Food Storage on No Budget

Sharon July 15th, 2008

The people who most need a food reserve are the people who struggle the most to get it.  As food and energy costs inflate, and the safety net for the poor begins to break apart, the lower your income, the more urgent it is for you to take advantage of economies of scale, to buy food at lower prices, the more necessary it is that you have some reserve to tide you over in hard times.  But that’s incredibly tough if hard times are already here.

And often, the people who have the least ability to take advantage of these resources are the ones who need them the most.  Millions of really poor Americans are homeless, or effectively so, living in subsidized motels or other housing that has no cooking facilities.  Millions of American working families combine two, three or four jobs and leave the cooking to younger children - or simply have no time to cook or shop at all.  Millions of Americans have budgets that already don’t reach the month, and can no longer put together an extra $50 to buy beans and rice in bulk or pay for a CSA share upfront than they can fly to the moon.  And these are precisely the people most likely to lose a job, have their kids go hungry, and find that their barely-making-it budget is a no-longer making it budget.

Now much of the time when I’m speaking of food, I advocate ethical practices.  Because most of my readers - not all by any means, but most - are comparatively well educated (whether autodidactically or otherwse), and most of them have some ability to pick and choose their foods, either because they are middle class already or because they have carefully and consciously managed to leave some reserve in a small budget by the choices they’ve made.  I want to be clear - for those with enough money to do this, ethical food is still the priority - the dollars we spend now on food are investments in future food systems - the systems we will need to feed us in difficult times.  We can’t afford to throw that money away on systems that won’t be there, if there’s another choice.

But for those without a range of choices, just having some food stored is essential.  At present, the safety nets are fraying - the food pantries are struggling, food stamps and other social welfare programs are heavily burdened, and a food stamp budget no longer enables people to make it to the end of the month.  Those programs are likely to struggle further as energy and food prices rise.  And because there are no large government stockpiles remaining, because costs are rising so rapidly and because jobs are so unstable, it is essential that lower income families have a reserve of food - no matter how they have to buy it.

So here are some suggestions on how to build storage cheaply.

1. Emphasize foods that haven’t had huge price rises - potatoes, for example, peanuts and peanut butter, and oats all have gone up, but not nearly as much as corn, wheat and soy.  Consider a storage program that emphasizes these lower cost foods - but make sure you are focusing on things with high nutritional value. 

The more you can adapt your diet, the better off you will be.  So do some research on what foods are reasonably priced and find recipes and practice with them if you can.  

2. If you have minimal or no cooking facilities, or if the household cooking is being done by children,  you need foods that can be heated up easily, using sterno or hot plates.  The best really cheap ways to get a lot of instant and pre-processed foods are to dumpster dive and frequent odd lots stores.  Because stores discard cans with damaged labels, or anything dinged or damaged, processed foods are often discarded when they are still safe to eat (do not eat anything from a can that appears to be leaking or has odd bulges on it).  Do this carefully - wear gloves if possible and watch out for sharp objects.  Websites on “freegans” will have a lot more information than I can include.  I will note that dumpster diving is on the rise, and you may find more competition than in the past.  The other advantage of dumpster diving is that it may cut your food budget enough to allow you to make additional bulk purchases, even if you don’t need pre-processed food.  And don’t forget drugstores for slightly-past-expiration vitamins to supplement your diet.

Odd lots stores buy stuff up that other stores can’t sell - you get weird brands, sometimes cans with no labels, but often quite good prices.  And sometimes you get good stuff cheap - the one near my Mother offers tons of gluten free foods from Bobs Red Mill at very low prices - tough things to find for low income people who need special diets.  They aren’t as cheap as dumpster diving, but I’ve seen canned goods listed at 10 for a dollar there.

3. Glean - in many places, there are gleaning programs.  Most commercial harvesting programs leave a lot of fruit on the tree and a lot of vegetables in the field.  So Gleaning Programs (our farm is actually named Gleanings Farm, because in Judaism, we are prohibited from harvesting too fully, because a share belongs to the poor by right - we do our own gleaning, though, and give it to the food banks).  In some places you split your gleanings with the local food bank, in others you keep everything.  But that food can be stored and preserved for offseasons.

4. Minimize waste.  Create a “soup jar” and make soup out of leftovers.  Do a daily check of your fridge - what needs eating?  Don’t think that just because it isn’t a meal’s worth, you can’t eat it.  Fruits and vegetables are especially expensive on a low budget - so make full use of them - peel and eat the broccoli stems, grate the orange zest and dry it for flavoring baked goods if you can.  Make fried rice out of bits of leftovers and cold grains (you can make fried rice equivalents out of barley, bulghur, etc…).

5. If you can cook at all, beans, rice, lentils, and cabbage are probably your best friends in the world.  They are cheap, bulky, nutritious and can be made to taste good.  It is hard to get used to a limited diet of these foods - it is also worth noting that a limited diet in a norm in most of the world - it is not at all unusual to eat beans and rice 2xs a day, or bread and lentils the same.  Americans put enormous emphasis on diversity in their diet - and our nutritional information puts that emphasis on it to.  But war era diets are often more nutritious than more diverse diets - what you need are a reasonable quantity of several fruits and vegetables, and staple foods.  The rest is really not so very big a deal. 

The cheapest places to buy these are from coops, buying clubs and warehouse stores - although you should check that the warehouse membership will pay for itself.  Or maybe go along with a friend who has a membership or take advantage of free 1 month trials.  Buying in bulk can be tough - but if you can find the money anywhere, you’ll pay so much less than you will at the store.  Remember, if you can’t afford veggies, most grains can be sprouted, and offer the benefits of fruits and vegetables this way.

6. Animal products are expensive - think the parts that most people don’t use. We all know meat isn’t necessary, but some of us like it for flavor, and if you are eating a lot of low-protein, processed food, some meat probably will improve your nutrition.  Soup bones, chicken feet (they make great stock and are a texture delicacy in parts of Asia), chicken livers, etc… make good gravy to flavor bread and beans, good soup stock to fill with cheap vegetables, and generally provide some nutritional benefits.

7. Farmer’s markets at the end of the day.  This can be tough (all of this can be tough) if you work long hours, but consider pushing your lunch break late on Farmer’s Market day, and arriving at the end of the market - many farmers won’t want to haul home produce that has sat all day in the hot sun - it isn’t worth it.  Buy it cheap in quantity, take it home and dehydrate it in your car or can it or whatever.

 8. Some food pantries have trouble getting rid of bulk foods like wheat berries, dried beans, etc… They receive these items, but comparatively few people know how to use them.  Ask if they ever have extras of these to give away, and explain that you are trying to build a food reserve - the worst anyone can say is “no.”

9. Give the gift of food - if someone wants to buy you a present, consider asking for a gift certificate to Walmart or Sam’s Club or Amazon or some other place that sells food and other goods - that way you don’t have to admit that you need the food badly - but you can use the gift for what you need most.

10. Don’t expect to do it all at once.  All of us need to scale up gradually, unless we’re Bill Gates.  If your budget is tight, and you are new to food storage, at a difficult time, it will take time to build a reserve.  An extra can here, a few lbs of beans there - it doesn’t seem like much.  Remember that it is - small things count.  They add up.  If you can find $10 in your budget to cut out of something - get rid of an appliance, turn down the power, etc…, it will count and it will build up.  I know you may have already cut all the fat you’ve got to cut, or it may be a struggle to find a little more.  But this is worth it - this is a measure of hope and security for your family.


16 Responses to “Food Storage on No Budget”

  1. Davidon 15 Jul 2023 at 11:26 am

    In point 5, you say: “It is hard to get used to a limited diet of these foods…”. Did you mean to say: “It is *not* hard to get used to a limited diet of these foods…”?

    I could go either way on that, but it feels to me as though you wanted to say that a diet based on beans, rice, lentils, and cabbage is really not so bad. (I would grumble a bit, but I recognize that the carb/starch/brassica 3-way is a pretty healthy diet for one that is so restricted).

    Anyway, thanks a million for this wonderful series of posts.

  2. Sharonon 15 Jul 2023 at 11:38 am

    No, I think it is hard - we’re taught not to eat this way. I’m trying to say that we can get used to it, but it requires overcoming cultural programming - it is a healthy diet, and often a tasty one, but we have to get over the psychological weight of the idea that constant variation is necessary - through most of history, most people have eaten a fairly basic diet that repeats a lot of staples frequently. But it takes time getting back to that.

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear.


  3. Davidon 15 Jul 2023 at 11:38 am

    Thanks, Sharon. You probably were clear. Just not to me. :-)

  4. bernieon 15 Jul 2023 at 12:13 pm

    This may be more in the line of frugal than stocking up and it may be that times have changed to drastically in the last three years for this to help but for what it’s worth . . . A couple of years ago, I worked part time at a “soup kitchen.” It was a wonderful place and treated all its diners with kindness and respect. They tried hard not to waste food but one problem was when there wasn’t enough food left over for another meal. They would encourage people who had homes to take some of the left overs. We always kept any empty container that had a lid just for this purpose. They also got a lot of things from various food drives that were difficult to use up in that setting - small serving size cans of things, a mix that made a dozen muffins, exotic canned goods. People usually use canned good food drives to clean out their pantries without much thought to nutrition or utility. Shelf space was limited and these things were really not very useful when you were feeding 35 to 50 people at a time. If you are having a rough time getting ahead on your food budget try stopping in to a nearby soup kitchen at the end of their meal serving period and ask about these “left overs” either from meals or from donations.

  5. Jenneon 15 Jul 2023 at 12:16 pm

    In the PA/NJ area where I live, many ethnic groceries sell 10, 20, and 25 lb bags of rice. If you can scavenge a container to put it in, you may be able to scrape together enough to buy a big bag of rice at once.
    Also, in my area, look out for cheap dried beans, lentils, and barley in one-pound bags in both the international foods and vegetable aisles- compare prices on this. Depending on the grocery, these old standards come cheaper per pound than bulk foods because they don’t sell much at a time.

  6. Ailsa Ekon 15 Jul 2023 at 1:08 pm

    And the ethnic stores have spices cheap, too, so you can make the beans & rice taste good. I tell this story a lot, but a few years back when we were having real problems making ends meet, we ended up somehow volunteering to host a gathering of people a week before payday. I managed to pull out a vegetarian feast on various Indian foods from our stores plus a new container of yogurt, and a few things brought by people who called or emailed asking what they could bring. We fed everyone and ate for three days on the leftovers, and nobody realized we were dead digging-the-change-out-of-the-sofa broke.

  7. Leila Abu-Sabaon 15 Jul 2023 at 1:38 pm

    This isn’t dirt dirt cheap, but it’s frugal - I check the food aisles at my local drugstores whenever I am in. Around Easter they were selling flour super-cheap. They always have canned goods and pasta, and I look for specials. Of course I have to ignore all the packaged, processed crap, but they do sell canned fruit and vegetables, beans, proteins, pasta. Lately I’ve been acquiring $1 cans of lentil soup - I make my own lentil soup easily but I figure these are good for the earthquake supply kit and we’ll eat ‘em as “fast food” when there’s no time to cook. Tinned sardines are cheaper at the drugstore than at the supermarket. Pasta has been on sale, Barilla, at $1 a pound. Again, you can probably find cheaper deals if you are buying in bulk somewhere, but keep your eyes peeled and be aware of what things cost. If there’s a good sale, you can pounce.

    Oh and re: multivitamins, I am sorry, I just don’t buy brand name multivitamins. I buy the drugstore brand (checking prices and nutritional amounts carefully) IF it’s cheaper. It doesn’t hurt to check the vitamin shelves even when you don’t need vitamins that minute, in case they’re running buy-1-get-1-free specials.

    When it comes to the fish oil supplement I give my kid for his motor and linguistic issues, I only buy reputable brands who promise to have tested for heavy metals.

  8. Basiaon 15 Jul 2023 at 1:58 pm

    if keeping to basic foods, like rice, lentils, beans, maybe we don’t need fridge? and save a few dollars this way?
    And thank you Sharon for great blog:)

  9. Jillon 15 Jul 2023 at 7:02 pm

    Great post! I picked up a 1 lb bag of lentils at Walmart for 72 cents and they sell for nearly 30 cents more at our local grocery. Don’t forget dollar stores - they can be a great place to pick up sunflower seeds and dried fruit for trail mix or to add to an emergency to-go bag. (they have cold meds, acetominophen, bandaids, ace bandage wraps, soap, hand sanitizer too)

  10. Wyrdsysteron 15 Jul 2023 at 7:04 pm

    Thank you Sharon for mentioning dumpster diving!I’ve done it many times.It is not as much of an economic necessity as it used to be,but I kind of miss it.
    Much of what is available may include undesirable ingredients,but when you must this a good temporary measure.There is alot of good food being thrown away,don’t let it go to waste.If you can use it or know someone who can,go for it.

  11. Tovahon 15 Jul 2023 at 10:14 pm

    This makes me miss the Bay Area, where I would frequent Grocery Outlet (and odd lots store) because they always had gluten-free goodies at rock bottom prices. Arrowhead Mills amaranth flour for 99 cents a box, for instance! I am a big fan of these stores but have yet to find which ones exist in NJ.

    Dollar stores are great for some things, too.

    Freecycle can work - and Craigslist. Though people don’t often offer food for free, if you place a “wanted” add you might be surprised what you get.

    Letting people around you know that you need help is hard and embarrassing sometimes, but you’d be surprised at what people have in their pantries that they don’t need/want and would be glad to give you.

    I am working on a massive article (will be posted at my blog) about gluten-free eating on a budget that I’ll forward you when I’m done w/it.

    Also, ethnic stores (Latin American and Asian in particular) are your friend. So is relying on dried beans instead of canned ones, if you can make the time to cook them and have a refrigerator in which to store them. Bulk spices, too. The other thing with spices is you need so little of most of them that you might be able to just borrow some from a friend, or take a few salt and pepper or ketchup packets whenever you’re somewhere that has them.

  12. knutty knitteron 16 Jul 2023 at 3:58 am

    One thing to mention. If you are cooking potatoes, leave the skins on and eat them. This will provide a reasonable amount of nutrition without the need to add more than the odd green veg.

    I did a study on the Irish and the potato famine at one time and took the opportunity to speak to an expert or so and they told me that all the goodness in the common spud resides just under the skin and is usually removed with the peel.

    So eat those skins!

    PS I like mine sliced, boiled, drained and tossed in a little butter and chopped parsley or baked until crispy on the outside and split with butter, garlic and parsley.

  13. Cynthiaon 16 Jul 2023 at 9:49 am

    Sharon - I so appreciate the focus of this post! I have seldom seen the understanding and careful thought surrounding food issues and poverty that is expressed here.

    I’m a case manager/advocate whose clients are all people with disabilities and extreme income challenges. Thirty percent of my clients have income in the zero to $250 a month range, so there is absolutely nothing beyond a small amount of food stamps.

    I invite you to check out our website -

    Since so many of my clients have easily treatable illnesses (and very little, if any, medical/prescription coverage) as well as challenges eating 30/31 days each month, I’ve begun putting together a small booklet for them. It consists of recipes for inexpensive, healthy, easily prepared foods plus tips and ideas for maximizing their food stamp dollar and their nutrition - and hopefully building a reserve.
    I’m even considering offering a cooking class or two. For those interested, I try to hook them up with a local program that offers help with anything to do with growing your own food (Growing Gardens in Portland, OR).

    I’m low-income myself, by the way. And I love Bob’s Red Mill, which is local. I’ve purchased several grains, flour and rice in bulk from them. I shop the local grocery outlet for OTC’s, coffee, canned goods - and they now carry some organics. Hooray! And WinCo is great for bulk items.

    During growing season, I supplement my small garden by buying produce on sale and dehydrating it. I’ve even been known to purchase organic frozen peas and corn on sale, and dehydrating those. When I cook fresh vegetables in water, I freeze the water in cubes and use them throughout the year in soups, stews, etc. (don’t do this with canned veggies - the salt content is too high).

    I enjoy canning produce, and also put together my own “convenience” foods using “meals in a jar” recipes. I’d love to be able to teach my clients how to make and use meals in a jar. My thought is to organize a small co-op where everyone contributes and works together once a month in order to take home a supply of jars. Hmmm, guess I’ll have to start checking freecycle for jars, lol!

    I guess I rambled a bit…but I want to finish by saying “Thank you!” for a wonderful post!!

  14. Anion 16 Jul 2023 at 5:18 pm

    Good thoughts-
    re; food shelf/pantries- I know ours gives away beans, oatmeal, stuff like that in unlimited quantites most days as we get large amounts of it and most of the clients will not take them…….

  15. peacemakeron 17 Jul 2023 at 8:47 am

    Don’t forget salt and other flavorings. You can still cop condiment packs at food courts and workplace cafeterias. I’ve been scarfing free condiments for as long as I can remember. A survival tactic, like picking up aluminum cans, that I learned as an impoverished grad student. If you have any money, things like paprika, chili, garlic and onion powder to name a few are still dirt cheap unless you buy name brand. I habitually pick up a half dozen or so bottles every time I go to the pharmacy. Salt is still a bargain, and useful for many things.

  16. blog » Raleigh, NC Mom Wonders How She’ll Pull Through. Is it all in her head?on 23 Jul 2023 at 8:24 am

    […] don’t need a lot of money to begin putting away food. See Sharon Astyk, “Food Storage on No Budget,” who has done a lot of great work on this […]

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