When I was first out of college, I used to buy foods I straight-up hated – slimy pink sugar-free yogurts at 10 for $5, mushy Red Delicious apples, gloppy, artificial-tasting store-brand strawberry jam – because they were cheap. When I quit my low-paying newspaper job to work at an even lower-paying fact checker job at a magazine, I got even more tightfisted. I’d try to keep my grocery budget to $20 a week, which meant a lot of pasta, canned tuna, econo-sized blocks of cheddar cheese, apples and green cabbage, supplemented with Trader Joe’s dark chocolate truffle bars. I was not exactly stone broke at the time – I’d eat out in restaurants sometimes, and frequently blow the grocery budget on cake supplies (or movie candy) – but going cheap at the grocery store gave me a sense of control over my paltry finances.
Now that I’m older and slightly less not-exactly-broke, I tend to choose my groceries based on criteria beyond cheapness. Things like, oh, taste, come into play, as does health (hello, flax seeds!) and, to a degree, environmental sustainability. This also means my grocery trips have gotten pricier, though I try to be careful.
In today’s New York Times Dining & Wine section, Ginia Bellafante muses on how, as food has grown more and more important in our culture, it’s become more normal to spend exorbitant amounts on groceries and eating out:
We have long since moved past the vague idea that the personal is political to the notion that the epicurean is essential — for ethical cleanliness, environmental sensitivity and all the rest. Pleasure is mingled with obligation. “I don’t think about what anything costs,” Emily Gerard, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a publishing assistant making the requisite salary, told me recently. “I’ll drop $60 once a week at the Greenmarket, which I would never do at a grocery store; I like supporting local farmers.”
The thing is, if eating “correctly” - ie, local/seasonal/organic – really IS essential for ethical cleanliness and environmental sensitivity then we’re screwed. Because few us are are gonna drop $60 a week at the farmer’s market. I know I’m not. And if the ethical importance of “correct” food is being overblown (as I suspect it is), then the insistence on eating correctly is just another way to throw up a wall between haves and have-nots.
Where do you draw the lines, when it comes to grocery spending? How important do you feel your grocery choices are, in terms of ethics and environmental sustainability?