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If you think this is about YOU, maybe you should go reconcile with your parent and work to get back your kids instead of continuing to be a jerk. If you think I am you, or similar to you, welcome! :-)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Stretching The Budget Some More--Obtaining & Storing Food (And Couple Other Things)

Recessions are not new. If you were around for the Ford, Carter or early Clinton administrations (I was around for all three of them, and few more besides), you might remember brief forays into budget control. I'm not talking about the National Debt. I'm talking about the household budget, stretched and pulled and pummeled into good behavior. When people couldn't buy at house with an interest rate under 15%, when we wore WIN buttons in an attempt to encourage ourselves to do better, when we brought our lunches to work in brown paper bags, when we took on an extra job.

Why this now? Well, times are tight, again. This will bring out the naysayers, who think Granny can't possibly take on a couple of little kids on her income.

I can be rather nasty at times. If somebody said that to me, and a couple have, I would simply tell them if they feel that way, they know how to spell my name for the check they plan to give me to help with this endeavor. It usually shuts them up in a hurry.

Some of the wonders to occur during these tight times:
  • Saving money in strange situations. Stashed in an attic suitcase. Taped to the bottom of drawers. In a fireproof box. In a tin can nailed to the floor. Buried in the back yard in a mason jar. Frozen assets in the deep freeze. People wanted their hands on their cash. It made them secure. We'll explore this later, but for now, let's just mention that there are ways to keep money at home for emergencies, and there are ways to use money to invite burglars to help themselves.
  • Making do or doing without (yes, it ends in a preposition). We will talk more about this down the road, but for now, creativity is the key as tube socks become dog toys and old boards become shelves when added to cinder blocks. I am well-versed in this. I hate to spend money for temporary things, and there is a lot in this world I consider temporary, much to the family's chagrin.
  • Good budget tactics. Look out, Dave Ramsey and Phil Lenahan! They are the fellas with the big picture. I have the small one. They may give every dollar a name. I wrestle every dollar to the floor and make it cry "Uncle" at least three times.
  • Meal creativity and flexibility. Each meal will be getting its own entry, and therefore, its own treatment.
  • Getting food in the first place. Nobody is out to embarrass, shame or harass when it comes to food. I might revisit this topic several times this year. The process changes with the seasons, as does the food items.

I like food. If you knew me, you'd be able to see just how much I like food. Suffice it to say, I enjoy the dining experience. Cooking- eh, that's a maybe. There have been a few food experiments in my life that even I would not eat.

For some of us, getting food is not a big deal. We get in the car, traipse down to the supermarket of choice, put our choices in the basket, wheel it to the checkout, pay the person, wheel it out to the car, take it home, unload it into proper storage area, and eat it as needed. No big deal. We could go do it again if we wanted to do it the next day.

Then there are those in pressed circumstances. These circumstances include:

  • Money to get food. I'll do a big entry on food stamps, how to get them, where to go in all fifty states. But there are people who have $20 to get $50 worth of food. Not fun.
  • Getting to the store. I am blessed to live in a suburb with sidewalks. If I wanted (and probably should- it'd be exercise), I could get a cute little cart and walk to not one, but four grocery stores. I also have a car to transport me. Others live in cities without a car where a bus trip is mandatory to any type of purchases. Some folks have to take cabs. Some folks have to rely on their own two feet or the generosity of family and friends to get miles away from their homes, where the food is.
  • Limited selection. Not everybody has a Jewel, Publix, Woodman's or Safeway nearby.
  • Teens. Yes, teens eat a great deal. Their bodies grow at a phenomenal rate. Even in the average household, a teenager can clean out a refrigerator in a matter of hours. When the groceries are ten miles away, and the older kids are eating like there's no tomorrow, it seems all a body can do is replenish, replenish, replenish.

Life has not always been a series of passive events for me. Not too many people know I was once married, young, to a guy who now claims he never had any children. That is partially true. He was too irresponsible to raise them, as they interfered with his "fun" in life. It was only when the Mister came long, we married, he adopted the older two, brought along with his joy for life, and shared his income did things get middle class for us. Otherwise, I encountered a series of daily challenges.

One of those challenges was obtaining food. I've walked a couple miles on dirt roads with small children as Sherpas, carrying what they could in their arms. I've begged, borrowed and paid for rides to get my cargo home when I did not have a license and/ or a car. I've sat in the human services office for hours at a time, while case workers went on break and ate goodies in front of hordes of children. I've been to the community food pantry, and received uncured ham as well as venison in my package of relief (and it was definitely a relief). To this day, it makes me extremely generous with those who do not have food. I feed everybody, even if I don't like them. Along with practical donations to the food pantry, I include chocolate, the Staff of Life as far as I'm concerned.

One of the best ways I've encountered to buy food is the food co-op or food buying club. There are a variety of clubs all over the United States and Canada. Some are little neighborhood operations, where private families buy cereal and other food at rock-bottom prices, storing them in their garages. There are co-ops for organic food, as well as community groups that base their operations on bulk items.

I am a big supporter of SHARE, or Self Help And Resource Exchange. SHARE has been in existence since 1983, when it was founded by a Catholic deacon in San Diego. SHARE used to offer a unit of groceries for a set price and 3 hours of volunteer service. The service could be anywhere, one on one or through a volunteer organization or church, including helping with SHARE. It was strictly trusting people to do the right thing and meet the requirements.

Now, SHARE packages are not regulated by volunteer hours, although people are still asked on the paper form how they volunteer. There are big units of food, known as the Big Value Package, for $25-$30 a unit. There are at least 5 protein dinner items, a couple protein items for lunch and breakfast, a starch or two, 7 produce items, maybe a dessert, and the surprise bonus item. The Big Value Package easily covers a family of two adults and two children, or two teenagers, for a week. The Mini Package, for $15-$20 a unit, offers 5 proteins, one starch, and 5 produce items, and is perfect for those who don't eat as much. SHARE also offers the opportunity to purchase case lot items, including frozen vegetables, meats, juice packs, dry goods and desserts. All the food is top quality, much of it organic and antibiotic free.

SHARE accepts food stamps as well as cash, checks, debit and credit cards. SHARE is open to all, whether one could walk into the grocery store and buy the same things for cash, or one uses food stamps. Everybody is equal at SHARE.

SHARE offerings can differ by location. You will need to check with your local site to get an order form, or to order online:

District of Columbia, Maryland, Northern Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York (metro), North Carolina, Northern Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska. There are no web sites, but there are SHARE groups in Central Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Wyoming, South Dakota, and California. You will have to call around and find them.

Angel Food is another food buying club. It was started by an evangelical pastor and his wife in 1994, after hard times closed the local industrial plant. Sponsored by churches throughout the United States, it claims to feed over 500,000 families a month.

Angel Food offers several food units for sale each month. The Regular Box, for $30, includes about 10-12 pounds of protein, along with a few pounds of starches, always a dozen eggs, a couple pounds of frozen vegetables, and a dessert item. A smaller version, the Senior/ Convenience Box, contains full-cooked meals with at least 3 ounces of protein, a starch, and two vegetables or fruit. These meals have been frozen for heat-and-eat convenience. A unit of 10 meals, with accompanying dessert items, cost $28. Angel Food also offers packages for $15-$25 that include meats, vegetables, fresh produce, and sides.

To see if Angel Food is offered by a church or ministry in your area or to find out this month's menu offerings, click here.

I prefer SHARE over Angel Food. I like the fact that SHARE will allow me to assist where I can in the unloading and packaging of the food. SHARE does not put a tract in my units that goes against my religious beliefs. Most importantly, SHARE treats me with a measure of dignity, and treats everybody at the site with a measure of dignity.

I don't find this at the Angel Food sites I have encountered. It might be a different story where you live. I sometimes feel condescended and pitied at Angel Food. I don't understand this, as there is no need to pity me. Angel Food clearly states that it is open to all economic income brackets, as is SHARE. I use SHARE and Angel Food to stretch my budget, but I don't need my children patted on the head when they come with me to help me load the cargo. I don't need to be pitied, even if I was down to my last $30. Maybe some Angel Food people could explain. I don't care if SHARE offers a great deal of chicken products (although SHARE is trying to do better with pork and beef products). I am not an object of pity, and neither all the other people who use food buying clubs, simply because we avail ourselves of this program.

On the other hand, if you need the services of Angel Food, by all means use them.

San Diego also offers Golden Share. Their motto, "If you eat, you qualify."

I don't have to tell a veteran grandparent how to bargain shop for food, particularly grandmothers. I don't have to explain to them the use of coupons, shopping cards, and other store bonuses. If you've fallen out of practice, get your worn and torn copy of The Tightwad Gazette off the shelf and review.

I will mention that it is my personal opinion that children need snacks and treats, though rare the sugary-sweet drivel offered on TV. It is also my personal opinion that teens need to eat to grow. Toward that end, if you have any space at all in your home to develop a pantry, now is the time to use it.

We moved to what we considered to be an empty-nester in 2000. We purposely did not take the house that had 4 bedrooms, two kitchens, and a completely remodeled basement because we did NOT want anybody to move in with us. Little did we know.

I managed over the summer to convert a portion of the garage to a pantry. I have some IKEA shelving units that weren't doing anything useful. I have a freezer, a big one. I have some other shelves that weren't doing too much, and a cabinet firmly attached above the freezer. I also have a blank wall in my kitchen that wasn't doing anything but sitting there, staring at us. Between SHARE, extreme seasonal sales and some smart purchases at Aldi, we have a nicely stockpiled pantry.

I don't know what to tell you to put in your pantry. I can send you to the USDA, but I bet your kids don't like certain foods recommended there. I know mine don't. So, I would recommend you get what you like and the kids like that can be stored for a long period of time. There is no reason in the United States that people can't eat what they like and still remain healthy. This is what we currently have:

  • HERBS AND SPICES- Salt and peppercorns, basil, oregano, tarragon, sage, rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg (the actual nuts), dehydrated powdered garlic, dehydrated powdered onion, celery seed, various ground chilies, chili powder (Texas style), allspice, cardamon, seasoned salt, Mrs. Dash.
  • CANNED VEGGIES- Green beans, corn, spinach, carrots, tomatoes (crushed, RoTel, paste, sauce), potatoes, potato salad, 3 bean salad, asparagus. This is what we eat, and what the kids eat.
  • CANNED FRUIT- Apricots, mandarin oranges, pineapple (crushed, cubed), applesauce, dumb little containers of gelatin with fruit, no sugar added fruit cocktail, pears, cherries, blueberries.
  • JUICE BOXES/ JUICE CANS- V8, Juicy Juice, Boing!, Ocean Spray.
  • CONDIMENTS- Mustard, catsup, mayo, BBQ sauce, artichokes, olives, olive oil,
  • MEAT- Frozen ground beef, hot dogs, chicken tenders, chicken pieces, ham, cheeses, yogurt, butter, bacon, sausage (breakfast links and patties, kielbasa, Italian), beef roasts (2), turkey (1, but it's a big one), talapia, salmon, fake crab, veal (osso buco cuts), shrimp. Sadly, there is never any room for bread in the freezer. Refrigerated ham in a can, bacon, cheeses, yogurt. Canned tuna, Spam, chicken, deviled ham.
  • STAPLE PRODUCTS AND PASTA- Several boxes of mac n cheese, the kind with the little packet of orange cheese powder. Penne, mostaccoli, spaghetti, angel hair, fettuccine. Rice, beans, split peas.
  • CEREAL- Oatmeal, in its steel-cut form as well as the stuff in the box that cooks quickly. Various dried cereals, purchased on sale, two Rubbermaid tubs of different boxes.
  • BAKING STUFF- Boxed cornbread, pizza crust and muffin mix. Cake mixes. Flour, sugar (white, brown, powdered), molasses, salt (kosher and iodized), nuts (walnuts, pecans, cashews, pistachios, sunflower seeds), baking powder, baking soda, dehydrated egg whites, vegetable oil, shortening. I only use one can of shortening in a year. I only have one backup of that.
  • OTHER STUFF- Upteedump cans of soup, different varieties, we are talking caseloads. Canned chili. Antiseptic paper containers of broth and stock. Canned evaporated milk, a case of 24 cans. Two cases of bottled water. 4 boxes of graham crackers. 2 boxes of saltines. 2 12-packs of soda pop. 4 frozen packs of Girl Scout cookies, along with frozen stuffed pasta. Popsicles. Chocolate bars, good ones, dark chocolate (for us, not the kids). Peanut butter, almond butter, jelly, jams.

Yes, it is important to keep a stock list. Food expires (click here). The food you bought first needs to be used first. If you are down to the last two cans of something, it is time to start looking at replenishment. Watch for mites, weevils, other bugs, mice, chipmunks, and other rodents.

Don't forget necessary incidentals. It never hurts to stock up on laundry detergent, fabric softener, toilet paper, soap, feminine hygiene products (particularly for teen girls), cotton swabs, toothpaste, tooth brushes and pain relievers.

I've found that certain times of the year mean certain things are on sale. In our area, the following months mean BIG savings on some things:

  • JANUARY- Popcorn, the kind you make yourself, goes on sale now. Look for some grocers to start to clear out their canned soup, along with potatoes and onions. If you are fond of peppermint, consider the candy canes for 25 cents a box. They make great cookies, and are fabulous melted in hot cocoa. Ditto the Christmas candy. For that matter, if you are in the market for cosmetics for you or the teens who live with you, now is the time to buy all those closed-out gift sets. Christmas patterned paper products, including Christmas toilet paper, are marked down, way down. It is also time to reload on pain relievers and cold remedies.
  • FEBRUARY- If you wait until after February 15, you will find more chocolate than you ever imagined dirt cheap. There is nothing quite like chunked Hershey's in a homemade chocolate chip! Chocolate stores very easily left in its wrappings in cool, dark, a little dry places. The freezer keeps it well. As an aside, this is also a good time to buy valentine cards, and little goodies for girls' parties. I managed to acquire a lot of cute teddy bears for a party last year. Normally $3, I obtained them for 75 cents each. Put them away in place where you can find them again.
  • MARCH- St. Patrick's Day is March 17. St. Joseph Day is March 19. If you live in an area where one or both of these days is celebrated, there will be sales on corned beef (I like the flat cut), Italian/ pseudo-Italian products, beer, wine, pistachios, gelato, potatoes, cabbage and butter. It is also time for the annual Lenten fish extravaganza, especially canned tuna. Even if you are not Catholic, if you have fish eaters, now is the time to stock up on tuna, mahi-mahi, talapia, salmon and good old fish sticks. Seeds and bulbs of all types, not just for vegetables, go on sale now. If you are a gardener, stock up.
  • APRIL- The day after Easter is the day the aisles and aisles of candy go on sale. Ham makes its first sale appearance of the year, along with lamb and mayonnaise. Eggs are tricky. Eggs are usually offered as a lost leader item, or with the purchase of such-and-such, or limit one (which means going in to the store several times, or arming the children with money to buy one dozen each). Those cute Easter lambs made of butter go on deep sale Easter Monday, as well (Who says you can't use them after Easter, and butter freezes). Look also for spring items, such as artificial flowers (Graduation party? First Communion? Mother's Day?). Sour cream, cream cheese, snack crackers, spring veggies such as green onions.
  • MAY- Have you been thinking about getting out the grill? Give pause and also think about more disposable food service items, such as plastic utensils, paper plates, paper napkins, and cheapo plastic tablecloths. Soda pop makes its first big sale of the year in time for Memorial Day, as do potato chips. Mayonnaise makes another sale for all that picnicky potato salad.
  • JUNE- Ice cream and ice cream novelty products such as popscicles start in June. Kool-Aid goes on sale, as does its necessary element, sugar. Bottled water comes to fore with a big sale.
  • JULY- It is time for Walmart and Target to vie for your back-to-school dollar. Walmart will have deep, deep sales on school supplies, and the local Target will compete. While not food items, most kids require school supplies. Why wait, when crayons are a dime a box, and notebooks are a nickel each? If you are not the crafty type who makes the grandchildren lunch keepers out of scraps of fabric and batting, be sure to look at lunch containers and boxes, plastic wrap, 100 paper bags in a package, Lunchables (I think they are cardboard served as lunch, but hey, your kids might like them, and despite packaging to the contrary, Lunchables DO freeze), disposable yet not disposable plastic storage containers, zip-closing bags, thermoses, and other such items that aren't necessarily groceries, but help preserve and transport food. It's also the start of tomato time, along with the start of pepper time (green, jalepenos, etc.).
  • AUGUST- MELON TIME!!!!!!!!! Get your melons!!!!!!!! Melon freezes, and makes a wonderful snack in the heat. Lemons and limes also freeze. Corn really comes into its own in August, as does a host of summer veggies.
  • SEPTEMBER- Hot dogs go on sale as the summer wanes, along with other grill products.
  • OCTOBER- For some reason, in our area, laundry detergent goes on sale in October in a big way. It seems that's when the companies who produce it come out with new product lines. The really big sale of cold products and painrelievers happens now, even though the cold and flu season is not quite upon us.
  • NOVEMBER- All the Halloween candy and costumes nobody wanted at Walmart are there to buy at a fabulously reduced rate. If you think the kids will be with you next year, load up on whatever it is that makes their costumes. Get ready for food in a big way. Thanksgiving is here. Pumpkin, canned and fresh, is available at a really reduced rate, along with fresh and canned cranberries. If you like these year round, stock up (fresh cranberries freeze right in the plastic bag). Soda pop. Canned pineapple, Jello and whipped cream products. Premade pie crusts. Turkeys and hams. Celery, green peppers, cream cheese, snack foods that you might not normally buy (chips, pretzels, popcorn, crackers).
  • DECEMBER- Anything having to with baking, including flour, sugar, candied fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, cake mixes, and pie crusts. Soda pop. Canned pineapple. Marishino cherries. Turkeys and hams. Jello. Liquor, wine and beer (for you, if you drink, and don't have some alcoholic roaming your cupboards). Seasonal fresh veggies and fruits include oranges, apples, tangerines, potatoes, onions and nuts.

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