast food restaurant w/in one mile of every school in this nation.

Walter Jeffries said...

Buying more processed foods when one has less money seems odd since processed foods cost more - one pays for processing, a "value-added" service.

I definitely agree with you on buying bulk, be it meat, rice, potatoes or what ever. The way retailing works is the smaller the unit the higher the cost, by far, since there is packaging and handling that drives the distributors and retailer's costs up.

One solution is to get together with other people to buy in bulk. Another is to be sure to use everything. Waste not, want not.

Walter Jeffries said...

Buying more processed foods when one has less money seems odd since processed foods cost more - one pays for processing, a "value-added" service.

I definitely agree with you on buying bulk, be it meat, rice, potatoes or what ever. The way retailing works is the smaller the unit the higher the cost, by far, since there is packaging and handling that drives the distributors and retailer's costs up.

One solution is to get together with other people to buy in bulk. Another is to be sure to use everything. Waste not, want not.

Carrie Oliver said...

ChezUS - Denise, yes, I've been enjoying your Recession Dinner series, it's great.

Glamah16 - Thank you, I'm flattered! Glad to have found you via Twitter as I love your blog, too.

WeAreNeverFull - I hadn't fully connected the dots re: the impact of budget cuts / higher food prices on the school lunch program, which as you've pointed out before is already lacking. Curious where you teach? I've heard about the Edible Schoolyard and Rethinking School Lunch programs and wondering how well they work.

Walter - I agree, I don't fully understand the math, which is why the article and the study it referenced caught my attention.

No matter, buying in bulk directly from a well-managed, local farm like yours is typically the best solution, indeed. Though I would think that the upfront cash required might be a barrier to some. Have you seen or heard of this?

Walter Jeffries said...

Yes, the cash up front is an issue. Freezer space is another. Some solutions that I can think of immediately are:

1) We have had a number of times when several families, generally two to four, got together to split a half or whole pig. This reduces the cash up front for all of them and means less need for freezer storage space.

2) Meat CSA's where one gets a weekly or monthly allotment of meat just like with veggies or fruit. This spreads out the cost, with payments at each pickup and also has the benefit of reducing the freezer space requirement.

3) Installment payments. We've done this with a number of families where they pay $25, $50 or $100 a month until they've bought the whole pig.

Anonymous said...

Carrie,
Just got your email (was sent to an administrator and then to my junk mail folder). Trying to contact you but having issues. Feel free to email me directly- jandrae@clemson.edu
John Andrae, Clemson University

Amanda said...

I live in a rural area and by my beef directly from the farmer. We don't have a big slaughterhouse here, just a couple of small packing houses. Therefore you have to make an appointment for your beef to be processed, they only do one at a time. We usually split with a neighbor and have enough meat to last us 6-8 months for a family of six. Comes out to roughly $1.95/lb. How can you possibly go wrong?? :)

Carrie Oliver said...

Amanda, Sounds like you have a great thing going being able to buy your beef from a trusted farm and split it with the neighbor! Do you find that the beef tastes about the same year to year?

Maria said...

I never understood why one would assume processed foods were cheaper to consume.

You make some great points. My husband often tells me how his uncles would visit a farm every year and stock up on tons of fresh meat for a great price. I have yet to look into it for ourselves--freezer space is definitely an issue but it would make it much easier to split the meats (and cost) with family and friends.