A Prologue to the (Non)Challenge of Eating In

04/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Stacy Miller Project Director (Former Executive Director), Farmers Market Coalition

In an official capacity, I should be waxing poetic about farmers markets here. Indeed, there is an unexpected bounty of winter fare to be found among the frozen-digited, woolen-capped, ever-smiling producers at the growing number of year-round open-air farmers markets. As the number of U.S. farmers markets expands, so do their seasons, as producers find creative ways to grow fresh food throughout the year. I hope to read about these shopping (and eating) experiences in the posts of other 'Eating In' pledgers. But I suspect that I won't be visiting any farmers markets this week in particular.

While I'm putting my cards on the table before this week actually starts, I should admit that I rarely eat out. I'm an inveterate cheapskate. When not traveling for work (where I gladly take the opportunity to shop at farmers markets around the country and take up valuable suitcase space with, say, dried salmon, satsumas, or heirloom pears), I prefer to eat at home. I'm only reluctantly becoming a respectable tipper at restaurants, and that's because my husband publicly glowers at my penny-pinching. He and I rent a small 1870 farmhouse in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, where we have ten hens, a small (and presently ignored) garden, and are blessedly surrounded by working apple and peach orchards. Three miles down the road are the nearest restaurants, where I could take my pick of an interminable slew of chains: Shoney's, Ryan's, Outback, and a blur of fast food joints whose names are ubiquitous but now specifically escape me. If I want good restaurants, where the menus are crafted by real chefs, don't include photos, and actually change with the seasons, I have to be willing to drive at least 25 minutes.

I have accepted this Eat In Challenge because the real challenge is not resisting the temptation to eat out, but in taking time to feel grateful for what has in the last few years become second nature. And to pay closer attention to what I spend, where I spent it, and how creatively I might stretch my food dollar without compromising values or staying up all night making absolutely everything from scratch. Already, I see this pledge as an opportunity to reflect on the intersections of two personal values: saving money and eating local.

But, oh, HuffingtonPost, you're catching us locavores with our pants down, aren't you? Here in the mid-Atlantic, we are smack-dab in what Barbara Kingsolver calls 'the hungry months.' We are just now seeing the melt of what has been termed here in the Mid-Atlantic (maybe hyperbolically, maybe tongue-in-cheek) Snowpocalypse, or Snowmaggedon. Between February 6th and 15th, we got three and a half feet of snow in our little corner of West Virginia, and were stranded at the end of a 1/4 mile long driveway for several days. This morning, a local farmer who sets up shop downtown outside the Post Office for four hours every Saturday (except the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas) told me that even the cold-hardiest greens in his high tunnel froze and died last week. Admittedly, eating local is a little less sexy when you're looking at a plate full of root vegetables and pumpkin at every meal. More figuratively, my husband and I are nearing the end of the four year winter otherwise known as medical school. After eight semesters of tuition (and one modest income stream), eating simply and close to home is as much a necessity as a moral.

So today I did our shopping for the week ahead to supplement what I had on hand. First, $3.75 of ground beef from the aforementioned Tudor Hall Farm. And next, a confession:

I make all sorts of pathetic excuses for my proclivity for shopping at Big Lots. Granted, there's nary a fresh vegetable or fruit in sight, but if you stick to the food aisles and keep your eyes peeled, you can often find some great deals on the packaged foods you'd pay twice as much for in the 'natural' section of a standard grocery store. Today my excuse was simpler: I had some old clothes to drop off at Goodwill, which is right next door. I made out fairly well:
-$4.00 for two boxes of organic tea
-$8.30 for a double-box of Kashi cereal and some granola, neither of which I probably would have bought if I had heeded the number one grocery saving tip of all time: Never shop hungry. Oh well.
-$6.40 for mustard, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar for cooking and salad dressings
-$3.70 for various nutraceuticals (6 candy-disguised-as-protein-bars and one oddly colored vitamin-enriched beverage in a plastic bottle, for which I also had obvious buyer's remorse)

If Big Lots is bad karma, my next stop hopefully redeemed me. Good Natured General Store is an old blue house converted to a cafe and grocery, with green versions of what one might expect in a real 'General Store': everything from Made in America organic cotton T-shirts to low VOC housepaints to 100% recycled office supplies. I got the following:
-$4.58 for a 1/2 gallon of Trickling Springs organic 2% milk
-$3.65 for a bunch of organic kale
-$2.70 for a humongous head of organic red romaine lettuce (which the shopowner (and friend) bashfully admitted was from California)

Back home, I felt the surest sign of spring when I visited our ramshackle chicken coop. Five eggs today. More than we've gotten in a day since the winter solstice, and a reminder from wise avian women that longer days are on their way. That's it for today. I'm got some steamed turnips to mash.