Why I Don’t Bargain Shop for Food

by | Mar 15, 2017

Farmers market it Portland, OR

Money is a touchy subject. Even without bringing up finances directly, people like me who encourage others to eat Real Food often get branded as elitist out of hand.

I get it. Finding and affording fresh food can be difficult or impossible for some people, and that is heartbreaking. But I don’t think that should make the entire subject off limits.

Food is a complex topic that includes issues related to health, economics, culture, human rights, animal welfare and the environment/sustainability. We also need to make food decisions multiple times a day in order to survive.

I consider all these things when deciding what to purchase for myself and my family, and know first hand what kinds of tradeoffs come up when choosing what to eat. Over the years both my priorities and financial means have changed dramatically, and ultimately evolved into the system I use today.

Here I’ll take you through my thought process in making food decisions, including how I’ve adapted to lower and higher income levels.

Of course none of this is intended as a judgement or condemnation on anyone else’s decisions. Everyone’s values are personal and equally valid, and obviously you need to do what works for you and your family.

My goal here is to shed some light on a difficult subject and hope it provides some clarity for those who are trying to make heads or tails of these issues.

But first a bit about me

For context you should know that I don’t come from money, and even calling my family middle class is a stretch. While I grew up in a decent suburban neighborhood, my family sometimes needed help from our church putting food on the table. My dad lived his entire adult life without owning a bank account, let alone a savings account. We did our best, but often had to sell things to make rent.

When I got to college (paid for by scraping together scholarships, student loans and a few jobs), money was really tight. My dad would send me fifty bucks when he could, but there was never any real safety net. It wasn’t unusual for me to live on eggs and canned tuna for the last week of the month. The dieter in me found this to be only moderately inconvenient.

At the time my main priority in food shopping was low price. I shopped at Costco and Trader Joe’s and thought organics were a scam to take money from chemophobic hippies (I know! LOL). I ate a lot of cheap takeout, which in Berkeley was still pretty good, if only moderately healthy.

In grad school things changed a lot. I started becoming a foodist, learned about Real Food and discovered the farmers market. I was a recipient of a fancy NSF graduate fellowship grant that afforded me a luxurious salary of $30,000/year, but because I was living in San Francisco I was still spending over 30% of my income on rent.

Still I ate pretty great. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in SF is one of the best farmers markets in the US, if not the world. I know a lot of people who consider it ludicrously expensive, but that was not my experience at all.

Yes, it’s possible to pay $4.50 for a peach, but it will be the best peach you’ve ever eaten. More important is that I could pack a bag full of kale, radishes, squash, onions, carrots, herbs and other incredible seasonal produce for $30. Fruit, especially ripe seasonal fruit, is expensive. Vegetables are cheap. I actually saved money during this period by cooking way more at home and cutting down on how often I ate meat. I also felt amazing and lost 12 lbs.

Things really changed after I graduated, wrote Foodist and got married. Suddenly I could afford steak and sit-down restaurants whenever I wanted, but by then my priorities had shifted as well.

I had never had to worry much about the ethics of eating before I had disposable income. I mostly bought produce from local organic farmers, a convenient luxury that was a byproduct of where I lived. I knew that industrial meat and dairy production were terrible for the environment and a disgusting form of cruelty to animals, but I couldn’t afford it anyway so there wasn’t any conflict. My biggest splurges were an occasional wedge of fancy cheese and wild Alaskan smoked salmon.

Now that more animal products were literally and figuratively back on the table for me, I wanted to make the most responsible choices I could.

There’s no way around it, ethical food costs more money.

Conventional produce is cheaper because big industrial farms exploit workers (sometimes as literal slave laborers) and demolish the environment with cheap petroleum-based fertilizers and Monsanto’s pesticides and herbicides. Smaller organic farmers must spend the time and energy tending to the soil to keep it healthy, and diversify their fields to prevent weed and bug infestations. More time and resources means more money to produce the same amount of food, and higher prices at the market.

Farmers market fruit tastes better because it is grown in season and picked while ripe, making losses due to bruising much more common. Organic certifications are also expensive. Even more cost.

Grass-fed beef and pasture-raised poultry and eggs require more (higher-quality) land, better feed, and sanitary living conditions. Farmers also face more difficulty and expense in processing these products, because they lack economies of scale. Again, these all cost more.

When I was a brokeass grad student I cared about these issues, but opting out was easy because I couldn’t afford it. Now that I can afford higher-quality, ethically produced products I’m happy to pay extra for the farmers who care enough to grow the best crops and for the animals I eat to live a decent life.

I’m also willing to spend a little extra time sourcing those products, which are not always easy to find.

San Francisco makes a foodist’s life easy, but I’ve found it much more difficult to eat to these standards in New York. Restaurants and grocers that source sustainable, ethically-raised food exist, but it isn’t the default like it is in the Bay Area and I often have to take looooong extra trips to find what I want. And I live in bougie Williamsburg.

I find myself preferring to cook at home even more in NYC than I did in SF, largely because I’m unsure of where restaurants sources their ingredients and it’s kind of obvious they aren’t amazing. A lot of the time I end up eating vegetarian so I don’t have to worry about it.

These experiences have led to me to create a mental hierarchy for my priorities when choosing what to eat. It isn’t perfect, and I make exceptions often, but it helps me to have a framework to think about these issues since I eat pretty darn often.

My priorities when buying food

1. Health

My personal energy (and I’d bet yours too) is highly dependent on how I fuel my body. If I’m not eating a wide array of different kinds of vegetables, legumes, grains and seafood/meats I feel lethargic and foggy, and will usually get sick.

Since feeling crappy impacts 100% of my other responsibilities in life, eating a diverse assortment of Real Foods is my number one priority when it comes to grocery and meal selection.

This has some implications. If I’m traveling or even very busy I don’t always eat local/seasonal/organic/sustainable. I try to avoid these scenarios, but when it comes down to it I’ll take what I can get.

It also means that sometimes I pay stupid prices for room service salads if greens have been hard to come by.

2. Quality

Quality is a very close second to health, largely because they are often related. As someone who prioritizes health to the point where my daily nutrition is almost always well-balanced, quality is often the deciding factor in choosing a specific meal.

What I mean by quality is close to what I mean by Real Food. To me, quality food has been crafted with care and fashioned from real ingredients, rather than mass produced in a factory. However, quality doesn’t always correlate with the healthiest choice.

If I’m traveling in Texas and have a choice between an artisan brisket sandwich from a world class family owned restaurant or a salad from Starbucks, I’ll take the sandwich on most days and hope there isn’t too much sugar in the coleslaw. That said, I wouldn’t make a choice like that two meals in a row, so health still wins down the stretch.

On the ethics side I am not going to repeatedly buy bad tasting chocolate just because it is fair trade. Ideally I’d find a delicious fair trade chocolate, but if I’m bothering with chocolate at all it had better be tasty.

3. Ethics/sustainability

I want to live in a world where the people who grow our food are respected and earn a living wage, and where we don’t pretend animals raised for food are less sentient than pets we keep at home. There are people who raise food this way, and I consider it an honor (not a luxury) to support their work.

I understand that it is not practical to demand this standard for 100% of the food I eat. Ethical and sustainable food is still sadly hard to find in most locations, and can be prohibitively expensive for many people.

That said, I would encourage anyone who does have the means to consider supporting ethical and sustainable food whenever possible. Our support is they only way these practices will be able to grow and reach more people.

I hope to see a day where sustainable food is ubiquitous enough that I can move it to #2 or #1 on this list.

4. Price

When it comes down to it I don’t want low-quality, unhealthy or unsustainable food, so even at a super low price it isn’t worth buying.

That said, it also drives me bonkers when restaurants and grocery stores try to sell mediocre food at artisan prices. I can tell the difference you jerks!

For me, as long as pricing seems fair (or I’m completely desperate for something green) I’m willing to pay for food that fuels my body and soul, and supports my values. I don’t consider stores like Whole Foods a rip off, because they are working so hard to offer transparency where nobody else will. In fact, I’m happy to support their mission.

It’s unfortunate that so many of us need to make such tough decisions in order to feed ourselves and our families. As always, all we can do is our best.

What factors do you consider when deciding what to spend your food dollars on?

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34 Responses to “Why I Don’t Bargain Shop for Food”

  1. Laurie says:

    I love this post and I agree with your priorities. It is hard sometimes to balance what you want, what is right, and what is available. I do most of the shopping for my family so I also have to balance their preferences and priorities with mine.

    Another struggle I have is it’s not very feasible for me to shop more than once a week. I can’t get everything I need at the farmer’s market and it’s expensive to get everything else a Whole Foods. Three different stops for food shopping alone (especially if I have an impatient child with me) can be prohibitive as well. Most weeks I have to pick and choose and do the best with what I’ve got.

    I employ a similar strategy at restaurants and only eat meat at those I know ethically source them. Otherwise I eat vegetarian. Luckily we have a lot of good options. We don’t eat out very often so when we do it’s usually somewhere that I trust.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for this article Darya! I do have the means to spend more on food, but I often feel “guilty” anyway for spending more money on quality food. I’m trying to get over that.

    As a New Yorker, I would love to hear more about your sources for quality ingredients and also if you have any tactics to deal with the long trips involved and multiple stops for simple ingredients. I am really lucky because I live across the street from one of the city’s Whole Foods. Even so, that store is so crowded that they are often out of everyday items. I find that if I’m cooking a specific meal I need to mentally prepare to go to multiple stores to find everything I want for the recipe. One time recently I went to THREE grocery stores to find brussel sprouts. (And when I finally found them they were really crappy looking at an NYC based crappy grocery store chain). And, last week I was making a simple dinner and Whole Foods was out of parsley. Frustrating.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Hi Elizabeth,

      WF is my main source as well. It helps to shop in season, when it comes to finding stuff but it’s still hard. Eataly is the main place I travel out of my way for. It’s expensive, but they have amazing CA produce (like literally my favorite farms from SF). Also Japan Premium Beef for meats when I’m feeling fancy, and a few of the Japanese markets like Sunrise for specialty items. I do love the Union Sq greenmarket in peak months as well. My fave healthy/delicious restaurant is Hearth.

      • Elizabeth says:

        Thanks for the suggestions! I LOVE Eataly and will try the others as well. I think I just need to make food shopping more of an “event” in and of itself (like, try to just make it the main after-work thing happening at least one night after work and enjoy the process).

    • Helen says:

      Go shopping before you decide what to cook. If you see what’s good and fresh ( and often cheaper), you can then make a delicious meal out of what’s available, rather than rushing around to source particular items for a recipe. This method also encourages you to be more adventurous in your food choices. If you are lucky enough to have a great food store close to where you live, you can shop for tiny quantities every day, as the French do, and not have the problem of storing food at home, too.

  3. Francesca says:

    I really appreciate this article. I used to believe that “organic” was code for hippie elitist and I convinced myself that I just couldn’t afford to eat healthy. (I have a tight budget, a ton of school loans, and also live in NYC.) But I believe it was Michael Pollan who woke me up to the fact that Americans spend the smallest percentage of their income on food than people in any other developed nation, or something like that. And then it hit me. I think nothing of dropping $50 at the bar after work with friends. I think nothing of $3 every day for a Dunkin Donuts coffee. I think nothing of buying every book on Amazon that strikes my fancy. But why is it we’re so loath to spend extra money on food when it’s going inside our bodies and governing every bodily function we have? It was kind of an epiphany to me. Now I cut everywhere else in my life, but food is the one thing I don’t give myself too much of a hard time about. Better quality food is 100% worth the extra cost. I think most people can find it in their budget to buy better quality food, but it’s a matter of prioritizing. We have to decide that WE are worth it.

    • Darya Rose says:

      100%. Tremendous, life-changing insight.

    • Kathleen says:

      Francesca, this is really similar to how I think, and it was Michael Pollan who “converted” me too. Recently I reverted to buying cheap, industrial food for a while, and my health has really suffered. I just bought Anya Fernald’s new cookbook (she’s the CEO of Belcampo and worked with Slow Food for a long time) and it’s completely brought me back to my values. Thanks for this post, Darya.

    • Alexis says:

      YESSSSS!!!

  4. G says:

    How crucial is organic when local is not available, in other words, from grocery stores? I have heard lots of mixed reviews–that organic pesticides are just as bad as non-organic. Do you honor the dirty dozen list from Environmental Working Group? Make organic a huge priority?

    • G says:

      or is variety more important in the long run? I struggle with finances so I can’t buy some of the more expensive organics at all if I go organic.

    • Darya Rose says:

      I do my best w/organics, but will choose better looking (available) produce on occasion. It’s less important for foods with non-edible skin. Also give ’em a good wash :)

  5. Anne says:

    Thank you for this great post! I also agree with your priorities and share them. I lived in Spain for 3 years and found that Spaniards spend a much bigger percentage of their income on food. They expect high quality, pay for it and spend significant time cooking and enjoying food. That rubbed off on me in a big way. To this day, my husband and I have kept our housing (2 bedroom condo with 1 kid) and car costs (17 year old Honda Civic) low, in favor of good quality food, travel and other qualify of life choices. We spend a boat-load on food and I have no regrets.

  6. Hallie says:

    Hi Darya,
    Great article! I agree with everything you said and with the increases in healthcare it always surprises me how people are willing to pay big bucks for health insurance and buy cheap food to feed their families. Health is wealth and we need to get the word out that if you feed your body clean food and support the good farmers who produce clean food healthcare costs would go down. Many diseases are related to diet. No one wants to hear the truth but healthy bodies start with what you put in it.

  7. JC says:

    Girl, you should move to Park Slope! Our farmers’ markets are way better than Wburg, plus there are so many other natural food stores like the PS co-op, union market, and even a whole foods. I’d think its def more your speed.

  8. Crystal says:

    I love this post! I started eating vegetarian as a freshman in high school and though my reasoning behind the choice has shifted I appreciate that I don’t have to worry where my meats are coming from because I have just stuck with the vegetarian diet. It is so much less expensive to have high quality produce and other sources of protein when you aren’t spending a huge chunk of the monthly grocery budget on quality meats. Though I appreciate the practices of the ranchers and still buy their products for my husband. For us it balances out a lot better that way. I just joined my first CSA this year so I am excited for my upcoming boxes of fruits and veggies! Thanks for sharing your priorities and insights.

  9. Alexis says:

    Perfect, and on point.

    My husband and I were discussing this last night when we were talking about the price of quality, pasture raised eggs.

    One of the points I made was in a world where people routinely pay $5 or $6 for a cup of coffee, paying $8 or $9 for a dozen eggs is not expensive. It only seems expensive compared to the CAFO eggs that are void of nutrients and soul. When we subsidize crap food, it makes real food seem expensive in return. $8 is a great price for eggs. And for less than $0.75/egg, it seems like a really inexpensive way to make a wholesome meal.

  10. Victoria Blamer says:

    Hi Darya,
    Thank you for articulating this so eloquently. I’ve been reading Summer Tomato since you began, and have embraced your philosophy about healthstyle whole heartedly. You’ve changed many lives, mine included, and I have shared the things I’ve learned with countless friends and family members. We’re all happier and far healthier as a result. Please move back home to California, the Golden State misses you. Lol.

  11. Bethany says:

    Darya, this article is so timely. Thank you.

    I am a foodist and I travel a lot for work. Yesterday one of the three things I wrote in my 5 min journal that would “make today amazing” was to do a check before spending any money or putting anything in my mouth that that action aligned with my values. So, for example, I was on a plane from Chicago to New York and the crew offered me a water bottle. Just 6 months ago this decision would have been a non-brainer; it’s good for my health to stay hydrated. However, I am making an effort to reduce how much plastic I consume. It’s a value that is increasingly important to me. So I declined the drink and waited until I could get a drink from the water fountain once we landed. It was just 60 minutes, and it was worth being a little thirsty to have the satisfaction of having made a decision/sacrifice (even a little one) that I was proud of. Another example: My colleague and I ate lunch at a restaurant before flying home so I needed to decide what to eat. The protein sources at this restaurant were not listed, so the only choice that aligned with my values was to opt for the avocado salad. (Which turned out to be delicious!) Lastly, a non-food-related decision once we landed: to take public transport (which would take a little longer) or a cab back to the city. Public transport aligns with my values so the decision was easy.

    My impression is that most or all of the decisions you make are value-driven, which would necessitate some clarification of which values are most important, as described in this article. I aspire to be that way more and more. But I am still in a phase where the biggest challenge is not deciding WHICH value trumps, but rather, ensuring that the decision is made based on ANY value and not out of habit/group-think/to satisfy a temporary craving. In other writings, you talk about why vegetarians have an easier time sticking to their diets, while those whose decisions are made by grumbling tummies or to optimize weight loss often find themselves compromising. The key is making a value-based decision. This has proven 100% true for me. For the time being, I will continue to concentrate my effort into having the presence of mind to check that my decisions are aligning with my values and not allow other forces to take the driver’s seat. After enough time passes I hope to have my own hierarchy of values.

    Thank you again for your work. I have found it so helpful.

  12. Dee says:

    In the third world where I’m from …. the poor hardworking people still eat their vegetables. Lazy persons of all classes don’t ….

  13. Elizabeth says:

    I agree in principle with your post. I too like to eat as sustainably & healthy as possible. I am a senior living on a pension so my income is limited. I find I spend the biggest part of my income on food. I like to buy pastured raised eggs & organic food where possible & I do travel a bit to source it out. Sometimes though I just can’t pay the price for organic, pastured meat. It is very expensive. I do but it on occasion. I know a plant based diet is supposed to be the healthiest way of eating but I find it hard to know what to eat then. Often the recipes are for things I don’t fancy. That being said I am trying to incorporate more veggies into my diet & continue to strive for healthy eating. I don’t buy processed food very often & I gave up soft drinks for water.

  14. Tea says:

    Thanks, Darya, for your thoughts. I sooo love to hear what’s life across the Pond :) I’ve lived for a while in one of the Southern states, but never got the chance to go to SF or NYC, so I can only daydream of those awesome markets.

    Here’s how it is in Romania (developing country in Eastern Europe — at least I hope it’s still developing, sadly by cutting down all our forests.. but that’s for another topic). I live in the outskirts of Bucharest, the 2m+ Capital, in an area that used to grow most food for the city before the communist regime fell in ’89. Right now it’s becoming a chaotic suburb, but I chose to reclaim my grandma’s house and garden, and have a pretty hard time growing anything on it. Growing up, we used to have great produce, at really high labor price (aka all of my parents’ free time+all of my grandma’s time and skills since she’s been doing that all of her life). We have some 1252 sq meters of land, it was divided between the veggies patches and the vineyard. It’s been at least 15 years since nothing was planted here.

    I’ve started to plough a bit, it’s hard stuff (tomatoes and eggplants were a priority, not any more). So this year I’m constructing some raised beds (I have a 2yr old, so I’m trying my best to teach him, but still protect my plants haha) with mostly cheap veggies (carrots, turnip, celery..) and with zucchinis that practically raise themselves.

    We do have small “subsistence” farms. But they don’t sell to others unless they have nothing else on the table. So the ethics behind it is even greater. Plus you know nothing on how they raise plants and animals..

    We’ve started with the organic veggies also, some small farms around that only sell online and deliver at home. I’ve yet to convince my husband to buy, but I’ll get inspiration from you.

    And we have huge “peasant” markets. But with no guarantee on how the veggies were raised, with huge intermediate add-ons. No connection between the man who grew the plants and the buyer. Huge education gap between the two.

    So, yeah, that’s a bit about the life in Europe, hope to give you some more good news as soon as I start planting :D
    Thanks for the awesome article! I’ll share it in my groups :)

  15. Jelena says:

    Hi Darya,

    Thank you for a wonderful article on a topic that is not often discussed. It’s great that you are aware of why you are making the choices that you are making and that you are sharing your awareness with others. I went through a process of self examination over a few years which led me to adopt the same priorities that you have adopted. Nothing is perfect and I can’t always find what I want but it’s an area of my life that I am generally not willing to compromise on if I can help it. Sure I could have more relaxation time if I ate pre packaged food or ate take away, but my health and the health of my family would suffer and it’s just not worth that sacrifice. I am of the opinion that your health is your wealth so I spend more than most people on food and I happily own that choice.

    Keep on shining your beautiful light on these things.

  16. mags chase says:

    YES, yes, yes!
    Thank you for putting into words what I attempt to do daily as well. I have sometimes ended up with significant symptoms of low blood sugar such as weakness, headache, irritability because I was not anywhere near REAL food for way too long (hours past last meal) and I just couldn’t bring myself to eat the junk available. I have learned from my mistakes and now take my homemade granola along to have on hand to get past the hungry horrors.
    Living in New England with its short growing season, is sad and expensive in winter but I do splurge and get good greens at least weekly for a decent salad. There are some great real food markets nearby, a local grocery that is pretty good and a Whole Foods within 45 mins from me.
    I am SO EXCITED that a brand new Whole Foods is moving in about 10 mins from here soon!
    Thanks for your great site, love it!

  17. Gustavo says:

    Wow Darya! This is the exact same order I would rank my food in. Right now, I’m learning to shop the farmer’s markets in the Dominican Republic and I am having a blast while doing so. The cabbage is just so much better there!!!

    Soon I hope to know how to buy chile’s!

    Thanks for the article! — PS— Be proud of the Foodist student who cooked a BADASS Irish inspired meal for 20. ;) Everyone loved it!

  18. Jean Kautt says:

    Robyn O’Brien did a great TED talk about what Darya said.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWXrRftyOMY.

    As a 16 year veteran of the natural foods industry, your analysis was spot on. Love your blog and share it often.

  19. Nan S says:

    I do most of my shopping at Whole Foods – I can afford it but feel a bit defensive about the prices – none of my family feel it’s worth it. Besides the quality of the ingredients, it’s mostly about the impact – I just bought organic blueberries from South America because I believe it is so much better for the workers and their local environment.

    I like your comment about how their prices reflect the trouble they go to on transparency – it helps me rationalize in my own mind the 50% higher price I paid.

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