Food, Community, and $35 for the Week

Posted on November 5, 2011. Filed under: challenge, community, favorite, garden, grocery, hodgepodge | Tags: , , , , |

Last week, The Huffington Post reported that nine Democrats in Congress decided to challenge themselves to live on $4.50 per day (the rate food stamps would be reduced to under a Republican proposal). They did this for a week. However, their diets were comprised almost entirely of processed foods.

We can do better than that.

Challenge! A few friends and I are taking up the mantle to see if we can do this without cheap, processed foods. Or at least not any more processed foods than we normally would eat. (True Confession: I am, on occasion, partial to a bowl of Top Ramen.) We are giving ourselves a weekly budget of $35, but also the freedom to trade our time/skills for food: if we garden, anything still left from that garden (in the dirt, jar, or freezer) is good; if we can cook a meal for someone who supplies the ingredients, that’s good too. The theory: if you are connected to the food community, you can still eat Good Food on a tight budget.

¬†We are not trying to play-act like we are food stamp recipients. All of us are creative professionals, and we all have greater access to the food community than most people do (at least at the moment). There are plenty of valid critiques of this project; many emails were exchanged regarding these critiques, and we came to the conclusion that perfection isn’t the goal. Having said that, I will try to address some of these issues at the end of the week. For now, I just want to see if I can do this.

I’m up for the challenge. This is going to be tough. I can quite easily spend $35 a day on food. I like meat, but I try my best to only eat meat that’s been humanely raised. That kind of meat isn’t cheap. (And it shouldn’t be.) So I’m going to be mostly vegetarian this week. That’s a good challenge in itself, and I like it. Can I make $35 last for a week? We’ll see. At least I have a plan.

Each day for the week, I’ll engage in a food-related activity that will hopefully result in a free (and delicious) meal. But before I do that, I need provisions.

Task One: Provisioning.
Coupons are allowed, so I’m cashing in a Living Social deal. I have $20 to spend at Whole Foods for the cost of $10. Budget is now $45. Most excellent.

I shop for provisions.

Here’s how I spend my $20 at Whole Foods:
1Lb. Rolled Oats: $1.49
.5Lb. Cannelloni Beans: $1.50
.43Lb. Red Beans: $1.03
.45Lb. Pinto Beans: $0.90
.48Lb. Barley: $0.67
.45Lb. Quinoa: $2.11
.43Lb. Roasted Almonds: $4.60
.86Lb. Carrots: $0.85
.56Lb. Onion: $0.55
.55Lb. Mozzarella Cheese: $3.29
.92Lb. Bananas: $0.63
One (10z) Frozen Spinach: $1.99
With the bag refund, my total is $20.02

Other Provisions:
I also purchase 1 Bunch Celery ($2.00) and .67Lb. Kale ($0.60) from Giant Eagle.
I already have 6 eggs in the fridge ($2.50) and 5 apples from the farmers’ market ($3.50). One of those apples was given to me for free.
In the freezer I have an andouille sausage (given to me over the summer), pesto (garden), frozen tomatoes and sauce (garden).
In the pantry I have 2 squash (given to me by a friend who had too many squash), garlic (garden), and various oils, vinegars, and spices (let’s factor $3.50 for those).

Total spent so far: $32.12
I have $12.88 left to spend this week. I can do this.

Please check out Sentences and Food and Culinary Cory. They aren’t planning on posting until the end of the project. However, you should read their blogs anyway–they’re full of wonderful stories and recipes.

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Market Comparison #2: Vons Hollywood

Posted on September 5, 2008. Filed under: grocery, hodgepodge |

We’ve moved on to the second closest grocery to my apartment, Vons Hollywood. Not sure why they name themselves ‘Hollywood’, as the store is in Los Feliz. I guess everyone wants to be a star.

Like the Albertsons reviewed last week, this Vons has undergone a recent face lift. Hey, maybe it is Hollywood, then! They sure are trying to fit in. Face lifts for all! Seriously, they did a good job on this one. The store is clean, current, and very inviting.


Once again, we find ourselves lost in industrial meat and poultry land. Tasty, environmentally conscious eating animals are nowhere to be found.

The poultry section is given largely to Foster Farms. Despite they’re clever TV commercials, it’s big industry meat. Pollution filled, and not very kind to the chickens. This, of course, affects their health & flavor, which is not good for us. A better option is the O Organics chicken. The store-label organic brand is available in all cuts, including whole birds. Boneless, skinless breasts go for $8.99/lb.

It’s downhill from here. The best looking beef is under the Rancher’s Reserve label. I’m not really sure what that means, as no information on quality of cut or location of beef farm is listed. Safe to assume that this is an average choice, at best. New York strips are priced at $11.99/lb and rib eyes sell for $11.49. Not too expensive, but I imagine you’re getting what you’re paying for. There is a large variety of cuts on sale, which is nice. Also, Coleman’s organic ground beef sells for $6.59/lb. That’s expensive, and it comes pre-packaged & delivered, which I’m not very keen on. Ground beef is best ground the same day.

Pork fairs no better. The meat is a pale pink, with no marbling. Selection is mediocre. However, they do sell pork fat, so that’s nice! No info on source of pork.

Grade: C-. The organic chicken & pork fat are nice. After that, there really isn’t much worth buying here.


Like most large grocery stores, the cereal selection here is massive. You’ll be able to find any major label cereal here. Sadly, prominent display is given to many high sugar cereals. These are a treat from time to time, but, as much as I love some Cinnamon Toast Crunch (!), a treat is still a treat. There are a few organic options by O Organics and Kashi. Honey Nut Cheerios sell for $4.99, and Organic Kashi Go Lean! (no Kashi Autumn Wheat- bastards!) is $4.59.

Grade: B. Standard selection with not a lot of upside.


Vons Hollywood has a decent spice section. Very similar to the display at Albertsons. You’ll find whatever you need here. O Organics has a limited line of organic selections on display. No mention of fair trade. McCormick Gourmet (no Spice Islands to compare) garlic powder sells for $7.59, and McCormick Gourmet vanilla beans for $12.99

Grade: B+. You’ll find what you need plus a little bit better.


Once again, we find failure in the dairy case. Perhaps we ought to bring back the milk man.

Egg selection is OK. O Organics, Horizon, and Land ‘O Lakes supply organic eggs by the dozen. No local / small farm brands available, which is sad. O Organics sell cheapest at $4.49 per dozen.

Things stay pretty industrial in the milk case. Land ‘O Lakes drops out (they still do butter!), leaving O Organics and Horizon as our organic choices. Since we know Horizon is industrial, best to stick to the O brand, which (bonus!) is not ultra-pasteurized. It might or might not be local, too. You can pick up a half gallon for $4.39. There is also Broguiere’s, a local dairy, which by all accounts takes great care of its cows. A quart sells for $3.29.

The yogurt selection pretty much sucks. O Organics has a few organic choices on display. After that, it’s all mass-marketed, high fructose corn syrup junk.

Grade: C+. The O Organics yogurt/milk/eggs and the Broguiere milk keep if from slipping lower on the bell curve.


Not too shabby. They have a large selection of sliced meats, and make a pretty decent sandwich. Nothing too fancy, mostly the Primo Taglio store brand. I imagine it won’t be too long before O Organics finds their way behind the deli case, too. Sliced Black Forest ham is $7.49/lb and swiss cheese is $7.99.

Decent selection of fancy cheeses, too. You’ll be able to make a pretty good cheese plate if you wanted to. Parmigiano Reggiano sells for an fairly expensive $19.99/lb.

Grade: B+. A little more in the organic department would be nice. Overall, though, it’s good stuff.


For a large chain, Vons Hollywood has a pretty good produce section. The recent remodelling is best noticed here. Wood floors, great smells, you could almost be lulled into thinking you were buying straight from the farm. The produce looks really nice, too. Organic selection is pretty large. You won’t be able to find everything, but you’ll find a lot. However, you’ll pay for it. Organic peaches sell for $3.49/lb., a dollar more than farmers’ market prices. Organic raspberries go for $4.99 per package, $2 more than I payed the other day at the same farmers’ market. Some locations of origin are labeled.

Grade: B. The looks, smell, and variety are great. I’d like to see lower prices and locations of where my produce comes from.


No angry face today. Still, I can’t help thinking that the expression “The best thing since sliced bread” may be an insult these days. Sliced bread just isn’t that good. Milton’s has a prominent display and sells for $4.29 per loaf. There are a few other choices without lots of chemicals and high fructose corn syrup, if you’re willing to spend a minute and read the labels.

Vons also has a fresh bakery, where you can get rolls, whole loafs, and a few other things. It’s not amazing, not terrible.

Grade: C+. They should have better options. At least it’s not all crap, though.


They have free wi-fi. That’s nice. I’m not sure why I would need it, other than to look up a previous grocery review to compare notes, but, hey, everyone loves free wi-fi!

Good selection of wine & spirits. Beer selection is fair.

Beware the Eating Right line. The packages are very nice, but they’re not really that good for you. You’re never eating right with high fructose corn syrup and preservatives!


Vons Hollywood is part of a large chain of stores that include Vons, Safeway, and Pavillion’s.

For being part of a large chain grocery, Vons Hollywood does a pretty good job. Sure, the store is filled mostly with junk. It seems to be slowly changing for the better, though, and that’s a very good thing indeed. I’d like more organic choices, but at least the store brand O Organics covers most areas.

However, all Vons are not alike. This is one of the better ones.

Final Grade: B

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Market Comparison #1: Albertsons Los Feliz

Posted on August 27, 2008. Filed under: grocery, hodgepodge |

This marks the start of an ongoing series exploring markets around (and out of) town. There is a wide variety of price and quality, and I want to get to the bottom of it. Hopefully, by making smarter choices myself, it will help you to make smarter choices, too.
So, let’s start closest to my apartment- the Albertsons located on Hillhurst in Los Feliz. The store itself has recently undergone a top to bottom renovation. Overall, the look is much improved- lots of wood decor, and a much more open feel then it previously had. Still, it retains a low-budget look throughout many of the center aisles. Guess you can’t dress a wolf in sheep’s clothing, eh.


Selection here is sparse, both in terms of quality and variety. Standard chicken is offered- breasts, wings, whole birds, etc., and a small selection of commercially raised turkey is on sale, too. Coastal Range Organics provide the only organic chicken choice, with breasts going for $8.69/lb. The company is certified by the Organic Tilth, which is a promising endorsement. Personally, I’d rather the chicken come from Southern CA, rather than OR & WA, but you can’t have everything. Not bad.

I wish I could say ‘not bad’ for the rest of the meat selection. Sadly, all I can say is ‘bad’. Pork choices are very limited, and nearly all are processed with solution for ‘added tenderness’. I prefer my pork to be tender thanks to good breeding and mother nature, not thanks to commercial horrors and chemicals. Nothing organic or free range. Pass.

The beef selection is nearly as poor, with most of the sick looking cuts in the ‘choice’ and ‘select’ categories. They do have a ‘steakhouse choice’ selection, which looks a little better. I have no idea where the meat comes from or how it was raised. New York Strip goes for $11.99/lb. Also on offer is a tiny selection (ribeye and lamb) of Wild Harvest ‘Natural’. The beef was clearly more marbled than the other ribeye cuts, and fed a better diet. Not great, but the best in the bunch. $12.99/lb.

Grade: D+. Albertsons has a long way to go in order to improve its meat & poultry. With the exception of the Coastal Range chicken, not much is worth buying here.


Happily, the store improves in the cereal aisle. We love our cereal in the U.S.A.! Albertsons celebrates that love by dedicating an entire aisle to the stuff. All the standards are here, as well as a fairly impressive array of whole grain options. Honey Nut Cheerios sells for $5.69, and Kashi Autumn Wheat (a favorite of mine!) for $4.49

Grade: A. Hits all the standards and show good promise in healthy choices. Kids and adults rejoice.


Again, Albertsons does a decent job here. Just about any herb/spice can be found, with several varieties to choose from. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but a solid selection. There are some organic options on the shelf. Fair trade options were not to be found. Spice Island Garlic Powder is $6.99, and McCormick Gourmet Vanilla Beans are $12.99.

Grade: B. Check elsewhere for gourmet & fair trade choices. If you live nearby and need something, you’ll have no problem.


Since we’re on a roll with good thoughts, let’s start with the eggs. I was pretty surprised to find a good selection on cage free organic eggs. Four choices in fact! Not bad, Albertsons. For $4.49/dozen, you could do worse.

Of course, the reason I was surprised at the good egg selection was the sad state of affairs in the rest of the dairy case. Oh, poorness. There were three choices of organic milk- the very commercial & not very cow friendly Horizon, Wild Harvest, and Heritage. All three are ultra-pasteurized, and only the Heritage is local. Wild Harvest is cheapest at $3.99/half gallon.

Things get worse with the yogurt. The only ‘organic’ choice was a large jug of Horizon. After that, we were left with standard processed faire, containing more high fructose corn syrup than goodness.

Grade: Eggs- A / Dairy- C-. Happy with the egg selection. In fact, you’ll probably only do better for freshness at a farmers’ market. Dairy scores a bonus for having at least one locally produced organic milk, but looses points for ultra-pasteurization, and sugar-laden yogurt.


The deli here is standard supermarket. There is a decent variety of processed meats and pre-made rubbish on sale at the counter. In the case nearby, all the meats are very highly processed. Go to the counter if you have a craving. Cheese choices are poor. Very poor. A few varieties of smoked cheese grace the cold case, but don’t expect much. One of the things I plan to compare in each segment was Parmigiano Reggiano. Can’t do it here. They don’t have it! There is a small, nice selection of pre-made sauces, like the organic pesto above, which sells for a pricey $6.99

Grade: C-. Standard stuff. Nothing special.


I will admit full bias here. In the last year, I’ve purchased at least 85% of my produce from the farmers’ market. There’s no reason not to. I’ll do my best to be generous.

Well, there is certainly bounty aplenty here. You can get just about anything you’d like. Most of it looks very ‘standardized,’ by which I mean grown for hardiness and generic look, rather then for quality of flavor. There is a small selection of locally grown, organic produce. It’s limited to what’s in season, plus, strangely, kiwis flown from New Zealand. I love kiwis, so I can’t really complain. Ha. Peaches sell for $2.49/lb- comparable to those at the farmers’ market, and only 50c more than conventional. Organic raspberries go for $3.99 per package. Everything in the produce section is well labeled and contains a little description. I like that.

Grade:C+. Pretty standard, but improving. I think this is really up to us. The more organics we buy, the better quality we ask for, the more they’ll do to improve the selection.


I’m getting angry just writing about it. Just don’t buy sliced bread here. It’s all crap. Crap crap crap. Crap in bad packaging, crap in packaging the makes it look like it’s not crap, which in my opinion makes it even crappier. I think the crap crap crap we call ‘bread’ in America is a huge contributor to what makes us fat. Crap. It’s disgusting. Read about it in an earlier post.

The one salvation is Milton’s bread, which you can find at the far right end of the section, buried under crap. It contains good stuff, and at $4.39 per loaf, is the same price as everything else in the bread section. Confusing.

Grade: F- – – -.


There is a nice organic aisle across from the produce section. Though limited in selection, you can do a pretty good job of grabbing some less processed choices of you need to run in quickly. Rice Dream is $2.29/32oz, Knudsen Just Blueberry is $9.29/32oz, Tea’s Teas (yum!) at $2.25 for a small container, and most Naked Juices are $3.99.


Albertsons isn’t bad, it’s standard grocery store. If you work real hard and read a lot of labels, you can get a decent amount of food for a pretty good price. In a pinch, it’s a fair option. However, you’re not going to find anything high quality here. At best, you’ll find ‘good’. We should eat better.

Plus, this is assuming you’re educated about food. For those that don’t know, or don’t care, there are just too many poor, processed choices available with better marketing displays for cheaper prices. That’s where the problem lies. Are supermarkets will only improve as we work to improve them, or go to stores that are already on the right path, thus hurting the mega-mart’s bottom line.

Final Grade: C

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