Don't let sustainability eat into your budget

Ease your wallet into healthy buying habits with small shifts over time, experts say.

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Ria Morfidis' interest in eating sustainably was piqued around five years ago, when a friend of hers stopped eating beef because of its impact on the environment.

As Morfidis began to make the change herself, navigating plant-based eating, she started to realize that she had two options. She could try to keep eating the way she had before, but substitute meat and animal products with their vegan alternatives, like vegan "chicken wings," Beyond Burgers and vegan cheese. Or, she could eat whole foods, like beans, to get protein in that way. Morfidis soon realized the latter was a much more affordable option.

"It's really crazy to see the impact on our grocery bill," she said.

And because she's saving money, she can spend a little more on the other aspect of sustainable eating that's important to her: eating local.

"For me, the difference of a dollar ... I think it's better to try to buy that product that is locally grown."

More and more Canadians are changing the way they eat. For many, it's environmental concerns that are driving this shift - — one has only to look at the fires ravaging British Columbia this year to see the impact of climate change on the planet.

According to Joe Solly, Ontario leader of Deloitte Canada's sustainability and climate change practice, more than two-thirds of Canadians prefer to shop sustainably. A recent report by Deloitte found that during the pandemic, many Canadians started prioritizing plant-based milks and meat alternatives more than before, with dried beans and lentils also growing in popularity.

But though not all sustainable food - — whatever that means to you —- is more expensive, a lot of it can be, especially local food. Even if it isn't more expensive, many Canadians have the perception that it is.

A 2020 study by Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab with research firm Caddle found that cost is one of the main factors preventing Canadians from buying more local food. And a 2021 study by Food Basics found that while most Ontarians want to shop local more often, two-thirds of them consider local food expensive.

So, how can you shop for food in a way that's sustainable for both your wallet and the planet?

Do your research

For Ontario farmer Ryan Shantz of CloverCroft Farm, sustainable eating begins with education. He suggests consumers connect with farmers at their local markets to learn more about their practices.

The word "sustainable," much like its cousins "local," "natural" and "organic," has become a bit of a catch-all. When it comes to food, sustainability can refer to a product's carbon footprint, to how far it travelled, to whether it involves animal products, to whether it was produced using herbicides, pesticides or antibiotics.

Jade Guthrie, community food programs curriculum lead and educator for FoodShare Toronto, said sustainability is also about how food workers are treated and paid. Because of all the different aspects of sustainability, it can be difficult to tell what's really sustainable, she said.

"We're so far removed from our food and the way that our food is produced ...… (that) makes it really difficult to make an informed decision."

Re-prioritize your budget

Jessica Moorhouse, financial educator and host of the More Money podcast, said when she looks at budgets with her clients, often food is their second-highest cost behind housing.

If you want to make a change that involves buying more expensive products, Moorhouse said you need to consider where in their budget you can cut to make up for it.

Planning for your grocery trip instead of shopping on a whim can help you focus and eliminate products from your cart that could be adding up over time, said Moorhouse. A side benefit of this approach is that you may end up cutting down on unhealthy, processed foods, too.

If you're new to budgeting, there are many apps you can use, like You Need a Budget or Mint, said Moorhouse. Or, if you prefer something a little more old-fashioned, you can use a spreadsheet.

There are three major changes people can make to eat more sustainably without a significant cost increase: decreasing waste, decreasing meat consumption, and cooking at home more, said nutrition and food policy consultant Barbara Seed.

You can decrease your waste by planning your meals, said Seed, and freezing extra food before it goes bad. For example, if you decide to splurge on a free-range chicken from a local farm, save the bits you won't eat and use them to make stock, adding frozen vegetable ends such as carrot and onion scraps.

"Meal planning should be seasonal, so you can take advantage of cheaper prices when particular foods are available," she said.

If decreasing your meat consumption is difficult, Seed recommends starting with just one meatless meal a week. Meat replacements can be more expensive and less nutritious, she said, so if you've got the time, go for whole foods like beans or chickpeas.

And if you cook at home more, you'll save money that way, said Seed. Those savings can then be spent prioritizing the food products you think are worth spending more on.

If you're looking to swap products for their more sustainable versions, Seed recommends starting with just a few at a time, like eggs, bananas or chicken.

Go easy on yourself

Justine Geroche, an urban farmer, has been vegan for years. She said it was a difficult change at first, because her Filipino family cooks with a lot of meat.

It's easier to try to change one habit at a time, said Geroche - — like growing some herbs indoors, reusing takeout containers, and buying some foods in bulk.

"There's no perfect way to be sustainable," she said.

Like any long-term lifestyle change, Moorhouse said you can't build better habits overnight.

For example, do some research on cow's milk and milk replacements, choose the one that aligns with your goals, and make the switch - — then move on to the next product.

"Try not to get too caught up in what other people think that you should be doing and just focus on what you can do right now," she said.

Look for local food programs

Money is "a huge limiting factor" for many people when it comes to eating sustainability, Guthrie said.

"Food is often the first thing that people will cut out of their budget because they have to pay rent, or they have to pay a mortgage, or for child care," she said.

One way consumers can try to shift their food consumption is by buying a food box, like the ones made by FoodShare Toronto, which include vegetables, meat and more.

There are many options like this in Toronto and the surrounding area - — by Black Creek Community Farm, CloverCroft Farm, Mama Earth Organics, Stubborn Farmer and many others - — and while some you have to pick up, others you can have delivered. Some you have to pay for in advance -— not an accessible option for someone on a low income, it should be noted - — and some you can actually swap for farm work, which is a great way to learn more about your local food system.

Though it may be difficult at first to get used to buying fruits and vegetables in season, Shantz said there's joy to be found in appreciating food when it's locally available.

"Wait to eat strawberries when Ontario is bursting with them," he advised. "Their flavour is so much better, their nutrients pack more of a punch, and you can appreciate them so much more."

Shantz is aware that his prices tend to be higher than those at the grocery store, and that stopping by a farmer's market can be hard to fit into a tight schedule.

But the more money you spend on local, the more you're "voting" with your dollar, he said, and what that will continue the slow shift toward more availability.

"Shifting those dollar-votes is what has brought us more farmers markets, encouraging more local small farmers," he said. "The shift is working, and we just need to keep going."

This article was written by Rosa Saba from The Toronto Star and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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