For me, one of the great rewards of the “urban homesteading” lifestyle is that it enables me to live pretty frugally. Or perhaps “frugal” is not exactly the right word. More accurately, I have greater control and choice over where my hard-earned dollars go. It shifts some of the variables in the cost-of-living equation.
For example, instead of spending lots on utility bills and things like Tide laundry detergent, I use a clothesline and make my own laundry soap. There is some meat in my diet, but it isn’t a daily thing. I get a lot of protein from other sources (eggs, beans + grains, and my dearly beloved cheese)—which is much less expensive, so when I do buy meat, I can splurge on something local, sustainable, grass-fed, and fabulous. If I grow a lot of my own food and buy from local farmers, I’m putting my money into a local organic chicken feed co-op and Saturday farmer’s market instead of the fossil fuel industry.
One of the conundrums, though, of the “locavore” movement is that it has upscaled quality basic ingredients. Restaurants that feature locally and sustainably grown foods tend to be very pricey. Unless you are at a certain income level, a McDonald’s hamburger meal is still going to be the more practical option than, say, a Farm Burger meal—which is an incredibly good value but still more expensive than McDonald’s. I love that Decatur’s local farmer’s market accepts Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT — the electronic version of food stamps from the state) cards and that it is strategically located within easy walking distance of the city’s public housing development. But then again, if you’re stretching your EBT allocation as far as it can go, and you can get a much bigger bunch of carrots at Kroger, where would your common sense take you?
These complicated questions about food, sustainability, class, culture, accessibility, and economy are beginning to filter into the media. NPR recently ran this story about Hardwick, Vermont, a town many think of as a kind of epicenter for local food production in the Northeast. But as one Hardwick high school student observed, “There’s the side of the town that’s for the local food movement, but I think there’s an even greater side of the town, with more people, that can’t afford the local food. I work at our local supermarket grocery store, and I see most of the people in town there.” One farmer in the area is responding to this concern by introducing a more “industrial” edge to his processing: more frozen, pre-washed fruits and vegetables that will be packaged specifically for the local supermarkets.
And yesterday, a piece in the New York Times about locavore queen Barbara Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp, who has struggled in the last several years to start a restaurant in Meadowview, Virginia, where they live, in the heart of the Appalachians. The concept for Harvest Table is noble: locally sourced produce, meats, and cheeses; other stuff that they ship in is organic and/or fair trade. His vision is egalitarian, “built by and caters to the community,” the article explains. But Harvest Table has yet to make a profit in its four years. It’s too expensive for the locals. The average annual income in the area is $15,750. From the article: “‘If you go over there and eat, you have to pay $20,’ said Kay Thomas, 69, who has been farming in Meadowview with her husband for a half-century. ‘You can go to Pizza Hut and eat for $6. With the economy the way it is, you have to watch what you do.’”
What kind of upside-down economic system renders the most basic, most simple, most easily produced food the least accessible? What can you do to turn it aright? For me, it goes back to that question of redirecting my resources — and it goes to thinking about my lifestyle in simple economic terms. If I make some kind of purchase for my garden — for instance, a Growcamp that I spent $600 on earlier this year — I think of it in the long-term, and as an investment for future food production. Last year I hired someone to help me improve my rainwater catchment system — a significant up-front expense, but I haven’t watered my garden from a spigot on the house at all this year.
Maybe “frugal” is the right word, after all. I want my food to be cheap. So I consider the flow of goods and funds in a different way. If I sell a few dozen eggs, my fancy organic chicken feed is paid for. As regular readers know, I’m always on the hunt for a good barter and the alt-economy it helps create. The value of goods and services seem more real somehow, and so maybe in some scheme it helps bring the greater system back down to earth.
And while I love and appreciate the upscale restaurants that have embraced the local food trend, especially the ones right around here in Decatur, I also love preparing great meals at home with food I have grown myself. They are very cost-efficient if I think about what ingredients I have on hand and build a menu from that: Flour, water, salt, and yeast. Mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant from my garden.
Suddenly, my pizza is cheaper than Pizza Hut’s, and much more delicious.