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Passive Activism: Shopping Fresh. Sort Of.

May 22, 2012

In order to conduct my little experiment in non-passive activism, I needed supplies.  Namely, I need the supplies shown here.

The list I took to the store is as follows:

2 pounds chicken breasts (Tyson, Trimmed and Ready breasts)
10 pounds potatoes (brand unknown)
8 ears of corn
1 pound of peaches
1 gallon skim milk (brand unknown)
1 pound 96% lean ground beef (appears to be store brand)
32-ounce tub of 99% fat-free Yoplait yogurt
18-ounce canister of oats (Great value)
2 pounds frozen sweet peas (Great Value)
1 pound dried kidney beans (Great value)

I started down in the dairy section, since that’s where I would need to do the most modifications to the list.  Despite my desire to stay true to the list, I am not willing to make myself sick just for y’all’s entertainment.  At least, not for something like this.

1 Gallon Skim Milk

Image Price: $2
Actual Price: $3.48
Substitute: $3.56 for a quart of goat milk

I’m going to admit that I don’t know which percent of milk qualifies as “skim” these days.  Wal-mart didn’t have any particular jug marked as skim, and I couldn’t decide if the 1% or the 0% was the actual skim milk. [1]  Regardless, they were all the same price.  Interestingly, the vitamin D milk was also $3.48.  All of the milk was marked as WIC approved.  Naturally, I didn’t buy cow milk, I bought goat milk.  It’s 4 times the cost of cow milk so I just bought enough to be in the general range.  I may try watering down the goat milk to get that “skim milk” flavor.  I do think it’s worth noting that for people with food allergies, it can be considerably more expensive to eat fresh every day.  On a typical shopping trip, I would be more inclined to buy soy milk for most things, but soy doesn’t work well what I have planned for the rest of the week.

Look ma, a whole bin of food that will make me wish I had a stomach pump handy!

 32-ounce tub of 99% fat-free Yoplait yogurt

Image Price: $2.27
Actual Price: $2.48
Substitute: $2.62 for pack of six O’soy yogurt cups

My second substitution.  Not to bad of a difference here.  It’s a little odd that the image specifies Yoplait brand yogurt, when the Great Value brand is $2.18.  I get the feeling that this image is supposed to cover breakfast, lunch, and dinner foods, since several of the items are more breakfast type foods.

Having taken care of the hard part, I move on to something easier: Meat!

2 pounds chicken breasts (Tyson, Trimmed and Ready breasts)

Image Price: $1.96
Actual Price: $4.98 per pound, $9.96 for 2 pounds
Substitute: $6.98 for 3 pounds frozen chicken breasts

Of all the things in this image, it was the price of the chicken that really set off red flags for me.  I am not sure where the person who made this image gets their chicken, but that is some serious price disconnect there.  The closest I could get to the price listed is that the store brand chicken was $1.98 per pound.  Still twice as much as the listed price, but at least closer.  Except that all of the store brand chicken came in packages of between 5 and 7 pounds.  Considerably more fresh chicken than I was willing to purchase in one go.  In this situation, I chose to do what any semi-sensible person on a limited budget would do: I bought frozen chicken.  One of the major disadvantages of buying fresh chicken is how quickly it goes bad.  Since the image already assumes the capacity to keep frozen goods (I’ll get to that in a moment), I figured that frozen chicken would do fine as a substitute.

1 pound 96% lean ground beef

Image Price: $2.98
Actual Price: $3.98

Leaving aside that the beef in question is actually 97% lean, this is the first item that I manage to get which is not a substitute.  These prepacked tubes of ground meat were the cheapest available 1 pound packages, though there were several larger packages which were cheaper per pound.  Much like the chicken, the beef is cheaper in larger packages but harder to keep over the long term.  The squeezy tube of beef is especially useful because it freezes readily, which can be an advantage to a family trying to plan for the long term.

With the meat taken care of, it was on to the dry goods!

18-ounce canister of oats (Great value)

Image Price: $1.18
Actual Price: $1.36

Another non-substitution!  And fairly close to list price, too.  The oats combined with the yogurt is what gave me the idea that this image was supposed to represent several days’s worth of food.  It was also the thing that started me wondering about the number of assumptions that the image makes.  A container of oats is a tough sell for most people.  They have no clue what to do with it.  Without the advantages that experienced cooks have, a canister of oats isn’t much use for a lot of people, even with the handy instructions on the back.

A very mute testimony to the power of the cheapest starch.

1 pound dried kidney beans (Great value)

Image Price: $1.22
Actual Price: $1.58
Substitution:  $1.38 1 pound dried pinto beans

I made this substitution as a deliberate choice.  Not because I particularly prefer pinto beans, but because the pinto beans were cheaper.  I remember when it came down to the penny pinching times, it wasn’t about buying the things I actually wanted.  It was about buying whatever was cheapest.  Even though it’s a difference of only 20 cents, it’s still 20 cents that might be spent elsewhere.  I’m probably not the only one who visited Wal-mart this weekend who had to make that choice.  At a mere 98 cents for a 1 pound bag, the lentils had been completely cleaned out.  Note that the pinto beans are pretty well shopped, too.  Had I taken a picture of the whole shelf and blacked out the prices, you could quite easily have seen which beans were cheapest just by how many were left on the shelf this late on a Sunday night.

2 pounds frozen sweet peas (Great Value)

Image Price: $1.98
Actual Price: $1.92

A simple enough find, and for once it was cheaper than the image.  I mentioned earlier that the image assumes a working freezer, and this is the items which shows it.  Unless the peas were intended to be eaten right away, in which case 2 pounds of peas is an awful lot of peas to eat at one go.

7 pounds of corn, wee!

8 ears of corn

Image Price: $2
Actual Price: $2.64

The ears of corn are a weird choice, in my opinion.  A lot of people don’t even know how to cook fresh corn, let alone what to look for when shopping for it.  I picked out 8 ears whose hulls generally looked like they were in decent condition and didn’t examine them any further.  Note that the corn is already breaking through the thin plastic bag.  The corn also tore through the shopping bag it was put into.  If I had walked, I’d be running the risk of the bags tearing and spilling my corn everywhere.  In a list that includes frozen peas, it was weird to include ears of corn when 2 pounds of frozen corn would not only be lighter, but involve considerably less prep time for cooking.  I have the sense that they were included in part because it’s a visual shortcut.  Unshucked ears of corn naturally equals fresh.  Just look at how unprocessed it is!

10 pounds potatoes (brand unknown)

Image Price: $2.97
Actual Price: $2.75

That’s a lot of potatoes.  And heavy, too.  In this case, it’s considerably cheaper to buy a huge bag of potatoes rather than spending the same amount of money on loose potatoes.

Not a single peach.

1 pound of peaches

Image Price: $0.98
Actual Price: Peaches?  What Peaches?
Substitution: $1.42 for 1.21 pounds of pears at $1.17 per pound

Here’s another assumption that this image makes: the simple availability of fresh fruit.  Peaches probably seemed like a fairly innocuous thing to include as a fresh fruit item.  To be fair, I didn’t even think about the availability of peaches.  I thought that they might be very expensive, or only available in organic.  But it never occurred to me that peaches wouldn’t even be an option.  In this case, I fell back on my own personal Living While Poor habits and bought whichever fruit was cheapest.  There was a tie between several types of apple and pears for $1.17 per pound, but the pears were the smallest.  It was either get two apples at slightly over a pound or three pears for a pound and a quarter.  Since the image had three (suspiciously large, I might add) peaches, I really wanted to try for three.  So pears won.

Bags of food, shown here with a can of soda for scale.

Some things of note:

One of the major assumptions that this image makes is that the person doing the shopping has the time, skill, inclination and above all the tools to turn all of this food into meals.  Also, there are absolutely no spices in this shopping list.  Not even salt.  Moose pointed out that the creator probably assumes that salt, pepper, and sugar are staples of a typical pantry.  After some discussion (and one single day of the experiment), I decided that he’s probably right.  It also clearly assumes that the person doing the cooking has access to clean water.  Otherwise, what’s the point of buying a dried good like beans?

There are exactly three items in this whole list which I didn’t immediately stick in the refrigerator.  Shopping like this requires both the time to do the shopping each week and the equipment to properly store the food.  If you don’t have a fridge, or you only have a small fridge, you’re outta luck.

In total, I spent 28.61 on this list of food.  Not surprisingly, most of the additional cost came from the meat and dairy items.  Protein is expensive.  I came away with four bags of food, plus the bag of potatoes.  In total, the entire thing weighed about 28 pounds.  If I’d purchased a gallon of milk instead of a quart, it would have been closer to 35.  That’s a lot of weight.  Even driving my car, it took me about an hour to make it out to our closest Wal-mart and purchase these items.  Walking would have taken considerably longer and required more planning.  Which is quite a bit of effort for what is essentially about three days worth of breakfast and dinner for a family for four.  My initial estimation is that I will be able to feed myself breakfast, lunch, and dinner for about a week on all of this food.  And that it is probably going to suck.

(Spoilers: It really, really does.)

[1] Kelly, of the ever adventurous Cibatarian, informs me that skim milk is 0%.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2012 10:10 am

    Ears of corn: REALLY bizarre! I bet they’re counting it as a vegetable, too, aren’t they? Grr.

    We use fresh vegetables when we can, but when we can’t we get frozen, because it’s a better option than canned, although you bring up a good point about not everyone having the option to store lots of cold foods.

    It’s sad, but you’re probably right about the oatmeal. We go through tons. My kids love it.

    Last thought: where are the staples like flour, eggs, and rice???

  2. May 24, 2012 11:34 am

    The more I look at this, the more I’m reminded of college, when I didn’t have a car or a large refrigerator and practically nothing to cook with. But there were 4 Chik-Fil-A’s, 3 burger joints, and 2 pizza places on campus, and assorted other fast foods that were greasy and fattening. Plus, food from those places could be paid for with meal plans that came out of scholarship and grant money, rather than me having to budget all of my money for food and bills.

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