Monday, March 14, 2011

Grocery Shopping in the Big City

Food prices everywhere have gone up, but in NY city they are astronomical. Manhattan is not an island that favors the frugal food shopper. I once told friends that in the average Food Emporium, D'Agostino's and Gristedes the cost of a loaf of bread is $4.50, a small cottage cheese retails for $3.89, bananas are 79 cents a lb and sweet potatoes are 95 cents a lb. They freaked out and assumed I was lying. Sadly, I was not. Those are the LOWEST regular prices I could find for those items. While there are plans for a Wholefoods and a Fairway to open in my neighbourhood within two years, for now these stores are what I am stuck with unless I get a car or limit myself to what can be carried home on the metro. Managing to keep grocery bills low takes a lot of planning and foresight. Different strategies tend to work for different food itmes.

Vegetables and Fruit:
I tackle this issue in a multi-step fashion. For 6 months of the year I belong to a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) project. For an upfront payment I get a share of the produce from a farm in upstate NY. So from June-November I get fresh, organic vegetables straight from the farm delivered to my area. Eating with the seasons takes patience (you've got to clean every vegetable and find the occasional inch worm) and some finesse (I had so much squash in my house at one point the average person would have despaired of finding creative ways to use it). It is totally worth it. Our diet gets a huge influx of vegetable and fruit, we learn about exciting new vegetables like garlic scapes and celeriac, and the price is great for this neighborhood. To find a CSA in your neighborhood try visiting LocalHarvest. Some CSA's even give a free share to several "volunteers" who help with distribution of the produce during the season. I love this program so much I am the volunteer coordinator for my CSA despite the fact that this position comes with more work and no free food or perks. I love meeting the people and sharing a sense of community and responsibility for the food we eat.

The other 6 months of the year are the real challenge. Tricks that work for other foods do not work for produce. You can't really stock it in advance and low income areas that typically have cheap prices in their grocery stores generally have low quality produce. It would not be practical or cost effective to get on the metro every week to buy produce in some of the outer boroughs. My solution has been to buy whatever is on sale (usually wahtever is in season) and to get friendly with the people that run vegetable carts on the streetsof NY. By trying produce from several carts I was able to identify those with high quality goods. Stopping by when they get their deliveries ensures you get the freshest items. Because these vendors have very little overhead they beat grocery store prices.

Another alternative is to try frozen and canned vegetables. These can be purchased in bulk when they go on sale, and it is worth the trip to another neighborhood to take advantage of sales like the ShopRite can can sale. However, canned vegetables are often high in sodium. To eliminate most of this excess sodium wash the vegetable thoroughly before use. Canned veggies are great for soups, and baked goods. Frozen veggies work great in soups and stir fries.

Meat and Chicken:
This is a complicated item since I have special dietary requirements. However, the best thing to do is to buy these items in bulk at other boroughs, take them home and split them into portion sized packages and freeze them raw. I actually have a second freezer for this purpose. I do not pay for electricity, but if you do make sure your second freezer is energy efficient. This protects the planet and your electric bill. Some foods actually freeze really well in marinades that can then be defrosted and immediately cooked. Portioning into individual packets lets you thaw just what you need. Make sure to label items well with a sharpie and use heavy duty foil and freezer proof bags.

 There is no way to avoid purchasing milk and eggs in the area where you live or work. However, you can choose your store wisely. If you live in NYC your best bet is to go to a national chain drug store like Walgreen's. This is because prices for these staples are set on a national level not an individual one.

For cheeses, I usually purchase in bulk when I go shopping for meat and freeze. You'd be surprised how well mozarella and muenster cheese freeze. Mozzarella can be grated and then frozen in a zip-lock for convenient use. For the best price, buy large blocks and cut them into smaller pieces before freezing. I would NOT freeze Goat cheese or feta. In my area the best place for these items is Costco, if you happen to have a membership or a friend willing to take you.

Everything Else:
This strategy is going to sound mean, but generally grocery store prices are driven by afluence of the neighborhood they are located in. If you want cheap shelf stable products the best thing to do is find a poor area and go to their grocery store. I like the various stores in Harlem. Another good move is to stock up on sales at stores like Shop Rite. Since these products are shelf stable you can usually get away with making 3 or 4 bulk buying trips a year. Keep everything in air tight containers once opened to prevent spoilage and bug infestation.

In addition if you keep an eye on the circulars of those National Chain drugstores you will notice that many sale prices are also determined on a national level. When Walgreens or CVS has a sale, it's good. I buy all my flour during Walgreens baking week. Note that Duane Reed is a drug store invented for NYC and not a national brand, so their sales are usually not that remarkable.

All this sometimes means a change in cooking styles - using some odd vegetables, cooking squash 30 different ways, canning/preserving summer vegetables for later use, using cans etc. But it can be very worth it. Plus I will be posting recipes to help you!


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