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Jan 17 2012

The fear of food

I went grocery shopping last week. Yes, I know, news flash. We were out of nearly everything, and so it was a Costco and supermarket run. On a Saturday. It was not pretty. And it was not cheap.

I suppose I got spoiled, living in Colorado where there was a natural foods store on nearly every corner. Where organic produce is front and center, not wedged in the back near the jicama that has been there since the store opened. Where there is an expectation of quality and reasonable cost. And where you know that if you’re gonna drop some coin for food it’s actually food. Psst! Sunflower Market! I’m talking to you! I miss you! You never call…you never write…how about you come visit me in Chicago?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock…not that there’s anything wrong with that…you know food recalls pop up about every three weeks. Ground beef, cantaloupes, spinach. You name it, there’s probably been a recall at some point. Except for heavily processed foods. Hm. That just occurred to me. I can’t remember the last time I heard of, say, a Velveeta or Twinkies recall. That stuff even scares away e coli. Impressive. So we have to worry about the safety of our food.

We’re a mixed grocery family. A and I are gluten-free, he is also dairy-free. He and J are both picky eaters (though I am cracking down on that crap). A is quite underweight, I need to lose a few. Tom eats anything except pickles, the poor ignorant man, but has his food demands as well (must have breakfast cereal and always takes a sandwich for lunch). Mix that all together with a dash of I don’t like to cook when I’m hungry, and serve with a hefty side of healthy food is damned expensive.

When Tom and I first moved to Boulder, we lived on his teeny tiny wee widdle teacher’s salary as I went to grad school. We learned very quickly how to survive on that, and it was mainly through slashing grocery costs to ribbons. Our food budget (groceries and any rare dining out) was $200 a month. We became experts at shopping only the sales, doubling coupons like maniacs, and stocking up when things were cheap. Seeing savings of 40% or more on our grocery receipts was not uncommon. We’d buy bread at $.50 a loaf, canned beans at 10/$1, things like that. We had no cause to worry about the quality or safety of the food we were buying.

Things are quite different today.

Gluten free food is insanely expensive; a loaf of bread is minimum $5 for maybe five tiny sandwiches worth. There are very, very few coupons out there for gluten free foods. If it’s ever on sale, it’s maybe twenty cents off. There are ways to procure gluten free foods almost cheaply (Amazon has great bulk deals), but in general I pay through the nose. I also try to avoid foods that have ingredients that don’t exist outside a factory. You will never find something like the aforementioned Twinkies in my house. Velveeta perhaps, on the very rare occasion. I am weak around queso. Very weak.

Because of this our food budget is more than four times what it was 15 years ago, second only to the mortgage in the budget. Not just inflation, not just dietary restrictions, but also because I am afraid of our food supply. I don’t trust it. Ground beef can be cheap, if you don’t mind the fact that the five pound chub was probably ground from a half dozen different steers. A muffin mix can be really inexpensive, if you don’t look at the ingredients and see that the “berries” are listed below the various food colorings. I regularly have to balance cost with quality with nutritional value with how much I do or do not trust the food supply at any given moment. Pretty big mental scale hanging around my neck as I maneuver my cart. And I’m lucky to have the option of that giant scale, though if the economy kicks us in the teeth any further that option will have to go the way of cable tv.

Real food is insanely expensive, and that’s the majority of my cart. Knock wood, none of us have had a cold or the flu or the general plague this winter. I can’t remember the last time any of us got a knock-down-drag-out virus, and I really do attribute a lot of that to diet. We were all more prone to illness before I went gluten free and had to read every damned label out there. But reading those labels has put the fear of food into me. I hate going grocery shopping and wondering if the produce or the lunchmeat or the chicken breast is hiding something that could make us ill. I hate paying for groceries, knowing that I could be feeding our family for a lot less if I bought more processed foods.

I wish I could trust our food supply 100%, but I just can’t. Too much food is made by corporations or grown by pharmaceutical companies. This summer it’ll be organic produce from farmer’s markets (that I’ll freeze/can/put up), orders for 1/4 grass-fed steer and 1/2 happy hog (love my freezer), and my own personal garden. I pale thinking of the cost, but…I can’t do it any other way.

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  1. Linda

    You just can’t cut corners with food. It’s worth the expense.

    1. Jen

      No argument here. I just hate that it is that way. I’m sick of my second highest expense literally disappearing three times a day. But it’s so much better than the alternative, and we’re healthier in so many ways.

  2. Rich

    Yep…food is second after mortgage in our budget, too.

    Costco meat is not bad–unlike many places, they check it for pathogens–and in particular it’s my favorite place for organic chicken.

    1. Jen

      It’s pretty much the only place where organic chicken doesn’t rival heavy bling in cost. I miss my old Costco; it had organic produce for the same price as non.

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