Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Another Day, Another Dollar

Just over a year ago, I posted a pair of articles - Red Queen on Food and Do the Math - talking about how food fits into the budget of a family in poverty, and why food choices follow certain patterns when you face extreme budget constraints.

I'd like to draw my readers' attention to this photo essay by Jonathan Blaustein, The Value of a Dollar. In it, he presents 20 photographs, each of them depicting one dollar's worth of food. The photos I found most interesting were the picture of the fast food chain's hamburger, the juxtaposition of grapefruit from different stores, and the blueberries.

Also, as a follow on to my post Check Out, where I discussed the move away from personal checks in grocery stores, the Fresh & Easy store in my neighborhood opened recently and I've been to it a few times. It's an odd fish, that's for sure. While some may compare it to Trader Joe's because of the size, it has more in common with Ralphs or Albertsons. The food selection is more conventional (though it's approach to packaging fresh fruit & vegetables is clearly taken from TJs) and they carry more staple items. My back of the shopping list estimate is that it is cheaper on most staple items (butter, cooking oil, sugar) than the big markets and has a slightly wider selection than Traders. Prices at TJs are better, though. Their checkout is mostly self service and, as mentioned in the earlier post, is cash or card only.

My neighborhood is thrilled by the new addition. It has a slightly industrial grunge feel to it - a world away from the wholesome, handmade facade of Whole Foods - and already feels like it's been gently molding in the area for a few years. I've bought mostly staples there; a good deal on a two-pack of bacon, cheap granulated sugar and the best price in the area for peanut oil. Prices for bread and meat don't seem too bad. In short, it does seem to fill a niche left open by traditional grocers.

Where it can't compete is with the small local markets that sell odd and "ethnic" products, and seem to have the corner on vegetable seconds. There's the local IGA, a chain of "Mexican" markets and some specialty food places that provide slightly dinged and often downright weird vegetables and fruits that sell for a fraction of what the classier places can offer. $0.47/lb for cauliflower, $0.25/bunch for flat-leaf parsley, $0.49/head celery, and four different kinds of eggplant for less than $1.00/lb. You have to use them up within a day or so, but it's a better deal than anything else around. Even at these prices, though, the costs add up - especially when $1.00 can be spent on a hamburger that will keep a kid going for hours and someone else has paid the price for food storage and preparation, or seven packages of ramen which can stretch some meat leftovers and frozen vegetables for several meals.

Nutritious food is often more expensive than it needs to be, especially when wrapped in the marketing glitz of "organic", "local", and "natural." Even when purchased cheaply, it's not clear that it is a better deal than "junk" food if your budget is inflexible and you have to put enough calories on the table to work through the day.

I will say categorically that there is no way 10 blueberries are worth $1.00. Someone may be stupid enough to pay that much, but they aren't worth it.


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