Desperate Times Don't Call for Spam: Eating Green on a Budget

We can't afford is to keep degrading our environment, our health and our local economies in the name of cheap food.
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Ever since the stock market took that first dramatic drop, there have been few companies that haven't felt the pinch, few products whose sales haven't dropped. Among them? Spam.

According to this recent New York Times article by Andrew Martin:

Through war and recession, Americans have turned to the glistening canned product from Hormel as a way to save money while still putting something that resembles meat on the table. Now, in a sign of the times, it is happening again, and Hormel is cranking out as much Spam as its workers can produce.

The article prompted a lively discussion on one of the listservs I subscribe to, the Association for the study of Food and Society (ASFS), where some members took issue with the idea that Spam was cheaper than other kinds of meat. One member, Sharon Hudgins, went so far as to scan her local papers in the Dallas area for prices and made a list of over a dozen different cuts of meat, including free range turkey, that were cheaper by the pound than Spam.

The cheap food argument has been debunked in other places, too -- most notably in this Grist post, where Chef Kurt Michael Friese responds to this KFC commercial and proves that in fact, he can easily cook a seven-piece fried chicken meal for about $10.

Yes, the cheapest alternatives involve cooking, often (brace yourself!) from scratch. But hey, if you can't afford to go to the movies, why not hang out in the kitchen and make some great food?

Cost has long been the top argument against eating locally grown, organically produced food. Meat and dairy are particularly tough, and it should be acknowledged that there are few cuts of farm-fresh, free range (or better, pastured), organic meats out there that come in under the price per pound of Spam.

But this is where your desire to green your fork meets your need to green your wallet. If you cut down on meat and dairy (the global production of which contribute more greenhouse gases than global transportation) and eat more beans, vegetables and grains, you can afford to buy the good stuff on occasion, which is what health advocates have been telling us to do for years, anyway. (I should note here that soy-based meat alternatives are even cheaper and more healthful for you and the environment, and although there are both health and environmental issues with those too, vegetarianism is a great option, but this post is mostly about Spam).

While marketers continue to spin their products and reporters expound on the press releases they receive, often regurgitating the same old half-truths about the food we eat, the evidence against industrialized food production mounts, and if we are to invest in a greener, fairer society, now is not the time to abandon public and personal health, nor green values, in exchange for food that "resembles meat," however cheap and easy.

Over the coming months, we'll be hosting a series of posts on the Green Fork about eating well on a budget. To kick things off, Eat Well Guide Director Destin Joy Layne (In the interest of full disclosure, I consult for Eat Well) and I have come up with a couple of tips:

1.Get cooking. As Chef Friese demonstrated for Grist, home cooking is almost always cheaper than eating out (and I would add that it's cheaper than most store-bought canned food, too).

2.Eat local and seasonal. Buying veggies when they are at their peak season, and buying lots of them to dry, freeze or can, will save you money.

3.Be picky. If you eat meat, eat less of it, but buy the good stuff from a local farmer.You'll lower your "carbon foodprint", enjoy tastier, healthier food and support your local economy.

4.Waste not, want not. Use of the stems of vegetables like broccoli, kale or mushrooms, and save what you don't eat to make vegetable stock. For meat eaters, this is known as "snout to tail" eating. If you buy a chicken, cook its guts for gravy. Use the carcass for stock.

5.Bulk up. Buying large quantities of grains and beans from the bulk section at the supermarket is not only way cheaper, but it involves a fraction of the packaging of the boxed stuff.

On a personal note, even if Spam was actually more affordable than real food, I still wouldn't eat it, because I know too much about industrially produced food (consider this other New York Times article about SPAM, published back in February, about the mysterious illness suffered by workers at the Hormel plant), and I know where my alternatives are. I've studied and written about these issues for a couple of years, which has been long enough to learn that the food industry is messed up in too many ways to count, but also that there are still family farmers out there, and that their food is worth more than what's in a can of Spam.

In the end, what we can't afford is to keep degrading our environment, our health and our local economies in the name of cheap food.

Originally posted on the Green Fork.

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