Ecochef: Save Money, Eat Better

How to develop eating habits that are good for the community and environment.

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Today's guest entry comes from chef and ecologist Aaron French, whose work focuses on the connection that food forms "between humans and our environment." He has a master's degree in ecology, is the chef of the Sunny Side Cafe, and writes the EcoChef column for 10 newspapers in the San Francisco Bay area.

In these times of financial uncertainty, everyone is looking for ways to save money and to make purchases more efficient. Certainly, we can buy less and buy what is on sale, but there are less obvious routes to efficiency as well. And as we change our buying habits to save money, we also can make a change for the environment.

1) Buy l ocal. When it comes to food, this idea has gotten a lot of attention for its environmental benefits. The less food is shipped, the less energy is used, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, your food will be much fresher and more nutritious if it has not traveled far, partly because local food is picked at a later stage of ripeness when many of the complex sugars and other nutritious compounds are created.

The financial implications of "buying local" are less often discussed, but they are substantial. Through what is called the "multiplier effect," a dollar spent at a local business will recirculate at least seven times through the community—that is, it's worth $7 in community benefits. A dollar spent at an outside retailer will be worth maybe $1.50. And if you think that's a large difference, consider that in the early part of the past century, the local multiplier effect was in the range of 20 or 30!

Certainly, globalization and the inexpensive outside goods and services do benefit our economies and pocketbooks, but in these troubled times when money is not flowing into our communities, we need to consider what we are sending out as well.

When buying local, consider supporting a variety of sources, including farmers' markets and local stores. Don't forget to ask the store manager of your favorite supermarket if it has a "local shelf" showcasing the best from your region. In addition to local farms and farmers, you can also buy from local food processors. Enjoy regional jams, sausages, and dressings. If you don't know where to look, search the local find index at foodroutes.org, and look up the local Edible Communities magazine.

2) Reduce w aste. This has also received some attention of late. We waste over 30 percent of the food we buy, and across the board we throw away more than any other culture in the world. The key to waste reduction is to simply think before you buy: Are there lower-waste alternatives? Can you purchase the item in the bulk bins, where you can buy only what you need? Just imagine—your food bill could be 30 percent lower if you simply ate all the food you already purchase. And in the process you will use 30 percent less of the packaging that makes up a large part of our consumer waste.

Sometimes, especially when times are tight, it doesn't pay to shop at the discount superstores, because you are forced to buy bigger quantities than you really need. Studies have shown that discount center shoppers often end up spending more than they realize, frequently negating any price savings.

3) Put your money where your mouth is. You might not realize it's possible, but there are an increasing number of local investment funds in which you can earn a steady return on your money while supporting your local community at the same time. 

Also called social investment funds, these products offer an alternative to Wall Street's offerings. As with all investments, they should be used as part of a well-diversified portfolio. 

The funds vary in nature. Some may, for example, invest in community and environmental ventures such as the burgeoning local food networks that are springing up in many parts of the country. Regardless of the specifics, they offer another way for you to make money while utilizing the multiplier effect to help your community prosper in these difficult times.

The bottom line is that we have gotten used to making a choice about supporting our community vs. supporting the environment. In this current economic cycle, it pays to do both, at the same time.

French recently posted recipes for Winter Squash Pancakes and Chanterelle Mushroom P izza, both of which make use of seasonal and local ingredients. You can find both recipes here .