Thrift, Justice, and the American Way

My husband, patient soul, is not a big fan of documentaries.  They’re often dull, they’re seldom short, and they’re typically liberal.  (Why is it, for example, that the punchline of every documentary made since 1996, regardless of topic, boils down to “stop having babies, because we’re killing the planet!”  Bah, humbug.)

Still, I enjoy them, especially the greenie documentaries about food, health, and how the automation and industrialization of our nutrition sources is, overall, a bad thing.  Mankind has a duty, I believe, to shepherd and steward the fruits of creation, not only for himself but for the good of the whole (don’t cringe) ecosystem.  After all, we live in it, so clearly it’s in our own best interests to take care of it.  For me, this has always meant not wasting stuff, recycling within reason, having a little garden (or, in my grandparents’ cases, enormously huge gardens), and turning off the lights in empty rooms.  Now, as an adult with a family, little has changed about my outlook, except a newfound and sudden realization that thriftiness is, unfortunately, not always compatible with healthiness, nor even conservation.

Americans, per capita, spend less of their annual income on food than any other nation in the world does.  We might spend, say, $100 per month on cell phones, and $100 per month on cable, and $100 per month on eating out, and $50 per month on going to the movies, but all heck breaks loose if the grocery bill tops $200.  Why??  The focus of a mother, especially, can and should be on how to provide the best things for her family, not the cheapest, yet we consistently make choices that say the opposite.  I do it all the time.  One of my favorite lunches is quick, easy, enjoyed by my toddler, and only costs $0.89!  It’s a Totino’s Party Pizza!  Yay!  But it isn’t healthy.  Why wouldn’t I choose to spend less money on cell phones and movies, and more on feeding my family?  Because it’s easy to cut costs on food.  Processed food is cheap, readily available, quick, easy, filling, familiar…the list goes on.

We tried this year to have a little backyard garden (foiled at every turn by the deer and the raccoons), and the single jalapeno pepper that survived the animal onslaught sat triumphantly on the counter for weeks before I actually used it.  Next year, I know a little more and can plan a little better.  We don’t have pets any more, so indoor herbs are safe.  What else can I do?  There’s a line, I know, between slavish Earth-worship and actual stewardship.  What kind of things can I do to eat healthy, run an efficient home, but not put my support and/or money into a community sector that, likely, thinks the primary contribution I can make to conservation would be to use birth control like it’s a religion?  I want to find a Catholic approach to living, care for my family without unnecessarily counting the pennies, and strike a balance between  treating our earthly home well and realizing that, after all, it’s only here for us to use.  What do you do to have a healthy, thrifty home?

Jennifer Mazzara

Jennifer Mazzara

Jennifer Mazzara has been a Catholic for 26 years, and a blogger for 6. She is a mother of two beautiful little men and shares her daytime with them playing with trains or just watching the world go by outside our door. Her big man is in the United States Marine Corps, and her family's life in the the military couldn't be more blessed. She blogs at Midnight Radio.

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6 thoughts on “Thrift, Justice, and the American Way”

  1. Great post! I didn’t know Americans spent so little on food. Have you read anything by Wendell Berry, who is also interested in these issues? He’s a Christian writer (of poems, novels, essays) and farmer living in Kentucky. Both liberal environmentalists and conservative Christians love him, the former for his desire for good stewardship of the earth and the latter for his beautiful vision of family and community. You should check out his books, perhaps starting with the novel Remembering. Everything he writes is worth reading.

  2. Great post! One of the top things we do is eat less meat. We eat less beef (especially) and chicken, because we buy all of our meat from local farms, and it is pastured and grass-fed. I’m not saying everyone needs to do that, but we chose to for a few reasons. (1) the majority of the people on the planet subsist on beans and rice, or some variation thereof. Meat is truly a luxury. (2) beef production is one of the largest causes of environmental damage (especially outside of the US). By eating less of it, and getting all of it locally, we are at least doing a little to stem the tide. It’s also a sacrifice for us, to be in solidarity with all the people around the world whom beef is truly a luxury for.

    We also buy our meat in large quantities, and freeze it. It’s cheaper when you buy it in bulk, and we’ll buy a whole chicken and then use it for several meals.

    I’d second Wendell Berry, also the book Cruncy Cons by Rod Dreher is a great book!

  3. Thanks for this post. Eating real food and supporting sustainable practices has recently become an interest of mine. I am very appreciative of voices that express that we should advocate for good stewardship of the Earth and that these issues are deeper than the typical liberal/conservative dichotomy they are often painted in! I look forward to seeing and perhaps helping to spread this message with others who feel the same!

  4. Great post! This is one issue that having a large family forced me to re-evaluate. We can spend less than $1/meal/person easily because we buy raw ingredients in bulk. And we have very little packaging waste as a result. (Our gardening efforts were similar to yours though.)

  5. Actually frequently unprocessed food can be cheaper than processed food. A few lessons I learned working at a grocery store:
    -Bulk bins are cheap. If your store has rice or lentils our granola in bulk, take advantage of the prices and freshness.
    -When it comes to produce, cheaper is usually better. It sounds counterintuitive, but when farmers have a good crop, they don’t bother selling the lousy stuff, and they try to unload their crop as fast as possible, which means cheaper prices all the way down the supply chain. When you see green beans or broccoli for fifty cents a pounds, chances are it’s because it was a better year for those veggies than for the $5 apiece artichokes and avocados.

  6. What an interesting post! Thrift is very dear to my heart right now since we are currently neck-deep in student loans and we just had a baby girl. We decided when we first got married that it would be worth it to spend a little extra money on food, knowing that we were buying quality products. Our strategy is to try to have very simple meals with healthy ingredients — pasta, for example, with homemade sauce and fiber-rich whole wheat noodles. Or brown rice risotto with asparagus and mushrooms — delicious and VERY cheap when the vegetables are in season. We also try to buy according to what’s in season and use every scrap of the food that we can — meaning if we roast a chicken one night, we use the bones and organs to make chicken stock the next night. We also try to subscribe to the 2/3 rule where if you are cooking with meat, you only use 2/3 of what the recipe calls for. So if the recipe calls for 1 lb. ground beef, you would use 2/3 or 1/2 lb. and use vegetables or whatever else as filler. (So a 1 lb. pot roast instead of a 3 lb pot roast can be a filling meal if you add in a bunch of extra potatoes and carrots.) I’ve done this a few times and it’s true that you hardly notice that missing half pound or so. This way you can stretch meat for a few more meals.

    Also, I can relate to wanting to buy processed food because it’s cheaper. In the beginning of our marriage I could get frozen food dirt cheap with coupons, but all the enjoyment I got from saving money was totally overshadowed by the fact that I was feeding my family total crap. I was FEEDING my husband, but I wasn’t truly NOURISHING him, and I think God convicted me of being a good steward of his resources in this way — that I should spend more on quality food instead of buying cheap crap.

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