OFFBEAT: Eatin' cheap and eatin' well

Assistant news editor I thought my husband and I were being thrifty. Turns out, we di
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010

 

Assistant news editor

I thought my husband and I were being thrifty.

Turns out, we didn't know the half of it.

During one of the Register's Solutions seminars on surviving tough times, the coordinators of two local food programs talked about helping families slash their grocery bills -- sometimes by as much as 50 percent. It sounded like a challenge too good to pass up.

Still, I was a little skeptical. Justin and I don't eat out much, don't get pizza deliveries and try to buy everything we need in one grocery trip every two weeks or so. Unless we resorted to a rice, beans and Ramen diet, how much could we really save?

To start our experiment, I tracked our spending in April without changing any of our habits. The truth is, I had no idea how much of our money we were eating. Our system is pretty simple -- we pay our bills and put automatic deposits into our savings every month -- but whatever's left is fair game for food or fun stuff.

I made some interesting realizations that month. The first: We have a serious problem with Special K. True, there are far worse addictions than sweetened flakes and melt-in-your-mouth red berries, but in 30 days, we went through 12 boxes -- practically one every other day. At $4.39 a pop, it totaled $52.62, just for one month of breakfast.

I also had proof of what I'd long suspected: Justin eats more than enough Hot Pockets to qualify for his own scientific study. One $2 box gets him through lunch or dinner at work, so I can't really complain. But then he'll have another box as a snack, so it's more like four sandwiches a day. Monthly total: $76.

We ate out twice that month, and one meal included covering two friends. I also lost $16 to the Register's vending machine once they started stocking it with Raisinettes. In total, we spent about $445.20.

The average American family spends about 10 percent of its annual budget on food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If April was a typical month, we're closer to 12 or 13 percent -- and that's without kids.

So I called Earl King, the site director of Great Food for All in Sandusky. The faith-based, non-denominational agency provides restaurant-quality food once a month to residents in 13 states.

King, a cheerful, humble man who likes to remind everyone he encounters that he's "wonderfully blessed and highly favored," told me I could claim my first basic food box that weekend.

At the Sandusky Church of God on Bogart Road, I saw firsthand how hard the volunteers worked to quickly unload and sort hundreds of boxes. Opening mine at home felt a little like Christmas. For $30, I'd gotten several frozen entrees, ground beef, a pound of ham and loads of vegetables. I had frozen fruit, breaded shrimp, an industrial-sized bag of pizza rolls and, most impressive of all, a huge pan of tiramisu. I used the box for the first part of May, and by the middle of the month, I had two more coming: Another $30 box, and one $20 pasta box.

I still had to go grocery shopping for the typical staples -- milk, eggs, cheese, bread and fresh produce. But I spent considerably less. And by then, I had also discovered Aldi --which seems to have the best prices by far on those things. (They even have a generic brand of Special K Red Berries.)

So there was a lot less shopping to do and the unexpected perk of having someone else decide what meals I'd make. A big hunk of ham? Looks like we're having ham and bean soup tonight; Cobb salad tomorrow. I was pleasantly surprised by how creative I became on my mission to use whatever was sent our way.

Each box is designed to feed a family of four for a week, but it really goes a long way for two. The $30 boxes have a retail value of between $60 to $80 each.

By using local churches and other nonprofit organizations to distribute the food, Great Food For All and Angel Food Ministries can eliminate expenses that weigh down chain companies and local stores -- things like mortgage, liability and payroll.

The best part is that anyone is eligible for it.

But the real question: Did it cut our grocery bill in half? Not quite, but it came pretty close. All told, we spent $269.18 in May -- saving $176.02 -- and we still ate out a few times. It's a menu we don't mind sticking to, either. The only reason I'm not ordering a box for next month is we still have too much food left over to chisel out of our freezer first -- we need to make room.

BOX?

Don't believe me? Try it.

To order from Great Food For All, call Earl King at 419-624-0999 or visit the Web site, greatfoodforall.com. To order from Angel Food Ministries, call Scotia Delpercio at 419-626-8730 or visit their Web site, angelfoodministries.com.

Annie Zelm is the assistant news editor of the Sandusky Register.