Eating well, while saving money and the planet

My claim is ambitious, and I will agree it does not come anywhere close to encompassing all of the factors determining the health of our planet. But it is better to do something than nothing at all and, considering food is one of life’s top 3 essentials, we have immense potential to create significant and sustainable change by addressing how and what we eat.

I have long been a supporter of buying local, seasonal food. But I also like to get creative in the kitchen and crave variety, which often challenges my commitment to eating locally and seasonally. In the past, I have made some very loose attempts at participating in the Local Thirty challenge, which is a concept described here and here by Andrea Bemis of Dishing up the Dirt. It is by no means a new concept. It is how all humans ate before our supermarket shelves inundated us with choices and our move away from the traditional rural village severed our connection to the land.

Matt and Lentil Purbrick speak at some length about the link between food, health and community in the traditional village model and the impact global trade has had on the way we eat in their books Grown and Gathered and The Village. You can read a little about Matt and Lentil at their old site, and their books are available at any good bookstore. Matt and Lentil’s view, like Andrea’s, is simple – eat a primarily regional diet. These are the foods grown in season in your region that are climatically appropriate to your area, naturally abundant, and harvested within cooee of your home, not from the far-flung corners of the globe. Ten items or roughly 5% of the foods you consume should constitute travelled foods. The remaining 95% we source naturally and regionally.

By eating this way, we are in balance with our natural environment. When we rely on what nature can provide us, we become more conscious of the health of our soils and how we use our land. It sustains us, so we need to take care of it. In turn, we are supporting our local farmers and producers, which benefits both our health and our communities. We become fully alive to our contribution to our natural environment. In doing so, we regain a connection to the land.

I acknowledge that this is often easier said than done. Not all regions have suitable growing conditions all year round, not to mention Australia’s harsh climate and the ravages of drought and other natural disasters. My hat goes off to farmers. They deal with these natural impositions along with market pressures, transport and equipment costs, and a myriad of other challenges and stresses.

If you live in an area with a vibrant farmers market, you are in an ideal situation to provide direct support to the farmers in your region. The farmer sells direct to the public at a price that supports their livelihood. Their proximity to the market allows them to harvest close to sell-time with fewer kilometres travelled from paddock to plate. Unfortunately, not all farmers can do this. For instance, many of our growing regions do not have the populations required to make farmers’ markets profitable. There would be numerous other reasons why many primary producers rely on the centralised market system, which one blog post can not possibly consider with the depth of conversation deserved.

It will be all too easy to run off track here and examine the issues existing in regional and rural Australia around food security and equitable access to natural resources. These issues are massive. I know this because I have lived in an isolated small town, in regional cities, and now on the outskirts of a capital city. I have experienced this problem firsthand. One day I would like to examine the subject further and possibly even arrive at some semblance of an answer!

For now, I am lucky. I have access to an excellent farmers market just 15 minutes away that sells everything from naturally cured salamis to fresh seafood, all produced in our region (or a little further beyond). I can fill my market trolley and feed my family incredibly well without needing to step into a supermarket aisle. So why don’t I? Habit, convenience, the joy of having access to anything I like – a modern phenomenon that we have enabled and encouraged through consumption. Reversing habits, as anyone addicted to smoking or even just biting your nails knows, is difficult. It is mentally taxing with our conviction to change constantly challenged from every page of a magazine, Instagram post, and even our taste memories are against us. I relent to self-imposed peer pressure and continue to fill my pantry shelves with various sauces and flavours and fill my fridge with zucchinis and cucumber in July.

My resolve has to strengthen. The positive outcomes of changing the way we eat are too good to overlook; the consequences of constantly caving to consumerist attitudes, dire.

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I love a good list. There is something remarkably satisfying about ticking those items off, evidence of success. Following is my list, a relatively arbitrary one, of how I hope to make some headway in achieving this goal of shopping and eating a 95% natural, regional diet:

  • Get up early and head to the farmers’ markets, armed with a creative and hungry attitude. Fill your trolley with all the veggies (that you are not currently growing – a vital element in itself), dairy, seafood, fungi, olive oil, coffee, and fruit that you are likely to eat during the week. 
  • Meal planning – I think it is always good to keep this a bit flexible. For example, if you planned on making a pork belly dish but the lamb shanks are $10/kg cheaper, buy the lamb shanks. This principle is also appropriate when shopping for seasonal produce. Choose what is fresh and in season – the price reflects this. You will always pay more for produce that is not in season.
  • While I suggest keeping your meal plans flexible, do set yourself a budget. If you can no longer afford to pay for anything else, these changes are not sustainable.
  • Get ready for some DIY action in the kitchen. Often our pantries and fridges become dumping grounds for the leftover sauces and pastes from our culinary expeditions. If we can’t commit to my next point, we can try creating these flavours ourselves from scratch. We will be using fresh ingredients sourced locally, with minimal processing and food miles.
  • Be proud of your culinary tradition. Once upon a time, if we wanted to try different cuisine, we’d head to a restaurant specialising in that cuisine. I suggest a return to this. Support your local family-run restaurants for an occasional flavour explosion and leave home cooking for the dishes and flavours you grew up eating. If home cooking was not much to write home about, start by converting to a wholefoods diet first. You can build your ‘flavour’ profile from there. Jude Blereau and her books are fantastic resources to help you on your wholefoods journey.

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  • Turn the seasons’ bounties into bottles of jellies and jams, chutneys and pickles, dried herbs, bottled fruits, fruit cheeses. A well-stocked larder is a very satisfying sight to behold. 
  • Apply traditional wisdom and make ferments, vinegar, beers, wines, cordials or shrubs, and even bacon! Making bone stocks is incredibly easy and utilises the bones that might otherwise end up in the bin. If you have access to good quality milk and cream, try your hand at cheese, yoghurt, labne and butter.
  • Be prepared to make substitutions. I currently have at least ten different sweeteners in my pantry. A little bit of overkill and constitutes my ‘5% faraway food’ allowance right there. The only local and seasonal sweetener I have access to in this region is honey. The same goes for salty condiments like soy, tamari, and Worcestershire. Seek out a local substitute. If you can’t go without, then prioritise that item as one of your five percenters.
  • Create recipes based on the whole ingredients. Add flavour with herbs, sauces and condiments you have made yourself. Learn to modify existing recipes to follow this model. I would find many dishes hard to let go of completely, so I will be seeking ways to make many of my favourites following these suggestions. You might find your cooking to be a bit bland or repetitive, but that is ok. I think we tend to overcomplicate recipes and flavours – less is more.

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  • Now back to point one. While it is a privilege to have access to a great farmers’ market, it is even better when you grow it yourself. If you have any amount of space in your yard, dedicate as much as you can to producing vegetables, fruit trees (although I would not recommend investing in trees if you are in a rental arrangement) and raising chickens. If you live in a unit, use what balcony space you can to focus on fresh herbs and access a plot at your local community garden. If they do not exist in your area, see if you can set one up. Councils are often amenable to the idea as community gardens tend to enrich the soil and can be as temporary or permanent as suits site demands. You may even have a nearby resident that is willing to share their space with you. Have a conversation with people in your community. It is a great way to achieve a common goal and make valuable connections helping to strengthen your community.
  • If you own your home, the following will not be so applicable, though that is not to say you should ignore it. If you are in a rental situation, keep your garden establishment goals uncomplicated and cost-effective. You will need to revert your garden space to what was formerly there, so try not to be too precious about how your garden comes together. Use minimal inputs where possible, make use of sheet mulching methods that focus on byproducts like cardboard and straw and keep your pathways basic. Gravel and the like are expensive and transport dependent products. Use cardboard, weed mat and straw instead. 
  • Buy a chest freezer (although not so essential for singles or couples), and purchase your meat in bulk. Speak to your local butcher about ordering a whole lamb or a side of pork or beef. Your initial outlay will be large (or downright scary), but you will be paying much less per kilo. You will be utilising the whole animal, a more sustainable and honest approach to meat consumption. 
  • When all else fails, and all you have access to is the local supermarket, shop the perimeter and utilise online resources such as Honest to Goodness to buy many of your essential ingredients in bulk. You can still apply the same principles you are just accessing your primary produce from a single source. Get together with friends or other members of your community to establish a buying group through Honest to Goodness. You can learn more about buying groups here, but essentially the group can purchase items in bulk at wholesale prices. An affordable option that reduces costs and packaging waste and is an excellent exercise in community building.

It is worthwhile bearing in mind that my list reflects my philosophy towards eating. I don’t have one. I eat what I like, and there is very little I don’t like.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it provides some inspiration for you to reflect on how you shop and eat. After all, eating is not only one of life’s essentials but is a hugely rewarding and enjoyable experience that connects us to our families, our cultures, our communities and our environment.

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