I love saving money, yet I routinely buy half-gallon cartons of milk that cost twice as much as the cheapest milk in the supermarket! Furthermore, two half-gallon paper cartons cost more than one gallon plastic jug, for the same amount of milk! What am I thinking?!
Several years ago, Daniel and I decided that milk that is healthier for us and the Earth is worth more money. The extra expense was hard to swallow at first, but the fact is that my overall thrifty shopping habits lead us to spend less on groceries than the average American family of our size, even with the expensive milk. Also, we don’t use as much fluid milk as many American families–it’s mostly for cereal and coffee in our house, and it’s unusual (though hardly against the rules) for any of us to drink a whole glass of milk. We get most of our calcium from yogurt and non-dairy foods. Using less milk allows us to spend more per ounce without breaking the budget.
UPDATE: Manchester Farms Dairy is now out of business. Read here about our #1 milk choice in 2017…but also keep reading below for details of our reasoning about which milk to choose.
Here’s what milk we buy, when, where, and why:
I’ve always preferred milk from paper cartons to milk from plastic jugs because of the taste and smell: I can detect a tinge of plastic, even when the milk is in my coffee or cereal. Although there is so far no evidence that the plastic used in milk jugs leaches any chemicals that harm human health, I just don’t like it. Then, about 15 years ago, I learned that milk stored in light-permeable containers loses riboflavin and Vitamin A. (All the milk jugs at that time were transparent–I’ve noticed a few brands use opaque jugs now.) On the other hand, plastic milk jugs are recyclable, whereas the paper cartons weren’t until recently–and I suspect that the layers of coating, and the plastic spouts in many cartons these days, mean that the amount of recyclable material salvaged from a paper carton is pretty small compared to the energy used in the process. Still, we prefer the cartons. They’re easier to use when full, especially for our seven-year-old son. (They also make ideal containers for spoiled food that can’t be composted, to keep it from stinking up the kitchen until trash day.)
When it’s convenient, we buy Manchester Farms organic whole milk from local, grass-fed cows. It’s delicious! The cream rises to the top; we try to shake it in, but when we finish a carton I open it up and scrape off any remaining fat and mix it into my coffee or Grapenuts. It tastes similar to unsalted butter. (I realize that many health authorities say saturated fat is bad for your heart, but I have low blood pressure and I’m thin, and as a mostly-vegetarian I eat less animal fat than a lot of people, so I’m not worried about it.) Grass is what cows are made to eat, and the milk of grass-fed cows contains more conjugated linoleic acid, which is good for the heart. There is some evidence that cows who graze in grassy pastures have a lower environmental impact than cows fed corn in feedlots. Even if they don’t, Manchester Farms milk is easier on the Earth than milk that travels a longer distance to our store. However, none of the stores really close to our home currently carry Manchester Farms. The East End Food Co-op is a few miles away, so I shop there only about once a month. I buy 2 or 3 cartons of milk each time, but if I got more it would go bad before we can drink it. Doing extra driving just to buy milk would increase air pollution and waste fossil fuels, as well as cost us money and time, so we fill in the gaps with milk from other stores.
This other milk is organic and ultra-pasteurized. I’ve read that ultra-pasteurization may destroy some nutrients (sorry, I can’t find a link on the subject that comes from any source without a vested interest in selling other types of milk!) but we love the convenience of milk that stays fresh for several weeks at a stretch! It’s really nice not to have to chug milk before we leave on vacation or come home to sour milk. Still, as I said in the horrifying tale of the Fruity Whip, food that can’t go bad is kind of frightening! The reason we buy this stuff instead of the cheap supermarket milk (which is only regular-pasteurized) is to avoid the hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified corn, and junk food fed to mainstream cattle and to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides (organic milk comes from cows fed organically grown plants). We’re under no illusions that the companies that produce big-brand organic milk are kinder to their cows than the companies that produce cheap milk–organic certification has very little to do with animal treatment. Overall, I consider the big-brand organic milk just a transitional step in our progression toward a healthier and more Earth-friendly diet. We’ll buy it some of the time until Manchester Farms or a comparable brand is available in our neighborhood.
We buy the ultra-pasteurized organic milk at Giant Eagle, Costco, or Target. Giant Eagle has two stores within a mile of our house. Their house brand organic milk, Nature’s Basket, is $3.99 per half-gallon when not on sale. Costco has a much better price, $3 each when you buy 3–but Costco, like the co-op, is farther away and is only a monthly shopping destination for us. Also, those 3 half-gallons are packaged in a cardboard box. We can reuse the box to store or mail something, but we often don’t need another box; if we just recycle it, both the recycling and its original manufacture use extra energy. Target’s house brand organic milk, Archer Farms, is $3.60 after we get 5% off by using a Target credit card. Manchester Farms milk is $3.79; I’m thrilled that this better milk from a small, local company is not more expensive than the average not-as-much-better milk from a big corporation!
So, when we’re running low on milk, we get some at Giant Eagle unless I’m planning to go to one of the other stores soon. We never make a special trip to a faraway store just for milk; we go to those stores only for a big shopping trip or when we are going someplace that’s near the store or takes us past the store. When I’m going to (or past) one of those stores, I check how much milk we have and stock up as much as feasible, which means buying no more than 3 cartons of Manchester Farms or 5 of ultra-pasteurized–although the ultra-pasteurized milk lasts long enough for us to get through 6 or 7 cartons, we’d have to refrigerate all of them, and we need most of our fridge space for other foods! (Also, it’s important to check the expiration dates on the milk because sometimes, especially at Target, it’s spent most of its long shelf life in the store.) If I’m heading for more than one of those stores in the same day, Manchester Farms milk is our first choice, then Costco, then Target, because of price.
Although we love Trader Joe’s and it’s also among our monthly stores, we never buy milk there. We tried their milk a couple of times and didn’t like the taste at all. Luckily, there is now a Target right behind Trader Joe’s.
That’s what works for me in buying milk! Visit Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways and Waste Not, Want Not Wednesday for more thoughts on balancing the concerns of budget and environment. Visit Your Green Resource for more Earth-friendly articles.