Fight rising prices by building your own food bank pantry

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.
  • Getting the best deals means your food dollars go further.
  • Having the ingredients to throw together a quick meal means less temptation to order in.
  • A deep pantry means less need to run to the store to get just one or two items. (Can you really get out of the store with just a six-ounce can of tomato paste?) This in turn means less wear and tear on the car and less gas used.
  • If times get tight, you can eat from your cupboard.

Discouraged couple shopping for groceries

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.

Checklist to Build Your Own Pantry

Here's a checklist to help you with building your own food bank, i.e., a pantry full of staples you bought at rock-bottom prices.

This is not emergency food, mind you, to be saved for the next hurricane or other disaster. The point is to eat from this pantry all along, replenishing when prices are best.

What if Times Are Already Tight?

That's OK. You can get going on as little as a dollar.

1. Start small.

Try to get at least one extra item every time you shop. Look for shelf-stable foods like dried fruit, ramen, pasta, peanut butter, tea, coffee and canned beans, vegetables, meat, fish, soup or fruit.

2. Score loss leaders.

Your favorite soup, three for a dollar; pasta for 79 cents a pound; two cans of tuna for a buck — stores offer prices that low to get you in the door because they assume you'll do all of your shopping there. Be the exception: Take advantage of the best prices and then skedaddle.

Note: Driving 10 miles out of your way to save a quarter obviously doesn't make sense. Pick your spots.

3. Use coupon sites.

Regional coupon bloggers and national sites like CouponMom.com and AFullCup.com match sales to coupons, many of which you can print out or download to a store loyalty card.

4. Hit the dollar store.

Concerned about recalls of foods produced in China and elsewhere? Buy only U.S.-produced foods. I used to get my Arkansas-grown rice at a Seattle dollar store along with things like pasta, gingersnaps and kosher salt. Food bloggers talk of finding olives, marinated vegetables, frozen tilapia filets and other everyday gourmet foods; if you're lucky enough to live near a 99¢ Only store, you can get fresh produce too.

5. Go gleaning.

Ask around for unused produce, fruit or nuts; some gardeners are happy to share. I've also seen this stuff on The Freecycle Network. Or check the following websites: Village Harvest (nine U.S. states and one Canadian province), Urban Edibles (Portland, Ore.), Fallen Fruit (Los Angeles and environs) and Not Far From the Tree (Toronto). Don't glean from vacant land or woods unless you have permission from the owner, and note that in some areas it is not legal to glean from city, county, state or federal lands.

People shopping in Chinese market

6. Check out ethnic markets.

I lived near an Asian market in Seattle where I bought 10-pound bags of pinto beans for $6.99 and the cheapest bananas and chicken in town. Peek into your own local Hispanic, Asian or other specialty stores to see if the prices there are as good or better than the supermarket's.

7. Join a warehouse club.

Although sales-plus-coupons at drugstores or supermarkets can be super cheap, Costco or Sam's can often beat grocers' everyday prices. Buying a six-pack of canned tuna means you can use some now and hold on to the rest. Certainly their prices on dried beans and rice are primo. Just don't buy a giant jar of salsa or peanut butter if it's going to go bad before you can use it all.

Don't want to join? See if a friend who's a member will pick up a few items for you.

8. Shop the drugstores.

Those coupon bloggers also highlight weekly specials on foods like soup, canned fruit, spaghetti sauce, ramen, cereal and teabags. Stack these specials with manufacturer's coupons and you can get some very inexpensive items. These items may not make up a completely healthy diet, but they're nice fill-ins or quick meals when you need them.

9. Buy like a restaurateur.

Do an online search for “restaurant supply stores” in your area and hone in on the ones that (a) are open to the public and (b) sell comestibles as well as cookware. A store near me in Seattle, Cash and Carry, let home cooks come in for warehouse-club-sized portions without paying a warehouse fee. Not everything was in a No. 10 can, mind you; I could get meat, cheese and produce (all of which freeze well) in reasonable quantities at startlingly low prices.

Baker loading cooling racks with bread

10. Investigate bakery outlets.

My partner and I routinely buy good-quality sandwich rolls and multi-grain breads for as little as a dollar per loaf, and tortillas for 50 cents per bag. It's not stale. It's surplus, and it freezes well. Do an online search for “bakery outlets” in your region.

11. Trade rewards points.

The quinoa that sells for $10.29 a bag in Anchorage markets was free to me because I bought it using Amazon gift cards obtained from the Swagbucks rewards program. MyPoints also offers Amazon cards, as do some rewards credit card plans. You could buy everyday foods that way too.

12. Pick your own.

Depending on where you live, getting food straight from the farmer can be a real deal. The results can be frozen, dried or canned. Find a farm at PickYourOwn.org or PickYourOwnFood.com.

13. The Freecycle Network.

Yes, really. I've seen frozen dinners, tree fruit, canned goods, surplus produce and even pet items offered up for free.

Storage and Preservation

Even if you live in a relatively small space, it's possible to stash a lot of foodstuffs. Here's how:

14. Get a freezer.

As a single woman in Seattle, I owned a 5.5-cubic foot chest freezer, for great deals on loss-leader frozen vegetables, breads, dairy products, and meat and poultry. It was rather surprising how such a small appliance could hold such a lot of food. If you're into batch-cooking, spend part of a weekend day in the kitchen and you'll be able to freeze a month's worth of meals.

15. Tally and date your finds.

Each time you buy something, add it to a master list. This is especially important for the freezer, because things way down at the bottom get lost and may wind up freezer-burned. For other items, use a black marker to write the date of purchase on the fronts (not the tops) of packages or cans.

Rotate the stock so you're using items regularly. And again, buy stuff you actually like because stuff that doesn't get eaten is no bargain.

16. Think outside the cupboard.

Stack goods in an armoire or in a dresser, trunk, bookcase or even a file cabinet.

17. Hang it up.

Add shoe organizers inside closet doors and store small canned goods, spices, toiletries and the like.

18. Use under-space.

Stock up using under-bed boxes (shades of the college dorm!) or stack plastic totes full of food and cover with a decorative cloth: instant end table!

19. Be shelf-conscious.

Put up shelves in a closet, laundry room or basement to store and organize your canned food and dry goods.

Of course, the most important tip is to bank your savings!

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.

How do you build up your food pantry? Share your tips in the comments!

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

More about...Food, Frugality

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