Friday, April 29, 2011

$100 a Week: It all depends on where you shop

The tightwad shopper

"How is that $100 a week food budget going?" my friend Richard sneered. Richard loves to annoy me about how much I spend on food. He claims his food budget doesn't exceed $50 a week for two people, and he ought to know, he says because he's the food shopper.

I told him that he probably doesn't look at his receipts closely, but I know from many conversations that Richard is an old school tightwad who mostly shops at a military commissary, Ranch 99 and CostCo.

I asked more questions about how he spends so little, and Richard gave me these three important tips:

  • His meals are mainly stir fry dishes (his wife is Chinese)
  • They use all parts of vegetables that many Americans toss away
  • They never depend on protein (meat, fish, poultry, eggs or cheese) as the center of their meal.

Richard told me I if I was serious about a food budget, I wasn't taking advantage of discount stores, so I felt compelled to investigate Grocery Outlets, Dollar Stores, Albertsons,Fred Meyer, Ranch 99, Trader Joe's, and I even stopped at WalMart this past week.

What's up with discount stores sprouting up like flies on cow dung?

Grocery outlets and dollar stores depend on big brand foods. Big brands have contracts with these stores and sell to them at discount prices. People load up their carts at these stores, and as mom and pop stores close in strip malls dollar stores rush in to put up their shingles. The shifting retail landscape is moving towards crappy stuff at sale prices.

Albertsons and Fred Meyer--okay I didn't actually go into Albertson's, I couldn't muster up the energy, but many of my frugal food shopping friends frequent Albertson's and Fred Meyer. And once, when I mentioned Massa Organics almond butter to a friend, he said, "Why don't you just grind your own almond butter at Fred Meyer?" So I looked, but check it out, the almonds aren't organic. (FYI neither are the grind-your-own-almonds at PCC markets.) And where did those almonds come from? And if you've ever tasted Massa Organics, I swear you will not buy any other brand.

Ranch 99 and Trader Joe's--don't really have much in common but so many people mentioned these as stores where they save money on food. Ranch 99 is a chain grocery with an Asian food focus and you can find less expensive things on the shelves but most of the employees have limited English which makes communication difficult at best when you're a food source obsessed shopper who wants to know where foods came from. Trader Joe's offers produce at lower prices than food co-ops but usually packs things like fresh tomatoes in throw-away plastic containers that clog up our environment. Also, many of the products on the shelves are not organic but are were mistaken for organic by shoppers who told me what great organic deals they got at Trader Joe's.

WalMart--aside from the cringe-worthy early morning employee gathering with the high school like pep talk and Walmart cheers that made me feel sorry for the minimum wage workers who had to participate in this creepy display, the one things that surprised me was you can find quinoa. You have to really look to find it, and it's more expensive than CostCo, but it is there, and you can get buy pound of dried beans or lentils for less than a dollar, but you have to wonder how long those beans have been on the shelf, and are the people that shop at WalMart looking for for "healthy" options? Whole grain bread was cheaper at Walmart than natural foods store, but one product does not make a trip to this store worth the effort.

Where I'd rather shop

Co-ops and natural food stores-- are first on my list becuse or a little more money, I'd rather buy where healthy shoppers congregate and the turnover of beans and grains is fast. I can find reasonably fresh grains that won't be rancid in the bag and beans that will cook faster than the Walmart brand that sits on the shelf or has been in storage for too long.

Two co-ops I love are the Skagit Valley Co-op in Mount Vernon and the Community Food Co-op in Bellingham.

The bulk of my food budget buys fresh fruits and vegetables, not the processed and prepared foods of discount stores and coupon TV shows. I reserve a quarter of my weekly food budget for replenishing pantry items and take a list to the market these days, it's like a jigsaw puzzle and I often feel it's barely working.

Farm stores--I'm almost certain my resolve will be seriously compromised when I visit one of my favorite farm stores-- Gathering Together Farm's produce stand.

I get so excited by the vibrant produce at farm stores, the money in my wallet practically flies into the cash register.

Farmers' markets--A farmers' market offers unique treasures like this Frekeh and popcorn from Ayers Creek Farm last summer at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market. I tell myself other people can spend their money on trips to Europe and rave about the foods in Paris, but give me some great local food treasures and I'll gladly stay here year-round.

What have I learned so far from my food budget project?

The road never gets any easier, but the journey strengthens my resolve. I always have the same amount of money to deal with and it appears my pantry is still shrinking faster than I can build it means I'm probably eating on a higher end than I can afford.

Having to continually stretch dollars each week makes me want to investigate whether growing greens will help this summer. I've got a date in the garden today--fyi--check out this cool garden blog for great gardening tips.

Getting a fund going for my favorite summer treasures has kept my focus on a goal. Every bit of change will help me support my summer farmer friends by buying berries, peaches, cherries and melons this summer.

Check this fruit from last summer. You can see a bit of frost on the frozen mulberries that I removed from the freezer for this picture. My Cooking Assistant loves them all from sour cherries to blueberries.

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