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Shopping solutions

(article, Caroline Cummins)

So a few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a mildly jokey article on dining chez 99-cent stores. Can you, proposed the piece, dine well at dollar stores? The answer, the paper concluded, was "sort of."

But with food costs rising worldwide, 99-cent stores are starting to look better and better. And the food media is starting to offer strategies for smart shopping without, as the New York Times did, resorting to Little Debbies cakes for dessert.

On Slate, Sara Dickerman recently chastised glossy food publications for extolling la cucina povera, or peasant food, without actually explaining how to eat on the cheap. As Dickerman pointed out, while everybody wants good food for less dough, nobody wants to open a pretty magazine and see unpretty food. Taking a home-ec stance, writes Dickerman, is "a hard sell for the food press of today, which tends to linger over fast and spontaneous rewards rather than strategic planning."

Which is why the Oregonian's recent decision to focus an entire food section on "strategic planning" was so refreshing. Taking a literal page from the book Hungry Planet, in which Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio photographed families around the world with a week's worth of foodstuffs, the Oregonian asked four Portland families to take a "grocery-budget challenge" for a month and be photographed with a pile of groceries. 

The paper then wrapped things up with a cheat sheet of strategies for saving money. Some were obvious (buy an entire chicken instead of boneless and skinless breasts), while others were more clever (set aside cash for your week's worth of groceries and refuse to whip out the plastic). Organic food was generally deemed too expensive (except for the Environmental Working Group's list of produce to buy organic), and farmers' markets were declared an occasional indulgence. 

Still, three cheers to the paper for daring to devote six pages of newsprint — plus three more pages the following week — to spending less instead of more.

And in answer to the Oregonian's_ question of "How low can you go?" we suggest Maria Gajewski's effort to eat on only $30 a month. Take that, wallet busters.