Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

On Peanut Butter Apple Oats, Organics, and the Economy

My scalp cringes whenever I hear a middle-class person opining that organically or sustainably produced food is too expensive to be practical (right before said person biffs to Starbucks to drop $3-6 on a caffeinated beverage) or when I hear any garden-variety personfolk bloviating about how it’s cheaper to eat at a fast food joint than it is to eat at home.

Neither of these assertions is necessarily true.  Can they be?  Certainly.  However, that depends largely on what organics you are buying and what types of dishes you are preparing at home, including how many prepared ingredients you are using.  For whole foods vegetarians, especially whole foods vegans, they’re often false.  I don’t even need to address the “hidden costs” of factory farmed produce, dairy, and meat (through environmental damage, taxpayer-funded subsidies, etc.) to prove that.  Case in point?  How about breakfast?

The Unicyclist has been on breakfast duty for the last couple months, something which has allowed him to develop our favorite everyday oatmeal: Peanut Butter Apple Oats.  Today, out of curiosity, I dug up receipts, a food scale, a calculator, and I crunched the numbers to find out how much this tasty, filling dish was costing us. Are you ready?

3 oz. conventional rolled oats from the bulk section at Whole Foods (for .79/lb) = .15

4 oz organic apple bought in a five-pound bag at Whole Foods for 4.99 = .42

1 c Trader Joe’s organic rice milk, at 2.69 for 8 servings = .34

1 T Trader Joe’s organic peanut butter at 2.99/jar = .11

1 T farmer’s market apple butter at 5.00/jar = .17

Add a cup of water (for those of you keeping score to make this in your kitchen, that’s 1 heaping cup rolled oats and 2 cups liquid, plus a diced apple), combine well, cook until creamy and piping hot, and you have breakfast for two people and one Hippo for the grand total of $1.19, or less than sixty cents.  If we’d gotten the organic oats (at about $1.60 in the bulk section, which we skipped because they were out last time we were at the store), we’d have doubled the cost of our oats, which would have upped our total bill to…$1.34.  Again, we’re feeding two people and a 10-pound dog on that. Go ahead and compare that to a fast food breakfast value menu.  I dare ya.

If you’re on a tight budget, embrace the bulk bins.  No, seriously.  Cozy right on up to them.  Snuggle a little if no grocery store employees are watching.  Then stuff a bag with its contents and cart it to the register because dry beans and grains are some of the most affordable items you can pick up, even when they’re organic.

8 comments

8 Comments so far

  1. Chris February 21st, 2009 2:27 pm

    While Whole Foods, on average, borders on prohibitively expensive (How much for two tablespoons of ground flax?!), I totally agree with your advocacy of the bulk bins. Essentially, anything that’s not packaged is going to be considerably cheaper than, say, their plastic tubs of nuts and dried fruits. Good sleuthing :)

  2. Laurel February 21st, 2009 2:50 pm

    Yes, WF is often expensive. L’sigh. Enter my backyard garden, the CSA, and other resources.

    However, as expensive as the WF, co-ops, and other natural foods stores seem, it has been my experience when comparison shopping that they are usually a cheaper option than mainstream grocery stores if you intend to buy organics. Simply, they order more of it and can offer it at a better price for that reason.

    Co-ops are especially great because they may have bargain baskets to help you stretch the budget a little more. My favorite co-op in Wisconsin, the Willy Street Co-op, pulls produce when its shelf-life has grown short and offers it at slashed rates. You can get great deals if you pick up produce and use it by the next day or so. There is a tomato seller at the farmers’ market here near my home in AZ that does something similar by offering half-price “sauce tomatoes,” which are delicious tomatoes that are starting to get soft.

    Basically, the moral is this: healthy food doesn’t need to cost a ton. If you want to make it work for you, you probably can find a way to do so.

  3. Mangochild February 22nd, 2009 4:48 am

    I agree, healthy food can be really accessible. Your last words said it best: “If you want to make it work for you, you can probably find a way to do so.” In some areas, though, there is more hardship to doing so than in others – there are urban areas where only a convenience store is within walking or bus distance, and for someone without a car (or the time to make a trek) it is more difficult. Not for all, but some would struggle more.

    I was just thinking while reading Matriarchy’s blog (Ramping up the Garden) about how food can be used in so many ways – and so many “parts” of the food/veg/fruit that would often get tossed (either by the vendor/store or by the buyer). She really showed how to go against that, and get delicious produce and fed her family well – just like the “sauce tomatoes” you described (yum!)

    The bulk bins are such a deal! Oats and grains especially – for just a few dollars, one can get breakfasts for almost a month!

  4. pam February 22nd, 2009 6:37 am

    I’ve found that I spend a bit more since we’ve gone completely organic, but it really does taste so much better. My granola is filled with pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds and all kinds of dried fruits, you can’t buy ready made granola that good.

  5. Jessica February 22nd, 2009 7:44 am

    Tell the Unicyclist that he makes good oatmeal. I tried a variation of this recipe this morning and I loved it. (I used honey instead of apple butter, because that’s not something I have lying about.) Thanks!

  6. Laurel February 22nd, 2009 10:05 am

    Mangochild: Yes, very good points. I have spent several years working in South Phoenix, which is an area where check-cashing institutions are on every corner and banks are few and far between–in other words, an area in which many residents are struggling economically (and being exploited, but this isn’t a post on why I dislike check-cashing places). Still, their grocery stores tended to have really good selections of fresh produce due to the large Mexican and Mexican American population that wanted ingredients for excellent Mexican food. It wasn’t organic for the most part, but it’s better than some urban areas where the fresh food selection is almost nonexistent. Interestingly, unlike many urban areas, south Phoenix is spotty in that you’ll stumble across the occasional cotton fields and a citrus grove and horse pastures as you go. Some of my students’ families had their own chickens, thus ensuring a supply of eggs. You are absolutely right, however, that good transportation and convenient location make a world of difference for many people. It’s not just urban areas, either. My mom lives in a small town with one grocery store. In order to get whole grain breads and a wide selection of organics, she’d have to drive 30 miles. In summer, you can have your own garden and the farmers’ market, but you’re on your own in the winter.

    Pam: I agree! Organics will absolutely cost more money than buying the same exact food items conventionally…but it’s an investment in my health and in the health of the soil that I am willing (and, for the moment at least, able) to make. My point was more that if you are limiting items like prepared organics, meats, and dairy, it does not have to be prohibitively expensive for a lot of people who believe it to be so. However, being willing to/making time to cook and bake is key. (And I have never found a granola I like as much as the ones we make, either!) :)

    Jessica: Huzzah! I am so glad you loved it! I think honey was a perfect substitution–something sweet. Good jorb, Homestar.

  7. Kimmus February 22nd, 2009 10:45 pm

    Great post! It really hit home…I was just having a discussion the other day with a few friend about how much we spend on groceries per month. They were amazed at how little I spend, especially because I buy mostly organic and sometimes will shop at whole foods (because it is within biking distance). They most often buy conventional food and in some cases were spending twice as much as me!

    I think the difference lies in the fact that I make a lot of food from scratch, buy bulk, and am a vegetarian (meat is expensive). Of course, if I was doing everything else the same and buying conventional food, I could probably save even more, but that is the one area I make a priority (unless the organic is outrageously more expensive than conventional).

    And I’m going to try the oatmeal recipe. It sounds deliche!

  8. Laurel February 24th, 2009 3:19 pm

    I totally agree, Kimmus. I just put the numbers through on our standby Mexican beans, and they cost us less than a dollar per person per serving. People may think they’re getting a bargain when they pick up a packaged deli meal for $4-6 to have for dinner or pack for lunch at work, but that can easily be five times what they would pay if they prepared their food at home using minimally processed vegetarian ingredients. It’s unbelievable.

    Granted, it depends a lot on what you’re making. Organic cheese is expensive. Organic prepared foods like frozen meals, jarred sauces, and boxed granola will also push up your bill pretty fast. Most organics from scratch, though…not bad. Learning how to cook is one of the greatest things an individual or family can do to save money.

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