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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Can Good Food Be Cheap?

I, like so many other hungry Americans, am broke. My wallet is not just empty, my bank accounts not just zeroed out, but my pride is slowly leaking down the drain as well. Money is tighter than ever, and my biggest fear is being realized--no more fancy eats. Gone are the days of filet mignon, fresh ripe mangosteen and lychee, and wedges of Spanish manchego and French Brie. I'm barely able to afford the organic, free range chicken that I've come to consider a "must-have" after reading about the horrible happenings in the poultry industry of America. Our family's debt has reached it's boiling point - we cannot get any hotter than this. So, in an effort to scale back, I am trying to rethink what it means to eat well. Does good food equal exorbitant cost? Can good food be cheap?

I grew up in a typical American home where the standards, Spaghettios, Ramen, Hamburger Helper etc. were always on hand. When I left home I knew I would never, ever, eat those foods again. Not only are they nutritionally inferior to fresh food, but on a personal level, they don't taste that good either. For the most part, I've been successful in avoiding the canned and boxed food trap. Convenience food is limited in our home to frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn, instant oatmeal, cereal and bagged chips. Other than that, I make it. (And before my sabbatical from restaurants and fast-food joints, we would go out to eat it.) Now, as I am trying to find ways to feed the family on a smaller budget, my options seem limited. It is definitely cheaper to eat poor quality food, but what if I want to eat delicious, fresh food without spending a small fortune?

I am one of those people who support the organic food movement. I do feel that the word organic has been manipulated by mega-corporations to get the average grocery shopper to buy a pricier product in the belief that they are doing something good for themselves and the environment. However, any food made with minimal processing and no chemical additives is definitely better for the body than not. The only problem with organic is that it's expensive. Take bananas. I can buy a stalk of bananas for about $0.45 a lb. However, if I want organic bananas (and this means they are not only grown without pesticides, but they are not pumped with Ethylene to ripen them quicker) I have to pay nearly three times that amount, $1.20 a lb. For the organic chicken breasts I buy, I am paying a whopping $6.99 a lb! That's right! For two chicken breasts (an average pack) I usually pay about $7.50. That's pricey for anyone, especially the average blue-collared shopper like me.

So how on earth is anyone in this economy supposed to cook the food delights of Bobby Flay or Ina Garten when their income to spending ratio is smaller than ever? I would love to make lobster pot-pie Ina, and Thai grilled shrimp salad with some fancy cocktail Bobby, but frankly, I can't afford it. As it is, I am spending, for a family of four, around $800 a month on groceries. This number doesn't just need to go down, it must. Now remember, I live in Hawaii, and it is more expensive here than on the "mainland" of the U.S., and I also buy high-quality, often organic food.

My main concern is that I don't want my children (or myself!) to eat nutritionally deficient crap. So I open the door to my readers and hope that someone out there knows the answer to this provocative question. Can good food be cheap? Can the average shopper eat high-quality food for a fraction of the cost? Do you have any tips, tricks or secrets that can enlightened the grocery-disabled? I'm excited to hear what you have to say.


Christy said...

I wish I had any useful tips for you... we cook for so many that we buy in bulk at Costco.

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