How Low Can I Go?: Balancing Cheap and Sustainable in My Pantry

Sharon December 20th, 2008

I don’t know about you, but it seems like it is getting harder and harder to keep the grocery budget stable – and given the economic times we’re in that’s a tough thing to swallow.  I could, of course, stop buying storage foods and start eating down our reserves more, but I don’t quite feel we’re there yet.  So the question for me becomes how to balance the need to keep plugging the holes in our storage, to keep the grocery bills in budget, and also, to make sure that I’m voting with my dollars as much as possible for things I actually support.  Because the money I spend in the food system either reinforces industrial agriculture and the status quo (when I buy industrial food, whether organic or conventional) or it helps build a better food system (when I buy locally, direct from farmers, though coops and institutions I value, and fair trade for imported goods). 

So, for example,  we only eat animal products that are local and sustainably raised.  That costs, although raising our own helps a lot.  We buy goods like spices and tea from fair trade producers, and our produce locally whenever possible. We also keep kosher, so there are some foods we simply don’t eat, and others that have to be bought at higher prices.  That makes it hard for us to take advantage of low cost menu models like The Hillbilly Housewife’s (I like her site a lot, btw, and think her ultra-low-cost menu is really excellent: http://www.hillbillyhousewife.com/40dollarmenu.htm) which often use pork products and processed foods to provide flavorings.  I can and do work around that, of course, but I’m not going to be buying my teabags 100 for a buck – it just isn’t feasible.

And yet, keeping my grocery budget low is important to me for several reasons – when we stay under budget, we make larger donations to charity.  We also are able to do more to build up our food reserves that way.  And if, as we fear, Eric loses his job in the crashing of the New York State education budget, we’re going to have to get by for a while (assuming no easy job solution) with savings, unemployment and/or  what I make writing, farming and teaching – last year my total earnings from all sources ran a bit under 14K.  That would be challenging.  So the more we build our reserves, the better off we are.

I doubt I’m the only person who wants to keep their food budget low, while still buying food that supports their principles. And in fact, this is one of those things that becomes more, not less urgent in a crisis.  Because the premium most of us pay for organic food from local farmers, for our CSA baskets and grassfed meat is something that most of us feel we could compromise on if we really had to.  The problem is, of course, is more and more of us decide not to get the CSA share, or to just this week buy the industrial ground beef, the local farms will be casualties of the Depression.  Walmart is already seeing an improvement in sales – because people are shifting from higher priced merchants to them.  And if we all go back to shopping at Walmart, when the final dust is settled, and Walmart’s just-in-time model and its heavy use of energy no longer function, we’ll find ourselves without Walmart *or* the local food systems we need so badly.

So I thought I’d start a new series on this blog about my own attempts to keep the budget down, your suggestions for how to eatly cheaply without compromising on principle, and if we have to compromise, how to make the least painful choices.

The first step for me, and I hope for all of you, will be to sit down and figure out exactly what we’re spending on food for week by week usage, vs. storage.  I really should know this already, but the last few years we’ve been lucky enough to have a small margin of flexibility in our budget- not enough to throw caution to the winds, but enough that I’ve not been carefully dividing our storage and “to eat this week” stuff up. I have an overall sense of how much we spend on food, but, for example, haven’t sat down to figure out the amortized cost of the 20lbs of local, dried cranberries I bought last week over the year it will last us.  I also need to do a full scale analysis of our food budget, including animal feeds and seeds in the total calculation. 

The next project will be to set a challenge budget for ourselves, to ask “how low can I go” while still buying my food from local and sustainable source.  Can I use less of something (ok, no question I can drink less tea!), can I use it more wisely?  Can I find lower priced options in our budget?  Try new recipes that will help reduce costs?  Make more things from scratch?  Change my habits so that I’m eating more of inexpensive and seasonal things?  Could I help the kids use less of things (toothpaste – check!)?  Are there places where I’m buying things that could be cut out all together? 

Anyone else want to work on figuring out just how low you can go, without compromising on the systems we all are going to rely on?

 Sharon

42 Responses to “How Low Can I Go?: Balancing Cheap and Sustainable in My Pantry”

  1. Gabrielle says:

    If you do not already have a Frontier co-op account, I’d highly recommend it. Many of their items are fair trade and organic, which means that you can purchase those items at a lower cost and still abide by your buying principles. We have a group that goes in on a buy monthly so that we do not have to pay shipping ($250=free shipping). The types of items you might buy cheaper here would be the spices and teas you mentioned.

    I’m very much looking forward to future posts in this vein. Thanks for your work–I’ve learned a lot from you!

    Here is the link: wholesale.frontiercoop.com

  2. Kiashu says:

    Ideally, we’d eat organic and locally-grown food only. But here Down Under, “organic” certification is unreliable, with no central authority. And “local” just isn’t a concept in the marketing, we don’t know where it comes from.

    I go to the Sunday market where there are a couple of fruit and vegie sellers – they came just for Sunday morning, so I know they’re not from interstate or something. More or less local, then. But of course, I never know what they’ll have there. So I buy what they have, and then top up at the Chinese-owned fruit and vegie store, which is very cheap.

    We then go to the Asian and Greek grocery stores for bulk things like rice, beans and spices. The supermarket gets us only for a few things like tinned tomatoes and milk.

    We get about 2kg a week of vegies from the garden, which is just some containers.

    We go out for dinner perhaps every 2-3 weeks, but it’s usually something cheap like noodles.

    For my carbon account I’ve kept a note of everything we’ve bought since 1st July. But in terms of money cost, we spend A$75 (US$50) a week when we have three people (about half the year) and A$60 (US$40) a week for two.

    How detailed do you want it?:)

  3. Jen says:

    I’m actually going to be doing this for the coming year so great timing. Not only are we saving for land to build a low energy house, meaning no electric, only enough solar to power computers, freezer, and the washer, but we are joining the Riot so I have to practice. I lowered our water last month to 37% and we are at 30% for heating/cooking. My real problem is electric:( still at average.

    We eat 85% local meat, all local dairy (milk eggs butter), and aas much local produce as possible. We do not have a co-op for bulk foods so I need to search that out or drive up to Asheville and order. That’s still within about 60 miles. I have a big garden planned this year in raised beds and am turning all my attention to it as it will be my dd (5) and I’s primary homeschool focus. She can read and write and so it’s a science & math for spring and summer! I keep our budget to around $400 a month for 5, but one is a 5 month old nursing baby.

    Our small downtown is actually building a $400-500,000 upscale open air farmer’s market like Charleston. Of course this is a ridiculous waste, but I can’t help being excited to actually walk to the farmer’s market rather than drive 20 minutes to the other bigger city downtown one.

  4. Teemie says:

    Hi Sharon,

    I’ll be following along with you. Thank you for all you’re doing to inform and educate.

    Teemie

  5. Marnie says:

    ooooo this is exactly what i need – i’m in, Sharon.

    it often feels like such a conflict, trying to pay down our debt and yet support the support systems we’re going to need (i.e. the organic farmers). one of the things that keeps me going is an article that i remember from years ago by a single mom in an urban centre somewhere who showed how she did it, and i thought that if *she* could do it….

    we’re between vegan and vegetarian, and that helps a lot with the budget. baking with ground up flaxseed (1 Tbsp + 3 Tbsp water) instead of eggs is a cheap baking trick (vegan baking is soooo easy…except for cheesecake ;-) my meat/cheese eating family can never tell!)

    my weakness is takeout when i’m tired or sick, or when we have unexpected company – a little bit of planning should help. although, isn’t it a good idea to support the locally owned restaurants around us?

    did anyone do the pennywise eat local challenge last year?

    http://www.eatlocalchallenge.com/2007/03/announcing_the_.html

    i’m going to go mine those posts now……

  6. Marnie says:

    p.s. toothpaste: calcium carbonate + vegetable glycerin + peppermint essential oil + baking soda. (it will be interesting to cost that out – i’ve just always guessed it was cheaper!)

    p.p.s. haven’t been able to get my four-year-old daughter to use it yet, though :-)

  7. Lisa Z says:

    I’ll be following along as well. I’m not really into keeping track of every penny–too detail-oriented for me–and I just do my best to stick with the cash we have for groceries which is not much. Less than $500/month for our family of four plus cat, dog and hens. I’ll start trying to track the grocery amounts better, though.

    I agree with buying from Frontier Co-op, or Mountain Rose Herbs which has fabulous prices on organic and wild-crafted spices. I also am part of a United Natural Foods Buying Club which saves big on many purchases. We do mostly local meat, too, except for lunch meat which is Applegate Organic. Trader Joe’s actually has the best price on the Applegate meat, but I have to drive 45 miles to get there so that is only if I happen to be going that way anyway. I wish I could wean my kids off lunch meat, but they don’t eat peanut butter (crazy, sacrilegious, I know!) and they need protein for health so this is what we do as long as it’s available. They get plenty of refried and black beans for lunch, too, which is cheap.

    And of course growing our own garden and buying at the farmer’s market in the summer (when we have more money b/c we’re not paying to heat the house those months), and putting up as much as we can of tomatoes, apples, berries, etc. has really helped.

  8. This is the time of year I miss my csa so much. You can continue thru the winter, but sweet potatoes and root veggies are not my favorites! :)

    I long for the days of spring and summer, full of lettuces, beans, okra, squash, and all those “treasures!”

    Until then we eat alot of beans and soup, soup and beans. :)

  9. Andrew says:

    We’ve been slowly building up our pantry, and given the prospects for the next year or so, are glad that we were able to.

    One project that we’ve been doing, particularly because I’m a little compulsive at writing things out, is to spend some time in creating a family recipe book. We found that by tracking what we eat, how often, time of the year, etc. we now have a pretty good view of the necessary supplies, equipment, and preparation time for us.

    Our plan for 2009 is to shift our eating habits to be a little more seasonal focused. That, are continue we our little veg patch in the back.

  10. Actually, I wrote about an ongoing monthly budget challenge I set for myself from May through August this year.

    http://livingthefrugallife.blogspot.com/2008/09/50-monthly-grocery-challenge-how-it.html

    It was an interesting experiment, and like Sharon, I still shopped local and organic while following it. My goal was to feed two adults a healthy diet with only $50 of purchased food per month. I never *quite* made it, but I came pretty close. It taught me some valuable lessons, and it also surprised me to find how well we ate out of our own garden and with eggs from our own hens. A little harder to do over the winter, no doubt. But we’re still eating homegrown stuff and shopping relatively little.

  11. Jennifer says:

    To Jen who lives near Asheville, there is a Frontier Buying Club here. Contact me and I’ll give you the info.

    I’m in on this! I have been saving all grocery receipts since May and made a price book to keep track when I go to different stores. We’re putting in a big garden and hope to get 50%+ of our food from it, at least for the late summer/fall months.

    I want to start using the cash in envelopes method, like Grandma did – put the monthly alotment for groceries in an envelope and when it’s gone, it’s gone until next month. That may mean rice, beans and dandelion greens at the end of the month. We’ll see.

    Jennifer

  12. Jennifer, I like your cash-in-the-envelopes method. Discipline in spending is difficult for many people.

    One problem buying organic is that unless you know the supplier, who is to really say the produce IS organic. Human nature being what it is – and since organic brings a premium – well, you get the picture. I’ll lay dollars to donuts a hefty percentage of allegedly organic food is not organic at all.

    I am hoping that as organic and sustainable farming continues to gain in popularity, business costs and consumer prices come down.

  13. [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » How Low Can I Go?: Balancing Cheap and Sustainable in My Pantry I don’t know about you, but it seems like it is getting harder and harder to keep the grocery budget stable – and given the economic times we’re in that’s a tough thing to swallow. I could, of course, stop buying storage foods and start eating down our reserves more, but I don’t quite feel we’re there yet. So the question for me becomes how to balance the need to keep plugging the holes in our storage, to keep the grocery bills in budget, and also, to make sure that I’m voting with my dollars as much as possible for things I actually support. Because the money I spend in the food system either reinforces industrial agriculture and the status quo (when I buy industrial food, whether organic or conventional) or it helps build a better food system (when I buy locally, direct from farmers, though coops and institutions I value, and fair trade for imported goods). [...]

  14. curiousalexa says:

    local farmers markets does not always equal local food. When I lived in Minneapolis, the farmers market was actually produce resellers (really, bananas are NOT local!) St. Paul had a much stricter distance rule for their market. Something to be aware of.

    My challenge for food budgeting is that living in a family of adults, there is no controlling other people’s spending. Yesterday I was observing the challenge of cooking for people who expect a menu of choices as well. No wonder my cooking experiments haven’t been working! We have a vegetarian, a meatatarian, and other randomness.

  15. AnnaMarie says:

    Going low and local for most rural folks can be done with home cooking, basic ingredients and careful shopping. Urban folks have both challenges and sometimes easier times with ethnic markets.

    My husband was raised in the Jewish faith and remembers how expensive it was and what they could and could not afford. Eating Kosher was done as they could but keeping strict (two kitchens, etc.) was not affordable for his family. According to this article it hasn’t gotten any easier.

    http://judaism.about.com/od/americanjewry/a/amjewcost.htm

    I’m not truly sure how you are going to balance your faith and your religion but I do hope you find ways that will work for you.

    As for the $14K a year income….. I make less than that but have no children or debt. I also don’t have the land to raise animals that you do so I suspect you could raise more of your own food if your husband was home to help. It can be done, not easily, but it can be done. Survival that is.

  16. peter in Aust says:

    Jennifers grandmother and her grocery cash in the envelope is about to be put into practice here down under .This idea I like.We have had to look closely at grajn prices for poultry feed and have found it possible to obtain it for half the price by buying from the local farms.We sell a few dozen eggs weekly then use that money to buy sheep manure for our veggie garden. It sorta works in a way. Regards.

  17. Grey says:

    I also go in with friends on the Frontier order. It helps a lot – and the loose chai tea is fabulous – leagues better than the stuff in the store, and I’ve only gone through about half of it in 6 months. Partly because I found you can make two to three cups of tea off the portion you need for one cup. My husband calls that the epitome of cheap.

    I’m in on the challenge. We haven’t dipped into the frozen or canned too much, except when we would need to go to the store and buy that item – casual use, I suppose. Applesauce over pancakes? Got that in the pantry. Shredded zucchini? Frozen spinach? Got it. Soup’s on.

    We are also mostly vegan (we cheat and go vegetarian when out with friends), so feeding ourselves isn’t too bad. However, we do buy meat for our dogs to have for dinner – which means their food budget almost equals our own. Anybody have a cheap source?

  18. Lynnet says:

    One problem with most budget eating plans is that practically every meal involves wheat flour, in the form of bread, biscuits, pasta, French toast, etc. etc. etc. I have celiac disease, so this is definitely out for me, but there are lots of people that shouldn’t be eating this much wheat flour. And a very-high-carb diet is not good for diabetics and pre-diabetics either. There’s not much point in saving money on food if that money and more goes out in medical care (supposing that you can *get* medical care).

    I certainly agree that we need to support local farmers and ranchers, if we want to have food in the future. In more than a year of eating locally, we’ve found that local meats and dairy products are more expensive but far higher quality. Local fruits and vegetables from garden, CSA, and farmers markets are the same or lower in cost and also far higher in quality and freshness. Organic staples bought in bulk are cheaper than conventional staples bought in small boxes. And you save a BUNDLE by not getting fast food, junk food, packaged processed industrial food, etc., both in terms of money AND health.

    Last night’s meal: local chemical-free sausage, curried parsnip soup with local parsnips and milk, sauteed local cabbage and onion with caraway seeds. Dessert: Colorado-grown organic Asian pears. Nature’s bounty. We feel very fortunate.

  19. Shamba says:

    Just in time for my New Year’s review of budget and can it be improved on for the coming year.

    Most things in the two groceries I use are marked as to local or imported sources. I passed on really low priced blackberries and raspberries the other day as they had come from Chile. I love blackberries but I decided not getting them was a small step in sustainability.

    Most of this past year, I’ve concentrated on getting in a good store of a variety of foods and using them, rotated them, etc. I haven’t paid as much attention to local vs. non local. I’ll try to keep up on that detail of food supply.

    what is local anyway? 100 radius –50 mile radius? 50 feet for those of you who have gardens, I’d imagine.

    Thanks for necessary thoughts, Sharon.

    Namaste/Peace to All,
    Shamba

  20. Karin says:

    I’ve been meaning to do something like this for a while. There are weeks when I have it together and have done some menu planning. On those weeks we only buy milk, butter , cheese and eggs ( until our chicks begin laying). But there are other weeks when it all falls apart.

    It seems if the chatelaine had better control over the pantry, then she would have more money to spend on food storage. Better record keeping is part of the challenge.

    Last nights dinner was a big pot of veggie/ left over soup and homemade veggie bread with dried kale and garlic.

  21. Sharon says:

    Well, as I’ve discussed before we raise a large percentage of our produce, nearly all our meat, about half our dairy products and all our eggs, as well as a smaller percentage of grains and animal feed. We used to run a CSA as well – while my husband was working full time, so, yes, we know we could produce more if he were around all the time – and in fact, because he’s a college professor, he usually is around during much of the growing season. But we still do buy some things, and I’m trying to balance that – I do order Frontier products, but through a friend who sells bulk goods, and I wouldn’t switch that unless I had no choice at all – I want her to stay in business, even if there is a small markup.

    AnnaMaria, most observant Jews have only one kitchen – they simply keep things seperate. We actually have a second kitchen, but we don’t bother to ues it, since it is a hassle to keep everything completely seperate, and we have only the one cookstove. But while you do need more dishes and if you purchase some items, costs are higher, it isn’t quite that bad.

    Sharon

  22. We used to eat a lot of processed food, but since my income fell drastically, I cook and bake a lot more. I find that I feel a lot healthier, too, so even if I had enough money to buy whatever, I’d still continue to make things from scratch.

    I do admit to shopping at a Super Walmart, merely because food stamps go a lot further there than at other grocery stores. I hate Walmart and what it stands for, but when you have to put food on the table and can get more meals for your money there, I feel I have no choice.

    I do balance it with ordering in bulk from Azure Standard – http://www.azurestandard.com/ – an organic food coop that drops orders here.

    I often have the problem of letting some fruits and veggies go to waste, so I’m trying to watch that. I get them from the coop when they’re not quite ready to eat, and then I forget about them until they’re practically rotting. I now keep them out on the table to remind me to EAT THEM!

  23. Shaunta says:

    We live in a very rural area of Northern Nevada. I honestly think it might be the most isolated town in America, except for maybe some parts of Alaska or something. We’re 180 miles from the nearest town and 250 miles from the nearest city. Yes, we are three hours from the nearest Wal-Mart.

    When we were leaving Las Vegas and trying to make a decision where to live, we had several things to consider. One of the biggest was that this little mountain town is the only place other than Vegas where we have family. And Vegas itself is pretty isolated, we wanted to be as close as possible to our family and really there isn’t any place super close to Vegas.

    So we knew going in that food was higher here than other places. It balances out somewhat because we don’t need air conditioning during the summer (a biggie when you’ve lived in Las Vegas for twenty years with $400 a month power bills eight months out of the year!) and the housing costs are somewhat lower. I was still a little shocked to find when I started adding it up that we spend close to $800 a month to feed a family of five (two adults, two teenagers and a four-year-old. We’re basically feeding four adults, one of whom is a 15-year-old boy with a bottomless stomach.)

    So we’re planning on doing a drastic reduction in food costs this coming year, too. Our goal is $100 a week. I know that’s higher than some people here. And I hope we can go lower than that, especially in the summer and fall with a garden. We have two grocery stores, but their sales coincide so there is no shopping around.

    Azure Standard has a drop off point about 150 miles from us and we’re considering going in with my parents for an order every quarter. The town where the drop off is has the only double coupon store in the state! LOL We can’t get bulk or organic food up here and I miss my Sunflower Market.

    We have a 25 percent off coupon to the local grocery store, and before the first of the year we plan on doing a huge order including lots of stocking up our pantry, and then starting with our much reduced budget.

    I’m curious if people are planning on stocking their pantries on the money they’ve budgeted for groceries? My normal pattern is to look at the weekly ad and buy the loss leaders in bulk every week. I think the $100 a week thing will be easy when we aren’t adding in a lot of processed foods and potato chips and soda.

  24. Student says:

    Well, I’m shocked. I just added up what I’ve spent at grocery stores since June (a lot of this was for storage). I’ve averaged $300/month – just for me! Now, probably half that has been for storage items, but it still seems high. I’m also trying to put back for my son and grandson, because I know he is barely making ends meet.

    I have only a small deck with containers for tomatoes, and maybe a zucchini. Both failed miserably this past summer. I got some produce at farmer’s markets, and the rest at organic stores. No farmer’s market I’ve been to carries organic, and some is trucked in from other states.

    I’ve stocked up with canned veggies and fruit when it was on sale (not organic) because I just can’t afford the organic canned stuff. I hate getting anything nonorganic – it almost gives me palpitations – but I won’t have much storage if I don’t. I won’t get organic from outside the US. That’s still not exactly local, I know…

    I eat mostly vegetarian with a little free range chicken or wild salmon for special treats, but mostly I been living on salad and soup, and roasted root vegetables so far this winter. Eating storage stuff is hard – I like raw, and so most of my budget is for produce. It will be a shock to my system when and if I can’t get fresh vegs and fruits.

    The cash in the envelope sounds like a plan for me. I’ll start in January. Thank you, Sharon, and everyone for the comments and suggestions.

  25. dani says:

    This is on my mind a lot lately. My husband has been made redundant, we have zero income for the next month. I will not compromise on ethics. I am determined to find another way. For all the reasons you state. The local infrastructure must be supported. We are currently eating our way through our stockpile and I will begin stockpiling again when we have money coming in. Having that stockpile and a good garden is absolutely critical to us right now. Any self doubts I may have harboured are gone. My husband no longer thinks I am crazy. He is so relieved we can still eat, eat well and reduce our budget (at least temporarily). He has even started coming to the farmer’s market with me and enjoying it!

    Sorry, a little askew on the topic. I can’t engage in too much calculation right now or my head will implode with the stress. I’m giving myself a short holiday and will resume calculations on January 5.

  26. Marnie says:

    Lynnet, i’m celiac too – during my transition i had to forgo a lot of the hard work i’d done to localize – it’s pretty hard to grow rice up here in Toronto! i’m gradually working my way back, changing old eating habits, and harassing any farmers i know to start growing quinoa, amaranth, teff (one of my new favourites), sorghum, and uncontaminated oats, all of which should be viable crops up here, climate-wise. Until then i treat my rice and other flour/grain staples as medicine.

    it’s a little difficult being local and celiac (and veggie!) in a wheat-based culture.

    no room for fields of teff in our tiny backyard, unfortunately….now, the school close to us, on the other hand…… ;-)

  27. robin says:

    Two months ago my husband and I challenged ourselves to make just one shopping trip each month. I checked out all the sale flyers and then hit three stores in the nearest large town. The conversations at the checkouts were hilarious! “What are you going to do with all those onions?” -”Eat them.” “Wow, are you going to make a lot of pumpkin pies?” -”Yep, and bread and pancakes and it’s great in oatmeal too.” “Do you have a restaurant?” -”My kids seem to think so.”

    We are a family of five with lots of food storage. Last summer we moved and didn’t have much of a garden, so we are buying much more produce than we will be this time next year. I only buy seasonal produce now, so that it won’t be a shock to only eat what is coming from the garden or stored in the cellar in the years to come when we are eating from the garden. We do raise almost all our own meat and all of our dairy. My laying hens are young, so we buy about half our eggs right now.

    The first month’s grocery and animal feed bill was $445. The second month was a little less, since we butchered chickens, ducks and a goat and had to buy less feed.

  28. Joanna says:

    As food prices have risen, we’ve added to our garden, are raising 2 steers, have a laying flock, to help compensate.

    We used to have a milk cow, but we ran all the dollar cost numbers and found it’s better to support the local dairy 3 miles away. But everything else either pays for itself and sometimes even generates a surplus!

    We casually barter with neighbors, which got us hundreds of pounds of apples, picked & delivered to our back porch, plus maybe 100lbs of grapes. I sell eggs to coworkers, and the hens are paying for their feed and for our planned flock expansion in spring.

    By preserving every bit of harvest we can, growing our own, bartering, we can still keep enough cahs in the grocery budget to buy the best food for our critters, and keep our tiny wine cellar stocked.

    Keeping track of all our livestock related expenses and the meat/milk/eggs from them, has really helped us make smart decisions about what animals are best for us to raise ourselves.

    I log all costs, actual production (how many eggs/pounds of meat/gallons of milk), plus log what the retail prices for those items would be if I had to buy them. Then we factor in how much time the care takes, and how much we enjoy caring for that particular critter, and decide from there.

    It’s helpful to see in black & white just how much we’re saving while enjoying a healthy challenging ‘hobby’.

  29. AmyD says:

    Joanna,

    when you factor in your costs for keeping livestock, do you factor in potential future cost increases? What may not be completely “cost efficient” today… may be very cost efficient if commercial costs continue to increase or as a backup if needed, if things get dicy.

    Milk (cheese & butter) from your own cow, where you can control the diet (hopefully grass-fed)… will give you food security. On the other hand, supporting a good local dairy is also very valuable. All the dairies in our area went out of business years ago!

    Just some thoughts on how we look at costs; it’s so easy to think of just “todays” cost factors.

    AmyD in N Calif

  30. MRasey says:

    Lynnet–I’m low carbing, avoiding flour, with you. Although not for Celiac’s, I have PCOS.

    Anyway, Sharon, I think we need to also look at sharing good, cheap and flavorful recipes. I don’t know how to be a frugal cook because I’ve never had to worry about the cost of ingredients before. Today I’m making an approximately $8 pot of bean, bacon and ham soup. For us that’s cheap and I’m pretty sure it will taste good based on previous experiments (this time around I’ve reduced the bacon).

    As for local shopping, we have CSAs. We’re on the wait list. Been on the wait list for several years. So I’m not holding my breath. I want to, and should be able to, source meat locally, but it’s not like anyone advertises so I’m a little stymied. I suppose if we drive an hour or so to Amish country that we’d have more luck, but with an infant, now toddler, those kinds of outings are not always feasible (and makes you question the carbon footprint of ‘local’ meat like that).

    Locally, we only have a farmer’s market 4x a year and I always forget to go! There’s a fresh meat/produce market in our historic district, but most of the fruit/veggie stalls do the ol’ switcheroo. The produce they display looks gorgeous, what they slip into the brown bag is…not. With limited hours and not knowing which vendor to trust, I’ve decided it’s not worth my time. We mostly shop for produce at the local ‘farmer’s market’, an upscale boutique grocer that is a small, locally owned business.

    We do pick strawberries and raspberries locally. We should also be picking apples as they are available. Mostly though I’m focusing on growing what I can.

    M

  31. MRasey says:

    I posted the cheap recipes I made this week over here:http://parmapowerdown.blogspot.com/2008/12/cheap-cookingbean-soup-and-bread.html

    M

  32. Allie says:

    I don’t know if you use tea bags, but if you do it might be time to switch over to bulk, whole leaf tea. Depending on the type you prefer, you can really stretch your tea dollars this way. A pound of tea makes approximately 200 cups of tea, by average, and that doesn’t include multiple infusions (many teas easily accommodate 3 infusions each).

    Adagio.com is a good sight, as is taooftea.com

  33. Joanna says:

    Good points Amy!

    We always ballpark high when estimating future costs. Like hay, since we need to supplement feed 1/2 the year.

    We went with Dexter cattle, because of the size and background of the breed, but found that having a good bull brought out can be a hassle. We might pick up a mutt heifer next spring that has a mix of breeds we like, but can be serviced by more common bulls, possibly sharing expense with a neighbor.

    Those factors make raising another milk cow a better prospect, and you can’t put a price on dairy products from your own cow. Plus we like having the steer born here, not bought at auction.

    Even with all the vet fees, bull rental, hay expense, etc. our steer next year will cost us about $2 lb. finished weight in the freezer. And it will be beef you can’t buy in the stores.

    But getting back to your point about escalating costs, it’s always smart to assume the worst, and either budget that in, or make backup plans.

  34. Chris says:

    I’m doing a Pantry Challenge this month–spending no more that $30/week for my family of four (2 adults/2 kids under 6). So far this month, I’ve spent $53 on fresh produce, milk, and other groceries.

    We buy all our meat by the whole animal from local farmers. I find that we save a great deal on meat this way while still getting a variety of cuts of high-quality meat. Our meat costs this year: The grass-fed steer we split with three other families cost $423 at ($5.50/lb cut and wrapped), the pastured hog we shared with one other family cost $372 ($3.80/lb cut and wrapped). I bought 10lbs of frozen Alaskan salmon for $80 and 10lbs of frozen Alaskan halibut for $160. I’ve purchased 8 whole pastured chickens since August, all for $2.10/lb. This fall, a friend sold us a whole lamb for $100, which my husband slaughtered and butchered (I wrapped). We sold three-quarters of the cut & wrapped meat for $100 and kept the rest. Ten pounds of lamb for about six total hours labor isn’t a great return on the investment of our time, but we learned some things, practiced important skills, and gave our friends a sweet deal. So, we have enough meat in our freezer to last us through next August or September, except for chickens, which I expect start buying again in April. Basically, I cook a chicken or some beef, pork, or lamb once a week, use the leftovers in all sorts of creative ways, make stock with carcasses and trimmings, and cook fish on Fridays…which also get stretched and made into fish cakes or chowder. I’ve become downright obsessive about about making the most of leftovers.

    We get raw milk from a relatively local source at $10/gallon. While it costs significantly more than conventional milk, I make cream cheese and yogurt with that and add a lot of value back with my little bit of labor: with $30 of milk plus a couple dollars for cultures and rennet, I make the equivalent of $36 of commercial organic cream cheese and yogurt, except mine’s made with local milk from grassfed cows. We also buy local pasteurized milk (also from grassfed cows), as the kids are drinking more lately. We get eggs from our backyard chickens, friends, or local farms for $4/dozen or less.

    All of our fresh vegetables and almost all of our fresh fruit comes from Oregon or Washington. Most of it is organic, but I make exceptions and buy local, conventional vegetables, especially during the winter months when it’s harder to get to a farmers market (like this week when Portland has been virtually shut down by a lengthy severe winter storm). Luckily, we do have a small produce market nearby that offers primarily local produce, even if most of it is not organic. My fruit exceptions are pomegranates in the fall, occasional bananas (about 12 bananas/year), citrus and mango. During the winter, I buy mangoes, oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit from California. I crave oranges this time of year and they are at least in season now and less expensive, so I enjoy the taste and vitamin C boost. I buy lemons and limes year-round, though less so this year than in the past. I find keeping a couple bottles of organic lemon and lime juice more convenient much of the time.

    I don’t have a grain mill I like, so I buy organic flour once a month from Bob’s Red Mill, which I have heard sources much of its wheat from the Northwest, though I haven’t confirmed that. We get our rice from Lundberg of California. Most of our dried legumes come from Azure Farm here in Oregon. Once a month, we get a delivery from Azure Standard for bulk groceries which are mostly organic and/or mostly from Oregon or Washington.

    I recently figured out that for the year, we are averaging $530/month on food, including what we buy for “storage.” As we get our stores built up, our garden in better production, and buy more bulk fresh food for preserving, I foresee that going down another $50-100. We don’t eat meat with every meal, or even everyday. We snack on fresh fruit, carrot sticks, or cheese. I don’t buy lunch meat–even organic, it’s a highly processed food. Instead, I cook a rump roast and we have sandwiches (and soup or salad) with the leftovers. This week I roasted a pork loin and then made pulled pork in the slow cooker with the leftovers. I don’t buy cut up chicken–roast chicken is so easy and useful in so many ways. I bake almost all our bread, bagels, cookies, rolls, the other sweets we eat…occasionally life gets too busy and I buy a loaf of bread (about six times since I started baking at home regularly 18 months ago). I make an organic hot cocoa mix for gift-giving and drinking at home all winter…I’ve never figured out the cost per serving, but the most expensive ingredient involved (milk powder) costs $4.78/lb, while organic cocoa mix costs $10.72/lb at a nearby natural food store.

    Admittedly, it’s easy to source good, real food here in Portland, Oregon. We live in a region with some of the best farm, grazing, and orchard lands in the US *and* a population that appreciates and supports local growers/producers. I understand many places aren’t as blessed, either the climate and soils aren’t suitable for growing much food, have been paved over, are in biofuel/animal feed production or local support is weak, making access challenging and prices high. I like hearing from people around the North America (like middle of nowhere Nevada and up in Toronto with gluten intolerance!) who are figuring out ways around their challenges.

    Great topic, Sharon.

  35. dewey says:

    Ditto to Gray and Allie’s recommendations of loose leaf tea. I have seen Asian colleagues use the same batch of tea leaves for half a day. You keep a big thermos of hot water (so you do not have to use energy reheating water every time you want a fresh pot) and just keep adding it in to the pot. Another thing they do is use a small teapot and dinky little cups. By the time you’ve been served five or six dinky little cups, you feel like you’ve gotten plenty, yet you’ve actually had at most one jumbo Murcan-style mug’s worth. Cultures that are poorer than ours have THOUSANDS of adaptations to help them live more cheaply. We just need to be open-minded enough to adopt habits that seem foreign.

  36. Linda K says:

    Fantastic food for thought – thanks all.

    Personally I can’t see myself keeping a cost account per month but I notice how many bags I get for whatever I’ve spent in a store. This has proven to me time and again how lucky I am to have a fantastic area produce market that carries loads of organic produce (Monterey Market in Berkeley Ca). It’s made me give up many of my old habits of gardening (the cost labor ratio couldn’t compete when I had a full time job) but it’s time to readjust that.

    I’m rethinking my garden, adding more edibles especially fruit trees. More cooking from scratch. Putting together the emergency stash. It takes a lot more time so there’s still some areas where I cut corners (while I still have that luxury) like frozen pie crusts from Trader Joes. A friend once told me while pasting together a collage “anything can be a spaceship” and the same applies to pies.

    If you were lucky (?) enough to have a depression era mom there’s lots of attitudes you can revive from that. Washing tinfoil, saving string, removing zippers and buttons from clothing that’s worn out before it’s discarded (I know this is off track) but point being that thrift is a state of mind. Apply it in the kitchen or anywhere. Food wise, I always look at the quick sale areas. You can get big bags of things that might be unaffordable otherwise. A bag of roasted red bell pepper, small hot pepper of choice and a little garlic makes an incredible sauce (bake in oven – toss in blender). This is often where I get my ideas of what to cook – what’s there? Fancier stores often put things on sale as soon as they loose that “perfect” look.

    Yesterday I made a wonderful potato bread. Upside was the bread, downside was that it took so much water to clean up the mess. Being in California with water rationing this really struck me and made me think it’s going to be hard to predict what’s the best way to do any given thing. Would it be better to currently support the local bread company? No black and white answers. Lately every little thing seems to be requiring an enormous amount of thought and attention.

  37. Jen says:

    Everyone has great ideas!

    Our house is two adults, in an apartment with little/poor food storage and very low income.

    Even when we were on $10/week for groceries last year we still tried to spend what we could in an ethical manner. We accomplish this by first taking our list and money to the farmer’s market – we know the vendors and which are resellers, which are farmers, who sprays etc.

    Then we go to a local, independent asian grocery store, and an independent bulk food store before going to the budget grocery store. We aren’t against buying our groceries at the chain store, but we make sure they are the last to get our dollars, and only go there for items we can’t get or can’t buy at the other stores.

    Plus we asked for a manual grain mill and food dehydrator for Christmas…so we’ll see.

  38. nl says:

    Buy organic beans and grains. They average about $1.50/lb. This is maybe 5x more than the cheap stuff, but $1.50/lb is still cheap. A pound of beans or grains has about 1700 calories, out of 2500 daily. If you have a very heavy beans/grains diet, you might eat a pound a day per person. That’s about $45 a month per person. Not anything that people can’t afford.

    You can run up big bills buying organic produce. This you grow yourself or find locally. Our local farmer (more of an extreme gardener really) sold us 50lbs (a bushel) of organic tomatoes for $20 during harvest season.

    As for meat, we hardly eat meat anymore. It isn’t necessary. You might look into fishing and hunting. A deer has about 120 lbs. of meat. Plus, hunting can be fun. You might even make friends with a hunter who bags more than he can eat. Often they will give meat away for free. Of course, wild game is the best of all meats. (Note recent CWD problems in deer however.)

    With a combination of organic grains/beans/oils etc., bought in bulk, local/homegrown produce and wild meat, you can have best-quality food for very little.

  39. While I don’t like to buy any new “stuff,” I’m aiming to get one of those foam soap dispensers for every part of my house. They’re super-frugal on soap once you refill them with your own foam soap (which is super-easy to make: 2/3 cup warm water and 3 tablespoons eco-friendly dish detergent or hand soap). It’s much, much cheaper than even buying those extra-large liquid soap refills for the house.

  40. LeeAnn says:

    Lynnet, Marnie, have either of you done a trial with regular (such as Quaker’s) oats? I have celiac too and have been eating gluten-free for a year. Another celiac friend of mine in town tried both certified gf oats (probably Bob’s) and regular Quaker’s and neither seemed to bother her.

    We eat entirely gluten-free at home, so potatoes, rice and cornmeal are our staples. I do buy specialty flours to make bread or pizza dough occasionally, or to add flour to sauces, but not often. I do buy rice pasta frequently. It is easy to let the food budget get out of control when you are on a special diet, however, eating rice and beans never made anybody poor. We’re a family of six and our current budget is $600 a month, including diapers and toiletries. We don’t have any animals, except a cat, and currently our garden is under a foot of snow, but we are looking forward to expanding that again.

    Our biggest food expenses are dairy and meat. We currently go through a gallon of milk a day (but we hardly drink any juice or soda) and I’m thinking that might be one place to cut back some. Also, to save money, when I cook meat, I now use it in sauces or as a topping rather than a whole hunk of meat as the main item. I also drink 1-3 mugs of tea a day and have been thinking it’s time to learn how to do loose-leaf tea. I need a tea ball, right? or no? a tea strainer?

    Typically we shop at Costco twice a month and make Safeway runs for milk in between. One thing I am intrigued by is the Economides’ method of once-a-month shopping. They feed their family of six (all teens and grown ups) on less than $300 a month. They are certainly not invested in local, organic or fair-trade but only look for the best deals. The eat their fresh produce first and then switch to frozen or storage-friendly veg as the month goes on. They freeze their milk. They do menu plan for the entire month. (I think it might take me an entire month to plan that many menus!)

    Hillbilly Housewife is a great resource. I have referred to her menus frequently, although some of her recipes are not to my taste. The original Hillbilly Housewife (Miss Maggie) sold the website and now has a new one, Frugal Abundance, which she began partly because she needed to begin cooking gluten-free, casein-free. She has some good ideas for a basic, inexpensive two-week gfcf menu.

    There’s a three or four part youtube series called Depression Cooking with Clara or something like that. Good tutorial on how to make a hot, one-pot meal inexpensively. More potatoes!

    We also buy the big bag of potatoes and onions at Costco, the giant block of cheese and use them all. I have tracked my expenses occasionally, but in a very disorganized way. I’m not sure what to do with the data when I have it or where to store it. I look forward to more of this series.

  41. clew says:

    LeeAnn, about tea:

    you don’t absolutely need a teaball or strainer; the tea you buy loose is more likely to be whole leaves, not broken ones, and you can strain it through your front teeth. However, when I did this, my mother called me `Storm-Drain Clew’, so you’d probably rather get a doo-dah.

    Tea is said to taste better when the leaves have room to expand, which is one argument for infusers (tiny colanders shaped like the inside of a cup) over balls. Also, infusers usually have lids that keep the cup warm while steeping, and you can put the drippy infuser on the lid while drinking. Trickier with a teaball.

    The thriftiest way has got to be the traditional Asian one described above; you have a thermos of boiling water, and a very small teacup with a loose lid, and whole tea leaves in the cup. You steep cup after cup out of the same leaves, drinking promptly, straining them with the lid rather than your teeth. The aesthetic benefit is that tea changes scent and flavor with each steeping, and you can really appreciate that with this method. You may find yourself writing poetry to frogs and the west wind, but that’s very low-carbon too.

    The fourth (?) way is the English one, with a teapot and cups and a strainer (which is like a colander that sits on the cup); you make a whole pot of tea and pour it out all at once — if you pour it out a cup at a time, the last cups are horribly bitter. This is very sociable, and you can keep rebrewing the leaves in the pot, if your timing is good.

  42. Bennie says:

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