Breaking Vegetarian: Eating Ethically on a Budget

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This past weekend, I spent $80 at my local farmer’s market. For the price, we acquired a few ears of corn, a pound each of green bell peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes, a medium-sized bunch of carrots, one sweet onion, one summer squash, one zucchini, one cucumber, a pound of locally-roasted coffee, a pound of ground beef, and two local, hormone-free Delmonico steaks. As we walked back to the car, my shoulder heavy with the reusable shopping bag, my partner commented that he wasn’t convinced shopping at the farmer’s market was all that much cheaper than the grocery store.

I thought back to the last few trips I’d made to our neighborhood Giant Eagle and I had to admit he was right.

Eating ethically is often more expensive than eating conventionally. As Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and many others have repeatedly called to our attention, America’s large-scale agricultural system is skewed towards cheap production of a few key products—mostly corn and soy—that make processed foods much more affordable than fresh, whole ingredients.

Most farmers who practice sustainable farming, by contrast, operate on a very small scale, with incredibly narrow profit margins. Fresh ingredients have a shorter shelf life, and higher prices help cushion the loss taken on when not all of what farmers planted thrives or is sold. Livestock animals raised humanely take much longer to reach market weight than those fed artificial growth hormones. And when you shop sustainably, you see all of this reflected in how much you pay.

Of course, many of us are willing to pay the higher price tag in exchange for knowing we are not contributing to climate change, water and air pollution, and the suffering of animals and farm laborers. Anyone who has compared a locally-grown tomato in August to a watery, bland tomato from a superstore knows you’re also paying more for much better-tasting ingredients.

All of this adds up to giving many people the impression that ethical eating is just not something they could afford, even if they wanted to. But I don’t think it has to be this way.

The prevailing attitude about food in the United States could be summed up as “have it all, all the time, all in one place.” America’s food system is about speed and convenience. But if you’re willing to reframe the way you think about how, where, and when to shop for food, you might be surprised at how affordable eating ethically can really be. Here are a few ideas to begin:

Shop locally. Shopping and eating locally is a win-win: you get to consume food that’s fresher and tastes better, all while knowing it has a smaller carbon footprint because it hasn’t traveled as far to get to you. Farmers’ markets and produce stands also tend to be much cheaper. Your local producers don’t have to spend as much on food storage and transportation, and you’ve eliminated the mark-ups caused by grocery stores and other middlemen. While CSAs come with a significant up-front cost, they pay dividends over the course of a season. Buying as directly from the source as possible saves a lot of money.

Eat seasonally. This goes hand-in-hand with eating locally; when you buy food from within your local community, you also develop a sense for what is abundant at any given time of year, which is always going to be the least expensive option.

Food writer and former baker Sherrie Flick remembers learning this lesson as a 20-something struggling to make ends meet in the expensive Bay Area of California. “One thing I learned,” Flick recalls, “was to follow the seasonal produce. When avocados were in season, the markets in the Mission District would have bags of them for one dollar. So, I’d buy a ton of avocados.” When produce is in season, farmers have an excess and are willing to sell large volumes on the cheap. “I’d grab what was on sale and only what was on sale,” Flick says.

Grow your own. An even less-expensive option that buying local produce is the DIY way. Backyard gardens have some start-up costs, but can continue to produce, year after year, with a little seed-saving, and come with all the benefits, in terms of freshness, taste, and seasonality, as shopping at the local markets.

“During times of harvest my produce budget is tiny,” Flick says. “I am restricted to the success of my garden and what is in season. I’ve learned to pretty naturally work with this ebb and flow.”

Gardens are time-consuming, and not everyone has the space to devote a plot of land to growing food, but any food you can produce on your own—even a little windowsill herb garden—is something you don’t have to buy elsewhere. While gardening start-up costs can be a financial barrier for many on a fixed income, there are assists. SNAP benefits can be used for seeds and plants, and some community gardens offer plots free of cost to those who qualify.

Preserve the abundance. For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, eating locally and seasonally works well for six to nine months of the year. But when winter comes, and nothing is growing, what do you do? Ideally, you’ve saved some of the spoils of summer to last you through the lean months.

While canning can take some time, a few days devoted to it in the summer can last until the market opens again next year, and pairs well with either gardening or market shopping.

Flick says she pickles “cucumbers and carrots and radishes and anything else that will pickle,” and freezes berries each summer.

Several pounds of cheap August tomatoes can become sauce, salsa, and chutney. Cooked vegetables like corn or green beans are easily frozen. Even meat, purchased in large quantities during harvest season, can be stored for a good long while. Finding new ways to preserve food allows you to take advantage of the lowest prices on food that’s in season, then eat it all year-round.

Shop strategically. If you’re careful about what you purchase where, you can often find the right combination of low prices to keep the overall food budget in check.

“To drive the overall grocery bill down, I rely on a lot of cheaper carb and protein sources like beans and lentils to supplement my diet, and buy them with coupons at Target, or in bulk when possible,” says Rachel Mennies, a writer and former vegetarian.

Keep your eyes open for deals on non-perishables that you can buy in large quantities and store. Super stores like Target or Aldi may not be the best option for inexpensive, locally-grown produce or hormone-free meat, but there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of their specials on giant bags of rice. Bulk stores like Costco can also help keep down the cost of non-perishables so you can afford to spend more on fresh produce and meat at the weekly market.

Eat less meat. While I’m obviously an advocate for supporting ethical meat production, meat is, generally, the most expensive purchase to make ethically. The ground beef and Delmonicos we bought last weekend at the market made up more than half the total amount we spent. I’m happy to do it; meat is one area where I don’t want to compromise my ethics. But it does cost, so the less of it you buy, the better for your budget.

Mennies says, “I can’t really afford to buy ethically raised and local meat in enough quantity to feed the two of us meat at most meals.” Rather than sacrifice ethically sourcing her meat, Mennies has stuck with a mostly vegetarian diet, focusing mostly on “vegetable or legume-based proteins, or eggs, or stretching smaller portions of meat out.”

Think about ways to make meat last, like splitting a single, large, grass-fed steak between tacos, or using ground meat as a pizza topping, both Mennies’ suggestions, to save more room in your budget.

Not everything on this list will be a feasible suggestion for everyone’s life. Shopping locally and seasonally is considerably easier in an area with a vibrant market community (though even the most remote, rural areas I’ve lived in have at least some options). Both Flick and Mennies acknowledge that they are able to keep food costs reasonable because they have the time to devote to gardening or cooking whole, fresh ingredients, and the flexibility to make most meals at home. Those who have long commutes or short breaks during which to eat may have a harder time with some suggestions.

That’s why my final suggestion, in keeping with a recent column, is to advocate for systematic change.

Food deserts, or neighborhoods without access to fresh, healthy,whole foods, are widespread and affect primarily racial minorities. Those on WIC or SNAP benefits often have a hard time getting their food dollars accepted at markets and other local sources. People who work more than one job, or spend long hours away from their kitchen undoubtedly can’t afford to subscribe to these same ethical standards, and no one should be forced to choose between affording good, healthy food and paying rent.

Those of us who can afford to shop locally should, and should also make an effort to support, whether financially, or through volunteering, organizations who help make better food available to those with tighter budgets. Urban farms, WIC-affiliated markets, and free grocery programs are all helping to close the gap, and are in all of our best interests.

Increased access to education about cooking and growing food is also crucial. As Flick notes, “with a minimal amount of education, people can buy food that’s inexpensive and eat things that are tasty and nutritious and not destroying our planet in the process. People can learn to make things that don’t take long to prepare.” And free programs offered by extension services and food banks about making healthful foods on a budget can make positive changes more accessible for those with little experience cooking fresh foods at home.

When it comes to shopping and eating ethically, a little “patience and planning,” according to Flick, can go a long way. And when you’re trying to balance a budget, remember it’s ok to make compromises when necessary. It’s okay to shop for fresh produce at the market whenever possible, but buy coffee and chocolate at the superstore because it’s more affordable. No need to berate yourself for occasionally buying something that’s not organic or local. You know what’s best for your household budget.

“I know it’s a long, complicated road that we travel with our food choices,” Flick says. “I just try to be a good citizen to the best of my ability without judging other people’s choices.”

Marissa Landrigan’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed a food memoir titled “The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.” She currently lives in western Pennsylvania, where she runs the food-themed reading series Acquired Taste, and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.

Market photo by Barbara Monroe, CC BY-NC-ND
Egg photo by Annelies Zijderveld

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