4 Socially Responsible Ways to Lower Your Food Expenses

save money on groceries
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When you’re broke, there are many things you can absolutely do without. You can skip a night out on the town, delay that vacation you’ve been longing for and wait to purchase the hottest new handbag at your favorite boutique. However, food is up there with air and water. It’s a necessity.

What can you do when your tummy is growling, you’re low on cash and you’re sick of trolling grocery store aisles for free samples? Try these four socially responsible ways to lower your food expenses.

1. Volunteer

A few years ago, I was interning at The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan for my Master of Social Work degree. I worked in the special needs programs with social workers and volunteers. Not only did we get to take fun trips with nice people to local attractions like the aquarium in Coney Island, Victorian Gardens in Central Park and the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt on the Hudson River, but everything was paid for in full, including food and beverages.

Some nights, I took the adult groups to the local watering hole for happy hour to practice social skills while sipping on free wine and enjoying appetizers. Some afternoons, I took the teens to Shake Shack where we feasted on burgers, fries and frozen custard. The experience was rewarding in so many ways.

Next time you’re broke and hungry, pick a population you’d like to work with, reach out to a local organization and ask if they could use some helping hands. There’s a good chance you’ll get fed, meet interesting people, gain valuable experiences and change lives. You never know who you’ll meet, how it will impact your life, and what opportunities will come from it.

2. Rescue Otherwise Wasted Food

While 50 million Americans are food insecure, 40% of all food produced in the United States goes to waste. These are hard statistics to wrap your head around. Dana Frasz is the Founder and Director of Food Shift, an organization that develops innovative solutions to ensure good food is captured and redistributed to people in need before it’s wasted.

“We need to bring back the value of food and people in our society, because our current food system is allowing both to fall through the cracks,” she explains. “Food Shift is working to connect the dots between the two with solutions that go beyond food banks, looking toward sustainable models that provide economic empowerment and better distribution of food to vulnerable populations.” Additionally, Food Shift is a valuable resource, educating people on how to properly store their food and reduce food waste, which saves you money.

In 2003, Frasz launched a food recovery program at Sarah Lawrence College, and in 2008, she began dumpster diving and has been on at least 50 “food rescue missions” since. Dana and her boyfriend used to go once a month when they first moved to California, but because they’ve learned how to preserve their food, they now go about once every two months.

Their grocery list is small — often only including ginger, garlic, onions, oils, nuts, beans and cheese. Everything else they want or need for their vegetarian diet is provided by the dumpsters they visit. Many nights, they bring home between 300 and 500 pounds of food, discards from a few local grocery stores. They find everything from produce to bread to meat to prepared foods and sushi. They wear gloves, wash everything and have never gotten sick.

“Combined, we may spend $50 a month on food,” says Frasz.We eat almost every meal at home, make our own lunches and we have saved thousands of dollars over the past few years, allowing us to invest our money instead into travel and experiences.” They even share the wealth by hosting big dinner parties with the food they rescue.

Frasz also started a listserv that’s comprised of about 40 strangers who come to her house to pick up food from their rescued bounty. She also uses The Freecycle Network as a platform for giving away food. Everyone agrees that it’s crazy to throw food away and people are very appreciative. “From a personal perspective, finding food in the trash is bittersweet, like finding a hidden treasure. It’s a surprise, it’s nourishing and it saves us lots of money, but beyond that, it’s infuriating to know how much of it is being thrown away across the country, and that’s why Food Shift is doing what we do to change the system,” she shares.

3. Forage

Foraging for edible plants, weeds and mushrooms has become the hottest new trend in cooking these days. Turn your TV to your favorite foodie show, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a segment on searching for wild herbs to compliment your favorite dish. There are a few good reasons for this: It’s the ultimate in taking advantage of your natural resources, it’s free and it’s good for you!

However, it’s important to learn what’s safe to eat, and what you should stay away from because not everything is edible. Summer is the perfect time to explore and learn. Steve Brill’s Foraging in Prospect Park Tour is a great place to start.

For a suggested donation of $20, Wild Man Steve Brill will take you around Brooklyn’s beautiful Prospect Park and teach you how to forage for wood sorrel, Asiatic dayflower, hedge mustard, burdock, sassafras, black raspberries and more. If you’re not in the New York City area, you can check out Brill’s informative blog posts on the topic.

4. Practice Homesteading

Living a lifestyle of self sufficiency takes a little bit of practice and dedication, but can be very rewarding. I asked holistic artist and homesteader extraordinaire, BethKaya, to share some helpful tips on what it takes to become self sustaining.

BethKaya shares, “It’s not just about being this maven gardener or canning wizard because something as simple as buying in bulk and portioning out your needs is just as effective when it comes to saving money.” Plenty of online resources can help you begin your quest. In fact, she started a facebook group called The Homesteader’s Craft Coalition where the primary focus is to support women by sharing ideas, recipes and techniques.

Getting started requires finding a problem to solve. For instance, do you have an apple tree that is producing so much fruit it’s going to waste? Bring those apples inside and make applesauce. Change the mentality to avoid waste. Start viewing waste and problems as things you can solve, and should solve with minimal impact.

Saving money via homesteading doesn’t happen quickly at first. You never want to go in over your head. That’s when money is wasted and morale gets low. She advises you start small and work your way up. Begin with what interests you as it will bring joy to the process and help with the mentality shift required to make such lifestyle changes. Do research. Identify what’s costing you excessively. Find a way to do it cheaper without a quality reduction.

There is some overhead when becoming self sustainable. There are start-up costs. BethKaya suggests starting with your cleaning products, “Vinegar is your best friend!” Browse the internet for tons of DIY recipes that will allow you to clean without using expensive and harmful chemicals. Also, if you have the space for a recycled wooden pallet, it can be an instant raised bed for filling in soil to plant herbs, tomatoes or peppers. These are great plants to start with when first nurturing a garden.

When it comes to canning and preserving, she recommends you stick with what you eat, pay attention to what’s in season at the market, and shop local. A great place to begin canning is making apple butter. You can look up that recipe and many others, from apothecary to preserving, on BethKaya’s Pinterest board.

Your Turn: Have you tried any of these strategies to reduce your food expenses

Blythe Pack is a professional writer with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the College of William & Mary, and a Master of Social Work from Fordham University.


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