October 4, 2011

You are what you eat?

"How much do you spend on groceries a month?" Who would have thought that such a simple question could cause such controversy? But that's just what happened over at Beauty that Moves today when Heather asked that very question.

Heather confessed that she spends $800 a month to feed her family of three a vegetarian, whole-food, mostly organic diet, but is challenging herself to spend half of that for the month of October as a belt-cinching exercise. Well, the comments exploded (for reasons I won't go into, but you can check it out for yourself, here). The interesting point, at least for me, is that many of the commenters from across America are feeding much larger families for much, much less. We're talking a family of seven for $400 a month, or a family of four on $300 a month. How do they do it?!

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and make my own confession: I feed our family of four an omnivorous, mostly-whole food, partially organic diet for $800 a month. There. I said it. I feel like I just farted in a quiet room or something.

Why is it so embarrassing for me to confess that? Well, first of all, I was brought up not to mention money. Period. But more importantly, I just feel like it's way, way too much. I must be a terrible homemaker if I can't be more frugal.

So where does it all go? Well, first off, I spend $60 a week at the farmer's market, where I buy all of our meat and eggs and most of our produce. I realize it's a little steep to pay $5 for a dozen eggs or $11 for a small lamb shoulder, but I don't see myself changing this. I have a very personal relationship with the farmer from whom I get most of my produce, and I like knowing that the food he has so thoughtfully grown for his two kids is the same pesticide- and herbicide-free food I'm feeding my two kids. I also like knowing that the meat we eat--and we only eat meat two nights a week--has been humanely raised and slaughtered. That said, I realize this is a luxury. Still, it only accounts for a fourth of our monthly food budget.

Yep, those farmer's market eggplants are beautiful--and expensive at $7 a pound.

And I do grow some of my own veggies, but that only works for about two month of the year.

The rest goes Superstore, a discount big-box store, much like Wal-Mart in the States. I used to shop at our neighbourhood Safeway, but one week our bill came to $330 (for one week!), and I vowed never to go back. So, I'm proud to say that rigourous meal planning, bulk buying, and discount shopping has whittled our grocery store budget down to just $140 a week--and that includes toiletries. (But not liquor, because I can't go without my nightly beer and, jeez, this is Canada: a case of "cheap" domestic beer will set you back $25!)

Now, I know that some of the sticker shock comes from the "Canadian premium," which is about 35-40% more per item than what I used to pay when we lived in the States. Some of that premium is due to our location. We live in "northern-ish" Canada, where the growing season is only three months long and the range of foods that can be grown is very limited. Much of what I buy at the supermarket has been shipped very, very long distances. But it's not like I'm eating blackberries in July. I'm eating peaches in August, but still, they had to be flown in from British Columbia.

Another huge chunk of that premium comes from Canada's protectionist policies on dairy, which means that we pay $5 for a gallon of milk and $8 for a pound of cheddar. And let me tell you, this family consumes it's weight in dairy a month.

Finally, there's the fact that wages are higher here because Canada has universal healthcare and a true living wage and those things don't come cheap. But they are wonderful things, and I'm happy to pay a little extra at the check out line so that everyone can enjoy them.

I even make our own bread--shouldn't that count for something?

And there was the week I resolved to "eat out of the pantry..."

So there is the naked truth of our family's grocery budget. Shocking isn't it? More importantly, what can I do to lower it? Because while we are lucky to be able to afford to spend so much on our groceries, I would prefer to spend less so that maybe we can put more money toward other priorities, like buying our own house one day ...

What are your cost-saving measures at the supermarket? What do you skimp on and what are you willing to do without? What do you spend on a gallon of milk? A pair of chicken breasts? A dozen eggs? Am I wrong in thinking that the difference at the check out line is mostly due to latitude?

Oh, and if you're interested in following along on Heather's "$400 Grocery Challenge," just click through the button on the right nav bar. I'll be lurking myself, but I'm saving the "challenge" for November. I figured it would be too easy to cut my monthly food budget in half since we'll be mooching off my parents for the next two weeks.

One thing I can't skimp on: real maple syrup. Since Kevin turned me on to it, I've never gone back to Aunt Jemima.


Vicky said...

Really interesting post. Since Logan came along our food bills have skyrocketed and she doesn't even eat anything!!! I think its down to me not being organised even to meal plan or write a shopping list, something I keep promising myself to do. All in all we spend about £300 to £400 a month on food (thats about $600 US), but I'm not including the quick trips to the shops for the basics, eggs, bread and milk that happen in between superstore trips. I think I might take up the challenge too.

Laura B said...

I spend about $200/month just to feed myself a 90% whole foods/organic/vegan diet (and that is without all those tempting fake meat products!) (this amount does include beer and toiletries).

I'm getting to know what you mean about latitude. Montana's growing season is short (I didn't even manage to actually make my garden do anything this year), so producing my own veggies is a limited venture. I love our farmer's market, and for everything else, I shop at the local Co op. Almost all the produce is from far away most of the year, sadly.

I save money by buying in bulk. All my nuts, grains, dried fruit, etc., are purchased from the bulk bins (I even bring my own jars to fill instead of wasting the plastic bags they provide).

I don't think my monthly food budget could get mush smaller without sacrificing quality (organic, non-processed, etc.), and I think food is one place not to scrimp to the point of sacrificing quality and health.

And I know what you mean about maple syrup.

Sarah said...

Wow, Laura, that is impressively frugal! Your co-op sounds great. I visited one when we were in California last year and it was awesome. But as far as I know, Edmonton doesn't have a co-op, and I'm pretty sure I would have heard about it if it did. Still, I should look into buying more things in bulk. And then there's that CSA I always meant to join...