Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Challenge Day 6 - Storage

The average family shops for groceries once a week or so, fills the cabinets, eats them down, and fills them again, shoving uneaten items to the back. You can still shop that way on foods stamps, but you are likely to run out of stuff before the end of the month. If you want to eat decently on food stamps you need food storage. You want to buy staples in bulk, at the best price you can, then save the rest of the money for fresh produce and dairy the rest of the month.

Where will you put a month's worth of oatmeal, rice, and beans? What if you score an awesome deal and buy 20 pounds of potatoes, or a case of tuna, or a 50lb bag of sugar? Most houses and apartments don't have pantries anymore, or even room for more than a week or so of food in the cabinets.

I have three kinds of storage: Long-term bulk storage, short-term bulk storage, and everyday-access storage.

Let's look at my storage. But let me get my defensiveness out of the way, first. I am a bit self-conscious about our house. We moved in with my mother, who has dementia and other issues. She is 83, was widowed almost 30 years ago, and had become a hoarder. No house maintenance was done for about 25 years. My kids and I moved here in July of 2009, when the house was still filled from floor-to-ceiling, every room, with a mix of trash, "collectibles," and some useful stuff. We have slowly carved away most of that stuff, with help from many caring friends, on a tight budget. We are finally getting to something closer to a normal suburban 4BR/1bath split level. We are still left with a house that was neglected for 30 years, and there is no money to address most of that right now. So, ignore the shabbiness, and focus on the storage concepts. OK, let's go on tour.

Everyday-access is just what it sounds like - stuff I am likely to use frequently, easily gotten to. My refrigerator and the freezer over it. My kitchen cabinets. My kitchen pantry shelves. For most people that is ALL the food storage space they have.

To have storage, you have to have storage containers. I am extraordinarily fond of glass jars. I said the other day that there are only 4 lid sizes to fool with in my kitchen. Here they are:

Lid 1 and Lid 2: I get heavy duty quart and pint size deli containers from the restaurant supply store, a sleeve of each every few years - they wear out slowly. The same lid fits both. You can write on the lid in Sharpie, and it scrubs off. You could save these from Chinese takeout - but you can't afford takeout. :-)

The blue-lid container is for larger amounts of leftover, and sometimes cheese, if I grate a block. They are the "disposable" kind, but I reuse them.

Inside THAT particular one is roasted squash, a beautiful Red Kuri Squash, a locally-grown organic splurge for $5 from the grower - but tragedy has occurred. It got pushed to the back of the fridge and I didn't make the soup and cake I intended. It has mold on it. Don't let this happen to you! Five bucks wasted! Ugh!

Lid 3 and Lid 4 are the regular and wide-mouth kind, seen here on a variety of new and vintage canning jars. I have the lid-and-ring kind for actual canning, and plastic storage lids for shelf and refrigerator storage. That red funnel is very important - a canning funnel makes it much easier to pack things in jars. You can see some of my other jars in the background, for everyday staples.

I have a bread basket on top of the fridge, and a pretzel-crouton-chip basket.

I save produce bags and plastic bags from cereal and cracker boxes . It saves on plastic wrap an ziplocks. But don't collect too many, or you turn into my mother. Once the basket is full, no more until it starts to empty out.

The cupboard over the stove has boxed cereal, crackers, jars of various hot cereals, peanut butter, tuna, my mother's disgusting instant decaf coffee, DD15's soup, cooking spray. Just what is in active use.

There are only three cupboards. One has cups, bowls, and plates. This third one is almost all tea and storage containers. The green basket is lids - with only 4 sizes, it is easy to find what you want.

This is a small 10'x10' kitchen. Very little counter space, and a big chunk is taken by the dish drainer and sink. As a result, the little table is not often used for eating, but produce storage. In an ideal world, I would replace it with a storage island. But the other main storage feature of the kitchen is a large shelving use that houses all my JARS.

The very top is enamel basins I use during canning season. Then a shelf of baking pans organized into baskets - round, square, loaf pans. Then a section of recipe binders, and large jars of macaroni, rice, salt, beans and other jars for storing the contents of large packages. The next shelf down is turntables for hot spices and baking spices, jars of dried herbs, canning spices. Below that is a tray of condiment bottles, canisters of seasonings, jars of whole grains, jars of preserves, dried milk. Then a shelf of oil, vinegar, nuts, dried fruit, liquor. Starting to be out of the photo is a shelf with a basket of kitchen towels, jars of popcorn, beans, dry milk, bread crumbs. Below that, you will have to imagine a row of flour and sugar bins and storage for mixers and waffle irons. I feel like I can cook anything from these shelves!

Under the table is a 5-gallon bucket of oatmeal, a potato bin, and recycling containers.

Short-term storage is stuff I will go through within a few months. I don't need it in the kitchen. I can go down to the basement to "shop" from this storage. These are things I need to rotate through and replenish all the time. I have sturdy pantry shelves in the basement for canned goods, a chest freezer, and a bunch of plastic buckets and bins. But if you have no basement, you might want to find a closet, put some bins behind the sofa or under the bed, even under a table.

I made a kind of storage cubicle. You can see the freezer on the lower left. The tall white cabinet is storage for empty canning jars. Then a steel shelf with bins for tea, spices, condiments, sealed bins of dried fruit and nuts. My bucket of most-frequently used tools is in there, too.

Against the far wall is part of a large shelving unit. The top has various small appliances and containers. Then, lots of canned goods. Soup, veg, fruit, canned protein. Lots of beans, tomatoes, corn.

The tomatoes come and go as we make big batches of pasta sauce to can in quarts. The beans and corn will be used more in winter when there are fewer fresh veggies and we make more soup.

Butted up to the shelves is a huge wooden cabinet I took off the wall to make better use of the space. It encloses the cubicle and holds filled canning jars, bottles of juice, larger cans, the flour I will use next, egg cartons, and paper towels. On the floor is a purple basket that is a sort of "inbox" for things I need to shelve.

Long-term storage is for things I buy in larger bulk, usually staples like flour, sugar, rolled oats, beans, rice, cooking oil. They go in bins and buckets, but more sealed up. Some of the sealed buckets are in front of the shelving. You can't see it, but there are cases of water jugs in the corner - enough to get us through10 days of emergency drinking and cooking.

On the other side of that cupboard is a wall of storage totes. They hold bulky boxes of cereal, crackers, flour bags, rice bags, boxes of grits. The rest of the shelves are accessible from this side. Canned pumpkin, canned milk, peanut butter, mayo and mustard, cooking wine, a rack of vinegar and oil jugs, bottled lemon juice.

Whew. That was an exhausting tour. That's a lot of food. We have eaten it down in the past, and built it back up, as our fortunes ebb and flow. This is the best is has been since I started serious pantry-building. You would have the best-stocked pantry and freezer now, going into winter. You eat it down until summer, then use the growing season to stock it up again.

This is a heated space, and I would like to add a sort of cold cellar in the unheated garage to store apples, root vegetables, and squash. Since we recently had an earthquake, I would also like to figure out how to secure the shelves against tipping over, and add some kind of barrier to keep things from falling off. Maybe the canned goods should be in bins.

You do not have to have that much storage just to eat decently on food stamps. I do notice that periods of food insecurity through out my life have made me feel like I want to have food "put by" for emergencies and unpleasantness. We live in uncertain times.

But, I may be a little crazy.

Challenge Day 6 - Strategy

If no one eats the ends of bread, I let them dry out in a pan, grind the up in the food processor, and add them to the bread crumb jar. Or, they could be buttered and put in a gratin dish with apple slices and custard for a small batch of bread pudding.

I have so much to say today, that I am dividing it into two posts. Strategy first, and then a post about Storage, and my actual eating report for yesterday.

So many articles about the various Food Stamp Challenges completely miss the point. Yes, it is challenging to feed a family on $4.50 person per day. And even harder if you are trapped by a lack of transportation and faced with shopping at inadequate and over-prided stores. If you are further handicapped by a lack of cooking skills, fundamental nutrition knowledge, or shopping experience - well, you are screwed until you learn more.

The media articles typically feature someone struggling to eat like they normally eat on that budget. They try to reproduce their normal diet, and end up missing meals or choosing a monotonous diet. They often feature someone with a professional job, often with no kids. The majority of food stamp families are families. There is an economy of scale to cooking for several people.

A week-long Food Stamp Challenge is a fallacy. It's not possible to do it well, if you are starting from zero. Which is certainly not to say that eating on Food Stamps would be easy in any case. Just that you are doomed to be hungry with $31.50 and no other money or food resources. In real life, you would visit a food bank, soup kitchen, or eat with family and friends.

This is the secret: You may eat an average of $4.50 per day, but you do not shop with $4.50 per day. You shop with $135 per month. A family of four shops with $540 per month. Try to reserve 10% of that for a bulk purchase that will last for months.

Let's say you find yourself in a financial pickle, and you realize you need help feeding your family. You feel crappy about having to apply, but you go through the process, produce all that documentation, and eventually come out the other end with a brand new EBT card with a month's worth of food stamps - which will depend on your income and family size.

Whew! But your problems are not over. Now you need to figure out how to make that lump of food money last a month. Did you ever try to plan a month of meals? Almost no one does. Maybe your high school Home Economics teacher did, but most people do not live like that.

Here is how I do it.

This is the beginning of the month, so I am thinking about how November will roll. Many people receive benefits like Social Security or pension payments at the beginning of the month. The Food Stamps themselves will arrive the first or second week of the month. We have Thanksgiving to plan for - a major eating holiday.

What would my normal monthly shopping look like?

First, I take inventory of the fridge and freezers. What needs to be eaten? Do I need to make room for new purchases? What do I need to buy flesh out those meals? I clean out the fridge by concentrating on using leftovers that are hanging around. I check the pantry shelves. What is running low, that I should be looking to stock up? I check "The List." The List is on the fridge door, and everyone in the house is trained to write down when they open the last of something - food, household supplies, toiletries. We want to shop for the best deal, so we don't wait until the thing is all gone and becoming an urgent purchase.

I also think about what is going to be on sale in this season. You can look that up here. In November, the sales will include holiday baking supplies, turkeys, butter, oatmeal, dried fruit and nuts. Citrus fruit will start to come down in price, and clementines will come into season - we love clementines. I will need to make room in the freezer for butter and turkey, so we need to eat down the frozen bread - no buying bread this month. Apples and pears, root vegetables, and things in the cabbage family can be stored in the garage, now that is is colder. I go online and consult all the local store flyers.

I will think about protein first. I want to provide enough protein, iron, and calcium for everyone. This is the protein requirement for our family:
Grandma (Age 84, Sedentary) 55g
Me (Age 50, Active) 90g
SO (Age 37, Moderately Active) 105g
DD15: (Age 15, Moderately Active) 70g
I want to make sure we are hitting that, not just filling up on cheap carbs. We all enjoy dairy, so we don't have trouble getting dietary calcium, and my mother and I take calcium citrate supplements. We also take multi-vitamins.

I plan for protein at the start of the month, when I have the most money. That allows me to shop for large pieces of meat at a good price. I can either break it down into smaller portions and freeze it for meals, or cook it and use it for several meals, possibly also freezing cooked portions so we don't get tired of it. I buy meat, poultry, cheese, beans, nuts. I buy eggs, dairy, and produce throughout the month.

This is what I might buy at the beginning of the month. Aldi and Redner's are close enough for me to walk, pulling a wagon, if I did not have a car. Obviously, your list will look different. Ours is tailored to our taste, allergies, cooking skills, and general weirdness.

I will not spend all my money at once. I need a turkey, and I would probably buy it at the farmer's market, where there is a local poultry vendor who takes Food Stamps. He will also have turkey backs and necks for .10-.20/lb, cheaper than any other time of year. I will freeze them for stockmaking. I also need to reserve money for fresh produce and dairy all month.

Aldi discount (2x month)
check clearance bin
check for manager specials on expiring meat
1.99 bag of 6 bagels
1.99 loaf raisin bread
1.99 loaf of whole grain bread
0.99 pkg flour tortillas
oranges, melon in season
bagged spinach
Bottom Dollar discount (weekly for produce and dairy)
check loss leaders
check for manager specials on expiring meat
2 large chunks of protein for the month, beyond turkey
2.77 kielbasi 1-lb
2.49 bacon 1-lb
pork neckbones for soup stock
6.76 4 qts yogurt @ 1.68
3.69 gal milk
2.27 qt half&half
1.19 pt sour cream
2.98 3 doz eggs @ .99
5.44 shredded cheddar (2lb.)
5.44 shredded mozzarella (2lb.)
3.00 2 bunch bananas @ .44/lb
2.39 pound butter
1.39 pkg cream cheese
1.49 8-pk of PB/cheese cracker snacks
1.49 8-pk of cheese-on-cheese cracker snacks
1.96 4 cans chicken noodle soup
3# onions
1# carrots
10# potatoes
sweet potatoes
garlic, ginger root
broccoli, cabbage
apples, pears, pineapple or other seasonal fruit
2 cantaloupes or a watermelon if in season
Giant/Redner's conventional supermarket (once a month)
check loss leaders
box of Giant decaf tea bags
bottle ceasar dressing (unless I went to Walmart) box whole grain cream of wheat bagged frozen pasta on sale (tortellini, ravioli, etc)
check for bread on sale (to freeze)
Walmart Superstore (every few months)
Zillions of food stamp families shop at Walmart, but I find most can be had elsewhere for less. The selection is limited and pedestrian. The produce does not impress. But some walmart-brand items are hard to beat. It is my go-to source for incontinence disposables for my mother.
herbal tea bags, family-size tea bags
hot sauce
smoked Goudam cheese
bags of bulk raw popcorn
refrigerated Caesar dressing
Grocery liquidators - BB's or BRL (monthly)
I don't get all this every month. I look at these kinds of things to find bargains to build my pantry. Liquidator stores have constantly-changing stock. I may find a $1 jar of organic tahini that costs $8 in a regular store. Or quarts of gourmet yogurt that expire in a day for .50 instead of $5. It's a shopping adventure with no list. You just have to know your price-to-beat.
hot cocoa
peanut butter
boxed cereal and granola
salad croutons
gingerbread and bread machine mixes
flour, sugar, raw sugar
spices and seasoning
oatmeal and cream of wheat
olive, sesame, and canola oils
canned tomatoes and beans
mustard, mayo, horseradish sauce
condiments, sauces and dressings
paper and plastic disposables
laundry detergent and dish soap
snack crackers an saltines
rice, beans, split peas, bulk popcorn
sometimes cheese and yogurt
protein shakes/mix
protein and granola bars
discount Pepperidge Farm bread
Trader Joe's (every 2-3 months)
(Is an hour away and I carpool with a Prius-driving friend.)
olive oil
grated parmesan
pine nuts honey 0.99 pizza dough balls 1lb
fluoride-free toothpaste
Dr Bronner's soap
"Shopping" from my own pantry storage (all month)
frozen bread
frozen sausage and chicken - make freezer space
home-canned jam and chutney
Home-canned pizza and pasta sauce
frozen pesto, fruit sauce
frozen homemade chicken, pork, and vegetable stock
frozen homemade soup and refried beans
oatmeal and other cereal
raisins and other dried fruit
sugar, flour, yeast spices, condiments
peanut butter and tahini
crackers and saltines
canned tomatoes dry and canned beans olive and canola oil, vinegar
boxed pasta
basmati, brown, arborio rice

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Challenge Day 5 Report - Hunter-Gathering

I like to get pears to just-ready-to-eat on the counter and then put them in the fridge.

I meant to tell you about Sunday's shopping. Weis Markets was having a Grand Re-Opening of their store on Rockland Avenue. I used to go there, mostly lured by the 1/2-price day-old bakery goods. But they started donating the day-old bread to food banks instead of discounting it - good for food banks, bad for my bread pudding habit. I moved to the other side of town, so it dropped off my list of regularly-visited stores. I had a lunch with a friend near the store on Sunday, so I stopped by to look.

The draw for me was .99 bags of sugar and flour. I am picky about sugar. Most white sugar comes from sugar beets, and they are almost all GMO (genetically-modified) in the US. And, there are no labeling requirements, so you can't tell. But if the bag says "cane sugar" it cannot legally be beet sugar. Happily, the Weis store brand is cane sugar. But you are only allowed one bag at that price, and one bag of .99 bleached flour. I prefer unbleached or white whole wheat four from King Arthur, but Christmas cookie season is coming.

I also found on sale: cat food, cat litter, hoisin sauce, pretzels, imitation crab. In the produce department, they had ginger root for only .99/lb, asparagus 1.49, pears .99, red grapes 1.49. Got deli ham for SO's sandwiches, splurged on 4 Honeycrisp apples at 2.49/lb. They had DD15's preferred whole wheat Italian bread buy-one-get-one, so I got some for the freezer.

Then, I spotted a big bargain! 42-oz canisters of store-brand rolled oats at 2/$3. Only two left and I snatched them. But when I checked out, they rang at 3.59. I was distracted by the bag boy's confusion about my reusable bags, so didn't notice until I looked at the register tape - the total seemed too high. I went to the service desk, and it turns out someone put the canisters in the wrong place, and it was at floor level, so I couldn't read the shelf tag. If the item itself had been mis-priced in the computer, most stores will give you one free, but this was just a shelving error. Rats. I returned them, since I know that Aldi has the 42-oz oats for $1.99 every day. I am down to my last 5-gallon bucket of oats, so I have oatmeal high on my stock-up list.

Overall, nothing really made me want to come back to Weis, unless something else takes me in that direction. I am really pretty "over" shopping in regular grocery stores - I am spoiled by the discounters and liquidators. I do shop the loss leaders, but it's not worth the gas for a few sale items unless they let you buy a lot of it. What is a "loss leader?" It's an item that a store prices at less than it cost them, to get you to come to the store. The things on the front of the store flyer in the largest type are usually the loss leaders. They take a "loss" on a few items in order to "lead" you into the store, where you will also buy other things.

The point to this was that even though there was a lot of stuff on sale, I know my "price to beat" list and there was not much that was cheaper than anywhere else. My strategy is to wait for deeper discounts. I only "needed" the ham and the produce. I did notice that grocery prices are up. You used to find those smaller oatmeal boxes for .99 on sale in the fall - now they are $1.50. That's a big increase, and I noticed others.

On the way back, I stopped at Price-Rite, which was also being remodeled. I used to shop there more when I lived in town. They have cheap produce and I got broccoli for .99, romaine .99, cabbage .49, yams .59, butternut .69, bananas .49, and limes 5/$1. Also got lite sour cream, bagels, and tortillas. On the way back through that neighborhood around 9th and Oley, I saw a bunch of newer discount food stores I have not checked out. A new Save-A-Lot, a "Meat Outlet" and something else new about to open. I will need to come back soon and explore. They already have the Price-Rite and a C-Town, so this looks to be developing into a "destination for discount food sshopping. Ironic and appropriate, since it used to be center of the outlet-shopping district that made Reading famous in the 70s.

All-in-all, I spent less than $50. i will need milk and yogurt this week, but that would be enough food, otherwise. A friend and I are planning a trip to Trader Joe's and a grocery liquidator, but that is more for pantry-building than immediate need. I try not to run out of things and "need" them, so I can always wait for a good price.

But, see what happens when you begin to live the food stamp lifestyle? It's all about price. The most food for the money. Not quality. Not about where and how it was produced, or who suffered to produce it. Not about whether the food dollars are going to local farmers, or even if the money stays in our region. Its about where I can get the most food, for the least expenditure of money and gasoline.

I live in the middle of some of the most productive agricultural counties in the state and the country. And I am buying almost nothing that I can identify as having come from here.

Breakfast $1.49
SO banana (.20)
DD15 nothing
Grandma- oatmeal (.06) with raisins (.07) and pear (.20), yogurt with honey (.17), tea (.04) Me - oatmeal (.06) with raisins (.07) and pear (.20), yogurt with honey (.17), hot cocoa (.25)

Lunch $4.54
SO - packed ham (1.25) and swiss (.40) sandwich (.25), PB crackers (.20)
DD15 - at school
Grandma - PB (.15) and homemade jelly (.20) on raisin toast (.25), Honeycrisp apple (1.25) and worth it), tea (.04) me - chicken noodle soup (.50), crackers (.20), tea (.10), grapes (.75)

Dinner $2.80
SO, Grandma, Me: Chicken in sage gravy (.20), over mashed (.55), with broccoli (.65) Grandma: bagel (.20) with butter (.18), tea (.04), grapes (.50)
DD15 - I have no idea. She did not appear to eat anything. Me - 3 pretzel rods (.25), milk (.23) for snack

Rachel Ray did not invent the 30-minute meal. I peeled and cubed a pound of potatoes and put them on to boil. Then I turned half a head of broccoli into florets and put it in a steamer basket on the stove.

Meanwhile, I picked the meat off the rest of those leftover chicken legs and put about half in a bag in the fridge. Got out the jar of pan drippings from when I roasted the chicken - it had separated into a thick layer of fat over a jellied jar-shaped chunk of pure chicken goodness. I took off the fat and put it in a baggie in the freezer. I collect chicken fat to render into "schmaltz" periodically. I have been collecting the skin and bones in a bowl in the fridge as we use the chicken meat; I put all that into a pot of water with an onion, some aging celery stalks, a carrot, some bay leaves, peppercorns, thyme I ran out into the cold backyard to snip off in the dark. It simmered on the back of the stove for 6 hours, and then I put it in a pitcher to cool before going into the fridge overnight. I will collect the fat from that, too, and will be left with lovely stock to freeze in quart containers.

I get a lot of mileage out of $4 worth of cheap chicken. This will be the third meal from that chicken, plus schmaltz and stock. And there is still a bag of chicken meat in the fridge, and a jar of leftover chicken-in-gravy.

I melted the pan juice in a saucepan, and made roux from butter and flour in another pan. When the juices were almost boiling, I added the roux and whisk it around. Got out my jar of sage dried from my garden, and rubbed a lot of it into the pot. Add lots of fresh-cracked pepper, a little milk. A little garlic powder, a little salt. The intensity of chicken flavor was almost shocking, but the mashed potatoes will mellow that. I added a pile of picked chicken to the pot, leaving it in big chunks. That pan came off the heat and got a lid while I tossed the steamed broccoli in a hot skillet with a shot of sesame oil and a sprinkle of house seasoning.

The potatoes were ready to drain and mash with my favorite vintage cast-iron masher. Added a lump of butter, salt and pepper, a splash of milk, and the last of the lite sour cream. Divided the potatoes into three plates, ladled chicken and sauce over it, added broccoli. On our old thick ironstone plates, it looked like good diner food. I got the camera for a picture, but DD15 had run out the battery not charged it. Damn kids.

That dish for all three of us was $1.40. The chicken and pan juice were leftovers, "paid for" by other meals. The costs came from broccoli and the bits of dairy, butter, seasoning. It took about half an hour. When you get into the habit of stashing away ingredients, it's actually fast and easy to cook from scratch.

Mom ate all the taters and broccoli, but would not eat most of the chicken. Damn dementia. She wanted tea and a bagel an hour later. She only wants to eat carbs. I will get her to drink some protein shake at breakfast.

Why didn't DD15 eat? Because there is "nothing in the house to eat." She would not touch gravy if I held a gun to her head. I thawed pizza dough for her, got her favorite bread, there are potato smilies in the freezer, and Honeycrisp apples in the fruit dish. She was annoyed that I didn't bring her a Coke Slushie. ::shrug::

Total for the Day: $8.83