Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The One Harvest challenge, part 1

The most recent print edition of the Dollar Stretcher newsletter featured an article (not yet available on the website) about a food program called One Harvest Food Ministries. Available in only a handful of states, this is like a cross between a food bank and a farm share. Rather than giving away food to the needy (and requiring proof of limited income), they sell food at below-average prices to anyone who wants it. The organization assembles large boxes, each containing an assortment of frozen and packaged foods, and distributes them through local churches. While it is a religious organization, you don't need to belong to any particular church or faith to buy from them.

Out of curiosity, I had a look at the program's menus for this month. There are several different packages available, including the "Family Box" (described as "perfect for a family of 4"), the "More than Enough Box" (similar to the Family Box, but with more of everything), the "Golden Cuisine Meals" assortment (10 individual frozen meals), and the "Fresh Frozen Veggie Box" (mostly veggies with a couple of other items). There were also meat-only boxes featuring chicken, roasts, and grilling meats, as well as "survival meals" in Mylar packets, presumably to be deployed in case of natural disaster or zombie apocalypse. However, it didn't take long to figure out that none of these options would really work for us. To see why, take a look at what's in this month's Family Box, which sells for $36:
  • 1.5 lb Boneless Skinless Chicken Breast
  • 1.25 lb Homemade Style Salisbury Steaks
  • 1.5 lb Flounder Fillets
  • 1.3 lb Kielbasa Sausage
  • 1 lb Premium Ground Beef
  • 12 oz Ground Turkey
  • 1 lb Lee Breakfast Sausage
  • (2) 8” Deep Dish Pepperoni Pizzas
  • 32 oz Crinkle Cut Fries
  • 1 lb Fresh Frozen Green Beans
  • 1 lb Fresh Frozen Stir Fry Veggies
  • 1 lb Fresh Frozen Shoe Peg Corn
  • 1 lb Fresh Frozen Sliced Carrots
  • 1 lb Fresh Frozen Sliced Peaches
  • 8.5 oz Jiffy Cornbread Muffin Mix
  • 1 Dessert Item
This selection really doesn't reflect the way we eat at all. It's really heavy on the meat, and the meats offered are (presumably) not free-range, with the possible exception of the flounder. Then, too, there's a lot of convenience food here, like frozen pizzas, fries, and muffin mix. These prepackaged items are probably a lot less healthful (and also more expensive) than the versions we could make from scratch. And while we do use frozen veggies, we don't really need them in September, when the garden is brimming with fresh produce.

However, looking at the list did raise two intriguing questions for us:
  1. Is $36 for this box really a good deal? How does it compare to the amount we'd normally spend for the same number of meals?
  2. If we were going to buy a box of food once a month, what could it contain that would actually be useful for us?
Answering question #1 actually turned out to involve a fair amount of research, so I'm leaving that one for a later post. However, question #2 was much more straightforward. I came up right away with several things that probably wouldn't be worth including. First, there would probably be no meat or eggs, since we only buy free-range versions of these, and a "food ministry" with a focus on low cost probably wouldn't be offering them. Second, there should be no convenience foods, since we generally prefer to cook from scratch for reasons of health as well as cost. And third, most produce should probably be left out. We don't have the freezer space to accommodate large amounts of frozen veggies, and when buying fresh ones, we prefer to go with whatever happens to be in season. If we wanted to have that delivered to us in a box, we'd join a CSA.

So basically, what would make a useful package for us would be mostly staples: rice and beans, oats and flour (but probably not sugar, since we buy that organic), and a few easy-to-store veggies like potatoes and onions. But the thing is, we get pretty good prices for these items right now. We buy most of them from Aldi, but we also rely on a couple of other local stores for specific items: the Whole Earth Center in Princeton has the best prices on mushrooms and bulk yeast, while the Shop-Rite generally has the lowest price for powdered milk. So just how little would a box of staple goods have to cost to make it a good deal for us?

To figure this out, I estimated what we use in a month, along with the price we pay from our preferred source. Our ideal staple box would look something like this:
  • rice, 2 lbs. ($1 at our usual price)
  • beans, 2 lbs. ($3.20)
  • oats, 42 oz. ($2.20)
  • flour, 5 lbs. ($2.35)
  • yeast, 2 oz. ($.50)
  • potatoes, 5 lbs. ($2)
  • onions, 3 lbs. ($2)
  • mushrooms, 2 lbs.  ($4.60)
  • cheese, 3 lbs. ($10.50)
  • powdered milk, 1 20-quart box ($13)
  • breakfast cereal, 5 lbs. ($8)
All this totals up to $49.35, which you could round up to $50 to account for the gas we'd save by just picking up the whole box in one place instead of having to make side trips for particular errands. So basically, if One Harvest—or some organization like it—could offer us a box containing these particular items, without any of the stuff we can't use, for $50 or less, then it would be a deal worth considering. Even under these unlikely circumstances, however, it might not save us money in the long run, because the prices I've listed above are the prices we pay for each item on the list when it's not on sale. By stocking up at sale prices, we might easily end up paying well below $50 on average for this market basket of goods.

So, bottom line: it's unlikely that any food program will ever be able to offer us a good deal on the foods we actually use. (Sadly, this has proved to be the case for CSAs, too, every time we've tried doing the math on them.) But what about those folks who would actually use the foods One Harvest has to offer? Is the package deal a true bargain for them, or could they do better using shopping strategies like ours? Stay tuned to find out.
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