While no one was looking, and without any fanfare, I quietly finished my quest to eat fresh, local and organic on $6 a day for a year.
A year is a long time.
I began this project for a number of reasons. Everywhere around me the dialogue was that organic was too expensive. That the farmer's market wasn't convenient. That there isn't time to cook. And I didn't want to believe it. And yet I knew that I often felt all of those things too. Why pay more for organic produce when a cheaper alternative is sitting right there? Why go to the farmer's market when all that fresh produce is just going to sit in your fridge because you don't know how to prepare it? Why cook when you live in a city of great take out and restaurants? Why?
One year ago, my routine looked something like this: wake up. Take subway to Manhattan. Stop at Starbucks for breakfast (latte + pastry, $6). Work for a few hours. Walk across the street to nearest deli and get lunch (salad + soda, $9). Work a few more hours. If tired, go back across the street to Starbucks and get another latte ($4). Go home. Feel so tired and deserving of treating myself, order dinner in $15 + tip.) Watch TV while eating food. Go to sleep. And repeat. repeat. repeat.
I played out that scenario for 8 years.
Whether it's getting older and craving more meaning in my life, or simply wanting to reconnect with the pleasures of food, I wanted more. I began this project not to prove that one can (or should) eat fresh, local and organic on the budget of someone making minimum wage, but to force myself to change my habits and explore what was possible...and what wasn't on $6/day.
I'd like to say that it took a year to really learn from the project, but to be truthful, most of what I learned about the realities of our food system I learned in the first month.
I learned that it's nearly impossible to eat 100% organic, fresh and local. The supply is simply not there. Most of our farmers market vendors are not organic and most of the organic food in supermarkets has been shipped from afar. I also learned that if you want to eat well on a budget, you need to plan your menu for the week in advance. The worst weeks of the project - the times when I went a little hungry or when I was dissatisfied with my food was when I got over confident and didn't plan ahead. And I learned that we waste our money daily on things of little value to our bodies (coffee) and on things that are free (water).
People have asked me why I didn't do a big party or announcement to celebrate the completion of such a life-changing project. And I don't know what to say. It was a weird end and it has been a weird re-entry into life with abundant choices. The first morning free from the project was a Saturday. I thought I'd go to the store and get something I wasn't able to afford all year: juice. I stood in the aisle dumbfounded by the options. Fruit juice. Vegetable juice. Juice promising long life. Fruit and vegetable juice mixed together. Juice mixers. Juice smoothies. Juice in a can. Juice in a bottle. Juice in a squeezy tin thing for children. Juice with only real fruit. Juice from concentrate. Juice with corn syrup. Juice with pure cane sugar. Red juice. Yellow juice. Green juice. Juice everywhere.
20 minutes later, still standing there, I began to cry.
I was embarrassed, tired, and overwhelmed. I felt overwhelmingly lucky to have this stupid problem. I felt overwhelmingly mad that for most people the choice is not between juice, but juice at the expense of something else. And I was overwhelmed with the guilt I was about to feel for spending what had been my budget for a full day on a jar of juice.
I ended up buying a mango juice out of feeling it's what I should do to celebrate. I hadn't had a piece of fruit from another country in over a year, and certainly not in the form of juice. I drank the entire bottle of juice when I got home and then it hit me. My stomach started cramping, seizing and twisting. My body simply couldn't handle it. The ultimate reward had become the ultimate let down.
It's taken me about three weeks to reintroduce things to my stomach, but each time I do, it's never as enjoyable as I envisioned it would be. Meals out at restaurants are not satisfying, neither in taste nor conscience. Not nearly as satisfying when you grow the food yourself, reach down to pull it out of the ground, wash it, taste it, prepare it and share it. Then, it is truly good.
I thought about this last blog post for a long time. I thought about writing about all the ways I learned to cook on an extreme budget, how it was possible, why it was hard, and all of the things in our food system that make it so. I thought about writing about environmental impact and how growing, preparing and sharing food can reduce it in dramatic ways and help you find your place in nature. And I thought about writing about how a week on a farm changed my life forever. I thought about writing about how much money this project saved me (over $17,000) and how I am forever changed in my spending ways. And I thought about writing about time, and how we choose to spend it. I thought about writing about the daily choices and tradeoffs those with limited means have to make. And I thought about writing about waste. And I thought about writing about meat and over consumption. And I thought about writing about marketing and how companies make us feel we "deserve" a treat. There is so much to say.
But all I can seem to muster up in this moment is appreciation. Appreciation for my husband who was my biggest supporter and a willing guinea pig with my crazy recipes (even eating Freekeh!). Appreciation for my neighbors Mike and Laurie for being my biggest garden fan club. Appreciation for my boss, Josh, who answered texts from me on the weekends like "can you eat the top leaves of turnip plants?" (yes, boil first). Appreciation for my friends who instead of eating out, chose to cook with me and stay in. Appreciation for those following my project online and offline, keeping me real and asking hard questions. And appreciation for all my colleagues at Slow Food who gave me cooking ideas, and whose curiosity, care and the occasional free food kept me going through a long, hard winter.
If I've learned anything, I've learned that the "more" I needed a year ago in my life was to understand my place in the world and to live in it with intention.
And I guess I'll leave it at that.