Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Blueberry Industrial Complex

I bought a pint of blueberries yesterday for $2.99. When I saw the blueberry display in the grocery store I thought, "Gosh! It's December! How can they afford to ship blueberries from South America and sell them for $2.99? When they went out of season here the local blueberries were up to $5.99 a pint!" I picked them up and read that they were from Argentina. Well, I don't have anything against Argentina. Their farmers deserve to make a living too. Clearly they aren't getting paid what Florida and Michigan blueberry farmers are getting. Poor things. And blueberries can be easily be grown in an environmentally friendly way. Maybe I should encourage these efficient Argentinians. So I bought the blueberries.

This morning I ate some of the blueberries from Argentina on my cereal from Minnesota with Almond Milk from California. They were good blueberries. As much as I'd like to support the slow food movement, the fact is I'm just one of the 97% of Americans who aren't in their target income level. I don't have the luxury of making food choices based on all factors except price. For the average American food accounts for 10% of their income. I spend 25% of my income on food. And I don't buy anything unless it's on sale. I'm a very careful shopper.

So for now the only thing I can do for the slow food movement is avoid fast food and junk food in general. I always buy whole foods when they are the least expensive choice. Fresh ears of corn were 5 for $1. I got some of those too, even though I couldn't tell where they came from. Clearly South America. But corn on the cob one of the few whole foods that comes in a unit that is convenient for a single person.

There are so many costs associated with food it's going to be really had to make any real changes. The parts I control are being able to spend as little as possible up front and then not wasting energy cooking it. Sure it took a lot of energy to bring those fresh blueberries from Argentina, but apparently it was balanced by the extremely low price the grower got for them originally. But if they didn't ship them away what would they do with them? Building a big plant to freeze them there would be worse for the environment than the jet fuel to fly them to the food distributor in America. And if I stocked up on local blueberries It would take energy for me to freeze them and save them for a year, too. Not to mention the cost of building a house big enough to hold a large freezer.

I've read that how you cook food isn't as important to your overall energy costs as other factors like heating and air conditioning. But if the cooking method directly affects the comfort level of your house then I say it matters. My house is so tiny I try not to cook in here because it puts too much moisture into the air. If I use the microwave it keeps excess heat and moisture inside itself and the water condenses on the surfaces instead of going into the air. So I say hurrah microwave. My corn on the cob will be cooked in the microwave in 3 minutes. Quick calculation: Power = Volts times Amps (P=VI) V = 115 volts, let's guess I = 10 amps. P = 1150 VA, so we'll assume a resistive load and call it 1.15 kilowatts. 3 minutes is 1/20th of an hour. I pay about $0.13 per kilowatt hour for electricity. So cooking my corn costs less than $0.03. Probably less than it costs to hold other food in the freezer until I eat it. If I was to boil water to cook the corn that would be wasteful, even though my induction hotplate converts 80% of electric energy to cooking heat versus 55% for the microwave. But I would be using electricity to pump the water out of my well and heating all that extra water that I'm just going to throw away. Plus I would probably put the hot plate on the front porch to keep the steam out of the house and I'd open the front door at least 3 times to tend to the pot, and each time I'd be losing heated or cooled air.

But frankly the highest cost for cooking in my mind is the actual appliance. Nobody EVER talks about that. My microwave was a hand-me-down and cost nothing, but my hotplate cost over $100. I've had it about 3 years. I might use it 3 times a week. That means my cost per item cooked for that hotplate is still almost $0.20. And if I count the $75 cast iron pots I got to cook with that makes the cost at least $0.25 per meal. I've spent less than $25 on dishes for cooking in the microwave.

I suppose people don't think of their kitchen appliances as part of their food budget any more than they think of the car they use to go buy groceries. A horribly inefficient Viking range that requires an extra ton of air conditioning to keep the house cool whenever you turn it on and an overweight vehicle that gets 16 mpg are status symbols, not methods to save money. People who can afford those luxuries could be personally subsidizing a local farmer to grow food just for them. Unfortunately I don't think elevating food to a status symbol is the way to save the environment from the Blueberry Industrial Complex.

There has to be some real lifestyle changes to change how people interact with their food. Could local farmers deliver food around a neighborhood and save the trouble of storing it until time to sell it at the Saturday green market? What ever happened to the milk-man? Did people cease to be at home every morning reliably? Perhaps I should invent a climate-controlled lock box for deliveries that could be installed at people's front doors. The trash company provides their own trolleys to collect garbage. Why not have a delivery company have their own containers for dropping stuff off? In fact, if they simply redesigned the garbage trucks they could drop off your locally grown food and pick up garbage in the same trip.

Too bad they would probably just be emptying the exact same unit untouched a week later.

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