The Pantry Challenge

I was raised in a small town about 20 miles from the nearest grocery store. Those nearest grocery stores (one in either direction) are not exactly gigantic. There are 3 or 4 aisles, and they’re short on produce (which is expensive to get there and which has fewer people to eat through it). My father was retired military, so we had base privileges. Once a month my folks would make the long trip to the nearest military commissary and we’d load up on everything you needed for a month – chicken thighs, cereal, pasta, milk. We might add one or two things when we went to town, but in general that food that we got once a month was the food that we had for the month. When I was born, it was much harder to get groceries (I was born in a tiny village in the heart of Africa). My mom tells stories about how they had one Coke a week, and treasured it.

The nearest grocery store.

I live in the halo of one of the great cities of the world. It’s about a quarter mile to a grocery store with 16 aisles and vats of produce. (Which, ironically to me, isn’t considered a “nice” grocery store – there are much bigger ones within a 10 mile drive.) Even that convenience isn’t convenient enough for me. I get my groceries delivered once a week from Peapod. I’m pretty methodical about how I go about shopping for it. Any staples that are used are written on a list on the ‘fridge. Then I go through recipe books and pick 3 – 4 recipes I plan for the week, and add any special ingredients I need for those recipes. I also have a list of standard items I buy every week. (Which might be why we currently have about 20 bags of pretzels.) For about half the year I’m signed up to a farm share where vast amounts of fresh produce enter the house every single week. Finally, if I’m missing something or need inspiration, there’s a Farmer’s Market once a week, two blocks away. Oh, and we eat out a lot.

My current life is about as far from the food desert I grew up in as you can get.

The nicest of the nearby grocery stores where I live now – just the produce section

This great bounty is a great privilege – and one I recognize as such in part because I know what it’s like to live somewhere where it’s NOT easy to get healthy, tasty food. But I find that this abundance leaves me with a few problems. Most obviously, it leaves me with an abundance of self. It’s amazing how little food it takes to eat 2000 calories in this environment. That is, perhaps, a story for another day.

A week's worth of farm share fun
A week’s worth of farm share fun

The second problem is that my sons are not exposed to the appreciation of having healthy and abundant food that I got. It’s wonderful to be able to provide my sons for everything. But while I (mostly) know what to do if that food budget gets slashed and pennies need to be pinched, my sons would have no clue. Which costs more, lasagna or split pea soup? How do you get enough protein if you can’t afford the best cuts of meat? How do you make the recipe serve the ingredients, instead of the ingredients the recipe? What is it like to budget and made trade-offs in your food allowance? These are life skills that I hope my children don’t need, but that I’d like them to know exist in case they ever DO need them.

The third problem is that the cupboards are wastefully overflowing. There are ribeye steaks in the freezer from a farm share, which I’ve just never found the right time to cook. There are cases of pasta and beans in the basement. There are boxes of cake mix and bags of rice kicking around the corners of the pantry. I find it easier to just order a new thing than to check and see if I already have it.

So I’ve hatched a plan to tackle problems 2 & 3. My plan is to not buy any food for the month of June.

My pantry overfloweth. Not pictured: several other cupboards.
My pantry overfloweth. Not pictured: several other cupboards.

Between our two camping trips (Memorial Day & 4th of July), I’m giving us a budget of $50 a week for ALL our food purchases. So that’s one pizza order, plus some milk and eggs. Or maybe that’s one brunch at a local diner. Or we could buy ingredients to round out the supplies in the pantry we’re working our way through. According to a Gallup poll, 8% of Americans have $50 a week or less to spend on groceries. I’m guessing many of those folks don’t also have pantries brimming to overflowing with supplies, and a farm share to kick in produce halfway through the month. (And heck, an excellent book on foraging!)

I even just cleaned out this fridge!
I even just cleaned out this fridge!

I’m hoping this will do several things. First, I plan on working through this with the kids, so they can understand making trade-offs of convenience, tastiness, nutrition and better appreciate how lucky we are to usually get all three. Second, I’m hoping it makes ME less lazy about honoring the resources I have, and using them more efficiently and less wastefully. I feel like wasting food is being ungrateful for what I’ve been given.

Then, once we’ve all come to appreciate what we have more, I’d like to take some steps to make sure everyone has enough food to eat. Assuming my math is right here, and assuming we can stick to this plan (a big assumption), we’ll save well over $400 in groceries in the month of June. (And that doesn’t count how much we’ll save by not eating out!) I’d like to give that savings to The Greater Boston Food Bank which does an amazing job of getting food to those friends and neighbors who need it.

Downstairs freezer. Those cardboard boxes at the top are completely filled with meat - ground turkey, chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, and some random cuts of meat from a meat share last year
Downstairs freezer. Those cardboard boxes at the top are completely filled with meat – ground turkey, chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, and some random cuts of meat from a meat share last year

So…. let’s see how this goes? I’ll be posting updates in a Google+ Collection for those who want to follow along. If any one else is inspired to try something similar, I’d love to hear about it!

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