Among the many life lessons gained during the college years, few are as rude an awakening as leaving the warmth of mom’s kitchen and the convenience of the dining halls behind. As demonstrated by our uncanny ability to gain the freshmen fifteen or the ease with which we cast ourselves in the role of starving college student, learning to adequately and properly nourish ourselves is clearly no easy food feat.
As another year of our esteemed higher education begins, perhaps it’s time to treat our bodies to a new way of eating. The collegiate culinary cycle of ramen, frozen pizza, forget to rinse the dishes, repeat, can in fact be broken and forgotten – and probably much more easily than you’d assume.
If you’re thinking that this is just going to be another Santa Cruzan rant that heralds the magic wonders of farmers markets and natural food stores while conveniently overlooking the fact that college students have neither the time nor the funds to pursue the epicurean high-life, think again.
While Santa Cruz may be occasionally lacking in a few areas – hygiene and Republicans come to mind – sources for healthy and affordable food are not on the list. As college students, and semi-permanent residents of the health-food Mecca that is Santa Cruz, it would be a great personal disservice not to utilize the abundant resources available to us (see attached guide on the right). If you keep a few simple tips in mind, you too can be on your way to healthful culinary success sans blown budget.
Buying food in the most whole and unprocessed state is beneficial both for your diet and wallet for a couple of reasons. As food is processed, packaged, frozen, canned and freeze-dried, it begins to cost the consumer more while packing a generally lower nutritional punch. Although packaged and ready-made meals may seem cheap at the checkout, the actual nutritional value often ends up being significantly less per dollar than it is in foods you could prepare yourself.
As an alternative to these over-packaged and processed foods, students can stock up from bulk food bins (which can be found at every health food store, including the on-campus Kresge co-op). The bins offer everything from hearty grains, lentils, beans, and oats, to healthy snack foods like trail mix, dried fruit, and popcorn kernels. Without packaging and processing, these foods are inexpensive compared to their canned and frozen counterparts and can be prepared in large quantities at once, saving you time.
Consider this comparison: 1 pound (16 ounces) of dried black beans bought in bulk costs just over $1 and yields over 6 cups of cooked beans while 1 can of black beans (14-15 ounces) costs the same amount of money but contains no more than about 2 cups of beans.
In addition to buying dried foods, bulk food aisles offer you the opportunity to buy unusual and tasty spices and herbs by the ounce. This means that if you’re not so sure about adding spicy curry powder to your tofu, you can buy just a pinch to experiment with. Using new spices and herbs in your cooking can make things more interesting and tasty without driving up the price.
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, try diverting just ten dollars of your food budget every couple of weeks towards fresh and seasonal produce from a local farmers market; you’ll be surprised how far that relatively small investment will take you. Try to invest in ingredients that can be used for multiple dishes (i.e. spinach, which can be used in a salad, sautéed with pasta, or simmered in a sauce). Cooking staples such as onions, garlic, and potatoes also provide limitless meal options and can be stored for long periods of time without spoiling.
If you would prefer to buy organic produce but are worried about the cost, don’t be afraid to talk directly to vendors or growers and ask them about their growing practices – that’s the beauty of the farmers market. You may notice that an apple or tomato from a ‘certified organic’ grower costs more than the same food from an uncertified grower. Because of the high cost of the organic certification process, many farms can’t bear the certified organic label but still offer produce that’s grown free from chemical pesticides and herbicides (and often at a lower price).
Once you’ve got your fresh produce and bulk food, a few store-bought ingredients can stretch your food purchases even further. Things like canned tomatoes and vegetable broths create great bases for many dishes and are affordable enough to always have on hand. Try cooking rice in vegetable broth or stewing potatoes and veggies in canned tomatoes for a quick and easy vegetable medley.
It’s important to note that no matter what creative and seemingly time-saving methods you use, cooking your own food is always going to take a little bit longer than opening and closing the microwave. But once you get your culinary juices flowing, it’s likely that you (and your taste buds) will find the value in abandoning nutritionally bankrupt microwaveable meals and instead investing in some tasty, real ingredients.
The following guide to Santa Cruz’s best natural food stores and farmers markets should serve as a helpful tool as you trade in the microwave for the market this school year.
Local Natural Food Markets
New Leaf (Three Santa Cruz locations: Swift St, Pacific Ave, 41st Ave) A local chain with six stores total, including a newly expanded branch close to campus, New Leaf community markets offer a great selection of produce, as well as sustainable meat and seafood options. Look out for frequent coupons in local publications to save a little cash.
Whole Foods (Two locations: Soquel Ave, 41st Ave) The health food mega-chain has two new branches in Santa Cruz and boasts an expansive prepared food section.
Staff of Life (Soquel Ave) A smaller local operation, Staff of Life has an impressive bulk section and a separate store devoted to vitamins and natural cosmetics.
Food Bin (corner of Mission and Laurel) A small store close to campus, the food bin is open late, so you can satisfy your after hours cravings without going to Taco Bell.
Kresge Natural Foods Co-op (Located in Kresge College) A not-for-profit student-run operation, the Kresge co-op offers bulk foods, produce, coffee and tea among many other selections. You can cut down costs by ordering in bulk in advance and they accept flexi dollars for those living on campus.
Local Farmers Markets
Downtown Wednesdays (2:30-6:30pm) The parking lot at Lincoln and Cedar St. is weekly transformed into a ritual Santa Cruz happening. It’s largest local market with the most variety and vendors and is open year-round, rain or shine.
Westside Saturdays (9am-1pm) Located on Mission street, the Westside market can be easily reached from campus by a quick ride down Western Street. A mellow and friendly atmosphere make this market a perfect Saturday morning excursion.
Live Oak Sundays (9am-1pm) For those that live on the East side of Santa Cruz, the Live Oak market is located in the Eastcliff shopping center and operates May through November.
Base of Campus Tuesday and Friday (12pm-6pm) If you’re counting food miles, this one hands down has the fewest. Fruits, veggies and herbs grown at the UCSC Farm travel less than a few hundred yards to a canopy tent at the base of campus. Operates Fall and Spring quarter only.