Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Grocery Costs at Casa Anglachel

My take on the Iowa caucuses - nobody much likes anyone. The election in November will be for who is least detested by the general population. Meh.

I've been keeping my grocery database for just over a year now. I started it with my shopping trip on 10/31/2010 and now I'm starting a new year. I set up some crosstabs and reports last week to see what is going on with food prices and my purchasing habits.

Last time I wrote about the database, I had 262 food items in it. I now have 470. In terms of variety, I have purchased 90 kinds of fresh produce, 73 pantry or staple goods, 63 kinds of herbs and spices, 52 types of meat or fish, 44 condiments or sauces, 31 dairy products, 29 kinds of legumes, 24 types of snack food, 23 types of pasta, rices and grains, 21 types of baked goods, 10 types of cooking alcohol, and 5 each of frozen products or beverages. These selections accounted for 1996 different purchased items - 32 items purchased per week on average over the last 62 weeks. The total bill for food was $6,466, or an average of $2.48 per meal per person (62 weeks * 7 days * 3 meals * 2 people = 2604 meals).

Things are getting more expensive. Dairy products are very price sensitive from store to store and they are more expensive now than a year ago, though butter seems to be an exception. The cheapest time for buying butter is right around Christmas when people do a lot of baking. The cheapest price per pound I got was $2.69 on sale at Ralphs just before Christmas, the most expensive was $3.99/lb at Fresh & Easy in September. Trader Joe's had butter at $3.29/lb November 2010 and I just got it for $2.99/lb on Monday.

Trader Joe's has the cheapest day-to-day dairy prices in my area of San Diego and a decent selection. Costco can always beat it on unit price, but the amounts we'd have to buy are usually too large for a 2 person household. Sliced Provolone at Costco started the year at $6.99/2 lbs, went as high as $8.19 for the same package and is now at $7.99. That adds 3 cents per slice. Put one slice on three lunch sandwiches every working/school day (you and two kids), that's an extra 50 cents a week or $25/year (factoring holidays when you didn't eat sandwiches). Did you get a $25 raise this year? I know I didn't.

Sour cream went from $1.69 to $1.79 a pint at Trader's for the house brand. A gallon of fat free milk was $2.69 in February, rose to a high of $3.19 in August and now seems to have settled in at $2.99 since October. I buy a gallon a week, so an extra 30 to 50 cents depending on the price since the start of the year. The half gallons went from $1.69 to $1.99, which is also 30 cents more a purchase, but half the amount. All in all, it's another $15 this year for milk.

Extra large eggs went from $1.49 a dozen to $1.69 a dozen, then back down to $1.49.

Meat got more expensive, too. Most of what I buy is cheap and stewable, usually purchased in bulk and divided up into smaller serving portions. I don't buy often, so the price fluctuations are bigger compared to weekly purchases like milk. Chuck roast at Ralphs went from $ on sale to $2.99/lb on sale. Flank steak at Costco went from $5.99/lb to $6.49/lb. Stew meat went from $3.29/lb to $3.89/lb. In the summer, when it's grilling season, I look out for whole chickens on sale. The sales price varied from a ridiculous manager's special of .48/lb to .99/lb. I don't buy chickens if they're over that per pound. Pork chops at Costco went from $2.29/lb up to $2.69/lb. Overall, meat went up 40 to 50 cents per pound. We might eat a pound of meat in a week, so it's somewhere between $20 and $26 more per year for us. What about a four person household that eats just a 1/4 pound per person per day? Then we're talking an increase of $145/year. For a minimum wage worker, looking at $7.25/hour, that extra $145 is 2.5 working days gross pay.

Fresh produce had the wildest price fluctuations. Chinese eggplant ranged from a low of .68/lb to a high of $2.33/lb, but usually came in at @ .89/lb. At the height of summer, I could get my beloved red bell peppers for as little as .49/lb, but they were usually closer to $1.00/lb at North Park Produce, and I paid as much as $2.83/lb at Trader Joe's.

The store mattered when buying produce. I purchased 459 fresh produce items in 2011 at North Park Produce, and 232 produce items at Trader Joe's. My purchases at North Park came to $491, or an average of $1.06 per purchased item, vs purchases of $550 at Trader Joe's, or an average of $2.37 per purchased item. If I had bought most of my produce at Trader's, my grocery bill would be much higher. This is something that affects food purchase choices for lower income households. If you have a small budget for food and the price of produce is both high and fluctuating, making it difficult to budget, you're less likely to buy it. Especially when the price of meat and dairy is steadily marching upwards.

The powerhouse purchases in my grocery database are the legumes. Whether dried or canned, they're usually under $0.10/ounce or $1.60/lb. Dried beans cost even less per ounce than canned, of course, by the time they hit the dinner plate since that 1 ounce of dry will equal 4 ounces cooked. Much more economical than meat and probably better for everyone involved. Unless you're sitting next to me when I'm farting, but then that's your cross to bear, ain't it? A bag of dried beans, a slow cooker, water and some odds and ends of vegetables has to be the best way to make food dollars go furthest.

Whole grains are fun to toss into that pot along with the beans. My current favorite is freekeh, a green cracked wheat that is roasted and so has a smoky taste. I also love bulgur and wheat berries. Rice is good, especially basmati, though I don't much like brown rice. Quinoa stays the hell out of my kitchen, but I am in love with pearl barley.

In terms of proportion of spending, less than 1% of my grocery budget went to alcohol for cooking, about 7% was baked goods (mostly tortillas and sandwich rolls), the same went to beverages, which means coffee, 3% to condiments and sauces, so necessary to make food interesting, 11% was for dairy, 23% was fresh produce, 19% was general pantry, 3% was legumes, 18% was meat and fish, 2% was pasta, rice and grains, 2.5% was snacks and 3.5% went to spices & herbs. My single biggest purchase this year was for a turkey for Thanksgiving ($28.66 and a terrible buy), nuts are surprisingly expensive, and fresh produce may be expensive per pound, but you don't generally need to buy that much of any one thing. Beans are the best buy on the shopping list.



CMike said...

There might be some interest in the four and a half minutes of video queued up to begin here at the 4:46 mark and running until the OWS discussion starts.

More along the same lines here.

For a related matter, watch the astounding changing graphic here.

The agency's definition is here.

Anglachel said...

Hi CMike,

Great set of links here. The animated graphic of obesity in the US is both fascinating and chilling. Something happened in the 80's that kicked the obesity trend into overdrive. I've said, only half-joking that computers make you fat and I still think it's more true than not. I also think that the emphasis on food in the popular culture - the proliferation of restaurants, the rise of "foodies", the constant pushing of consumables and snacks - increases the likelihood of calorie consumption whilst sitting in front of the screen.

I'm going to try to move us to a nearly meat-free diet this year, though I suspect the spousal unit will resist. Quite aside from the calories and heart health benefits, it is both cheaper and more ecologically sound. We'll see how that goes.


CMike said...

In that Blitzer interview President Clinton mentions the Campbells. Their book seems to be the touchstone for many of the experts recommending a plant based diet. Clinton mentioned Caldwell Esselstyn in both videos. Here's his book and here are some recipes from it that Esselstyn has up at his website.

I've been trying to go this route for several weeks but I've just suffered a lapse. This past week, for me the variation on the addict's lament has been: one cookie is too many, six packages not enough. (And I've all ready discovered it's going to be mostly cooked vegetables and toasted Ezekiel bread for me, I don't have Anglachel's self-assurance in social situations for all those beans and raw vegetables. The almond shake is the real highlight of the whole thing everyday for me. Unfortunately, Esselstyn is down on using a blender.)

For anyone interested in watching a related discussion, here's one that's on auto-play in five parts at YouTube. It's from 2008 and, granted, it starts out with a hacky four minute intro. However, though I usually wouldn't pay attention to people who are promoting something that sounds too good to be true, because Dr. Esselstyn is one of the featured experts I've taken it to heart and that's why I'm passing it along.

Notice, they all say you have to exercise -- no matter how magic the diet, there's no getting around that.