By Harreson Sito
Healthy, nutritious, affordable food presented with dignity – what does that mean? To different people, those words mean different things. To a freeganist who reclaims discarded food out of trash bins, that could mean delicious home-cooked meals from that reclaimed food served to their housemates or to a community of people in need. To a person with an abundance of financial resources, it could mean regularly eating out at posh restaurants. In this article, the question leads me to a friend, Maria Foster, who, as a teacher/counsellor, has some financial resources but chooses to eat frugally.
For Maria, eating frugally means regularly spending less than $200 a month on healthy nutritious food of her choice. She does this for two reasons: out of necessity and out of curiosity. Back in 2009, she had two car accidents which dramatically affected her health and her ability to produce income. Subsequently she experienced a significant reduction in income. The timing of accidents couldn’t have happened at a worse time – she had just signed the papers to take ownership of a house and now had a large mortgage looming over her head. The question arose for her: how to keep the house and still have healthy food on a highly restricted budget?
Fortunately her health and income-making ability has greatly improved since then, so life is not so stressful. However, due to her pre-existing curiosity to explore living more simply, she continues to eat and live frugally. For Maria, healthy means eating organically grown food. I visited Maria at her home and learned some of her steps on how to spend less than $200 a month on food and still eat organically grown food of her choice.
Step 1. Grow Your Own Food
Although there was an existing garden on her property, it had not been tended recently, so the garden was full of unknown and inedible plants. Maria put the soil on Craigslist for people to come and take away, so that she could then get high quality, gardenable soil trucked in.
Maria states that “If I couldn’t eat it, I wouldn’t plant it.” She started with planting garlic since it was the most expensive food item on her shopping list. She originally planted garlic in the spring, but then discovered that if she planted garlic in the fall, she got a far bigger bulb and healthier plant. “Garlic is very easy to grow.” By dedicating a third of her garden to growing garlic and eliminating the costly need to buy it, the reduction in her food bill felt particularly satisfying.
As a novice gardener, Maria looked to her Italian neighbours who have been growing their own food for more than thirty years. When they planted, she planted. So far, she has planted potatoes, leeks, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, peppers, carrots, beets, sunchokes, beans, lettuce, spinach. In the summer, she plants lettuce every couple weeks so that she will have a constant supply. For some unknown reason, the carrots and beets didn’t do as well as she would have liked, but she’s going to try growing beets again.
Spearmint, mint, basil get planted in their own containers. Maria also plants nasturiums, which are beautiful and the flowers are edible. She will start them out in the vegetable garden but then transplant them into their own planters later.
Step 2. Budget, Compare, and Shop Wisely
When Maria started with budgeting, she compiled a spreadsheet of various items and prices at different stores. Through experience, she has three main stores where she buys her food: Pro-Organics, Superstore, and Costco.
On Saturdays, from 8am to 2pm, Pro-Organics has a public market at 4535 Still Creek Avenue, Burnaby. Maria will go through the manager’s specials list and find the best values for what she is looking for. Normally, she will find bulk rice, bananas, oranges, grapefruits.
At Superstore, she picks up organic lentils, tofu, ochra. At Costco, she will buy coconut oil, chia seeds, and hemp. At Costco, she’s aware to spend focused time there and not get distracted by impulse buying – have a defined shopping list, stick to it, don’t go in when you’re hungry, and zip in and out quickly.
In the summer, she will buy organic produce such as apricots, peaches, plums from the Okanogan and can them.
Maria doesn’t buy meat very often, buys fish once or twice during the non-summer months and four times a month during the summer. “Cheese is very expensive and I don’t buy cheese that often.” Most of her meals are vegetarian. She does buy eggs, chia seeds, lentils for protein. Dahls, kicharis, stirfries, soups, stewy type meals, Vietnamese rice wraps, salads are common meals that Maria eats.
Step 3. Use As Much Of The Food As You Can
Maria says that when the garlic plant grows, there are surplus offshoots called scapes, that are cut off because they only take away valuable growing energy from the garlic bulb. However, Maria saves these garlic scapes, chops them up, and uses them for stirfries and soups.
She also saves and freezes the peels of oranges and lemons. She will use the orange peels to make her own house cleaner, adding orange essential oil when she needs extra cleaning power in the kitchen or tea-tree essential oil for cleaning the bathroom. She will also use the rinds for a refreshing ice tea or lemonade.
Maria saves vegetable remnants that aren’t going into the compost in the freezer, and when she has enough vegetable material, she puts them in a pressure cooker and makes a soup stock.
Maria re-purposes and recycles so much of what she brings into the house, that at the end of the month, the city only gets a small bag of garbage that will go into the landfill.
Step 4. Make Your Own
Here, Maria shines in making her own healthy affordable food – kefir, kimchee, yoghurt, and protein bars.
Maria will pick strawberries, can them, and also give them away as gifts. Because she uses a special pectin, she doesn’t have to use as much sugar so her jams end up more affordable and healthier than the commercial jams.
Step 5. Eat As Close To Natural As Possible
“My biggest focus would be to try to eat food as close as possible to its natural state.” For example, rather than buy mango or apple juice, Maria would just eat the mango or the apple. “Processing adds chemicals.”
More and more research is showing us that a diet that promotes health and longevity is one that consists of 40 to 60% whole grains, 10 to 20% high quality protein, and 30 to 50% fresh fruits and vegetables. Maria’s healthy, affordable, and nutritious diet falls within that range, proof that affordable and healthy are not exclusive of each other.