by Jen Maiser
Can a single woman in San Francisco eat local foods on a budget of $68 a week?
Yes and no. Yes, if she's willing to eat every meal at home and forgo a social life that revolves around eating out.
During my Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge week, I spent $153.10. That included a couple of splurge meals -- most notably $42 at Hog Island Oyster Company one night. Given my target budget, to say that I was way over is an understatement.
While I was committed to the idea of the challenge and kept scrupulous notes during the week on the amount I spent, when a close friend who I hadn't seen for months was in town for about an hour one night, I had a bit of a dilemma: do I opt not to see her? Go somewhere less expensive that kept me in my budget but threw ethical eating out the window? Or go to a restaurant that, if pricey, made me feel good about where my money was going, and was a nice place to take an out-of-towner to boot?
I opted for the latter. Even if I would have some explaining to do if I did so.
Removing the line item for that meal, a fantabulous lunch at Pizzetta 211 on Sunday, and some random coffee runs (to the tune of $12.75), I spent $78.35 at home for food for the rest of my meals. So if I could have also eaten those two meals at home, I would assume that I could have eaten at home during the week for approximately $80 - $84. Definitely over my $68 budget, but still much more in the range than what I actually spent.
The good news about eating locally on a budget is that it is doable. I have yet to publish the results of the survey of all Penny-Wise participants, but a majority of the survey participants think that it's feasible to eat a local diet within the budget of an average American household.
My experience during the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge is that it takes more planning and more time in the kitchen than I typically take during the week. And that's an important caveat. Eating locally within a budget, where it's not acceptable to jaunt off to local-food provider Hog Island Oyster Company, is possible, but requires a re-prioritization of time in our already jam-packed lives.
I work at home, and much of my kitchen time can be broken out over different periods of the day. It's easy for me to let things simmer and stew while I work. But many don't have this luxury, and without a complete shift of timing priorities, it would be impossible for them to spend more time in the kitchen. There was a point during the week when I felt like throwing up my hands in frustration -- I had just finished cooking my dinner and cleaning the kitchen and it was about 11:00 pm. I was exhausted. But I realized that I didn't have any food left for my lunch at an office the next day and started cooking again -- finally leaving the kitchen at about midnight. And in my household it's only me -- I don't have a family to think about cooking for.
I think that if eating locally on a Penny-Wise type budget were a reality instead of a one-week test, however, I would settle into habits like preparing foods for the week all at once, eating more leftovers than I do, and generally planning ahead that would make the overall time commitment less taxing as time went on.
This whole discussion can't occur without an acknowledgment that we should be spending a higher percentage of our budget on our food. By percentage of our income, Americans spend less on our food than most other countries. But I'm not one to tell people what to do -- I'd rather live through example, and that's what my part in this effort is all about. I, personally, have chosen to spend more money and more time on my food. And I pay for it in other ways. I don't own a car, I don't spend much on clothing, and I generally scrimp and save where I can. But that's such an individual and personal decision.
What I do know is this: Many people try and write off eating anything locally with the excuse that it's too expensive. Say that you don't want to do it, or that you don't believe in it, or you don't have the energy to dedicate to it, or anything else. But when it comes down to buying fresh, local, in-season fruits and vegetables, the problem will not be price. You will find at least some fruits and vegetables that are less expensive than, or on par with, your supermarket.
The overall idea of eating locally poses some interesting dilemmas, as it often asks us to re-prioritize our time and our budgets. But the good news is that it's not an all or nothing thing. While those of us who chose to participate in the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge tried to eat as much as possible during the challenge from our local area, anytime you choose to buy local honey, or local in-season tomatoes, or local cherries you are making a choice -- for that one moment -- to support a local farmer or vendor. And you will be doing a world of good.
Jennifer Maiser is the editor of the Eat Local Challenge blog and the author of Life Begins at 30.