Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Does Wealthy = Healthy When It Comes To Buying Food?

My husband and I have been living on a food budget of approximately $350 per month for the last few years. That's $175 per person per month, a little over $40 per person per week, and just under $6 per person per day. Since we both eat 3 good meals a day, plus snacks, I figure on average, we are spending under $2 per person per meal. But we aren't eating McDonald's. We are eating pot roast with veggies, tuna noodle casserole (and a host of other casseroles), fresh salads, fresh fruit with yogurt, baked chicken, homemade pizza, tacos, tomatoes with basil, lasagna, and so much more.

The reason I really got to thinking about this is that I viewed a few episodes of the television show "Secret Millionaire." The premise of the show is that a wealthy person moves into a poor neighborhood for a week, disguising himself or herself as a new member in the community, and searches for non-profit organizations deserving of large donations. One of the things the participant has to do is buy his or her own food for that week with a handful of cash, representing the amount of money that a typical person on food stamps would receive in the area in which they are staying. Depending on the locale, my experience from a few episodes is that they receive anywhere from $30 to $60 to eat for the week. Of course, they then go grocery shopping and bemoan their need to check prices and inability to eat well. And I'm not talking about not buying more expensive organic or grass-fed options here. I mean the choice to cook any kind of actual meat and produce versus the choice to buy processed or calorie-dense/nutrition-light options.

To be clear, I am not totally sure how I feel about the premise of the show. I mean, giving generously to hard working organizations serving those in need is great (highly recommend it), and even walking in someone else's shoes for a period could certainly be valuable in many situations. But the whole 'flying in from out of town and disguising yourself as an impoverished individual only to suddenly throw money at your new friends and fly right back out of town' thing is a little off to me. Regardless of how I ultimately view the show, however, I still find it interesting to see that these wealthy people typically eat pretty poorly for the week on their cash budget, when my husband and I eat much better for the same weekly amount. And so I got to wondering why? 

Then it dawned on me that to some degree, it is easier to eat healthy for less when you have some capital to begin with. (I am not talking about being extremely wealthy by U.S. standards, but more about being solidly in the middle class and being able to build some savings, rather than living paycheck to paycheck.) How ironic, really, that we can spend less money on food because we have more money. But when I started thinking about how we eat so inexpensively, it really made sense. This is subtly different than the post I wrote about Food Insecurity and Obesity in Children, where I discussed some of the reasons that the poorest in our nation are also more likely to be the heaviest, as I really want to focus in this post on where each dollar goes, rather than taking on overarching systemic issues of hunger. Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to do a thought experiment detailing some of the tools we use to meet our food budget and whether we would have those same tools if the rest of our budget was lower. So here goes:

Our pantry affords us good storage space.
  • Buying in bulk. - This is one of the most common strategies for smart shoppers. Yes, we have a Costco membership that we use for certain items. But that's not really what I am talking about here. What I mean more generally is that when I go to buy canned tomatoes, I purchase a 10-pack at Safeway, because it costs less per can than purchasing them all separately. When we buy potatoes, we usually buy the 10-pound bag and use it in multiple meals. When we buy salsa, we buy enormous containers of it, because the price per ounce is less. And then we eat it all over time. So if we have to pay $9 today to buy a huge jar of salsa, that's better than paying $6 for one half the size and then coming back next week and buying another small one for $6. Buying the smaller size twice means paying $12 for the same amount of salsa as you can get for $9 if you just bought the big one once.
    • The reason this might not work for someone living paycheck to paycheck is that when you only go into the store with $6 to spend, you have no choice but to buy the smaller can today and come back next week with your next $6 to buy another smaller can. This also translates to the "Secret Millionaire" television show experience, since the individuals participating are only buying food for one week and do not have the option to buy in bulk to cover the following week.
    • This method of purchasing food does also require an ability to transport heavy items home and to store them safely. I am thankful to own a car and to have an extra closet that we use as a pantry. It might limit our ability to buy in bulk if we did not have this kind of transportation or storage space.
  • The freezer. - I think this is likely our biggest money saver. When our fruit is about to go bad, we cut it up and put it in the freezer to use for smoothies or muffins or pancakes. When I buy fresh herbs at the store, I freeze whatever I don't need immediately. When I buy certain items with oils that break down quickly (such as flax-seed), I store them in the freezer. But by far the most important thing we put in the freezer is MEAT. We keep chicken in the freezer at all times, which is our most common meat eaten. Occasionally, we buy ground beef at Costco and freeze it in sections. All other meats, such as ground turkey, whole cuts of beef, pork, sausage, bacon, even hot dogs, I purchase almost exclusively when they are "buy one get one free" at Safeway. And I purchase a LOT when these sales happen, which means there is too much for us to eat right away. Therefore, I have to freeze the meats immediately when I get home. So that $20 hunk of pot roast that we ate for 5 days in a row only cost me $10 when you consider that I got the second one free (which comes out to $1 of meat per person per meal, plus the cost of vegetables to finish the meal), and the other one that also cost $10 is in the freezer right now. Both may have been in the freezer for a time before I used either. Sometimes, there are 3 or 4 meats on sale in a given week, and I buy them all and freeze them. Here is why that might be difficult if I were living paycheck to paycheck:
    Two views of our freezer. No, that's not cereal in there.
    My husband likes to organize by packing items into old cereal boxes.
    • First of all, large cuts of meat are an investment and may require a person to have $20 on hand. That $20 may be able to purchase 20 servings of meat at the good price, but if you don't have $20, you are left unable to purchase the good stuff at all. It's the same issue of capital as the buying-in-bulk mentioned above. In addition, I often find that 3 or 4 meats are on sale BOGO the same week, and I will buy all of them to freeze at once, which requires an even greater capital investment in a single week. For me, I am willing to spend this, because I know we will be eating that meat all month (or longer), but I have to have the $100 with me in the first place to make this choice for my family. Since we are not living paycheck to paycheck, I can theoretically "borrow" from our savings account to spend our entire $350 food budget on one day (and then "reimburse" our savings account when we receive a paycheck), or I can space my purchases out over each week. As long as I plan ahead so that whatever food I buy will cover us for the month and so that I stop purchasing once I hit the $350 limit, I am free to use any part of our food budget whenever the deals are out. Without some savings money available, we would not have this flexibility, which would limit us to purchasing foods (especially something as expensive as meat) when we have the cash, rather than when the food is on sale. Relating this back to the "Secret Millionaire" show, it does not make sense for the individual to purchase such huge portions of meat for just one week, and they don't really have the cash on hand to do so anyway. 
    • When I have visited the poorest parts of San Francisco, such as the Tenderloin, I noticed that many people I met were living in long-term "hotels" that resembled renting a dorm room. None of these rooms had their own kitchen. Some of these hotels had a shared kitchen at the end of the hall. Given this living situation, a person would not own a freezer at all and would be lucky to have a mini-refrigerator in his or her rented room. That would make buying meat and certain vegetables in any substantial portion very difficult, and freezing meat would be out of the question.
  • Coupons. - Personally, I do not go too crazy scouring every last corner for coupons, as I have often found that coupons for name-brand items still leave me paying more than just buying the store brand. I find it is easier to get to know one store's system intimately well and to work that system as much as possible, including the use of coupons when helpful. So I look at the weekly circular sales to purchase fruits, veggies, and staple items that are on sale at the store, and I also add all of Safeway's online coupons directly to my Safeway card, which enables me to take advantage of special deals. It usually takes me 30 minutes to add all of the coupons to my card, but a lot of them are very helpful. For example, we get "Just For You" deals that give us discounts on foods that we specifically have a history of purchasing, so instead of paying $0.50 for kiwi's, we get them for $0.25 if I add the coupon to my card.
    • This activity requires us to have access to the internet and 30 minutes of free time. This is by no means impossible for someone who does not have internet at home and is very dedicated to getting it done, as they can take advantage of the library's free internet. But it would certainly be a bigger hassle. And it would be made much more difficult by having to work during the hours of library operation or by having children at home with no other caregiver, which is the situation for many families. I also believe that the Safeway discount card itself requires at least a phone number, which could be a problem if we did not own a phone of any sort.
The kitchen space in our apartment.
  • Cooking. - We cook almost all of our own meals. Very rarely do we buy pre-prepared food at the store, although we do keep a couple of these items in the freezer for busier days, or we may splurge on a special occasion. I try to limit myself mostly to meals which take 30 minutes or less of direct effort to prep and cook (special occasions excluded). If it takes 20 minutes of prep and then goes in the oven for an hour, that's ok, because I do not have to stand watch over the oven for that hour. But if it requires me to stand at the stove-top to get it done, it better cook quickly.
    • Cooking at home usually requires us to have a kitchen in the first place, which may not work for someone renting a room in a long-term "hotel." We usually use our stove, oven, microwave, crock pot, etc. to prepare food. Cooking also requires us to own pots and pans, casserole dishes, a refrigerator and tupper-ware for storing leftovers. I imagine cooking our own meals would be difficult if we did not own such items. We even have a bread-maker that was a present from my husband's parents, which we use to make our own sandwich bread and pizza dough, so that we save money by paying only for the flour, water, yeast, etc. (which is a lot less than buying a loaf at the store). All of these cooking items required an initial investment to purchase, but pay off in the savings they enable us over the long term.
    • Then there is the sheer time it takes to cook (about 30 minutes for a given meal, which often lasts us a few days and will certainly not last as long once we have more mouths to feed). The time it takes to grocery shop can also add up. Although this does not seem like an overwhelming amount of time to me right now, with my one career, I imagine that if I were working two jobs, it would probably sound like a lot more time. And if I had children that I had to supervise while cooking or bring to the store with me, that would be another aspect to arrange.
  • Our garden. - Ok, so this really hasn't been such a big help this year, as most of our plants got eaten by squirrels, rats, and aphids. Beginner's luck? Not in this house. But in theory, if we can do better next year, this may save us some money on produce. It did save us on some herbs, because our basil, thyme, and rosemary all thrived (eventually).
    • The garden requires space. We live in an apartment, but we have a decent sized first floor patio with moderate sun that we were able to utilize. This type of space can be a luxury, especially in an urban setting. In addition, the garden did require an initial investment in pots and potting soil, some of which we can reuse next year and some of which we will need to purchase again.
      From left to right, I have two red pots of arugula that got eaten by rats or squirrels, a rosemary plant that lived,  two rectangular containers in which I am attempting to re-grow lettuce under wiring to protect it from the vermin, and a round tub of carrots, most of which has been eaten by animals or died from lack of sun light.
      The square containers are growing bell peppers (sadly aphid infested), and on the ground, we have a hibiscus plant, surrounded by thyme (herb) ground cover.
These are just some of the initial things that came to mind as I conducted this thought experiment about what really enables us to live within our food budget. I am sure there are many other issues I have not mentioned and also many creative ways to save money that I have not considered. (For an example of a systemic issue, one that jumps to mind is that some people live in "food deserts," where they may not even have full service grocery stores nearby, but they are surrounded by fast food chains and convenience stores filled with snack food. This issue tends to disproportionately affect the poor, such as residents of certain inner city communities.)

I am not saying that it would be impossible to eat healthy outside of having middle class resources, like a stove top and a savings account, but our situation certainly makes it a lot more feasible for us. When circumstances change, creative people can often make a way. But thought experiments like this help me to empathize a little more with families who eat pre-prepared frozen meals or fast food on a regular basis. At less than $2 per meal in the generally expensive San Francisco Bay Area, if you were to add in the assistance cost of free school lunches and other similar programs, I think my husband and I are not spending much more on daily food expenses than some lower income families in this area. But many of the less healthy food options that cost about the same overall do save precious cooking time and allow a person to spend their food budget day to day instead of in bulk.

Since I have only just started this thought experiment, and I am certain that my ideas are incomplete, I am interested to hear what others think. What holes do you see in my initial thoughts? What other factors can you think of that enable you to eat healthy for less? What have you done when you were living paycheck to paycheck? Are there tools that people of any location or socioeconomic situation can utilize? What could be done to make it easier for people in all situations to take advantage of lower cost items, store sales, cooking at home, etc?

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