The Common Good

Shopping Green Without Spending in the Red

090902-foodOrganic strawberries were $5.99 the other day at our local grocer. $5.99! Their more toxic twins, the non-organic variety, were on sale for $3. Darn this pesticide-free living. I stood staring at that clamshell of bruised strawberries and fought with myself. The farmers market was still three days away. I really wanted those berries. How am I supposed to cough up the cash for organic berries when we need reasonable staples like bread, pasta, and milk?

Like the rest of the nation, my family sits inside a belt that has tightened strongly since this little economy of ours slid into a ditch last year. Increasing living costs, a husband who works in manufacturing, three growing kids and me, the wife who sort of works. We are not exactly poster children for extravagant living. But neither are most people I know these days.

And since we are clearly not alone in our efforts to streamline our spending, I often hear friends and others mock the very ideas of shopping locally, eating organically, or even dropping in for fresh bread at a local bakery. They, understandably, moan that these sorts of efforts are expensive. They are perceived as the luxury of middle- to upper-class, over-educated urbanites who still have the time and money to flaunt their trips to Whole Foods. The rest of us, they say, must stock up at the value grocers and do whatever it takes to survive.

It's not that families I know wouldn't love a pesticide-free head of lettuce, but seriously, when money is tight, who can manage to buy earth-friendly school supplies, fair trade coffee, or organic produce? Well, glad you asked, and even if you didn't, here we go.

I think that what lands in our grocery carts tells an interesting tale. On the one hand, we balk at an extra three bucks for organic berries, and on the other we cannot live without a 24-pack of our favorite soda (I feel the pain: Diet Coke and I have been together for years). Perhaps we can drink water and buy those berries? This whole green eating and living thing is actually about spending LESS money. It is about rearranging our spending rather than increasing it. It's about skipping some of the not-so-healthy options, like soda and fruit snacks, to make the planet-friendly options doable.

It is also about a holistic approach to living. For example, our oldest son has "seasonal" allergies. When we use earth- and people-friendly cleaning products, he sneezes less, much less. So we don't end up spending a small fortune on children's allergy medication or going to his doctor to check in. No co-pays, no Claritin, just an almost sneeze-free kid, leaving us a bit of money to buy those products that made this difference.

When I live a little lighter on the planet I do not spend money on paper products, disposable cutlery, bottles of water, saran wrap, aluminum foil, and all the other kitchen accoutrements that people have survived thousands of years without. Seems to me that millions of people around the world somehow survive a BBQ without take 'n' toss containers or paper plates. So if we use less of these items we can afford to support our local grower, who may actually be cheaper than the grocery store anyway. If we skip these items, maybe we can pay a buck extra for a pound of coffee that has been grown and traded fairly. This means that while we have been trying to make our own ends meet, we've helped another family in Brazil or Kenya to do the same. Seems fair to me. Why should I be able to meet my needs at the expense of theirs?

I've got a big mouth and end up sharing these thoughts in lots of circles. Some are happy to hear them and others write me off as an idyllic suburbanite who needs to get her head out of organic produce and into the real world. But whatever one might say that real world is, is often as interested in this healthier way of being as the rest of us. For example, two friends run a local food pantry and they shared with me how all the organic produce and fresh food that is contributed there flies out the door by 10 a.m. That people line up by 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday to get their hands on fresh, healthy stuff.

I am a part of a new little team of people who are working toward some urban gardening solutions in an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago. There is tons of energy and excitement about people finding their way to healthy alternatives. I am well aware that some kids have never tasted a fresh blueberry. But they should get this chance. They should have access to a plot of land that can grow and nourish their neighborhood. They should get a shot at organic gardening and produce rather than the cans and boxes handed out at local pantries.

So when I find myself standing in the produce aisle, about to vomit over the increasing cost of healthy options, I remind myself that if I can somehow rearrange our budget, those berries just might be doable. And frankly, sometimes they just are not, so I skip them or buy the toxic variety. But if I can manage to tweak a few things, perhaps I can help others to do the same. And if they just cannot afford it at all, then maybe I can plunge my hands into the dirt of a difficult neighborhood and bring some good things to life. I have friends gardening in the 'hood, cooking food for kids in poverty, stocking food pantries with locally grown produce, gardening to give it away. After making all the changes they could, these people still had needs. People I know are rising to meet them.

Together, maybe we can afford that, and can help others to afford it too.

portrait-tracey-bianchiTracey Bianchi blogs about finding a saner, greener life from the heart of the Chicago suburbs. She wrote Green Mama: The Guilt-Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet (Zondervan 2009) and blogs at traceybianchi.com.

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