Eric Garza

Musings on food, energy and adaptation

Making Good Food Affordable

In Treating Food as an Investment, I note the relationship between reduced food expenditures in the United States over the past several decades and rising healthcare spending. There are many reasons for this relationship, but among them is the fact that most Americans buy very low quality food, a habit that harms our health on many levels. I’m well aware that many people throughout the US face challenging financial situations, which begs the question: Can we afford to buy higher quality food?

While there are certainly differences in cost between high and low quality foods, I don’t think those differences are always as stark as many believe. Part of what drives food price perceptions is that many people think in terms of dollars per pound of food rather than dollars per kilocalorie, and its the kilocalories – the food energy – that actually powers our metabolism. The graph below shows the cost per 100 kilocalories for several types of high quality food at my local farmers’ market and grocery cooperative, and I include the McDonalds hamburger to offer a sense for the cost of cheap, highly processed food [1].

FoodCosts

McDonalds and other fast food companies are well known for producing some of the cheapest calories money can buy in the developed world, so seeing the McDonalds hamburger at the far left shouldn’t surprise anyone. Beef liver, perhaps one of the most nutrient dense foods in existence, is darn near as cheap though, and the price used for these calculations is what I pay for high quality grass fed liver, not cheap liver from animals raised in confined feedlots. Calorie dense root vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes are also fairly inexpensive on a per-calorie basis, as are eggs from pastured chickens fed GMO-free grain and 100 percent grass fed ground beef. To the right of these foods we surpass $1 per 100 kilocalories, an arbitrary threshold to be sure but one that certainly drives up the daily cost of food. What might surprise many is that common organic vegetables like broccoli, spinach and lettuce, as well as common fruits like organic applies, oranges and blueberries (which are in season in Vermont right now) are towards the upper end of the price scale, making them comparative luxury items relative to other foods that are inexpensive yet nourishing enough to serve as dietary staples.

On a per-pound basis meat and eggs tend to cost more than vegetables and fruit, especially high quality grass fed meats and pastured eggs, and this higher price per pound causes people to shy away from them. This is unfortunate since the price differential is negated by animal foods’ higher calorie density, so that costs per calorie for meat and eggs are usually equal to or lower than that of most fruits and vegetables. High quality animal foods will probably never beat a McDonalds hamburger, but organs like liver – which are far more nutritious than pricier cuts of steak and tenderloin anyway – come very close.

When investors look across a range of possible investment opportunities, they don’t choose at random. They do their homework, and only after thoroughly researching their options do they make decisions on where to invest their money. I’m always stunned at how uninformed many people are regarding the nutritional benefits (and costs) of the food they buy and eat. This lack of information prompts many people to make poor decisions on how they invest their money when buying food, leading to food costs that are far higher than necessary and that still don’t provide a balanced diet. The trick to making better food investment decisions is to learn about the food you’re buying, so that when you visit the farmers’ market or grocery store you can shop wisely.

Surely many who read this are crying foul, exclaiming with ferocity that food is more than just calories. They’re right of course. This post marks the first of a series that will explore the broader issue of getting the most for our food dollars, and my next post will look at the cost per unit of vitamins and minerals for many of the same foods I’ve studied here. I expect this investigation to offer further insight in the particulars of enjoying reasonably priced, nutrient dense diets that are nourishing on many levels.

Notes

  1. By “high quality” I mean that all produce is certified organic, all pork, poultry and eggs are pasture raised, and all beef is 100 percent grass fed. Calorie densities are from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database.

 

The Art of Fermentation

In The Energy Cost of Food I note that household energy use associated with food sourcing, preservation, processing and preparation represents about a quarter of total food system energy use. Since consumers have the most control over energy used in their homes it makes sense to ponder how to reduce it, if for no other reason than to save money on utility bills and to create a buffer against the agonies associated with power outages. One way to reduce household energy use associated with food is to adopt fermentation as a primary means of food preservation. The process of fermentation involves allowing particular types of bacteria to digest the sugars in foods, releasing lactic acid as a waste product that acidifies the food and prevents spoilage.

KatzGarzaSandor Ellix Katz, who wrote Wild Fermentation over a decade ago and The Art of Fermentation more recently, is a leader in the resurgence of fermentation and I had the pleasure of attending a two day workshop with him at Shelburne Farms over the past two days. While I already knew the basics of the process, the workshop opened up several new doors for inquiry and also gave me a chance to mingle with over a hundred other people from Vermont and surrounding states who shared my interest in food and traditional health.

The first day of the workshop focused on fermenting fruits and vegetables, and after lunch the 100 or so attendees chopped vegetables to fill a jar to ferment at home. I’ve done this 100 times, but for many people this was their first experience preparing vegetables to ferment so it was fun interacting with people and listening to the questions that cropped up. For this recipe we chopped a mixture of cabbage, radishes, turnips, carrots, onions, garlic and perhaps a few other things, and while mixtures of vegetable ferment taste reasonable to me I prefer ferments that focus on one or at most a few vegetables, so I elected not to fill a jar and let others take a bit more.

The second day of the workshop was more varied; Sandor started the morning lecturing on different types of dairy ferments, including making yogurt, kefir and ending with a brief discussion of cheese. I was intrigued to learn that commercially available kefir isn’t really kefir. Traditional kefir typically has an alcohol content around 1 percent, but given modern food laws this would have to be marketed as an alcoholic beverage so commercial producers adjusted the microbial cultures to constrain the alcohol production. The result is something vaguely like traditional kefir, but it isn’t really kefir, but people want kefir so this label is used even though it isn’t accurate. The final segment of the workshop detailed with grain and legume fermentation, which I’m admittedly not interested in, as well as a brief discussion on fermenting meats.

While I introduced fermentation as a means of low-energy food preservation, it does so much more. Fermentation, particularly of plant foods such as fruits, vegetables and grains, serves to predigest the food and break down nutrient complexes to make nutrients – particularly minerals - far more bioavailable. Another service fermentation provides is detoxification; some anti-nutrients and other toxins in foods can be broken down during the fermentation process, making the food not only more palatable but also less likely to cause harm when eaten. A final benefit of fermentation that complements these earlier two benefits is nutrient enhancement. The microbial action inherent in the fermentative process creates nutrients in foods that weren’t present or were present in much lower quantities, among them B vitamins, certain antioxidants and some short-chain fatty acids.

In all fairness, I do want to warn against eating too much fermented foods. They are quite acidic, with pH values commonly below 3 or 4, so if eaten too frequently or in large helpings the acid can degrade tooth enamel much like constantly slugging soda or vinegar. Eaten in small quantities though, these foods’ acidity shouldn’t cause too much of a problem and they certainly offer a range of benefits. Indulging in fermented foods to excess without any prior experience with them can also cause stomach or intestinal upset for some people, so a relationship with fermented foods is best started slowly. Despite these cautions, I certainly enjoy eating fermented foods on a regular basis and experiment with making them myself to cut costs, and encourage others to do the same.

Return on Investment

In many of my food-related posts I present data on the energy inputs needed to produce food relative to the amount of food actually produced, yielding a handy ratio useful in assessing input-output efficiency for these systems. This approach is a particular application of the idea of Return on Investment, often abbreviated as ROI. Since ROI plays an important role in my own strategic planning and in how I analyze systems, I thought I’d explore the concept in greater detail.

CoinReturn on Investment is typically calculated as a ratio with the return an investment is expected to yield over a given timeframe in the numerator and the investments required to deliver that return in the denominator. ROI is most often used in financial circles, where returns and investments are measured in dollars or some other currency. Since the goal of an investment is to generate the largest return possible, ROI can be used to prioritize alternative investments, hopefully singling out those that will offer the greatest overall return.

While the idea of ROI originated in financial circles, anthropologists and ecologists also use the metric. Richard Lee, an anthropologist, used an ROI framework back in the 1960s to study the labor energy indigenous peoples invested to find food, and calculated ratios of food energy return on labor energy invested for their tribes. Ecologists, notably Howard Odum and later Charles Hall, did the same within studies of ecology, and Hall is well known for coining the phrase Energy Return on Investment and its associated acronym EROI while studying the energy cost of producing fuels from fossil energy resources. Today there’s a growing literature applying the ROI framework to food production in modern food systems, and I applied it to national data in The Energy Cost of Food and to small farming systems in The Energy Cost of Local Food.

While monetary and energy ROI ratios can be useful metrics, I’ve come to believe that the ROI framework is much more broadly useful. I’m currently teaching a course on voluntary simplicity, and a recent homework assignment invited students to keep track of every penny they spend over the course of a week and to explore the many types of non-monetary benefits they get from that spending. Does the money spent on dinner with a friend have the added benefit of strengthening that relationship? Does the money spent buying food at a farmers’ market have the added benefit of providing access to higher quality food than one can get at a local supermarket? Does supporting farmers’ markets pay added dividends by creating a space for people to come together, have conversations they might not otherwise have and support the building of community more generally?

All of these non-monetary benefits are also returns on investment, but in a system measured solely by money they’re invisible. We all make decisions on what to spend our money – or other resources like time and effort – and I think we’d all do well to explore the many non-monetary costs and benefits that accompany this spending. Economists increasingly recognize the value of these ‘external’ costs and benefits within the context of ‘full cost accounting’, but this is rarely practiced outside academic circles and a few government agencies and non-profits. One of my goals in the voluntary simplicity course I’m teaching is to strengthen my students’ intuitive senses of the many non-monetary costs and benefits that tag along with different purchasing habits, so they can better link their purchasing patterns with their values and with the identity they’d like to cultivate.

Let’s play with this a bit. Think about the last item you bought. If you only looked at the monetary benefits you got from that purchase, would it deliver a positive ROI? If not, why did you buy it? What other benefits did you get from that purchase that might offset its lack of positive ROI from a strict money standpoint? What other costs might be associated with it that might offset some of those non-monetary benefits? How many hours did you have to work to earn the money you needed to afford that purchase? These are all useful questions, and they can help lead us towards habits that make the best possible use of our time, energy and resources.