Budget Food Shopping at Whole Foods on $4 a Day --- Or How to Have Wholesome Food without Spending the Whole Paycheck --Hunger Challenge 2010
Whole Foods' Perri Kramer at bulk bins
Shop Whole Foods Market for a full day’s worth of organic food for a family of four for just $4 a person?
It seemed like an extreme test, but as part of my participation in the San Francisco Food Bank’sHunger Challenge 2010, I took it on, and thanks to help from Perri Kramer, marketing team leader of the Oakland, CA, store, I was able to do just that. (You can see more about the background on my shopping trip here and the day’s menu and recipes here. To read all of my Hunger Challenge 2010 posts, click here.)
Perri leads regular “shopping on a budget” tours for customers and she offered to walk the store with me to show me how to cruise the aisles for affordable and often locally sourced goods. She helped highlight some items that would work in my meal plan, which was restricted by the Hunger Challenge rules of $4 a day per person (the amount a typical food stamp recipient would have to spend) and by the further constraint that I wanted all the food to be certified organic.
Since some have nicknamed Whole Foods “Whole Paycheck,” I was worried when we started that my options would be very limited. But that just wasn’t true. I had a number of choices, although my dinner pasta sauce recipe really just had just a hint of chicken. Sure some produce might have been less expensive in an organic farmer’s market, and some other items might have been lower priced elsewhere, but the chain offers some good values, especially for those who want to eat organic, and if you shop carefully, some exceptional ones. In some communities one of the chain’s 270 stores might be the only resource for organic products, although in others there are regional, national or local alternatives. Just looking at food pricing and availability of organic products, I found Whole Foods to be an excellent one-stop resource for those who want to eat wholesome foods on a budget.
While Perri's tips are for budget-conscious shopping at Whole Foods, they could easily be adapted to shopping at most large supermarkets.
Allow yourself enough time. Budget shopping anywhere takes more time as you compare deals and options
Pick up the chain’s “Whole Deal” semi-monthly flyer at the store entrance for coupons, special deals and recipes. On my tour she pointed out that the butcher shop had some sausages on special that had an extra dollar off coupon in the flyer.
Watch for in-store produce specials, usually towards the front of the produce department. “We always have five to seven on special, and often they are local and seasonal from smaller farmers” where Whole Foods wants to increase demand for the farmers and sell through the perishable item as soon as possible.
Choose seasonal produce for the best pricing. In season fruits and vegetables will almost always be the best values.
Look for the store branding on packaged produce and other items (such as the 365 Everyday Value brand). If organic is a concern, look for that on the label. When 365 store-branded products are not organic, Perri says they are still as natural as possible and have a higher level of quality control than other sources. 365 produce is also sometimes locally sourced.
When shopping for fish or meat, consider shopping on Friday, when Whole Foods often has one-day specials in these departments. Also look for the 365 brand on packaged meat and the store’s “value-packs” which offer per pound discounts on larger packages of meat and chicken.
Grocery specials are often displayed near the front the store, so Perri advises checking there first and advises looking for store brands to help pare down costs.
Buy from the bulk section, but only buy what you need. “You can buy just a tiny bit of a specialty item and only have to pay for what you need,” she said. It is also a great place to stock up on staples such as frequently used grains and beans. Prices are cheaper since you are not paying for packaging.
Look for ways to add low-cost flavor to your dish to keep costs down. Buy a bit of a spice or seasoning mix from the bulk section, consider using bullion or broth as a base for soups and stews or for cooking rice or other grains. Perri pointed out a package of organic vegetarian or chicken bullion that cost about 14 cents a serving.
Watch out for processed frozen, canned or other packaged foods if you are on a tight budget. Perri says that some items on the grocery aisle might be tasty or convenient but that they add to your grocery bill. In general choose foods with as minimal processing as possible to get the most out of your food dollar.
She also suggested checking out the low-cost recipes on the Whole Foods website and contacting your local Whole Foods Market to get your own budget shopping tour.
Note: I was putting together an all-organic menu. Prices at Whole Foods Market for non-organic alternatives were lower. Choosing some of these goods would have lowered my food bill, allowed me to have more fresh produce or chicken or changed what I selected for my day’s menu.