My 2016 Budget Challenge: Finding Food

[Editor's Note: This is another episode in Max Wong's journey to find an extra $31,000 this year. Read the whole series here.]

This year I am trying to make an additional $31,000 (here's the math that explains why). This means that in addition to taking on extra work, I am combing through our budget looking for ways to save money on our household expenses.

One of the biggest line items in our budget is food. Our high food cost exists because my husband and I looked at the health of our elderly relatives and realized that we can spend more money now on better quality food, or we can spend more money later on medical treatment for things like Type 2 Diabetes.

While the price of groceries at Whole Foods might lead anyone to think otherwise, researchers at Harvard School of Public Health have found that really healthy diets only cost about $1.50 per day more than the average diet. This research tracks with our household budget. We spend around $1,200 more per year on groceries than most two-person households. So, how can we reduce our food budget by at least this $1,200 without sacrificing nutrition or yummy food experiences?

By scavenging food.

1. Eat Through Your Pantry

The average American household wastes between 15% and 25% of the food they purchase. To quote Dana Gunders, Staff Scientist for the Food and Agriculture Program:

"Imagine walking out of a grocery store with four bags of groceries, dropping one in the parking lot, and just not bothering to pick it up. That's essentially what we're doing in our homes today."

To put that waste in financial terms, the average American family wastes $2,275 in food each year. With that in mind, the first place I'm scavenging food is in my own refrigerator.

In January, my husband finally agreed to buy fewer groceries after he realized how much of the food we had in our fridge was on the brink of going bad. To avoid wasting food, we scheduled meals based on the "best if consumed by" dates of the ingredients, and have been careful to buy only what we need to complete recipes or meals since then.

Interestingly, organizing our grocery shopping around food waste prevention has not had a negative impact on our diet. In fact, it has made us cook with greater focus, intention, and creativity.

2. Become the Commissary Coyote

My husband is so skilled at cooking with leftovers, and so unapologetic about bringing home uneaten work lunches that were destined for the dumpster, that the marketing director for his video game company wants him to star in a YouTube office cooking series tentatively titled: "Are You Going to Finish That? Snackin' With Steve," for the company's website.

Some office cultures are super judgmental about eating leftovers, or even brown bagging lunch, so we are lucky that my husband's coworkers are charmed and even impressed by his culinary habits…and also completely uninterested in eating leftovers themselves. My husband's company orders in dinner at least once a week to reward the salaried workers who work overtime to meet deadlines. There has been enough surplus food from these office dinners that my husband has been getting the equivalent of two free lunches per week.

3. Gleaning

Most people who have fruit trees end up with more fruit than they can handle, and pretty much everyone hates wasting home grown fruit. Since I live in Los Angeles, just about every yard in my neighborhood contains at least one fruit tree. My neighbors are only too thrilled to let me pick their trees clean. It's free yard work for them. I haven't had to pay for orange juice in three months, and I can't remember the last time I paid for a lemon or a grapefruit. All of this fruit is organically grown since none of my neighbors bother to spray their trees for bug control.

A great resource for finding free fruit is real estate agents. Fallen fruit looks terrible and attracts rodents, so several agents call me whenever they have a listing with ripe fruit trees. I just donated 300 pounds of surplus citrus I got from one property to a local charity.

In previous years, I have advertised on Freecycle and Craigslist to find free backyard produce.

Gleaning fruit not only saves me money, it makes me money. Last September, I made $400 from selling my jams and marmalades made from gleaned, backyard fruit.

4. Use Everything in the CSA Farm Box or Grocery Bag

My local grade school offers a weekly CSA farm share subscription that is a fundraiser for both the school and the organic farmers that provide the produce. Every week I am given additional free produce from families who will never try kohlrabi or still haven't eaten through last week's purple potatoes. Usually, I offer to trade something from my CSA box in return, but I rarely get any takers. Also, not one of my fellow farm box subscribers eat the tops of their vegetables, even though they are edible, so every week I collect multiple servings of beet, radish, carrot, or turnip greens.

5. Shop at the End of the Farmer's Market

Gas is expensive and so is garbage pick-up. Farmers don't want to haul away unsellable food from the farmer's market, so most market vendors are willing to give steep discounts on food that is perfectly ripe today, but will be too ripe for them to sell tomorrow. The vendors I shop with regularly know that I make preserves, so they always give me huge bags of damaged fruit for free at the end of the day. No one will buy a bruised apple, but I have to chop up the fruit anyway when I make pies or jams. It doesn't take me any extra time to cut the bad parts off of free peaches.

6. Work a Food Job or Just Work Near One

Many restaurant and catering jobs include a free staff meal and first dibs at leftovers. This is pretty common knowledge. But we don't even have to work a food job to get these benefits.

My brother-in-law is a professional party planner. He sends his staff home with surplus food after every event. He's now our cake hook-up. We have been eating a ridiculous amount of leftover wedding cake made by the best bakeries in town.

My husband's best scavenge of the year actually came from a side job. My husband recently DJ'ed a house party that was catered by the In 'n Out Burger Truck. At the end of the night, the party host offered him 60 freshly cooked, fully wrapped hamburgers that she was going to throw out. He brought home 26 hamburgers! He ate four of them whole and we performed a burgerdectomy on the remaining 22, removing the meat and onion, before composting the rest of the burgers. We chopped up the patties and the onions and made a huge pot of chili using only ingredients we already had in the house. The chili was delicious. It even retained that special In 'n Out charred taste! It was so good that we were sorry that he had left the rest of the hamburgers behind.

The next time we get leftover burgers we are going to make White Castle stuffing.

7. Leftovers Are the New Black

Apparently, our love of catering surplus is totally on point. Two of New York's trendiest restaurants are serving food waste to ecstatic customers.

8. Forage

I took a foraging class last weekend, and in addition to learning to identify five more edible plants that are growing all over my neighborhood and free for the taking, I came home with a one pound oyster mushroom, harvested by the instructor, that made the most delicious omelet. The instructor also showed me where to find wild currants on public land (I see free currant jam in my future) and how to use river stones to heat food quickly. It was well worth the $20 I spent on the class to learn how to survive the zombie apocalypse without poisoning myself.

9. Eat What You Know

Before I developed better plant identification skills, I used to worry about eating toxic weeds. Luckily in Los Angeles, it is legal to harvest fruit that is growing on or hanging over public land, including city sidewalks. So even if I could only identify the most common fruits like oranges and apples, I would still be able to forage plenty of food. Over the years, I have learned how to identify about 20 different fruit and nut trees, so I now have access to free fruit year around. Urban foragers in cities around the world have even made fruit maps, which make finding and identifying fruit trees even easier for newbie foragers.

10. Eat the Enemy

March is the best month to harvest the edible weeds in my backyard. Between the chickweed, lamb's quarters, nettles, and mallow, we won't have to buy salad greens all month. Wild plants have very high nutrient and flavor densities when compared to conventionally grown produce. By eating weeds we are getting extra vitamins and tastes without spending a cent.

While eating weeds sounds desperate to many folk, restaurants pay a premium for wild foods. In Los Angeles, top restaurants are creating entire menus based on locally foraged, wild crafted food. It should also be noted than many commonly foraged food items like dandelions and garden snails were brought to America by European immigrants as food crops and micro-livestock.

11. Scrounge Like Steve Jobs

Nick Heyer started the scrounge movement at Reed College in 1966. In order to cut his food costs, Heyer started eating the lunch leftovers of a classmate who was on a diet. Since 1966, hundreds of students, including Steve Jobs, have stretched their scholarship dollars by scrounging.

Many universities have less storied, less organized, and less gross scrounging programs. Once a week, I work at a university, between 10 p.m. and midnight. On the way home, I always get a free pastry from the coffee shop on the ground floor of my building. At the end of every night, the shop gives that day's leftover baked goods to any university employee who asks. This employee discount is not advertised. I only found out about the late night pastry perk when I tried to buy a midnight snack from the coffee shop after they had closed their register for the night.

12. Dumpster Diving

I know several people who live extraordinary lives — as food rescue volunteers, as globetrotting snowboarders, as artists — who all dumpster dive for food as a logical and practical money-saving tool. Because I have seen firsthand how these people use scavenging to live fabulously, I've been able to put aside all sorts of irrational, ego-based, "ew gross" thoughts and see that dumpster diving is more than just about money, it's a great way to reduce environmental impact and take a stand against the American culture of waste.

Obviously, I don't have any squeamishness about pulling edible packaged or peel-able food out of the garbage. However, I have a moral problem with competing with the huge population of homeless people in my city who depend on dumpster diving for their meals. So, unless I find myself on the verge of homelessness myself, dumpster diving for food will not be part of my $31,000 Budget Challenge. (However, I will still be dumpster diving for fun and profit.)

Progress So Far

Dearest readers, do you have food scavenging tips you would like to share with me? I'm listening. It's already March and I need to find $25,000 more before the end of the year to make my $31,000 Budget Goal.

For us, this last pay period was gruesome. After six weeks in the shop and three failed smog tests, we finally got our Volvo station wagon up and running. Final cost: $1091.90. Alas, this financial hit was not defrayed by the whopping $90 I made last week from a little writing gig.

Goal: $31,000

Amount Raised: $8,890.00

Amount Spent: $4,833.72

Amount Left to Go: $26,943.72

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Guest's picture

In addition to jams, you may enjoy making floral wines. Dandelion and violet are real winners. They make lovely jellies and wines. If I could find a good source for rose petals or Queen Anne's lace those are next to try.