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The (Organic) Thrifty Food Plan Challenge

» We eat well. Maybe a little too well, judging from our waistlines. And we eat pretty inexpensively, too. So the recent spate of publicity about Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski's committment to eat food totalling only $21 for one week (the amount an average food stamp recipient in Oregon receives) caught my attention.

Now, the Governor's stunt is a little misleading: no one expects food stamp recipients to eat on only $21 a week (though I'm sure some people try). The Federal Government Thrifty Food Plan (from which food stamp allotments are derived) is spartan enough, but it provides an adult male between the ages of 20 and 50 years of age with $35.40 a week for food—part of which will be provided by food stamps, and part by the client, depending on their income. Regardless, the Governor's point is well taken. It's not a lot of money to spend on a week's worth of food.

I pride myself on my thrifty shopping habits. I've also been fortunate in these last few years to be able to afford to buy organic and locally grown fresh food most of the time. So I've decided to take the Governor's challenge a step further. I'd like to see if I can feed the two of us for one month on "Thrifty Food Plan" wages while maintaining our usual standard of eating. My goal: $74.00/week or $320.80/month, the USDA "Thrifty" standard for a family of 2 adults, aged 20-50 years.

That's $10.57/day if you take the weekly amount, or $10.69/day if you take the monthly amount—about $5.30 each—and here we run into the first mystery of the USDA Food Plan: why do the two figures not match up?

A note: I would make this a local, organic challenge, except that my market doesn't always note where most of my staples (beans, rice, flour) come from. I believe the rice is grown in California but the flour may come from Kansas, I have no idea. So I'll leave it at organic and try to buy locally as much as I possibly can.

Is it going to be hard? I don't know. Like most shoppers, some weeks I spend well above my budget, and some weeks I spend less. I tend to stock up on items when they are on sale, and of course many staples are bought and then used over the course of weeks.

So here are the ground rules:
- I will cook the way I usually cook, with an eye to economy. I'm not going to cook only the very cheapest things (at least I hope I don't have to), but there's no way I'm going to splurge on morels, either.
- I will shop the way I usually shop, that is, I'll buy in bulk and on sale whenever possible. I wonder if this budget can accomodate stocking up on sale items? It's possible that none of my staples will go on sale during the next few weeks, or, it may be that this budget simply can't accomodate buying any extra food. If that's the case, I'll make the purchase anyway, but note how much this (very thrifty) style of shopping would have taken me over budget.
- Food already in my home will be priced out as accurately as possible based on the price of those items at the time I cook them.
- Food from my subscription at Terra Firma Farm's CSA will be priced at a flat $12.50/week—our cost based on a quarterly payment.
- Some pre-purchased items will not be organic—I'm not 100%—but items I purchase during the next 4 weeks will be organic if it's at all possible.

Now, I have some advantages:
- I work from home, so I can easily take the time to cook from scratch, which I do almost all of the time.
- I am primarily a vegetarian cook. That may not sound like an advantage to you, but when you are trying to save money, believe me it is.
- We eat rather simply, as you will see. For example, we almost never eat dessert when we are at home.
- I shop at a natural foods coop which offers a wide variety of foods in bulk.
- I live in California, which has a much broader variety of fresh locally grown food during the winter than much of the rest of the country does. It's springtime, so the frozen east and midwest are starting to see locally grown salad greens and the like, but I expect that I may have access to produce that's not yet available, say, in Wisconsin.
- My CSA delivers produce to my neighborhood once a week at just a little less than I would pay my usual store. This makes it easy to eat locally and seasonally. Again, if I lived in Wisconsin, a CSA would likely only provide me with food from June to September, requiring far more attention for the rest of the year if I wanted to eat primarily what was grown in my area.

One more thing: there may be lots of carrots. I always get behind on the carrots my CSA brings me in the winter, and they keep well—but not forever. I'm in my usual spring frenzy of trying to use them all up before they rot in the crisper.

I know I can eat on this budget. The question is whether I can eat well on this budget. Let's find out.

 [ 04.28.07 ]

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