Updated on 05.26.07

Cheap Food, Expensive Consequences: How To Keep Your Family Healthy And Safe Without Spending A Mint

Trent Hamm

Reading the news lately is like reading a litany of horror stories. Take this brief excerpt from the Washington Post:

Dried apples preserved with a cancer-causing chemical.

Frozen catfish laden with banned antibiotics.

Scallops and sardines coated with putrefying bacteria.

Mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides.

These were among the 107 food imports from China that the Food and Drug Administration detained at U.S. ports just last month, agency documents reveal, along with more than 1,000 shipments of tainted Chinese dietary supplements, toxic Chinese cosmetics and counterfeit Chinese medicines.

Regardless of how you feel about the politics, no one of reasonable nature would want to feed such food to their families, particularly their children. When I look at my nineteen month old son, the last thing in the world that I want to put on his snack tray are dried apples treated with a carcinogen. The truly frightening part is that it is impossible to tell which items are tainted and which are not from the packaging alone.

So what can you do as an average person to avoid these items and not have to spend an arm and a leg shopping at an organic grocery? Here are five ways my family and I minimize our usage of prepackaged food items.

We garden ourselves. It’s pretty hard for vegetables and fruits to be contaminated if you grow them yourself. Spend the time and put in a garden patch, and then store the excess that you grow for the winter months. Tomatoes are particularly nice: you only have to grow a few plants to have an abundance of tomatoes and they can be used in so many ways.

We shop at local farmer’s markets. In Iowa, farmer’s markets are all over the place in the spring, summer, and fall. We hit a lot of them and buy local produce with cash, then take them home and wash them vigorously to minimize the pesticides on it. The costs at farmer’s markets for most things isn’t all that high, and you can sometimes find a bargain if you look carefully. Here’s a guide to maximizing your dollar at a farmer’s market.

We can and freeze vegetables and fruits ourselves. Actually, we cannot do this effectively at our current apartment, but we both did this growing up and we both plan on doing such activities when we move in. It doesn’t really take that much work at all to do either one (canning takes a bit more effort, but the food is never frozen) and it allows for food that you’ve grown yourself to be eaten all year long.

We make as much as we can from basic ingredients. Want to make your own pasta? Mix two eggs with a cup of flour, mix it well, let it sit for a half an hour, then push it through a pasta press or roll it out and slice it up. How about your own spaghetti sauce? Get a jar of tomato juice, add dried herbs to it, then boil it down until you’ve got the right consistency. Most basic items are actually quite easy to make, it just takes the courage to get started … in fact, I wrote about how to get started with cooking even if you can barely boil water.

We buy as much local as we can. Our milk comes from a local dairy, our eggs come from a local chicken farmer, and our meat will soon come from a local meat locker. In each case, I can go right to where that material was made and see the process for myself – and I’ve done it, too. It costs a bit more, but not only am I supporting the local economy, I’m also buying stuff that I can visit the source of and meet the people who work to bring it to my dinner table.

All of these activities not only save money (except for the local food buying), but they ensure that my family is eating good, healthy stuff that, for the most part, I know where it came from.

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  1. boomie says:

    First off, I personally am not buying anything edible (pardon the pun) from China. Read the origin labels. Even toothpaste from China is causing deaths from the poison that is in it.
    Second, you do NOT make tomato sauce for pasta from tomato juice! Saute’ a little chopped onion and garlic in olive oil, before it turns browned add in a can of crushed Italian plum tomatoes. Add some salt and pepper, a little parsley (I always add a bit of crushed red pepper spice) and simmer for 45 minutes, uncovered. Now that’s Italian! Serve with a nice, low cost Italian chianti from Tuscany and I promise you will never eat in an Italian restaurant again.

  2. Vincent says:

    It’s so interesting to me that things like this were absolutely the norm here in the US as early as 30 years ago. Now it’s unusual for a person to go anywhere other than Wal-Mart Supercenter or any other supermarket chain for what we eat.

    Blogs like TSD and people like Trent are among those spearheading a grassroots movement of going back to the basics. People are more aware now of green living, but even if you buy post-consumer goods, recycle, and use CFLs in your house, much of the food we buy from the grocery store is still a health hazard—whether it be short term or long. It’s so important that we as citizens reduce our impact on the environment, and that includes not buying from factory farms or producers who provide genetically modified veggies. Growing your own is one of the best ways to do it, and you don’t have to worry about what’s in your food because you raised it.

    So: more power to ya, Trent. Always inspiring to read stuff like this. When I get a house, I’ll be following in your footsteps–growing my own and buying local where possible.

  3. debtkid says:

    I’ve started a little garden myself to grow a few vegetables that I enjoy. I never seem to get them while at the store, but if I grow them myself, I’ll eat them!

  4. Rob in Madrid says:

    unfortunatly the food supply is so globalized that it is almost impossible to avoid foods from China. The best thing is to make sure the FDA is well funded to keep those kind of products out. As well contacting firms that use imported products to tell them you won’t buy it.

    Also when you can’t get fresh canned/frozen products are just as good, often better when you realize most produce is picked green where as frozen is picked at the hight of ripeness.

    Trent would love more ideas of how to replace instant foods with home cooked.

  5. Mardee says:

    Shopping locally is not only healthier and supportive of the local economy, but in the long run, much more satisfying. I use that philosophy not only for food but for any purchases – I’d rather buy my tools from the local mom-and-pop hardware store 3 blocks away (that I can walk to) than Lowes or Home Depot. If more and more individuals like Trent and his wife start doing this, society will notice and public opinion will start to sway away from the WalMart Supercenters and humongous Krogers and back to the art of simple, healthy living.

  6. Mardee says:

    @Rob in Madrid: Most farmer’s at the markets pick their produce when it’s ripe – the only time produce is picked when green is if it’s going to travel. Another reason to shop locally.

    That’s one of the big differences between Europe and here. Everything is fresh and local – even the meat is usually butchered locally – and you can tell the difference in the taste. I’m not a big meat eater but the meat I’ve had while traveling has a much better flavor than stuff I get over here (unless I buy from a local farmer).

  7. I’m going to invest in Whole Foods. I’ve never stepped foot in a store, but more and more people every day are saying that they want natural, more organic food. I think I’m too young too remember the days when we didn’t have walmarts and frozen dinners. It’s going to be scary for me when I have kids. I’ll probably just grow my own vegetables and puree them in a blender.

  8. r says:

    Don’t forget CSA’s! CSA = community supported agriculture, also known as a farmshare. You pay some set price (the one I use is $400 for the year) at the beginning of the season, and then every week for usually May through October you get a share of what the farm produces that week delivered to a pick up area near your house (mine is a local coffeeshop – the bags of produce are just left in the back room, and you stop by sometime between 2pm and 10pm to walk in, grab the one with your name on it, and walk out).

    While $400 can seem steep, it’s also a lot of food – ours is enough that we split it with the neighbors across the hall (which also means we only have to pick it up every other week, too). $400 for fresh local produce for two couples for 6-7 months isn’t bad – and every week, you’re getting whatever’s perfect for picking that week.

    @Dy: I’ve wondered about investing in Whole Foods myself many times, but… I just can’t bring myself to do it. I just don’t *like* the place! And the eat local thing is a good example of why – if you go to at least the whole foods near me, it’s a minority of the produce that’s labeled with country of origin (at least as of last I checked – if anyone goes there regularly, feel free to correct me!); even for those that are labeled, often there are no local options, even when I KNOW that crop is in season locally and being sold in abundance at the local farmers’ markets. And there is a surprising emphasis on prepared foods – like Trader Joe’s, it can be amazingly difficult to find all of the basic materials to make, say, a loaf of bread (and what’s more basic to the average US diet than that?) yourself; it’s easier to find pre-marianated, pre-cooked fish or pre-wrapped sushi. It’s just not catering to the kind of lifestyle being discussed here.

  9. !wanda says:

    I don’t think genetically modified should be lumped in with local, organic, etc. I’m a scientist and I’ve personally genetically modified bacteria many times (it’s high school biology now) and worked with many strains of genetically modified mice, so I’m very comfortable with these types of technologies. Genetically modified crops and animals have the potential to be more nutritious, hardier, and/or less requiring of pesticide, water, and space. Of course the fact that currently only big agribusiness has the money to pursue genetically modified foods complicates things, because big agribusiness is also in favor of nonlocal, non-ecologically sound agriculture. But in theory, and I hope in the future, we can keep the fruits of modern science while returning to a more sustainable and healthful way of eating.

  10. Bob says:

    Not much room for a garden, not many farmer’s markets for much of the year, food allergies that include corn, tomatoes, apples, milk, eggs, wheat and more. While I don’t like spending the money at the grocery store, it’s just the reality of what we have to do. And yes, we spend a lot of time in the store reading labels! :-p

  11. jenn says:

    If you’re concerned about what you eat, you could consider cutting out meat altogether. Aside from avoiding potentially tainted meat and lowering your cholesterol, you’ll find it’s much much cheaper to eat vegetarian! you’ll also find you eat more fiber and eat less. (i lost 50 pounds my first year of being vegetarian, YMMV)It also helps the environment. i’ve read studies where they say that if you stop eating meat it reduces your carbon footprint more than if you traded in an SUV for a Prius. (it’s been blogged about here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-freston/vegetarian-is-the-new-pri_b_39014.html)

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