Have you read this post over at Norma's blog?
It's a coincidence for me, because these questions are just some of many that have been on my mind for quite a while.
They're mostly stemming from the books I've been reading as well as some of the food blogs, and the growing cultural fad of localism. It's all so complex, but at the same time, the "right" path seems so clear. Clear, that is, until real life pops up and throws you into the McDonalds drive through because you just didn't have time to pack a lunch this morning (or worse, dinner, and you're feeding your own kid that crappy kiddo-crack that they just love).
One thing that I have figured out,and this gets partly to Norma's point, is that it all costs. Time, money, labor, the intangible "global debt" of worker exploitation, pollution and oil consumption are all a part of the equation. When you add meat to the equation, add in animal cruelty, antibiotics, hormones to your math.
If you grow and preserve your own food, you pay in labor and time. It is hard work to keep a garden large enough to feed a family, and it takes a good amount of knowledge or practice to do it. You pay less cash (excepting seeds and equipment) and you incur little to no global debt.
If you buy local food, you probably pay less money than you might at the grocery for your goods and you save the time of growing and harvesting, but if you live in New England and you want to get through the winter, you pay again with time to preserve it when the picking is good for the lean months ahead. You again incur little to no global debt, at least not in theory. You support people who live in and giveback to your own community or those nearby.
If you buy supermarket organic, you pay premium cash. You pay little to no time, considering how much of that stuff comes to us pre-washed, measured and baggied up for us. If you try your best to avoid the most well-traveled fruit and vegetables, you incur some "global debt" but less than if you buy conventional produce - at least, in theory, you are not adding fertilizer runoff into the world. Corporate organic is blurring the lines as much as they can, so you need to know your stuff to have the most effect.
If you buy regular supermarket produce, you pay little cash and little time or labor. You, by my reading of things, incur an incredible amount of global debt. Those veggies and fruit come to you so cheaply at the cost of poorly paid, badly treated farmworkers, chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are "believed" to be safe (but we believed DDT and lots of other things were safe, only to be proven wrong down the line) and transportation costs that are enormous.
Like most things, I think that the balance point on this scale is going to be different for everyone. It will depend on your income level, your job, your commute, your other hobbies, your tolerance for dirt and hot kitchens. I'm slowly coming to know what my right answer is, but there's little choice but to accept that other people are going to have a different right answer.
For me, food and groceries and yarn share remarkable parallels for me. I care a lot about both knitting and cooking, and place a high value on quality ingredients and tools to do my work. I'm lucky enough to have enough disposable income that I can afford to put my money where my mouth is and vote with my dollars. They are both priorities for me, things I will give up other luxuries for to be able to get what I want.
And in the end, I prefer to put my money where it is supporting people and not corporations. For yarn, that means buying a lot of yarn from small producers, spinners and dyers - always skipping the red heart and often the mass-produced better yarns as well. It also means making an effort to shop at my local stores at least as much as online, and I'd like to think I'd keep doing that, even if finances meant that I had to do less knitting and stashing.
For food, that means being a part of a CSA both for meat and for vegetables and buying as much local food as I can without going nuts or bankrupt. This year I've started canning and am going to try and put up as much summer produce as I can for the winter. I'm investing my own time in the endeavor partly just to see if I can, and to test out how much of a sea change I'm willing to make in my way of life. I've also been practicing making a lot more from scratch - once again, to test my limits and to see how much of a change I can make in my life. I keep wibbling about having a garden next year - I'm not a fan of manual labor, but I'm so in love with the idea of growing my OWN stuff - whatever varieties I want. I'll wibble on that one for a while longer for now.
This is all endlessly fascinating to me, and I can't wait to see where we, as a culture go with it.