Thursday, September 5, 2013

The One Harvest challenge, part 2

As I noted in yesterday's post, figuring out how our regular grocery budget compares to a package deal from One Harvest Food Ministries turned out to be a lot more complicated than it looked at first blush. My first thought was just to take all the items in the organization's $36 Family Box and figure out how much we'd spend on the equivalents (including free-range versions of all the meats). But I quickly realized this wouldn't be an accurate comparison at all, because their Family Box contained far more meat than our two-person family would normally eat in a month. So figuring out how much we'd pay for that much meat wouldn't give a realistic picture of our actual grocery spending.

So instead, I decided it would make more sense to figure out what meals a hypothetical family would make from the food in this box, and then calculate how much we'd pay to make comparable but not identical meals. For example, if the family used its 1.5 pounds of boneless chicken breast to make two meals—stir-fry with chicken and chicken pot pie—then I'd figure out how much we'd spend to make a stir-fry with tofu and a chicken pot pie with free-range chicken legs. And since our family has only two people in it, I'd count each of the imaginary family's dinners as being equivalent to two dinners for the two of us, and double our recipes as necessary.

However, when I started trying to make menus out of the ingredients in the Family Box (reiterated below), I ran into a snag:
  • 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
See the problem? There aren't nearly enough veggies in this box to balance out the amount of meat you're getting. Even if you served traditional American-style meals, with a big hunk of meat accompanied by smaller hunks of potato and vegetable, you wouldn't have enough veggies to go around, and there certainly aren't enough to stretch the meat out into a month's worth (or even half a month's worth) of meals. So I figured, to make this a more reasonable test, I'd add a Fresh Frozen Veggie box, for $25.50, into the mix. That gives us this much extra material to work with:
  • 1lb FF Strawberries
  • 12 ct Frozen Southern Biscuits
  • 1lb FF Sliced Carrots
  • 1lb FF Corn on the Cob
  • 1lb FF Broccoli Florets
  • 1lb FF Green Peas and Carrots
  • 1lb FF Mixed Vegetables
  • 1lb FF Vegetable Gumbo
  • 1lb FF Sliced Yellow Squash
  • 1lb FF Breaded Okra
  • 1lb FF Speckled Butter Beans
  • 1lb FF White Shoepeg Corn
  • 1lb FF Field Peas with Snaps
  • 1lb FF Stir-Fry Mixed Vegetables
  • 1lb FF Green Peas
  • 1 lb FF Green Beans
With this, we can begin to make some menus. I tried to stretch the meat out to about 3-4 ounces per person per meal, augmenting with at least twice that amount of veggies and other material, such as rice. (Since this wasn't included in either of the boxes, I tacked on a few bucks to my budget to cover it.) I also didn't bother to diversify the menu as much as I probably would in real life: I just came up with as many meals as needed to use up all the stuff in both boxes and didn't worry about repeating some of them.

So, in this corner, here is the Harvest Food Ministries menu:
  1. Chicken-veggie stir fry: ¾ lb. chicken breast, 2 lbs. stir fry veggies, served with rice
  2. Chicken pot pie: ¾ lb. chicken breast, 1 lb. mixed veggies, 1 lb. beans, biscuit crust
  3. Salisbury steaks, served with carrots and corn (I figured this was a bit too much food for one dinner for four and not quite enough for two, so I counted it as one meal plus leftovers)
  4. Fried fish, with fries, squash, and peas (enough for two dinners for four)
  5. Broiled sausage, with carrots and corn (enough for two dinners for four)
  6. Meat loaf, with corn and mixed carrots and peas (in real life I'd probably try to stretch the ground beef more by making chili, but that would have involved bringing in too many ingredients that weren't in the Harvest Food boxes)
  7. Pasta with ground turkey and broccoli (I found the recipe for this online after a quick search on "ground turkey recipes")
  8. Sausage with biscuits, gravy, and peas
  9. Vegetable gumbo, served with rice
  10. Pepperoni pizza, served with green beans
  11. Butter beans and corn muffins, served with okra
In addition to these main meals, we have three desserts. I assumed that the "dessert item" in the Family Box was something like a pie or a cake that would serve eight (so it would stretch over two nights). I also used the frozen peaches and the frozen strawberries, which didn't fit into any of the dinner menus, to make two additional desserts: a peach cobbler and a strawberry shortcake. I figured the additional ingredients for these (flour, sugar, etc.), as well as the rice, pasta, and other ingredients added to the dinner menus, would cost between $4 and $5, so that brings the total cost of our two boxes' worth of meals up to $66. Now, can we do better cooking from scratch?

I came up with a menu that I thought was roughly equivalent to the one above, using recipes that Brian and I actually use at home. As I noted above, in most cases, I multiplied our usual recipes as needed to make an equivalent volume to the ones from the Harvest Food boxes. However, I made a couple of exceptions. For instance, kielbasa sausage is one meat that we do occasionally eat straight up, with potatoes and veggies on the side. However, there's no way we'd ever have this meal four times in a single month; the free-range sausages we buy at the Amish market are just too expensive for that. So instead of assuming we'd have this meal four times (four meals for two equals two meals for four), I figured we'd have it only twice and increased the volume of the next meal on the menu (chili) to compensate.

I assumed that we'd buy all the ingredients for our meals at the price we usually pay in the store, regardless of whether that's a regular price or the sale price at which we generally stock up. I also didn't include any of our own garden produce in our meals, since I figured that wouldn't really be a fair comparison. The Harvest Food boxes provided all the veggies for the first batch of meals, so I included all the veggies for the second batch in our grocery list. The one exception I made was for the dandelion greens included in the final meal on the list. These aren't usually sold in stores, and I think it's safe to assume that most people could manage to pick a bunch of them somewhere if they looked.

So, in this corner, here is the Ecofrugal Living menu. I've included the ingredients for each meal, along with their cost.
  1. Stir fry: 18 oz. tofu $1, 1 lb. broccoli $1.50, 2 peppers $1, 1 jar sprouts $.20, 1 bunch scallions $.30, rice $.40: total $4.40
  2. Chicken pot pie: ¾ lb. free range chicken legs $1.50, 1 lb. potatoes $.40, ½ lb. organic frozen peas $1, ½ lb. organic mushrooms $1.15, 1 large leek $1.50, 2 carrots $.20, milk/butter/flour/baking powder/salt $.50: total $6.25
  3. Tuna potato cakes, with applesauce and peas (this was my equivalent to the Salisbury steak, so I made enough for three meals for the two of us): 2 cans tuna $2, 1 lb. potatoes $.40, 2 carrots $.20, 1/2 bunch scallions $.15, 4 free-range eggs $.80, 1 sm. jar applesauce $1, flour/mayo/oil/seasonings $1: total $5.55
  4. Fish tacos with slaw (this was my equivalent to the fried fish above, so I made enough for four meals for the two of us): 1.5 lb. catfish nuggets $3.75, 1 pkg. corn tortillas $1, 3 lbs. cabbage $1.20, ½ lb. tomatoes $1, 1 bunch scallions $.30, other ingredients $.25: total $7.50
  5. Broiled sausages, with baked potatoes and peas: ½ lb. sausage $3, 1 lb. potatoes $.40, 1 lb. organic peas $2: total $5.40
  6. Chili and corn bread: 1 tube Gimme Lean beef $4, 2 peppers $1, 2 onions $.30, 1 lb. beans $1.60, 2 cans tomatoes $2, 1 c. corn meal $.45, 1 c. flour $.20, 1 egg $.20, 1 c. milk $.17, ¼ c. organic sugar $.21, garlic/spices/lime/baking powder $.30: total $10.43
  7. Pasta with chick peas and spinach: 1 lb. pasta $.80, 1 lb. organic frozen spinach $2, ¼ lb. tomatoes $.50, 2 c. chick peas $.80, garlic/pepper/salt $.25: total $4.35
  8. Casualty Eggs (this is my equivalent to the sausage and biscuits above: a recipe from the Small Potatoes Cookbook, containing eggs, bacon, potatoes, and veggies all fried up together): 4 oz. free-range bacon ends $1, 1 lb. potatoes $.40, 8 free-range eggs $1.60, 1 pepper $.50, 1 onions $.15, garlic $.10: total $2.95
  9. Mushroom/barley soup with biscuits (this recipe I actually cut in half so it would make an equivalent volume to the vegetable gumbo above): ½ lb. organic mushrooms $1.15, ½ c. barley $.30, 2 onions $.30, 2 carrots $.20, celery/garlic/spices $.20, milk/butter/flour/baking powder/salt $.50: total $2.65
  10. Veggie pizza: 2 c. flour $.40, 1 can tomato sauce $.40, 1 onion $.20, 1 pepper $.50, ½ lb. organic mushrooms $1.15, ½ lb. mozzarella cheese $1.25, yeast/spices $.10: total $4.00
  11. Butter beans and cornbread, served with wilted dandelion greens: 1 lb. butter beans $1.50, 1 onion $.20, 1 bunch scallions $.30, 1 c. corn meal $.45, 1 c. flour $.20, 1 free-range egg $.20, 1 c. milk $.17, ¼ c. organic sugar $.21, 4 oz. free-range bacon ends $1, flour/butter/garlic/spices/baking powder/brown sugar/vinegar $.30: $4.53
For my three dessert items, I chose these three simple recipes we use often:
  1. Wacky cake (an extremely simple, vegan chocolate cake that you can whip up in about five minutes): 1½ c. flour $.30, 1 c. organic sugar $.85, 5 Tbsp. cooking oil $.15, cocoa/baking soda/salt/vinegar/vanilla $.15: total $1.45
  2. Apple crisp: 2 lbs. local apples $2.50, 1 c. oats $.20, ¾ c. flour $.15, ¾ c. organic sugar $.63, ½ c. butter $.50, lemon juice/cinnamon $.05, $4.03
  3. Chocolate pudding (four batches of it, to make four nights' worth of dessert for the two of us): 4 c. milk $.68, 1 c. organic sugar $.85, 6 Tbsp. organic cocoa $.60, 4 free-range eggs $.80, oil/salt/corn starch/vanilla $.10: total $3.03
And the total for all these dinners and desserts together is...$67.32, virtually the same the price as the Harvest Food Ministries menu. And moreover, we spent the same amount while using only free-range meats and eggs, organic sugar and cocoa, and some organic and/or locally grown produce. So if you believe that organic foods are better for you (or, as I believe, better for the world as a whole and thus worth the extra money), then you're getting better value for about the same dollar amount—and if you don't, you could substitute conventional meats, eggs, and other ingredients and make the Ecofrugal Living menu for even less.

So I'd say the takeaway from part 2 of this challenge is this: Harvest Food ministries does, in fact, offer pretty good value for money, particularly for heavy meat-eaters. But it's certainly possible, and not even that difficult, to get just as many meals for the same amount by eating less meat and cooking everything from scratch. Moreover, by doing so, you can enjoy free-range meats and at least some organic ingredients on a limited budget. So for those who care about such things, the Ecofrugal Living menu is the better deal, hands down. (P.S.: If you'd like to know how to make any of the specific dishes I included in this menu, say so in a comment and I'll post either the recipe itself or a link.) 
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