Saturday, June 5, 2010

Balancing grocery bills and budgets

Going Green Mama shares life from the other side of the tracks...

There's a price you can pay for eating sustainably, organic and local. Erin shared her family's choices to emphasize quality over cost in a recent post.

But what if you'd don't have that luxury of a flexible budget?

In the more than two years since my husband lost his job and our income was halved, we've had to make choices and compromises, some that I wish we didn't have to make. Sure, I'd love to invest in organic milk, particularly since we have a few great dairies in the area. Sure, I'd love to eat locally grown chickens, but I have to justify the cost, and it becomes a splurge rather than a right.

So choices are made. But I can still sleep at night.

How do we do it? Here are some ways we don't sacrifice quality and safety on a tight food budget.

We eat locally. And I mean locally. Our garden is already producing, and we're getting many of our side dishes from a few feet away. And you can't get much closer than that. Other than the initial investment last year of putting the beds in, the cost is relatively minimal compared to what we're getting. (Consider $3 a quart for peas at the farmers market, compared to $2 for a package of heirloom pea seeds, and we've already gotten at least that!)

We make friends. While we do like to visit other farmers markets in the area, we have one that we're partial to, and we've gone to it since we first moved here and it was just a few stands. As a result, the vendors know me and my kids. And often, they'll cut us a break. On the few days my daughter is "buying" they'll accept whatever coins she's had on hand. And just Saturday, one vendor not only held back garlic scape that I'd missed the week before, but also handed them over at no charge, only on the promise that I'd report back whether the different varieties of garlic produced a different taste in scape.

We watch deals. One of our local groceries routinely clearances organic products that aren't near exprired, and we're able to get great deals. Like organic whipping cream - which in a few minutes' effort becomes organic butter - for 75 cents a pint. We can often find organic cheese and yogurts on sale as well, making it pennies in difference in cost from the other varieties.

We splurge. Sometimes, you've just got to relax, and you can make compromises at times to buy that locally grown chicken. Sure, it may mean a few extra dinner salads or pasta dishes during the week, but it's well worth the occasional trade.

So what do you do to stay on budget while supporting your food values?


Sandy said...

I volunteer at a farm (, milking the goats. I get free, organic raw milk whenever I need it, and often get gifts of the various cheeses they make there, not to mention the great companionship and an inexpensive ($25 per season for a fenced 10 X 20 plot with a hose nearby) space in a community garden on the grounds. It IS a large investment of my time, but I find that time pleasurable and rewarding. I buy my pastured eggs there too! One stop shopping! On a good day in the summer, I can go home with a basket of veggies from my garden, a quart of either goat or cow milk, a sample of cheese and a dozen eggs...all for $3.75 (eggs) and a little enjoyable time. I also do some wildcrafting in the spring; one man's weeds are another (wo)man's herbs! Heaven!

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Oh, I so get this...

I wish I had the post a musician colleague of mine posted for some out-of-a-job friends in Texas; he has really thought through the "passive green living" thing. He in fact had worked out his landscaping so that the growing veggies shaded his home so he didn't need a/c in the middle of a Texas summer. He also had a makeshift kitchen on his front porch--like, a hot plate and a crockpot--so he could cook outdoors all summer and never have to introduce excess heat to his kitchen.

For myself--we eat a lot of beans and rice, both purchased in bulk and insanely cheap. I make a lot of yogurt (for the cost of a gallon of milk, half a cup powdered milk, and maybe a cup of pre-purchased yogurt, I can make a gallon of yogurt) and popsicles. Cheap cereal mixed with some homemade granola beats heck out of the boxed stuff. Most of our food costs go toward fruits and dairy, and the rest I try to go as crazycheap or homegrown as in Chicago, though, growing season is much shorter and later, so I wind up buying veggies more than I want to.


Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I've been thinking about this very subject ever since I wrote that post - in fact I was thinking about writing about it next Wednesday. Maybe I will anyway. :)

One thing that really helps me keep my budget in check (though I know it's pretty high) is to eat more beans and less meat. Beans are so cheap, and I love them anyway.

Eco Yogini said...

i love your ideas and your practicality!!

thank you very much

Anonymous said...

I find that many frugal strategies for lowering food budgets work for eating more organic/local foods.

Obviously they don't lower grocery expenses as low as eating non-organic foods does, but they help.

I find couponing fairly useless, but things like buying in bulk, eating less meat, buying less expensive meat (I have a freezer full of local grass fed beef -- and it's all hamburger), not wasting food, freezing in-season produce, stocking up on things on sale, and cooking from scratch (all our bread, muffins, soups, etc) are all helpful.

I eat mostly vegetarian myself, but for my non-vegetarian family, I will do things like make spaghetti with a sauce of vegetables, black beans, and less ground beef, and they are happy. Or chicken stew with a small amount of chicken and lentils or chickpeas added for additional protein. I got them used to this gradually -- started with just a few lentils or beans (with a side of distracting fresh cornbread or pizza bread) and changed the proportions over time.

I also ration particularly expensive and less nutritious items: e.g. my daughter drinks organic juice, but she's allowed only one small glass of it a day.

I find I have to stay flexible. If I'm cutting back on all budget categories, I cut back on the food budget too. But I try not to see it as all or nothing. I can't afford to buy all organic milk right now, so I'm buying half organic and half regular. On the other hand there are things I'm not flexible on, for example I will only buy cage-free eggs.

Some things that haven't worked -- I suspect my vegetable garden will eventually break even, but it hasn't yet.
Cutting out all convenience foods also doesn't work for us -- there has to be something less healthy and/or easy in the freezer or we end up eating out more than we should.
Buying foods we don't like because they're less expensive hasn't been all that effective.

I find it helps to think of buying organic, local, etc, as a form of charitable giving. I don't do it just for my family's health, but for the sake of the environment, farmworkers, etc. This is not so I feel guilty when I can't afford to buy local and/or organic, but so I feel justified making it a priority when I can afford it.

Rosa said...

Food Not Bombs! Or your local semi-organized band of gleaners and dumpster divers.

I am a big fan of dumpster diving, and pre-dumpster skimming- your friendly farmers are probably already giving you some veggies for very cheap at the end of the day if they haven't sold, and many coops set aside bruised & ugly fruits and vegetables to give away (for animal feed is the usual reason, but a lot of it is perfectly edible for humans and 100% compostable.)

Gleaning is another great deal - lots of people have fruit trees and don't really eat much fruit, I have gotten tons (literally, I think) of apples over the years, and pounds of grapes, apricots, crabapples, etc - and if you like mulberries, at least in my neighborhood there are always more than we have time to pick and process.

A lot of hunters hunt for sport but their families won't eat the meat, so I've gratefully accepted a lot of venison and pheasant over the years. Ditto older gardeners with empty nests - zucchini, tomatos, and summer squash seem to be in oversupply every year and since people know I can they often give me bags of it. I try to return the favor with dried fruit or dilly beans or something else that's maybe a little labor intensive rather than high-volume.

The nice part about all this stuff is that the giveaways tend to be the high-dollar stuff, fresh fruits & veg - making it way easier to buy flour, rice, beans, and oatmeal and still have a little left for milk & eggs & some splurges.

All that said, the parts of this I still do I do for fun - we've been very lucky these last few years (since I stopped being a SAHM and went back to work) not to have to watch our pennies so tight. Not that that keeps me out of dumpsters - I got an awesome office chair out of one yesterday :)

Condo Blues said...

We eat healthier and my food budget went down when I stopped using coupons because they were mostly for convince foods. We focus on coking from scratch as much as possible using meat as a condiment - think chicken stir fry vs. a big hunk of chicken for each person at the table. I focus on buying fresh food, local as much as possible because it's less expensive than organic. Personally I'd rather eat something grown by a local farmer and keep them in business than eat the organic equivalent that's been shipped from overseas. It's less expensive too.

Anonymous said...

We joined a coop-style farmers' market which provides fabulous, locally grown foods to a low-income neighborhood at prices that are much lower than conventional farmers' markets. All members shop and pay the same price for produce, eggs, and bread. Those who can afford it also pay a membership fee, which helps cover the cost for those with less.

Jen said...

We buy locally as much as possible. We focus our organic purchases on the produce that are the top pesticide users or where there is little to no difference in the price of non organic foods. We plan on buying a half of a cow from a local organic farmer.


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