Help! Can I Afford To Keep This Up?

February 16, 2011 § 1 Comment



I eye her curiously in the wal-mart, adding cans upon cans of tomato sauce to her cart.  She seems impressed that there is “no salt added.”

She stops to tear a coupon out of a magazine, and then carelessly places it back on the shelf covering up a special cover photo of two celebrities and their new offspring. The wicked woman.

She heads for the dry goods isle to see if they have the special calcium infused pasta that she can now get for one dollar less.

She encounters some trouble crossing the pet food isle, as someone has accidentally sprayed the floor with bird seed.  As she carefully maneuvers her cart around this newest manmade catastrophe and fixes her sights on the two-for-one deal on isle sixteen, I grin inwardly and pretend not to notice.

* * * *

We’ve all been there, standing in the midst of the checkout, completed shopping list in hand, bags bundled but not quite filled to the  brim, and finally the cashier gives us our total.  “Excuse me, you said what?”  Upon staggering over the shock of our bill we finally close our mouths and reach for our debit cards praying that the transaction is approved.  You see, while we made our list, and even checked it twice, we didn’t think to check on the rising costs of rice.  And milk.  And bread.  And fruit.  And well, just about everything in the grocery store.  Once a fifty or seventy-five dollar a week habit, eating and eating well no less has become a pretty expensive luxury.

Five years ago I thought twenty-five dollars and a trip to the 99 cent store was grocery shopping.  We were on a tight budget plus we ate and still do eat 90% of our meals at home, so to me, four yogurts for a dollar, a few cans of black beans, and a bag of iceberg lettuce all for under five dollars was all that counted.  Suffice to say my budget overruled cholesterol,  nutrient content, sodium intake and all the other factors that should rightfully go into ones food choices.  It’s not that I didn’t know any better, I had been a very devout vegetarian and even vegan for going on ten years at the time, carefully reading each product label and looking for new grains to incorporate into my diet. However, like many people I responded to my financial situation and made adjustments.

Right now news media are rife with stories about the world’s burgeoning food crisis.  They foretell record high food prices, the likes of which we either haven’t seen in our lifetimes or haven’t imagined.  Rice, wheat and other grains are slated to continue rising whether or not the majority of us have recovered from the latest economic recession,  and the main fear is that the rising cost of food will push some into poverty or even deeper into hunger.  Some analysts blame a mix of subsidized biofuels such as corn, that are either taking up arable crop land that could be used to produce food and instead using it to produce ethanol; or using corn that could be consumed by people for fuel.  While the arguments for and against this view abound, there are other factors contributing to our “impending food crisis,” such as natural disasters, unexpected frosts and droughts which hinder crop production, and the blatant imperfections in our overall food system.

While I’m no Robert Kenner, or Food Production expert, and therefore cannot speak to every contributing factor that may or may not play a role in the rising costs of food.  I do speak with the authority of the prude.  After all, what is more practical in life than grocery shopping and eating?   How do we continue to put healthy food on our tables, and still keep the lights on to see what we’re eating, especially when it costs more to buy a pound of fresh tomatoes than it does to buy a value meal?  For those still reading and not out stockpiling bags of rice and flour (I’ve been there) because I have painted a doom and gloom picture, I have assembled a few optimistic suggestions and links to help us navigate through this issue.  As always, I welcome your help in continuing this discussion through comments and suggestions.

Weather The Changing Tides…Eat Seasonally

For many this may be nothing new, but I did not really understand it until we lived in California’s Central Valley where going to one of the local farmer’s markets a couple of times a week for fresh produce, cheese and olive oil became a way of life.  Upon relocating to New England where farmer’s markets are mostly offered from June-October we experienced a bit of culture shock as January rolled around and our budget for fresh produce all but doubled.  After a little sulking I was advised to do the next best thing.  Eat frozen vegetables that were as close to in-season as possible because they would retain more of their nutrients.    Also, haven’t you ever noticed that the foods that are in-season are average if not sale priced?  This can be tricky at times because with agriculture coming as far as Chile, Mexico, Columbia, Australia and other parts of the world it isn’t uncommon to see pineapples or avocados at the grocery store all year round (I even saw peaches in the grocery store this week -in February, imagine that).  However, the prices for these year-round delicacies can vary based on the seasonality of the item in the location where it is grown.   Not to mention the further the item travels the more nutrients it loses before reaching your table. For a list of foods grown in your area by season check out your local Edible Communities Magazine.  If you don’t find one for your area, you just may be the one to start it.

Dig a Hole, Put In A Seed

This line comes from my son’s children’s book, Messy Bessey’s Garden. While I have long been known to shorten the lives of plants (although my aloe vera is hanging in there), I have decided to let this be the year I start a patio garden.  I’ve decided to pick at least one food item and come what may, green thumb or brown, I am going to grow it myself and eat it.  While living in NorCal we had a potted Meyer lemon tree, the mention of which pains my husband to this day because we had to leave it behind.   This time, we will choose something better suited  for our climate and that we eat a lot of, which will hopefully help to save in grocery money.  If anyone has suggestions on foods that grow well in pots in the northeast please pass them along.  The other good thing about starting a home garden is that you can share and swap your veggies with others.

Buy More, Save More?

Not really, unless you go in with other people.  Last year we decided to get a Costco membership and we split the membership fee with my sister who was looking to get one as well.  By sharing the fees, this gave us an instant savings that could then go towards buying actual food items.  This year I am looking to join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and fortunately many of them have the option to buy full or half-shares which means  we can go in individually or pair up with another family and split the costs.  In either case CSA memberships are a great way to buy fresh, local produce, eggs, meats and even dairy directly from farmers in your area and or region.   Another good way to buddy-up and save money at the grocery store is to share coupons (although don’t go overboard and start buying them because that kind of defeats the purpose).  Finally, something that might work if you have friends or family that shop at the same places is to carpool to the store and split the ‘running around’ gas.  At best this may add an extra ten bucks to your grocery budget.

It’s a Simple Issue of Supply and Demand

Although I promised not to rant, I must say that a huge part of navigating through the rising costs of food is to question the rising costs of food.  We should demand more transparency from those in private industry who help to set food prices.  Demand more from those in government who decide what does and does not get subsidized and even demand more from our local grocery stores which decide what foods get imported from miles away and what local goods are sold at fair and reasonable prices.  What sense is a one-day sale on mandarins if no one knows what day it will be on?  I may be veering into tirade territory here, but I think we need to be proactive in our communities and not wait for great documentaries or news stories to ask questions about a fact of life that is as basic as food.  Why are we expected to pay more in order to eat healthy, while constantly being chastised for the growing size of our waistlines?  Why are poor community’s of color more likely to lack access to quality food items?  Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry have a terrific Community Food Audit worksheet in the back of their book Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen. This worksheet provides a first start towards understanding food sources in ones community.  You can also visit the book’s website at

Next Steps…

So where do we go from here, as nothing that I mentioned is necessarily novel in its approach nor does it stop the costs of food from rising?  Perhaps our next step should be to contact our elected officials to express our concern with rising food costs and the seemingly inflated prices of household staples.  Then, perhaps we should go to our refrigerators and take a good look at what we do and do not need.  After all, we know the foods that are highly processed and bad for us will continue to be offered at low-low-super low prices which make them all the more irresistible for poor people and those of us on a budget.  Yet I challenge you as I challenge myself to be wise in your grocery shopping, creative in your meal-planning, and ever conscious of giving your body the best that your money can buy even if it’s not organic.  Eat seasonally, plant some kind of garden, and pool your resources just like in the old days, call me a prude but that doesn’t sound so bad.


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