Whenever I login to www.Mint.com (- a rockin website that helps you manage your money), it always tells me I've exceeded my grocery budget. [Also my travel budget, but I'm sure no one here is surprised to hear THAT.] Yes, I should definitely work on spending less money, but I'll tell you what - personal spending cuts are never going come out of my grocery budget. Why? Because when it comes to produce and meat - especially meat - I care more about where my food comes from than what I pay for it.
Maybe you've seen the movie Food, Inc. I did - and of course it made quite an impression on me, but a bigger influence on me, than that movie, is my brother Ryan. I'm sure I've talked about him here before, but let's just get this out of the way: he's awesome. He also knows a TON about local, sustainable food - and the humane treatment of animals. He's worked on farms, he's worked on lobster boats, he's worked at farmers markets, he's worked at the Whole Foods meat department - and he's read a ton of books. Ryan's influence has gotten me to where I am today, with food.
The thing is, it's easier for us Americans to NOT ask questions or think about our food. It's easier if we don't learn about where it comes from, how it gets to us. Because once you start learning about your food - especially meat - you get upset. None of us want to think about animals being killed for our food, we just want to eat our hamburger in peace. To learn about where it came from would be too overwhelming. We know that if we dug into it, there'd be a domino effect of things that would upset us. To know about the fuel and carbon emissions associated with the fruit and produce at our local grocery store, to know about migrant workers that were paid unfair wages to harvest it - and above all, to know about the poor animals that had miserable lives and then were violently slaughtered so we could buy pretty packaged meat and not think about where it came from - that is overwhelming, and we simply can't think about it - because it hurts. And because we're not ready for the lifestyle change of eating differently.
Let me be clear, I'm NOT on a high horse right now - I am this same way.And while I probably should be a vegetarian, I don't want to be. I love food, I work in the restaurant industry, I love dabbling in being a foodie, and I love meat. The reason I am so thankful to my brother is that he showed me a way to eat meat and feel good about it.
The thing is, there is a whole cultural movement out there to help people find meat and produce and, well, food, that is produced responsibly. Greens grown without crazy, earth-harming chemicals. Cows that had good lives - roaming in grassy fields, rather than being chained up in crowded dark warehouses - that then produce milk, and dairy products... Cows and pigs and chickens and turkeys - that when they are killed for meat, it's done in the most humane way possible. This culture exists, you could buy and eat this kind of food - but it takes effort.
Unfortunately, most grocery stores don't carry food that has this movement behind it. Yes, there are "organic" labels everywhere - and "green" type labels, but a lot of it is just advertising. (Though Ryan tells me even buying the Jewel/Dominick's version of "organic" is better than nothing). The best places to find food that you can feel good about is Farmers Markets. And I am IN. LOVE. with them.
To walk into a Farmers Market - especially Green City Market (the best one in Chicago, in my opinion) - is to walk into this happy green place, where you know you don't have to feel guilty about anything you're buying or eating - and you're supporting small farmer businesses and all the people there are on the same page as you about wanting to change the world. I describe Green City as a green, hippie carnival. [I wish people didn't have such a negative association with the word "hippie" because when I say it, I say it lovingly.] They have music there sometimes, cooking demonstrations, food made to eat, and often you'll see local celebrity chefs there buying items for their restaurant. Awesome.
But enough of my daydreaming-out-loud, there are some facts to tell you still. The reason to go to a Farmers Market is to develop relationships with the people who are actually producing the food you eat. America has gotten so detached from what we're eating, because in most grocery store and restaurant scenarios, there are third parties involved, and it's no longer part of the process for us. Nobody knows where their chicken comes from - they buy it in a meat aisle. But at a Farmers Market, you're able to ask questions from each vendor about their food - and they can tell you because if it's not them personally who farmed it or produced it, they know the person who did - and they're educated on answers, but it's the kind of environment where they expect their customers to care! They can't (and wouldn't want) to pull the same kind of crap as the major food companies out there - who sell us horrible, irresponsible food in pretty packages. Farmers Markets, beyond being green happy places, are about creating more responsibility on both ends of the food process - the producer and the consumer. When you're at a Farmers Market, you're supporting a small business that needs your help, and is selling you items that are morally responsible. You're essentially guaranteed that anything being sold there comes from a good source. My favorite Farmers Markets are the ones with meat vendors (like Green City) - because I can buy all the meat I want - ground beef, chicken breasts, sausages - and know that I can feel good about the animals who gave their lives for the food. These animals had good, happy lives - they weren't scared out of their minds before they were killed - and I'm treating my body better by eating that meat, rather than grocery store meat.
Anyway, on to the barrier most people have to entry... price. It isn't cheap to eat responsibly. Whole Foods is a great example. Being the best "mainstream" way to buy food that's responsible, it's where I try to shop whenever I can't get to a Farmers Market (especially in wintertime) - but most people call it "Whole Paycheck" because it ain't cheap. Farmers Markets can be cheaper than Whole Foods, but not always, and not by much. Until the rest of the country starts following the movement of buying food based on where it comes from, the prices will not be cheap. And in America, obviously with the economy, but even before that - everyone wants a good deal. When Jewel, Dominick's, and Target are so easy to get to, and in your routine, and have deals and coupons and sales on food - it's going to be your natural inclination to keep shopping there. [By the way, I know I talked a lot of smack about labels earlier, so let me give you something helpful: When shopping for meat in a grocery store of any type - the words "grass fed" are a GOOD inclination of the animal having had a happy life. "Free range" is good, too.] And no, not everyone can afford to shop at Farmers Markets and Whole Foods. I know. But, if you can, you should. And if you want me to take you, I will. Because it will be fun - and you will feel better. About yourself, about your food, about helping the world. Because honestly, the world needs us to stop sticking our heads in the sand because it's easier for us to do that than it is for us to readjust our budgets and explore new shopping habits.
I think what I like best about what I've learned from Ryan is that I don't have to beat myself up about every food choice I make. If I slip up and buy chicken breasts from Jewel because I'm in a hurry and it's the easiest thing to do, it's okay - because it's rare that it happens, and the majority of my money and meat purchases are done in good conscience. I can still go out to eat at restaurants (lord knows I could never give that up) - but I always inquire about the meat before ordering it. I figure even if the meat isn't humane, at least the server will hear me ask - and hopefully others are doing the same - and I can be part of a voice that is ASKING for better quality food, coming from a morally responsible source. Baby steps, yes - but if a lot of people are taking the baby steps, surely we'll all get somewhere soon.
Here you can find Farmers Markets in Chicago. But like I said, come with me to one. Part of rebelling, for me, is putting my money towards a movement that hopefully, one day, will be so predominant in our culture that small farmers can lower their prices because they're getting so much business - and make it so everyone can afford to put responsible, good food in their body and be happy [not sad or overwhelmed] with the education available about their food.