My Real Food Challenge

Buying and eating real food is a challenge for low-income families like mine; for people who struggle to make ends meet, food isn’t always a priority. Yet I get this sick sense of satisfaction whenever I am able to put before my family a meal made up of real and local foods. Food is just one of the many ways we show that we care, and when I am able to provide a meal that is both nutritious and delicious I feel really good about that.

real food on a low-income budget. runamukacres.comReal food has been a long journey for me, and-honestly─it’s been something of a challenge. Accessing real food has been hard financially, but then knowing how best to prepare those foods was it’s own hurdle. The types of food I prepare now are much different from those I made when I first began cooking 18 years ago; and so different from what I was raised on that I can’t help but marvel at the real-food journey I’ve undertaken to come to where I am today.

real food challenge

The product of one of rural central Maine’s low-income families, I was raised like so many others on a diet that consisted primarily of processed foods and a meat-and-potatoes mentality. Like so many other families living in poverty, living paycheck to paycheck and working to make ends meet, my family received food stamps and medicaid. We shopped once a month, making the trek regularly to Caswell’s in Waterville to load 2 carts with discounted foods: cereals, snack foods, cheeses, canned goods, and enough meats to last the month. Then we went across town to the discount bread store and filled another cart with bread, english muffins, and breakfast pastries. We were a family of 5 and it took a lot of food to sustain us for a whole month.

What’s wrong with processed foods?

As I’ve grown older, and especially since I became a mom, food and how I feed my family have become increasingly important to me. Over the years, I’ve learned more and more about the health issues that stem from a diet of processed food: chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, allergies and asthma can all be linked to what we eat. I’ve learned too about the environmental impacts our food system has on the world around us and how industrialized agriculture is hugely dependent on fossil fuels, which contributes approximately one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Gradually over time it’s become a personal mission of mine to make real and local foods a priority for my family, even on a low-income budget.

According to renowned advocate Michael Pollan:

How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on American’s well being than any other human activity. The food industry is the largest sector of our economy; food touches everything from our health to the environment, climate change, economic inequality, and the federal budget.(Pollan via the Washington Post).

Processed food is typically mass produced; it’s food that’s the same from one batch to the next and from one country to another. Processed foods remain emulsified on the shelf─the fats and water in those foods don’t separate because they’ve been engineered not to, and they tend to have long shelf or freezer lives thanks to the various preservatives added to them. These kinds of foods generally have too little fiber, Omega 3 fatty acids, and micronutrients, while at the same time possessing too much in the way of trans-fats, additives, emulsifiers, and too much salt and sugar.

Our current food system was designed with the intention of feeding millions of people around the world cheaply─providing food security and making sure that we can all afford the most basic of needs. However, the design has had unintended consequences with dramatic long-term costs. Highly processed foods may indeed be cheaper and more convenient, but they’re also more craveable and addictive. Studies show that today two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, and that obesity rates in children has tripled in the last 3 decades.

For more info regarding our broken food system and how you can vote with your fork to make a difference!

What is real food?

A lot has changed since I was a child. Most people today are─at the very least─ aware of the dangers of processed foods, and they’re aware of the benefits of buying locally produced vegetables, meats, and other foods. Some things, however, have not changed, such as the fact that rural central Maine is still a region of the state where many families continue to live below the federal poverty level, as well as the fact that 30 years later, I myself am still counted among low-income families. How can low-income households like mine hope to feed their families real and local food when they’re struggling to pay the bills each month? How can I feed my children a diet that will lead them to lead long healthy lives when I’m struggling to keep my bank account in the green? And what is real food anyway?

carrots grow fast
Real food is simply the ingredients used to make food! Photo courtesy Sidehill Farm; Madison, Maine.

Real food is simply food that has not been processed. Vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, and meat. They are the ingredients that you use to make food. Believe it or not, I’ve managed to move toward a diet increasingly made up of real and local foods even on my low-income budget, and if I can do it I’m confident that other families can do it too.

There’s no denying that it’s more expensive. Cutting out processed foods can be pricey because grass-fed beef and fresh produce from the local farmers’ markets cost more. That’s the real cost of food. Thanks to our subsidized agricultural crops like corn and soy, Americans spend less on food than any other nation, and that’s not a good thing because the cost of that savings has been at the expense of our health and our environment. If we accept the true cost of food, and if we’re willing to prioritize real food in our lives, then we can change our eating habits for the better.

Fourteen years ago, I became a mom for the first time. Since then my diet has been a gradual progression from that meat-and-potatoes mentality and a diet that was heavy in processed foods, to a dedication to a life of real and local foods that has even turned me to farming and advocating for local foods and agriculture. I’m feeding my family real and local foods even on a reduced income, without the benefit of SNAP funds. If I can do it, you can do it too.

Here’s how we eat real food on a low-income:

#1 Limit processed foods: We don’t buy much pasta anymore, nor do we buy snack-foods like crackers, cookies, or chips; Instead, we buy fruit when it’s on sale or in season. If my boys need a snack, it’s fruit, a carrot or a stick of celery. I figure if they’re not hungry enough for an apple then they’re not really hungry at all and just looking to munch. We avoid buying donuts, pastries, frozen dinners or even cereals anymore. Anything with a long list of ingredients on it’s label is out, especially if I can’t even pronounce it. And yes, I look at labels.

#2 Buy real ingredients: Sticking to the outskirts of the grocery store helps me to avoid the temptation to buy processed foods. We purchase fruits and vegetables that are on sale, with the exception of carrots, potatoes, onions, celery and garlic, which are staples in my pantry as they form the base of so many meals. Sometimes I’ll buy frozen vegetables too. We buy milk and butter at the grocery store, but rarely cheese and yogurt or other dairy products, because they’re just too expensive for the budget right now.

#3 Commitment to cooking: There’s no denying that making meals with real food takes a little more time out of the day and requires a commitment to cooking and working with food that you might not otherwise have. However, with that commitment to cooking, you’re fostering love and community within your family, and participating in a relationship with the world around you in direct support of yourself, in support of your family, and in support of the greater community. That sense of love and community is something that industry just can’t give us.

Michael Pollan in the Netflix series Cooked, says:

The cook stands in a very interesting relationship with the world. On one side he looks toward people and community, family─giving this incredible gift of love which is the meal. But on the other side, you’re looking to nature, working with plants and animals. And you reconnect to the fact that the industry doesn’t feed us. Nature does.

grow your own real food
Gardening allows me to produce quite a lot of my own vegetables to feed my family. This has been the key to my Real Food Challenge and has opened so many doors for me over the last 20 years.

#4 Do-it-yourself: Over the years, I’ve learned an increasing number of skills to aid in my mission to feed my family real and local food. There are many types of food that I no longer need the industry to make for me; I’ve learned to do it myself, and the result is food that is less processed, lower in sugar and salt, containing no preservatives or alien ingredients, and is fresher and healthier for my family. We haven’t completely eliminated the grocery store from our lives, but I’m able to produce enough vegetables to last three-quarters of the year. I haven’t bought eggs in years because I raise my own chickens, which then become stew later in life. I can make my own salad dressings, ketchup, bread, muffins, and cookies among other things. Every bit of processed food I am able to avoid feeding myself and my family garners us all just a little healthier life, and reaffirms my commitment to my role in my relationship with nature.

Take a look at this post I wrote about baking to stretch my food budget!

buy real food at the local farmers market
Buy fresh local foods in-season at the local farmers’ market. Many now accept EBT from SNAP shoppers.

#5 Shop local: Many of Maine’s local farmers’ markets are now accepting SNAP/EBT and participate in the Maine Harvest Bucks program, which offers bonus bucks on fruits and veggies at the market. Personally I don’t qualify for SNAP benefits anymore, but for households relying on that assistance, this program makes it possible for low-income families to be able to access locally produced foods. Even on my reduced income I am able to purchase fresh vegetables in-season from local farmers; most often the pricing is comparable to the grocery store and the quality is superior. Meat has been harder to afford at-market, but the grass-fed meats are so superior to what’s available at the grocery store, with the added bonus that the animals that produced that meat lived the life they were meant to live: on pasture with plenty of space and fresh air. Sticking to the cheaper cuts like ground beef and stew meat, and only occasionally splurging on roasts and steaks allows me to buy meat at the farmers’ market.

#6 Eat less meat: Studies show that consuming meat can lead to some serious health risks; producing meat also consumes more fossil fuels and contributes one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Leaving behind that meat-and-potatoes mentality in favor of an increasingly plant-based diet has been the hardest part of my real food mission. It’s such a change from the attitude I was raised with that it was difficult at first to wrap my head around it─and getting the rest of my family on board was yet another hurdle. But slowly, over time I’ve reduced the amount of meat we eat. 2-3 times a week I add meat to a meal; often meat is added in smaller quantities and mixed in with a larger dish (as in stew or a casserole or stir-fry). Roasts, steaks and entrees featuring meat are reserved for special occasions. This allows me to stretch my budget so that we can afford locally produced and grass-fed meats.

dry beans instead of meat
Dry beans are an affordable protein source and so versatile! If you’re not accustomed to eating beans and other legumes, it might take some time for your family to get used to eating them. I’ve found that persistence pays.

#7 Eat more grains and legumes: To supplement the protein source in meals, we’ve been experimenting more with different grains, dry beans and other legumes. Dry beans and lentils are inexpensive and especially versatile. With the internet I can find recipes that even my picky-eater will accept.

#8 Prioritize real and local food: Cutting processed foods from our lives can be expensive because grass-fed meats and fresh produce from farmers’ markets cost more. Real food costs more because it’s worth more. I’ve become very careful about where and how I spend my money; real food is important to me, so I’m willing to make sacrifices in order to eat this way. It all boils down to priorities.

The real food journey

eat real and local food on a low-incomeChanging the habits and ideas we were raised with takes time; it’s a journey─a progression─and some days you might fall off the wagon. I admit I still have cravings for foods from yesteryear; once in a while I want a frozen pizza, or pork chops which are not available conveniently to me at the local farmers’ market so I buy them at Hannaford’s. I have an addiction to sugar and carbs and, like a recovering alcoholic, I count the days I’ve lived without consuming a Little Debbie Nutty Bar. However, I try not to beat myself up too much because I know full well that my real food mission is a journey and I’ve come a long way from where I started.

My real food challenge is not about any particular diet; it’s about consuming less processed foods, less meat, and more fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. It’s about eating healthier in order to be healthier and instilling healthy habits in my children for their longevity; and it’s about prioritizing food that reflects my own commitment to nature. It’s about family, and it’s about community.

Food has this unique power to bridge our differences and draw us together. That age old institution: “the Meal”─fosters community and love with whomever it is shared. In an age of electronics and social media, when it’s easy to allow social interaction in real life to slip in favor of the more passive interactions of Facebook and the internet, maintaining the concept of the family meal has become more important than ever before. Humans are, by nature, social creatures,─even those of us who are introverts need to know that we have a community of people who love us. Society functions better in general when people care about each other and are actively engaged within their communities. With this in mind, I invite you to join me in bringing back the tradition of real food with real people; let’s bring people back to a healthier life and let’s share those lives with our community.

Vote with your fork to save our broken food system


The simple desire to feed my family wholesome, nutritious and delicious food was the driving force that led me first to cooking and later into gardening. The more I learned, the more I could do─and wanted to do─for myself. That compulsion led me down the rabbit hole in pursuit of a more sustainable life, and eventually led me to farming and beekeeping.

I’ve been thinking about food a lot lately; ever since I saw Michael Pollan’s new Netflix series “Cooked“. For those who do not recognize the name, Michael Pollan is synonymous with the local food movement; he is the award-winning author of a number of books about our relationship with nature via food and agriculture. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma“, and “In Defense of Food” are two of his popular titles, both of which sit on my bookshelves.

Pollan says:

We’re beginning to wake up to the astonishing realization that we have to think about─not just feeding ourselves─but feeding all those other selves that we move through life together with.”

vote-with-your-fork-to-save-our-broken-food-systemThe food system is broken

The bald truth of the matter is the food system is broken. Health care costs, climate change, energy independence, and security threats can all be attributed to this flawed system and most people don’t even realize it’s a problem.

According to a report entitled “The Future of Food & Farming” published in January 2011 by the British government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, the world’s food system is failing half the people on Earth. Over a billion people on the planet are hungry and starving, one billion people are suffering malnourishment from lack of a proper diet, and still another billion people are “substantially overconsuming”, creating a public health epidemic.

Our food system has been consolidated through industrialization into a few supermarkets and fast-food companies; these corporations have set new standards for the food industry─requiring that food is produced with high standards for quality, but never abiding by workers’ rights. According to the USDA─American farmers are currently receiving only 19-cents for every dollar consumers spend on food. The majority of farm laborers are working 12 and 14 hour days in hazardous conditions for an average of $6.18 according to the US Department of Labor, without benefits or job security.

To provide the meat available at the supermarket livestock has suffered horrific conditions at concentrated feedlot operations (CFOs) where practices like cramming laying hens together into cages so small that the birds are sometimes driven to cannibalize their cagemates is routine. The USDA’s recommended treatment for this behavior is to snip the beaks off hens with hot knives without anesthetic. Similarly, to prevent hogs in CFOs from biting the tails off each other, the USDA recommends producers snip tails off piglets without anesthetic using a pair of pliers.

The current system requires copious amounts of fossil fuels in the form of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel to transport these foods worldwide. As a result the agricultural sector is actually contributing more greenhouse gas emissions than our transportation sector.

Furthermore, we’ve seen a tragic loss of skills, tradition, and community associated with the food system. Many people don’t even know how to cook the variety of foods available to them. In a survey performed in 2015 Americans spend an average of 6.5 hours per week preparing meals, while people in India and the Ukraine spend 13.2 and 13.1 hours.

How did we get here?

In 1790, before the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution, 95% of the population lived in rural areas of the country. Over the course of the 19th century many people moved to urban areas for work; by the early 1900s 40% of Americans lived in cities. To meet the growing urban demands food producers increased output, utilizing industrialized methods of mass production that radically transformed the food system.

Roosevelt’s advisers believed the Great Depression was in part caused by the high production of farmers. The supply was greater than the demand resulting in a drop in prices. To reestablish a balance the administration crafted the New Deal, which offered payments to farmers in exchange for taking a portion of their land out of production.

World wars I and II also had an impact on the American food system when civilians were required to modify their eating habits to consume more fresh foods like produce, eggs, and dairy─foods that could not be shipped to the warfront. To feed the army the food industry began developing new processed food replacements for soldiers; when the war ended the food industry then sought new markets for those products calling them “convenience foods” and targeting the American housewife. Since then the market for processed food products has grown exponentially.

Post-war, soldiers returned to their farms with new knowledge and skills. New technologies and the availability of cheap fossil fuel (the key ingredient in synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) led to a tremendous increase in the productivity of the American farmers. Yet serious challenges drove millions of farmers to seek work in town or in the city. Over the next couple of decades farms were consolidated and became more specialized. In 1900 farms produced at least five of the seventeen major crop commodities, but in 1992 most farms were only producing two.

The processing of food has continued to be an extremely profitable endeavor. Growth of these large-scale, vertically integrated food production businesses was encouraged by US agricultural policy and market competition. Bankers monetized the world’s food supply, making food just another thing that could be speculated on for a profit.

Note: a vertical production business is when the supply chain of a company is also owned by that company – ie: Tyson chicken.

We now have this industry which is deliberately trying to sabotage the practice of cooking. These corporations go to great lengths to convince us that cooking is such a difficult, time consuming and messy task that you’d be better off letting them do the work for you. For the food industry, cooking traditional foods at home is an obstacle to their product. There is a vested interest in destroying food culture altogether.

To cook or not to cook?

Our response to that question comes with consequences. Cooking has become optional, we’re no longer required to cook and whether they don’t have the time, the skill, or the inclination many people are choosing not to cook. Yet every time we eat we’re casting a vote and we have to accept the consequences of these votes. The importance of cooking should not be overlooked.

In the “Fire” episode of Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” series he states:

We are the species who cooks. No other species cooks; when we learned to do this, that is when we became “human”.

According to Richard Ringham, a biologist at the University of Berkeley in California, humans are biologically adapted to eating our food cooked. Homo erectus is the ape that has become human with smaller mouths and teeth than apes, and weak muscles for chewing.

Compared to our ape ancestors our brain size increased significantly, and this organ requires a tremendous amount of energy. It was essential that we save our energy for brain functions rather than for chewing and digesting. Ringham says that humans evolved when an ape learned to cook. Cooking relieves us of the burden of chewing a lot.

Human culture has evolved and advanced technologically through cooking. For example: cooking with water. Because you cannot cook with liquids until you have pots that can withstand fire, ten thousand years ago we developed clay-fired pottery. Suddenly we were able to do amazing new things with our food. We could mix flavors, use herbs and spices. There were many foods we couldn’t even eat until we had fire and water to soften them. That was how we came to have cuisine.

Fiddleheads are a spring delicacy here in Maine that we look forward to every year!

Food and cooking makes us who we are. Entire cultures are developed around the foods and flavors available in the region, and lend themselves naturally to tradition. Here in Maine lobster, potatoes and fiddleheads are just a few of the foods that make up our food culture, while in India, who is known for its’ spice trade, their cuisine is characterized by the extensive use of various Indian spices and fresh produce.

There are lots of things we’ve outsourced to corporations─that we no longer do for ourselves. I’m perfectly happy to allow corporations to make my toilet paper, but cooking is not like that. Cooking draws us together. It fosters love and a sense of community. We all have powerful memories of being cooked for, and those acts of generosity and love run deep within us.

Food is not just a thing or a product. Food is the direct relationship we have with other species in nature and with the world around us. We are also a part of nature and we have a part to play in the food chain.

Pollan goes on to say:

the cook stands in a very interesting relationship to the world. On one side he looks toward people and community, family─giving this incredible gift of love which is the meal. But on the other side, you’re looking to nature, working with plants and animals. And you reconnect to the fact that the industry doesn’t feed us. Nature does.”

Waking up

The local food movement is growing. Even in the face of the pervasive financialization of food, nearly 80% of Americans say that sustainability is a priority to them when purchasing food. There are 8400 farmers’ markets listed in the USDA’s National Farmers’ Market Directory, and even mainstream supermarkets market organic and local products. Sales of organic food is approaching $40-billion a year, and while “local food” is harder to quantify, statistics gauge that around $7-billion and north of $50-billion in economic activity that is in one way or another opposed to the conventional food system.

The global food crisis can only be solved if we can get the bankers out of the system and begin to regulate the $648-trillion global derivatives that have made food into a speculative buy. We need the government to stop subsidizing the major crops and we need a level playing field for organic and small farmers.

These changes need to come from the coalescence of a broad-based political movement based on reforming the food system, but that has yet to happen.

Vote with your fork!

Every day, 3 times a day, we can vote for the kind of food system we want through our food choices. By making the choice to eat real food─food that hasn’t been processed beyond recognition─we’re taking a stand against the industrial system. We can opt to purchase ingredients and make the time to actually cook a meal; we can learn to cook more things for ourselves or to cook more often. And then we can share that that independence with friends and family to spur the movement on.

Once we get used to cooking for ourselves we can take it a step further and through our food choices we can vote for the kinds of farms we want to support. We can give our money in support of an industrial farm thousands of miles away with farming practices we don’t want to think about, or we can choose to shop with farms closer to home, get to know our farmer and how he or she produces the carrots or the herbed-chevre we love so much.

We have the power to make a difference and it starts right at home. Making the choice to buy real food doesn’t mean it will always be a perfect meal; it just means it will be real food. Give it a try; vote with your fork!

References & Recommended Reading

Michael Pollan Articles – via Michael Pollan’s website; peruse the archives of his articles here.

Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food – a book review via Sustainable Table.

Our Broken Global Food System – article from Scientific American.

How Industrial Food Impacts Your Health – via Sustainable Table.

Six Reasons Why Food is a Really Big Deal – via The Conversation.

A Sustainable Food System Could Be a Trillion-Dollar Global Windfall – recommended reading via the Huffington Post.

Big Food Strikes Back: Why did the Obamas fail to take on corporate agriculture? – NYTimes article written by Michael Pollan.