This post is from new GRS staff writer Donna Freedman. Donna writes the Living With Less personal finance column for MSN Money, and writes about frugality and intentional living at Surviving And Thriving.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food prices are expected to rise as much as 5.5% in 2011. Those prices aren’t likely to go back down. So why not invest in food futures, i.e., your own pantry? Put it this way: If you have an emergency fund in the bank, why not have food in the bank?

Liz Pulliam Weston calls a full cupboard “the emergency fund you can eat.” Having plenty of staples on hand makes sense for several reasons:

  • You’re locked in at the price you paid, which ideally will be the sale price (more on that later).
  • There’s always something to fix for supper, which can mean less temptation to order in. You can also pack your own lunch.
  • If you get furloughed or laid off, you can eat from your cupboards.

Already on a tight budget? Don’t fret. If you’ve got a buck, you can build a pantry.

Love those loss leaders
Supermarkets, drugstores, and mass merchandisers like Target and Wal-Mart want you. They want you so much they’ll sell you tuna for 33 cents a can or pasta for 50 cents a pound. Get in the habit of reading the sales flyers or checking sites like Savings Lifestyle, Coupon Mom, or A Full Cup, which not only highlight sales but also match them to coupons (many of which are available on the sites).

Look for shelf-stable items like dried fruit, ramen, pasta, peanut butter, tea, coffee and canned beans, vegetables, meat, fish, soup or fruit. If your favorite brand of pasta sauce is 99 cents, buy two or more if you’re allowed. (And yeah, I know that homemade sauce is superior — so stock up on crushed tomatoes and tomato paste, already.)

Careful use of coupons makes these sales even better. I often pay little or nothing for items like pasta, chicken broth (good for making a fast soup, or extending the homemade kind), canned tomatoes, tuna, catsup, pickles, mustard, barbecue sauce, oatmeal, cocoa mix, and vitamins and supplements.

My favorite thing to get cheaply is canned fruit, for when I can’t get to the store or for when fresh fruit is extremely expensive. Recently I paid 50 cents a can for low-sugar peaches, pears and fruit cocktail; I bought the maximum allowed.

On a super-tight budget? Try to get at least one extra item every time you shop. Almost everyone can come up with an extra 33 cents. That extra can of tuna, combined with pasta, white sauce and a little cheese, could become a day-before-payday casserole supper.

Dollar days
Don’t ignore the dollar store, which may feature some hot food deals along with the plastic colanders and clown figurines. Your mileage may vary, since not all dollar stores are created equal. But some of them offer rice, dried fruit, jam, canned tomatoes, pasta and other items.

Food blogger Billy Vasquez, aka The 99-Cent Chef, lives near a 99¢ Only store that routinely stocks frozen tilapia filets, olives, dry beans, potatoes, soy sauce, canned shiitake mushrooms, winter squash, onions, pasta and various canned goods. My dollar store isn’t nearly as good as his, but I have bought kosher salt, pasta, rice, gingersnaps and canned fruit. Also Christmas gifts — but that’s a different blog post.

Tip: Don’t forget the island of misfit foods. If you live near a Grocery Outlet or similar salvage food store, you can find great deals on groceries.

Think outside the supermarket
“Ethnic” markets often have great deals on produce and spices. The Asian market a couple of blocks from me has the cheapest bananas anywhere and sells chicken-leg quarters for 79 cents a pound every day. That’s where I bought 10-pound bags of rice and of pinto beans for $6.99 — and a pound of pinto beans goes a l-o-n-g way.

The per-pound price for such items is even lower if you shop at a warehouse store like Costco or Sam’s Club. Don’t have a membership? Maybe a friend does.

I live near a Grocery Outlet store that offers a line of cheap staple foods plus an always-changing bunch of special items. You might see organic corn crackers one week, but never again. I saw one-quart cartons of organic butternut squash soup for 99 cents — much classier than chicken noodle and cheaper, too. Trader Joe’s and other specialty shops have some surprisingly low prices. For example, I’ve found cannellini (white beans) cheaper at TJ’s than in the supermarket.

Drugstores often have coupon specials for nonperishables like soup, canned fruit (especially mandarin oranges and pineapple), spaghetti sauce, nuts, mac ’n’ cheese (yes, it’s radioactive orange and yes, kids love it), peanut butter, canned fish, salt, spices and — of course — ramen. Walgreens sells a line of dried fruits (raisins, figs, cranberries, pineapple, mango) for a buck a box.

Two more offbeat food sources:

  • Estate sales. The contents of the house must go, and that includes the contents of the kitchen. I’ve bought canned goods, waxed paper, aluminum foil and soap this way. In fact, at one estate sale the woman in charge just gave me the foil (a big box of it, too) and also some muffin-pan liners.
  • The Freecycle Network. I’ve seen canned goods, tree fruit, surplus produce, frozen dinners and pet food offered — and you can’t beat the price.

Get a freezer
Several years ago I hooked up with “Chester,” a 5.5-cubic-foot chest freezer. He’s a good guy to have on your side: A little chilly, but utterly reliable — and frugal. My electric bill hasn’t gone up noticeably, and having more storage space lets me take full advantage of great prices.

For example, plain frozen vegetables recently went on sale for 50 cents, which means my side veggies cost 10 cents per serving. If I had a garden I’d blanch and freeze the veggies I grew; for now, I stick with gleaned blackberries and any other free produce that comes my way.

I stock up on “manager’s special” meats (99-cent-a-pound remaindered bacon, anybody?), loss-leader poultry (such as the “desecrated turkey” that cost me 25 cents a pound), cheap bread from the bakery outlet and on-sale butter to go with it. Some people freeze milk and cheese. I’ve heard of rice being frozen, either raw or cooked.

Related reading: Check out these past GRS articles on how to cut your food costs with a stand-alone freezer and how to buy a side of beef.

Although I don’t do much baking except at Christmas, I like having flour on hand for pancakes, white sauces, and the occasional batch of brownies. The other day I found all-purpose flour on sale, five pounds for $1.50. Into the freezer; not only does this keep flour fresh for up to a year, it kills any weevil or insect eggs that are present. (Eeewww.)

Still not convinced? Amy Dacyczyn thinks it’s a good idea. In her 1995 The Tightwad Gazette II, she suggests that a small freezer is a swell idea for singles. They allow us to shop less often, store bulk grains, freeze batch cooking, and consume “a healthier, more varied diet” — especially if your neighbors garden as much as J.D. and Kris do. (Hint: It helps if you like zucchini.)

Keep it organized
Obviously you’ll need to rotate the stock. Put new items in the back of your pantry or cupboards. To be on the safe side, write the date of purchase on the front of the item with a black marker (not a pale-blue pen).

These are not bomb-shelter rations, incidentally. You’ll be eating from the pantry all along. Once you get in the habit of watching for good sales you’ll continually replenish your stores.

Remember: The point is to stock up on stuff you’ll actually eat. It’s not a bargain if it just sits on the pantry shelf.

Grocery Outlet photos are by Karawynn Long, and come from her GRS post on saving money at the island of misfit foods.

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