Sunday, February 7, 2016

Raleigh money-saving tips for the food conscious but cash-strapped

There are two types of people who won't be interested in this post. The first type includes those who do their grocery shopping with only price and convenience in mind. If you aren't convinced of the many problems with mass-produced, factory food--problems in terms of both ethics and health--then you'll have to wait for another post.

The second type of people, on the other hand, includes those who are aware of the many problems with mass-produced, factory food, and who are willing and able to frequent Whole Foods and the local farmers' markets, paying whatever it takes to eat high quality, locally produced food. Alas, I suppose things are probably easier for those with significant disposable income. But what of the rest of us? What of those who want to eat healthy, chemical-free food but who simply can't afford to pay two or three times the regular grocery store price? Although it's true that our grandparents spent a significantly higher percentage of their income on food, it's silly to suggest that we can simply do the same. Circumstances have changed for those of us in the lower middle class, with more money going toward other expenses, especially the radically higher percentage of our income that goes to the healthcare industry in the form of insurance premiums and medical care.

So, today's post shares some of Rosemary's and my tips on finding quality food here in the greater Raleigh area as we work to eat well on a school teacher's salary:

Meat and eggs
Meat and eggs are probably the products that we are least willing to compromise on. Between beef and venison from Rosemary's parents and chicken and pork that we raise for ourselves, we really don't have to purchase any meat products. When we lived in Wake Forest, we did make a bulk purchase of chicken breast from a company called Zaycon, which takes orders online and then drops off bulk orders at various drop-off points. It was good for what it was--antibiotic-free chicken. But there really is no comparison between mass-produced factory meat of any kind and the real thing, and so perhaps it's worth eating less meat and focusing on quality. We sell free-range, organically fed chicken for $4.25/pound, and I know it's available for that price or even less at the farmer's markets. We strongly recommend the farmers' markets over the more cheaply priced organic meat at Trader Joe's or local grocery stores because, like with the Zaycon chicken, it's just not the same thing due to the feed lot and factory conditions in which even technically "free range" animals are raised.

Regarding eggs, we again strongly recommend going with the farmers' markets or a friend or neighbor. The store product isn't the same in taste or quality. The labels "free-range" and "pasture-raised" often don't mean what most people think they do. We currently supply eggs to several friends for $3.50/dozen, which is lower than most everybody we know right now, but even $4 or $5/dozen is worth the price.

Can we put in a plug for our Bun-area neighbors for meat? Ray Family Farms has excellent beef, pork and more. Our neighbors right down the road, the Cheves at Clover C Farm, offer lamb, and Mrs. Cheves sometimes has eggs available as well. You can make similar connections at the local farmers markets in Zebulon, Wake Forest, Louisburg, and Cary, as well as at the far larger market in Raleigh.

Milk, cheese, and other dairy
We produce our own goat milk and some of our own cheese, but from time to time the goats are dry and we've gone searching for dairy products. We highly recommend Maple Ridge Farm's milk, which is available at the Grain Mill in Wake Forest. It's around $3.50 for a half-gallon, with an additional deposit for the returnable glass jar in which it comes. Although it isn't officially organic, the milk is local and from a small family farm. Aldi's also carries similarly priced, or even cheaper, organic milk, but we are willing to pay a little bit more to go with the local product. Obviously $6-plus a gallon is a steep jump from the price of a conventional gallon, but like with meat and eggs, it's only the factory farm practices that make the conventional product so cheap. Unfortunately quality costs more, and there simply aren't many ways to get around the cost.

Regarding cheese, in any case, we purchase large quantities from a cheesemaker near Rosemary's family in Wisconsin and thus don't have too many local tips. But one storage tip that we can offer is that we freeze our cheese and use it gradually over six months or so. Although it is a little crumbly when thawed out, it tastes nearly as good as it did when fresh. So, if you can find a good deal on cheese, it's worth making a big purchase so long as you have the freezer storage space. Speaking of big purchases, that has been our strategy for butter as well. Aldi's and Lowe's Foods occasionally discount butter down to $2/lb. We purchase ten to twenty or more pounds of butter at a time and freeze it. Our strategy is similar with ice cream: a number of the local grocery stores will discount Bryers--a quality brand with uncomplicated ingredients and no high fructose corn syrup--down to $2.50/package. Having a chest freezer, of course, is key to taking advantage of deals like these.

Bread, grains, and sugar
Although it may involve some major rethinking, it is very nice to buy these grain and sweeteners in bulk and store them properly. At this point we need to put in another plug for the Grain Mill in Wake Forest, which is an excellent place to purchase bulk grains of various sorts, including organic. We were lucky enough to snag one of the last permanent "founding" memberships, but the Grain Mill still sells annual memberships which include a 10% discount on bulk purchases. For our own part, we buy oats, wheat berries, and cornmeal, as well as bulk sugar and other products through this store. We grind and use the wheat as needed. Rosemary makes almost all of our bread from scratch. Our newest kitchen adventure is a pasta maker--a far easier process than we expected--but in the past we have purchased our pasta from Trader Joe's. Their organic pasta is comparable in price to non-organic pasta purchased elsewhere.

As far as bakery products are concerned, one thing is to visit a grocery store, or even Wal-Mart, towards the end of the week and check for products near the end of their shelf life. Bread products can be frozen for consumption later on. There is also a bakery discount store on Spring Forest Rd., just east of Capital Blvd., that sells nearly-expired bread $5 for garbage bag-full. Although we buy these bags for our pigs rather than for our own consumption, we haven't been shy about snagging a pack of hamburger buns for ourselves from a newly purchased bag from time to time.

Oils, chips, cleaning products,  and other misc. club-membership store items
This one is a club-membership store catch-all. Olive oil is a little controversial, as it's apparent that many of the brands mix in lesser quality additives. The best olive oil that we've found is at Costco, generally their very reasonably priced organic brand. We've purchased other cooking oils, such as organic coconut oil, at Costco or from time to time at Trader Joe's. For tortilla chips, our go-to strategy has been to stock up on our rare trips to Costco (rare these days because we've let our membership expire and tag along with generous friends). Costco's organic chips are $5 for a very large bag and have few ingredients beyond the corn, salt, and oil. BJ's chips are similarly priced and even less complicated ingredient-wise. But unfortunately tortilla chips are the only product that we've found to make a trip to BJ's worthwhile. The dearth of reasonably priced, healthy chips outside the club-membership stores mystifies us. The next best thing is the Mission brand available at Wal-Mart, which is produced in our old hometown of Irving, Texas.

Costco, in any case, really is superior to BJ's for almost all the products we stock up on. Costco's brands of laundry soap--both the organic and regular--are environmentally friendly and don't cause irritation to our children's skin the way other brands have. And they're reasonably priced, too, as is their dish soap. A few additional random Costco items: the store offers large jars of organic jam, which has been our go-to source when we run out of the jam that we ourselves processed. And Rosemary's favorite treats on these trips include bulk feta cheese and humus.

Fresh fruits and vegetables
We're excited this past year finally to be growing most of our own vegetables, with our winter garden in particular having been a great success. Although we just ate the last of the collards, we're still pulling carrots from the garden, and we've still got a month or two worth of our green beans and broccoli stored in the freezer, in addition to Rosemary's fermented sour kraut. But we are still dependent on a number of outside sources for all our other veggies, as well as all of our fruit. The best place we've found to buy produce in bulk has been the Raleigh farmer's market. If you go during the week, some of the stalls will have boxes of discounted produce in season--potatoes and sweet potatoes, deer apples, cabbages, etc. We've even stocked up on and frozen blueberries, of all things. This is the best place to buy greens as well. The taste and nutritional differences between the fresh produce and grocery store produce make it well worth the price difference--and fruits and veggies aren't like meat, where the price difference is astronomical. That said, sometimes we do look for leafy greens in the organic sections of Wal-Mart and other stores when we need them in a pinch--particularly celery and, from time to time, the large containers of organic pre-washed lettuce or spinach (which are cheapest at Cost-co).

To save money on fruits and vegetables, the main tip we can offer is to buy produce in bulk at the farmers markets toward the end of their shelf life. Most any fruits and veggies can be blanched and frozen. One more plug for our neighbors, this time Vollmer Farm. Although ordinarily Vollmer is well outside our teacher salary price range, they discount their strawberries significantly toward the end of their shelf life. The past two springs we've been able to purchase 100 pounds of berries at $1/lb to freeze or make into jam. So, follow Vollmer's facebook page, especially in the spring, to take advantage of deals like these.

Our Secret Wildcard
While we were in Dallas during my graduate studies, we actually ate very well--lots of organic and Whole Foods-type products, fancy cheeses and seafood toward the end of their shelf life, you name it. Our secret in Dallas was a store called TownTalk, a very large bent-and-dent grocery store, but we've struggled to find a similar store here in Raleigh. The best we've found is located in the Louisburg flea market, open Fridays through Sundays. We stock up on lots of organic products here--crackers, cereals, salsa, noodles, etc., basically whatever they have that hasn't expired that looks like a treat. Usually the products are there because the box was slightly crushed or partially opened, or perhaps the can had a small dent in it. Obviously it's important to pay attention to expiration dates, and we've definitely had some clunkers, but there really is absolutely nothing wrong with most of the products. Not for everybody, perhaps; but I suppose that just means more for us!

In future posts, I think that Rosemary will also want to highlight companies like Vitacost and Shaklee, which we also use heavily. But I hope that this narrative of tips is helpful to some of you in the Raleigh area. Feel free to share tips of your own in the comments section!





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