INTRODUCTION Cooking starts with shopping: deciding where to go for our raw materials. That's a choice that takes into account everything from what's closest to what we can afford to what matters to us in the larger scheme of things, like our feelings about compassion or the environment. I've heard people say that they'd like to eat more vegetarian food but they can't afford it. That always strikes me as strange, as vegetables are usually less expensive than meat, at least when they're of like quality. But there really isn't any vegetarian equivalent of McDonald's or Taco Bell, with ninety-nine cent meals and cheap, supersized portions. The fact is, we spend money on what matters to us. I know people who are barely scraping by who buy almost all of their food at farmers' markets, and I've met people who live in mansions who fill their cupboards with processed garbage from big-box warehouses. I try for a middle ground. I will sometimes buy mainstream products that aren't grown organically, but I do look for items that have no preservatives or other artificial ingredients. It's great to buy organic foods, but it can be difficult to know whether a producer is just hopping on the bandwagon and making money from the latest trend or carefully creating a clean product because they believe in healthful food. It's easier to tell the difference when we can meet producers face to face, like at a farmers' market or a neighborhood bakery. Eating Well while Spending Less Although good food costs more than processed food, you don't necessarily have to spend a lot of money to eat well. Sure, some quality items are costly, like fine olive oil and organic produce, but there are also plenty of wonderful foods that are very affordable, even in an age of rapidly climbing prices. I try to look for a happy medium, like picking a decent olive oil that isn't terribly expensive, or choosing organics when the price isn't that much higher than conventional produce. Above all, it's important to know what different foods usually cost and to be aware of the price of each item you put in your shopping cart. Don't automatically buy the cheapest thing, but don't spend more than you have to just because you're not paying attention. Try not to assume that something is better just because it's more expensive. Get to know your own preferences and priorities so you can make solid, conscious decisions about when it's worthwhile to pay more. Note the price per pound when you're buying bulk items, and be aware of how many pounds you're putting in the bag. If you enjoy shopping and you have the time for it, get to know the ethnic specialty stores and corner produce stands in your area. Items like rice noodles and dried chiles are often quite a bit cheaper in shops that specialize in these types of food. Neighborhood fruit and vegetable stands tend to have great prices on fresh offerings. Many of them also have their own particular specialties. There's one place I frequent that consistently has cheap, perfectly ripe avocados, and another one with great prices on fresh herbs. Eat fruits and vegetables in season. Artichokes, asparagus, and snow peas can be three or four times as expensive in the winter as they are in the spring. Unlike cars or furniture, with produce low prices often correlate with high quality. Fruits and vegetables in season are abundant and fresh, while out of season they tend to be wilted and jet-lagged, or tasteless because they've been harvested prematurely. Don't assume that you're getting a great price on everything you buy in a big-box discount store. Items at these mega warehouses can certainly be cheaper, but I also see plenty of items there that I can buy cheaper someplace else, and in smaller quantities. Keep in mind that if you buy more than you need in order to get a lower unit price, you're not really saving any money. While we all want to save money on groceries, there are also times when it makes sense to spend more. According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, Americans today spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other culture in the history of the world. I've heard figures ranging from 11 to 15 percent. Whatever the exact number, it's partly a result of federal policies aimed at preventing the kind of widespread discontent that occurred when food prices rose during the 1970s, causing angry housewives to boycott meat and picket grocery stores. To keep food prices low, the government now pays subsidies to farmers for growing staple crops, especially corn and soy. As a result of these payments, we're so overloaded with these foods that ranchers feed them to livestock and chemists devise new ways to use them. Their experiments have yielded, among other things, the sweetener high-fructose corn syrup, which is now used in most soft drinks, as well as many processed foods. Some researchers have linked the rising incidence of adult-onset diabetes to the introduction of this highly processed corn syrup into our diets. It's quite possible that we'd spend less on health care if we opted for better, more wholesome foods. But it still makes sense to pay attention to prices and make informed purchasing decisions. Organics Organic foods are produced without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Of course that's something we all want. After all, cleaner food means healthier bodies and a less toxic planet. But organics have become big business during the past twenty years. As the organic movement has grown increasingly popular and mainstream, it's become something of a mixed blessing. Until relatively recently, few states had any kind of system in place for regulating organic products. Anyone could claim their products were organic, whether or not they actually were. This became a real problem as consumers showed that they were willing to pay more for food that was produced without chemicals. As a result, the organic movement, which had started with a bunch of idealistic farmers and visionary entrepreneurs, soon spread to much larger corporations, who didn't necessarily share those values. During the 1990s, Congress started moving toward regulations specifying how foods and other goods must be produced to be labeled as organic. They appointed a task force made up of industry lobbyists as well as forward-thinking farmers, who eventually came up with a list of standards that the big companies thought were too rigid but the little guys felt weren't strict enough. In 2002, the National Organic Program was enacted. This legislation paved the way for all kinds of organic products that had little to do with the ideals that fueled the movement in its early days, like organic sugared breakfast cereals and highly processed organic cookies. "Industrial organic" farms now cultivate vast fields of individual crop varieties, using practices that look an awful lot like mainstream agriculture, minus the chemicals. At the same time, the national organic certification standards spurred many people who were deeply concerned about wholesome food and sustainable farming to innovate and find new ways to set their offerings apart. Many small-scale producers who use organic methods are opting out of the costly and time-consuming certification process, choosing instead to market their products directly to consumers through community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, or by selling at farmers' markets. Savvy consumers are looking for opportunities to buy products that are locally grown and produced, shortening the supply chain and lessening the amount of energy that goes into shipping and storage. There are many other benefits to this approach. Farmers who sell their crops locally tend to operate on a smaller scale than industrial farms. Even when they're not strictly organic, small-scale operations generally use fewer pesticides per acre than larger outfits. They're also more likely to intersperse rows of different crops, a practice that in itself lessens the need for pesticides. So how do you decide what to buy? I recommend asking yourself what's most important to you. If you're looking to lessen the environmental impact of your personal food chain, it's as important to buy food that's produced locally as it is to buy organic food. If you're mainly concerned about health effects, you might want to choose all organic foods, regardless of where they're grown. And if you're especially interested in building community, choose items that are locally produced. No matter which of these issues is your greatest priority, if you support your local farmers' market you'll find foods that fit all of these criteria.