On Mindful Spending and Going Against my Values

Encapsulating My Values

Let me begin with the basis for this episode: I am on a weekly food budget. Each week, I challenge myself to spend no more than $80, including restaurant meals. It is, I think, a reasonable budget for a single person who’s also a food enthusiast. I force myself to be careful and creative with my shopping, with the goal of coming in UNDER budget (carry-over can be “banked”, so to speak). Additionally, I track my food spending—item by item. NOT $7.98 at Pay Less, but rather $3.00 for avocados, $2.50 for cottage cheese, etc. I do this for several reasons. One, to learn to live with less. Generally, I’m quite good at living below my means, but I felt there was still room for improvement. If I know I have to enter each item on a spreadsheet, I think twice about buying, asking myself if I really need it. Two, it’s part of overall expense-tracking. And three, it makes me think about my spending in terms of my values.

So, What Happened

Last week, I was pretty close to my $80 cap. And I wanted yogurt (a common ingredient in a nofunlatte breakfast). And I wanted to make my own yogurt (a common activity in the nofunlatte household). The problem? I had no milk.

For the record, I do not practice a 100% organic, local lifestyle. But that is still important to me. We can get caught up in perfection, realize its unattainability, and simply throw up our hands in frustration and quit. So, I try to do reasonably well, operating on the Pareto modified Principle, where 80% of my purchases are “good” and not sweating the other 20%. Yes, I try to buy food that reflect my values—health-promoting or organic or fair-trade or local or produced by someone or some company with ideals similar to mine. So far, so good. So, I went to a local grocery store, a little short on time, and calculated that I could not buy any local or organic milk with what I had left. Instead of making a choice to forgo milk until the following week or just go over the budget for once, I scanned the refrigerated section for a cheap quart of milk. And what I found was a half-gallon. For 69 cents. Yes, 69 cents. And I bought it.

A Lesson Learned

I bought that milk, even though the cheapness of the price was gnawing at me. I took it home, put it in my refrigerator, and tried to think of a valid excuse for buying it. I could not think of one. I knew I had compromised my values. And that, my friends, was a very good lesson. The remorse from that purchase meant that I would not make that choice again. The few dollars I saved? Paid for them with the uncomfortable feelings of guilt.

Ironically—or, perhaps, a nudge from Providence—I read a ’poignant blog post the next night, a post on the difficult road that dairy farmers face. Dairy farming, never an easy way to make a living, is in crisis, with farmers not even breaking even. Some of this has to do with changing tastes, as Americans (and yes, this is a US-centric post) drink less dairy milk and more alternative milks (e.g. soy, almond). But a lot is due to the conglomeration of the dairy industry, with mega-producers dictating the rules, quashing the small farmer. Some are turning to cheesemaking, in an attempt to create a value-added product. Some are leaving farming. And sadly, some are committing suicide.

America: Land of the Cheap

Cheap food, that is. Yet, according to USDA data, Americans spend approximately 6.4% of their income on food, about the lowest percentage in the world. And while I’m not sure if this figure represents actual food purchases and not restaurant meals, it probably doesn’t matter. The point is, I know that I’m already getting a break by buying in the country with the cheapest food. I am informed and I know better. Buying this didn’t fit my carefully considered values. And yet, sadly, I let myself be seduced by a 69-cent half-gallon of milk.

An Addendum and Explanations

First, I am not suggesting that people who are struggling to feed themselves and/or their loved ones ought to “overspend”. For them, that milk might’ve been a good source of protein that week. Second, this post is not an invitation for vegans (or their flipsided brethren, paleo diet adherents) to proselytize—I am fully aware that for many, a dairy-free diet works well. That is not the point of the post. Rather, I suggest that readers consider their spending—and their food spending in particular—in light of their carefully thought out set of values.

Slight budding action on the trees!

This long, drawn-out, irritatingly maddening winter may finally be starting to lose its grip here in Indiana. My silver maples are starting to bud and I’ve seen daffodil shoots just start poking out of the ground. After a morning low of 15 degrees (on March 26!), the temperatures climbed into the upper 30s. Okay, not exactly springlike but the winds have shifted to the south, which brings the promise of warmer temperatures tomorrow. Budding trees may indeed be one of my favorite early signs of spring, something to start me thinking about planting my (quite small) garden. This year? Several containers of Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes, a variety that I containered last year with good (and delicious) results.

This is the time my thoughts turn to canning. I’m thinking fewer jams and more salsas. Or specifically, more jars of peach salsa. There is nothing quite like opening a jar of summer in the middle of a typically dreary and cold Indiana winter. Two years ago we had a very warm March followed by a very cold April (with a series of frosts and freezes). Unfortunately, the peach (and apple) trees had blossomed. End result? Hoosier orchardists lost about 90% of their crops. I canned about 6 or 7 jars of salsa that year. Much better last year and I canned 15 jars. My goal for 2014 is 30 jars! But not all for me–I like to give them as gifts (and they are typically well received). So, friends, let’s all hope for a good Indiana peach crop this year. Who knows? You may be in line for a gift from moi!

PeachSalsa2013

Peach Salsa August 2013

Spring Oreos?

SpringOreos

My first thought, upon seeing this in the Target junk food aisle, was “Spring! What a delightful concept!”1 My second thought was “Spring has an Oreo flavor?”
Spring, apparently, does NOT have an Oreo flavor; rather, it has an Oreo COLOR. That’s right. Just read the packaging. What makes this a “spring” cookie is the yellow crème that is apparently being farted out of the ass of a stylized bee. These Oreos have the “same great taste”. If the flavor was somehow different—say mint or strawberry or my favorite spring flavor asparagus—surely these carbohydrate grenades would have a great NEW flavor. No, it looks like the only difference is the delightful urine shade of the filling.

Upon doing some serious archival research (i.e. Googling), I’ve discovered that Spring Oreos have been around for several years! See what one misses when one eats (mostly) healthy!

1I’m writing this on a night with a forecast low of 5°F. Thankfully, it’s a positive number.

The Iceman Cometh

Or at least the polar vortex, which is slated to make a return to the Midwest.1 So, when the cold boomerangs back, my thoughts (after muttering a few choice “French” words) turn to stews and braises. Tonight’s dinner? A rather bastardized version of Choucroute Garnie, that wonder from Alsace, made with on-hand and local meats–Pennsylvania Dutch ham shank, local jowl bacon, and local Andouille sausage. Not exactly the stuff of tradition, but the called-for bratwursts would have had to have been purchased at the supermarket and I’m trying to avoid factory-farmed meats.

Yesterday I purchased a local pastured chicken (dead, plucked, and frozen!), which is thawing in my refrigerator right now, perhaps to be turned into West African Chicken Peanut Stew–one of my favorites (and a recipe I haven’t made in some time). Winter and cold are made for stews and braises, which seem out of place in warmer weather and climes–a silver lining for those of us suffering from an unrelenting winter (okay, ONE relent–the 40s and 50s of last week!)

West African Groundnut (Peanut) Stew

Nketia Fla (en-KEH-tee-ah flaw)

1-1/2 to 2 lbs. skinned chicken parts (I use thighs or leg quarters split into thighs and drumsticks; you can use skinless thighs as well, but not breasts)
-can also use 1-1/2 lbs. chuck or round steak

1 large or 2 medium onions, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
Dried red peppers (crushed) or cayenne pepper (to taste)
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 can stewed tomatoes (plain) or diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups water
1 plantain, chopped
1 sweet potato, chopped
¾ to 1 cup natural peanut butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

In 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat, brown chicken or beef (need not be completely cooked through). Remove when done. In same pot, add 1 tablespoon oil and onions over medium heat. Cook until soft. Add garlic and cook for another minute or two, being careful not to let garlic burn.

Add tomatoes, ginger, pepper, and salt. Sauté for a couple of minutes. Add water and reserved chicken or beef. Turn heat up to high and add plantain and sweet potato. Bring to a boil, then turn heat down and simmer (covered) for 30-40 minutes, until meat is tender. Remove about ¼ to ½ cup of stew liquid and mix it with peanut butter in a bowl. Stir peanut butter mixture back into stew. Cover and simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring frequently. If needed, add more water to thin stew. Season to taste with more salt and red pepper. Serve over rice.

I sometimes add chopped cabbage as well, which works well.

1This is perhaps my favorite Eugene O’Neill play–I’ve only ever read it, but I wish I had been able to see it staged with Kevin Spacey in the lead!