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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Healthy, Sustainable, and Affordable?

<n eating locally, healthfully, and sustainably be affordable? This is probably the biggest and most important question underlying the modern food movement. The environmental and health benefits of less-processed or ecologically-sound foods are widely accepted. But at present, those benefits are primarily enjoyed by a privileged few, especially when many families lack access to affordable produce. The sustainable food movement is largely seen as an elitist trend, and the organic label a new stamp of snobbery. But is it true that a largely whole-food diet is a luxury? Or can one eat healthy for cheap? Depends.

This debate recently came up in my food journalism class, when one student asked local cookbook author and Midwest sustainable food advocate, Beth Dooley, if it was possible to eat locally on a budget. Dooley emphatically responded, “absolutely.”

Dooley delved into a bit of food history, talking about the role of marketing in promoting processed foods after World War II, when factories built to make canned food for soldiers lay dormant, needing a new purpose. “Advertising tries to create a need where there isn’t one,” Dooley said, “we’ve been told that we need convenient foods and that they’re cheaper, when really the cheapest option is always to make something yourself.”

Dooley argued that we overlook how value-added foods, i.e. anything cut, cooked, mixed, or canned for us, is by definition more expensive. Mark ups for processing are how major food businesses make their money. Dooley does have a point. Historically, practices like gardening and canning were not trendy DIY hobbies, but money saving strategies employed by the lower class. Just look at the rise in “relief gardens” during the Great Depression, or the “victory gardens” that supplemented WWII food rations. Anytime you can make something yourself, it’s a fair bet that you can make it for less than buying it from a store or restaurant. And homegrown food is about as local, small-scale, and sustainable as it gets. While making pasta with a Carleton alum, he made a point of saying (twice) that homemade pasta is a “poor man’s meal,” with a few cups of flour and some eggs, you can make enough food to easily feed a family of four.

Furthermore, a lot of healthy ingredients are actually pretty cheap. Staples like grains, beans or lentils, mixed with a few seasonal vegetables, can make for simple, low cost, and nutritious meals. This sort of diet requires the knowledge and comfort of cooking with whole ingredients, which may not be as appealing or convenient as packed or prepared meals.

Yet that very statement touches on an underlying problem with all of these arguments. I don’t think it is a coincidence that I heard these tips from people who don’t actually need to eat on a budget. There are a lot of underlying assumptions about one’s capacity to consistently make home-cooked meals, grow your own food, or even fashion your own preserves and pastas. These arguments assume that people have the time, knowledge, and tools to find fresh cheap produce and cook healthy meals. For many Americans, this is not the case. Our country has considerable disparities in food literacy (one’s understanding of nutrition, cooking, and agriculture). And for many people, hours spent in the garden or kitchen haven a major premium. In fact, I would argue that such free time for hardcore DIY deals, even a home cooked meal, is a considerable privilege. Thus, when we add up the implicit costs of cooking equipment, food education, and time, the lived price of a sustainable and nutritious diet looks a lot larger.

In the end, I think it is worth revealing that we can in fact eat healthfully and sustainably for less. But does it take more time? Yes. And does time have a price? Absolutely.

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