the ethics of austerity

This is not a post providing intelligent macro-level critique of neoliberal economics and capitalism. This is just some good ol’ micro-level whining. I am quite fine living on a serious budget. I’m okay making do with the clothes and shoes that are already in my closet. Although it would be nice to have a computer that wasn’t eight years old or a pay-as-you-go flip phone, they are both doing what I need them to do. And books? Movies? More than happy to be getting those from the library.

My problems are food and beauty products. I need to eat, obviously. Maybe some would disagree, but I think being clean and presentable is also a necessity. These are the two areas of my budget where there is some room for savings. And these are the two areas where, in order to spend as little cash as possible, I make choices that I hate.

Food… I’m vegetarian. I chose not to eat meat for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons is the way animals are treated in industrial agriculture. I do chose to eat eggs and dairy, fully aware that both of those industries also have some pretty questionable and, okay, downright shitty, practices. I try to limit my dairy purchases but omg, I love cheese. And eggs are just a super easy and convenient source of protein. My dilemma now is that as an unemployed student, I can’t really afford to buy free-run, organic eggs from a local producer. We’re talking the difference between $3.59 and $6.99 per carton. Or, yes, I can afford the $3.40 price difference, but where do I stop? With eggs? Cheese? My organic apple habit? At some point it isn’t a few bucks anymore but an extra $15 or $20 per shopping trip.

Beauty…. Besides the fact that I don’t want to drench myself in a bunch of chemicals, I also have had problems with eczema since I was a teenager. I have a very simple beauty routine and I stick to very basic products. Like the $24 bottle of argan oil. Or that $16 tub of coconut oil. And just like that, I’ve spent $150. The only up side is that the products last for ages so I spend that amount a couple of times a year.

With the beauty products, I suck it up. After years of experimenting, I’ve found a handful of products that don’t make my eczema flair up and I’m sticking to them. With food…. I stand in front of the dairy case wrestling with my conscience and wishing that we lived in a kinder world. Sometimes my desire for yogurt wins out. Sometimes I spend the extra on the organic option. Sometimes I just skip buying it altogether. And none of those choices feel good. The last one seems easiest, but I still have to eat something and every choice opens up a whole new round of questions. How much fuel was used to ship this? Were the workers paid fairly? Was rainforest cleared to grow this crop? And on and on. While all of these issues are so much bigger than my monthly food budget, having money at least provides me with the option of making more ethical choices. Or at least the illusion of making ethical choices….. I’ll get on my greenwashing soap box another time!

will work for food

Earlier this week I volunteered at the Winnipeg Foodshare Co-op. I barely consider this volunteering. Yep, I put in my time for no cash but I came home with probably two weeks worth of fruit and veggies.

The WFC is relatively new here and is modeled on the Good Food Box program in Toronto. It started out in September in the West Broadway and North End neighbourhoods as a way to bring healthy, accessible, affordable  produce to our city’s food desserts but has since expanded to include all of Winnipeg.

As a volunteer, I work a four hour shift packing the food boxes (well, bags, actually) and cleaning up. Lunch is included and I get take home an individual box. In the box this week were 3 apples, 3 bananas, 1 broccoli crown, 1 cucumber, 1 head of garlic, 2 kiwi, 1 lemon and 1 large potato. But because when the orders are place with the distributor it isn’t for an exact amount, and because some of the produce that arrives isn’t good enough to include in the box, both times that I’ve volunteered I’ve come away with much more than just the individual bag.

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The first time I volunteered, I came home with a ton of onions and made a delicious French onion soup. Yesterday my bag also included mushrooms, 2 onions, 1 sweet potato, 3 extra lemons, 1 extra broccoli crown, 2 extra bananas, and 2 extra heads of garlic. I had to pack everything in paper because it takes about 25 minutes to walk home and it was – 32 C but everything arrived unfrozen. Even the bananas didn’t turn black.

As much as I really, really, really want a job, I will miss being able to do stuff like this. And not just for the free food. It’s super nice to meet people in my neighbourhood that I might not otherwise cross paths with and the woman who runs the program is truly lovely. Since I’m not currently working, volunteering is a good way to get out of the house and connect with people, rather than spending all my time in front of the computer looking for work, plunking away at my thesis and getting cabin fever.

happy waste reduction week!

Given the City of Winnipeg’s recent garbage collection woes, I’m surprised they aren’t doing more to promote this event. Okay…. I’m not really surprised. The whole switch to this new system has been a bit of a fiasco from the start. Our neighbourhood was one of the first to receive the new bins and there was all kinds of fuss. Having lived in Brandon, where they’ve had these bins for years, I was not fazed. I was annoyed, however, that they rolled them out in March after a winter of piling snow onto the only spot the bin would fit in the back lane. We either had to put the bin in our parking spot or shovel a heap of snow over the fence. If the City had waited six more weeks I think people would have been a lot less upset. But I digress…

One of our New Year’s resolutions this year was to waste less food. I had worked on a major school project in November on fossil fuel use in the food system and was appalled to learn that almost half of food produced is thrown out. Much of that happens during processing, transportation and in the supermarket but lots happens in the home, too. Just think about what is in your fridge right now. How much of it is growing mould? How much of it smells so bad you don’t want to lift the lid off the container? I can proudly say that there is nothing in our fridge that has gone bad, which is true. But I’d also have to say that there is basically nothing in our fridge right now, period.

The 2010 report Food Waste In Canada says that “more than 50% of the $27B in food waste originated from food thrown away in Canadian homes” and that most of that waste could have been avoided. Very roughly, that works out to about $400 per person, per year. Aside from the environmental and social benefits, who wouldn’t want an extra $400 in their bank account? Or in the sock between the mattresses…

We have put a lot of thought and effort into using up food before it goes bad since making our resolution but more importantly, we’ve put more effort into planning what we’re going to eat. An article on the CBC website show 7 ways you can reduce food waste and the David Suzuki Foundation also has a handy tip sheet on ways to store food.

and the nominees are…

My Feasts

I will confess to having personally sampled many of the delectable dishes created by Maya so I’m probably a bit biased when it comes to nominating her blog. Although she has been an irregular poster lately, the archives are well worth reading through (and drooling over). I’m a long-time vegetarian but her photos and writing are so gorgeous that even I want to try the crab cakes!

Food Adventure Club

Keeping on the food theme, vegetarian this time. And with another confession… Sarah is my neighbour. But that doesn’t make her blog any less fabulous! She is also an irregular poster but again, that hardly matters when there is a mouth-watering archive.

West End Dumplings

Despite the title this is not a food blog (though Christian is also my neighbour, he just doesn’t know it). I LOVE this blog.  I have learned so much about the community where I live and about Winnipeg from his posts. I also totally appreciate all the photos he includes. This blog may have limited global appeal (do you have to be a Winnipegger or ex-pat to be interested in this town?!?) but hopefully it will inspire others. Every city need a dumpling!

Jumilla Productions

Okay, ya, I know Tracy too. I read her personal blog to keep up with what she and her lovely family are doing (and baking) but I’m nominating this blog because it is like reading a design magazine made especially for me. 70s childhood? Check. Love of modernist design? Check. Cute dog? Check. Gardening? Check. Desire to live a simple, uncluttered life filled with family and friends? Check and check. T – even though we are half a continent apart, you are always inspiring.

Minus Car Project

And finally, a blog that I have no personal connection to and that doesn’t include food (except possibly the coffee and donut ride). I’ve been following this blog for five or more years and although many of the posts center on Sioux Falls, they are nonetheless motivating. Plus I dig this guy’s sense of humour.

back to eating on a budget

Broke again. Since this happened around the same time last year, I’m blaming December. The whole holiday season is so expensive. Not just buying gifts, but all the eating out, drinking wine, making cookies, traveling to visit loved ones…

So here we are. Eating on $20 each a week until the end of February. That’s right… 8 whole weeks. Went a bit over budget this time because we miscalculated. Thinking we had enough money to cover raisins, I threw a tub of them in the basket. Organic no less. And then I ran to the corner store and bought $10 maple syrup for our pancakes. Thought we had some in the fridge, but turned out we didn’t and the pancakes were already in the pan. Still… this put us at about $60, which is about $20 less than we usually spend.

Menu for the week looks good:

  • Risotto primavera
  • Baked lentils, steamed carrots & mashed potatoes
  • Refried bean quesadillas with wild rice
  • Tofu stir fry
  • Some kind of soup using our slightly wilted veggies
  • Omelette
  • Getting taken out for birthday dinner (yay!)
Lunches will be leftovers and/or salads. Breakfasts will be oatmeal (with raisins, of course) or cream of wheat. A healthy and relatively cheap way to start the New Year!

week 4 – the review

Okay, first of all, check out my rockin’ focaccia bread. This is how we’ve been eating on $20 each a week.

Second, our lessons learned:

  • $20 a week for food really is no fun. Eating is an incredibly social activity, but on this budget, you can’t afford to entertain or to go out. Potluck would definitely be an option, but it wasn’t something we got around to organizing.
  • $20 a week for food for one person would be tough, but when it is $40 for two, it is much easier. With $40, you can buy bulk quantities of things like rice, and it works out much cheaper in the long run.
  • It is not as much work to plan meals as you might think. The first week we put a lot of effort into it, but by week two, we were sort of winging it and it all worked out fine. 
  • It is a lot more work to actually make all your meals. This budget doesn’t allow much room for convenience foods. When you are having a busy week, taking the time to cook can be a huge burden.
  • You really have to know how to cook in order to live on this budget. We are both comfortable in the kitchen, so we actually ate better in March than we usually do because we were making an effort to be creative (see focaccia bread above!). Instant foods (other than Monday night perogies and beans!)were out of the question for us.
  • If you don’t know how to cook, then this budget limits you to only the worst foods. We were actually eating healthier because of the planning we were doing.
  • We had to do a lot of compromising. Most of the organic food we usually buy is out of our price range, but we found that there were many local choices. For example, we couldn’t afford the organic potatoes which came from the US, but we could afford locally grown non-organic potatoes. I insisted on organic apples, but with the rest of the food, we only bought organic if the price was comparable, like with dried lentils.

Third, for a variety of reasons, we find ourselves quite skint these days. The menu planning and home cooking have really been working for us, so we are keeping up with the $20 each a week for food until our finances are more stable. We will be putting aside an extra $10 each so we can go out for coffee or dinner once in a while or have people over, because that is something we’ve really missed.

week 4 – the menu

Monday – perogies, beans, fried onions and corn (sensing a pattern here?)
Tuesday – tofu and zucchini in a black bean sauce with rice
Wednesday – omelette and spicy potatoes
Thursday – leftover omelette with toast (O in Calgary, so not inspired to cook for myself)
Friday – sichuan eggplant with rice
Saturday – gingered carrot soup and my first attempt at focaccia bread
Sunday – not sure, but either pasta with tomato sauce or going to O’s dad’s