Sunday, July 5, 2009

Affordable Food

More and more often, as I talk with friends, family members, and even the part of my brain that tabulates my running expenses, the question comes up: Is eating well worth the cost?

Three years ago, Michael Pollan penned an excellent essay about this very topic, assauging, for the most part, my guilt and fears about overspending on quality ingredients.

Then another essay, written by Pete Wells and published in the NYT on June 14, caused me to rethink a bit.

Wrote Wells: "Until recently, whenever we went to the farmers' market, we would lug home $50 pork roasts and $14 gallons of milk. We would spend over $100 on food that might not last more than three days. Sometimes we'd shop on Saturday morning and have nothing to make for dinner on Monday. I shrugged this off as one of those oddities of New York life, like getting a ticket because your neighbor put out his trash on the wrong day. But the $35 chicken made me reconsider. Buying sustainably raised beef and sustainably squeezed milk and sustainably hatched poultry is a way of life that, these days, I just can't sustain."

I had my own wake-up call back in late April, when a large bulk of my freelance work unexpectedly dried up. After I cancelled all but my basic cable services, cut back my cell phone minutes, and struck all other non-necessities from my monthly budget, I was still broke. Luckily, within a few weeks, more work had rolled in, but I was still scared.

My mama was in town soon after, and she accompanied me on a trip to the grocery store. She shamed me into forgoing name-brand sugar (I buy about a pound a year, for baking) for the store brand, which cost about half as much, but, overall, I think she was impressed with my shopping skills.

Is sustainable eating also financially sustainable for someone in my income bracket? Considering I don't have traditional health insurance, I think it's ultimately worth the cost. Fortunately, coupons have saved me about 10 percent off every shopping total I've ran up in the last three months.

I now brandish a Kroger card, which, in addition to collecting my information for Big Brother, nets me some great deals and bona fide freebies, in the form of monthly coupons they send in the mail. It might not be glamorous, but today, I scored $1 off a 4-pack of organic butter, $1 off organic cheese, $1 off organic eggs, and bought several cans of Bush's northern beans (the foundation of my favorite quick summer salad) for half price.

I also spent an hour in front of the computer, brainstorming about the luxury brands I can't seem to live without (Kashi cereal, Contadina tomato paste, Mrs. Meyer's cleaning products, Horizon dairy products, etc), and googling their websites to look for coupons or sign up for special deals. Within a week, Kashi mailed me two coupons for free boxes of cereal (that's $10 in savings). Sure, these companies now have my personal info to plug into their demographic models, but I get something out of the deal too.

Next, I signed up for emails from Whole Foods (or, as many of my friends call it, Whole Paycheck) and Fresh Market, which means more coupons and sales circulars that come my way.

Today, after my run through Kroger (all in all, I paid $84 for $112 worth of groceries, including replacement refrigerator staples from the storm last month and tons of fresh fruit), I ran into Whole Foods to stock up on my favorite cheeses (admittedly, never on sale) and to redeem a coupon I'd gotten on a postcard for a free bag of store-brand chips. When I checked out, an employee handed me another coupon for a free rotisserie chicken and a free 56-oz tub of ice cream, redeemable later on this month. The trick is, of course, not loading up on the expensive junk when you're running in for a freebie.

I still get the Sunday newspaper, and I always scan the coupon section for deals (last week, I scored $1 off Terra sweet potato chips), but I have better luck picking up info from bloggers like Affluent Pauper and Coupon Geek. From them, I learned about Mambo Sprouts, which offers all kinds of healthy/natural food coupons. Now, grocery shopping is like playing a game called "Beat the Cash Register." Sometimes, I walk in with coupons that, once I see the item, don't seem to be such a good deal. In that case, I carefully tuck the coupon next to the product, so that someone else can use it.

Even better, of course, is growing the food myself. I have tons of herbs, tomatoes, and jalapenos coming in, but haven't bothered with many other crops this year, mainly because of the CSA basket I get every week. I also make 98 percent of my meals from scratch -- including pizza crusts and loaves of bread.

I'm curious about your shopping tips. Anybody got any advice or questions on finding high quality food that's more affordable?

Please note: This week's dinner will be at the home of Robert Gordon and Tara McAdams. Same day, same time, just a different house. Drop me a line for their address. Sue Easley is organizing a trip to Jackson, TN for the UT Summer Celebration Lawn and Garden Show, which is also on Thursday. Go here for more info.


  1. Great article! It has inspired me to put together some sort of promotion at Memphis Farmers Market on getting the best deals at the farmers market. Thanks!

  2. I so appreciate this post. It just goes to show that amid hard times, you can still eat well, but it takes a little extra work to get what you want.

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