While I stood there for a good five minutes pondering the deeper meaning of "natural," an elderly lady in a large overcoat and a church hat walked up and grabbed a sack of processed white sugar without hesitation. I quietly wondered if she didn't care about the nutritive loss in processed sugar, or if she just had better things to do with her time.
On the other side of town, the closest community co-op sold nothing but organic, fair trade produce alongside notices for community acupuncture and homeopathy classes. The selection was limited and the prices were cheaper for bulk sacks of flour and cooking oil by the gallon. Milk and eggs were surprisingly expensive, possibly as a tax on non-vegans.
Some of the newer grocery chains had a growing selection of relatively inexpensive organic options alongside the standard fare of diet microwave popcorn and preservative-laden instant cake mix. In particular, Trader Joe's offered plastic-wrapped organic products that were shipped in from the other side of the country at a reasonable price. It was the polar opposite of the farm-fresh local market, but if the idea is about not ingesting pesticides in an affordable way, this certainly wasn't a bad option.
Sadly, the high costs of local farmers' markets quickly eliminates them from competition. Shopping at the market on a lazy Saturday morning, perusing rhubarb grown by a friend of a friend, and then making a pie from those ingredients felt like the ultimate goal of all this food snobbery. Who needs small packets of dried blueberries with images of humble farm workers when you can spend your time chatting with farm workers? Everything is delicious and nothing gets poisoned. It's this potential utopia where gluttony, purity, and morality live side by side if only the local organic blueberry farmers could somehow reduce their price point.
Getting a community supported agriculture (CSA) share where farm fresh food can be bought in bulk for cheap is a possibility, but access to CSAs is often limited. The food is local, but not necessarily organic, and there are restrictions that come with only buying food that's in season. Even if you give up the need for Florida-grown, flavorless slave-labor tomatoes in the winter, there are other sundries that need to be bought. And those need to be bought at grocery stores.
Maybe with the combination of a CSA alongside a dedication to bargain hunting and cost-benefit analysis, then sure, it might be technically possible to live the life of an ethical gourmand on the cheap.
As a comparison, the low-rent grocery store a few blocks away from me offers chicken wings at two dollars a pound. Compare that to the eight dollars a pound of air-chilled, free-range, "Step 5" chickens found elsewhere. For 10 dollars I could buy a large bag of mystery wings and have my dinner for the rest of the week, but just the thought of it was all too depressing. What sort of chemical injection trauma must those chickens have suffered to make them four times cheaper?
The secret hope is that this current trend of foodie-ism, food snobbery, locavorism, gastronomy, or whatever it gets called becomes permanent and eventually leads to better, cheaper food for everyone. Otherwise I will have to learn to appreciate chemically flavored orange drink, and nobody wants that.
Images: Jason Tepper/flickr, flickr4jazz/flickr