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Health Food Shopping On a Budget

December 2002

Health Food Shopping On a Budget

It can be tough to make ends meet, especially if you are immune-compromised with HIV or face other illnesses. Being on HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) or disability benefits hardly stretches to the allotted time, so how can those who most need healthy diets afford to eat healthy on food stamps or limited income?

One advantage is that you have a little more time to shop at various locations in between appointments or lunch and dinner programs.

Some of us begrudge the arrival of chain stores, but health food is increasing in popularity with huge chains catering to the 40 percent growth in organic foods, this is a big money industry. How we benefit is that prices for these items go down with larger demand and supplies for organic food.

Did you know that many organic health food cereals are cheaper than commercial cereals which are packed with sugar and sodium anyway? Walk in a health food supermarket and see how much space is dedicated to breakfast cereals and notice that seniors have flocked to the better, often cheaper and tastier "Oatios" instead of "Cheerios."

Now walk into a regular supermarket and only buy items which do not contain hydrogenated oils (unhealthy artery-cloggers) or high fructose corn syrup (as bad as sugar) and you may have a pretty empty cart. Yes, the food industry is loading us up with dangerous foods for our health.

Many cereal companies are now owned by corporate giants. Yes, Kelloggs and Coca Cola have seen the future in food and it's "organic." The advantage of this corporate takeover is coupons. Check in the cereal box, Sunday newspapers, and online at your favorite health food store because coupons are to be found in increasing numbers. Check products for "Coupon Now" type stickers. Write to a company with your comments or call a 1-800 customer service line and you may find yourself with a coupon book in the mail. I like to use the Boca Burger coupons combined with store sales at Pathmark, Lifethyme, Back To The Land, and periodically elsewhere for the low price of $1.99, which is cheap for six "healthy" burgers -- and there's often a coupon inside!!

It's always interesting to see curious shoppers walking down the aisle of a health food store amazed at all of these foreign products. Cashew butter? Where's Skippy peanut butter? Pick up that organic cheddar cheese. "Damn, that's twice as expensive as cheese at a regular supermarket!" I hear often. Yes, health food is still more expensive and is often out of reach for those on food stamps ... or is it?

Comparison Shopping

One of the most important things to do when visiting overpriced supermarkets of healthy delights is to comparison shop. Do you have a health food store in your neighborhood, or better yet a health food co-op that you can join for better bulk rate prices? Is membership free for people with HIV? Do they offer free delivery? In New York City, I've discovered that Whole Foods has the best grocery prices but relatively high-priced produce and fish departments. Integral Yoga Natural Foods is best for produce and bulk, and Healthy Pleasures and Commodities have good monthly sales. Each store has a sales flyer at the beginning of each month (or even week).

The opening of a new store, or closing of a health food store means big discounts. New stores often give away free discount cards and gourmet samples are everywhere to be found. Word of note: Garden of Eden has great deli samples so come hungry and buy a baguette if you feel obligated but I rarely see yuppies chowing down with any guilt.

I prefer Whole Foods for their generic brands and I am also supportive of their more generous employee pay than some of the less scrupulous profit-first health food stores. You may be surprised at their prices of cereal, canned goods, soy milk, tortilla wraps, fresh salsa, jam spreads, and even frozen pizza. Look for "365" or "Whole Foods" brands as well as the name brands on sale. Of note, check out Eberley's Organic or Bell & Evan's natural chicken (no antibiotics or growth hormones), packaged and often on sale and much fresher than the bigger brands, which often turn bad overnight in the refrigerator. Organic eggs are definitely better tasting than battery-hen eggs, but don't pay more than $2.69 a dozen.

I actually buy my produce, meat and especially fish at Chinese grocery stores (each borough has a Chinatown district) because they are often cheaper and fresher than the regular supermarkets. A busy supermarket is always a good sign of freshness because of high turnover of stock. Never buy fish anywhere on Sunday and Monday as these are often Thursday's leftovers which is usually the biggest end-of-week delivery day. I even buy tofu at the Chinese supermarket for a one-pound slab for only 75 cents. With a blender, Mori-Nu Pudding mix and soft or silken tofu, you have a great pudding dessert for two. Make tofu your friend, and soy products in general.

Textured vegetable protein (TVP) available in bulk bins makes a quick extremely inexpensive Bolognese sauce without the e-coli threat of ground beef.

Regarding produce, I recommend organic produce for any plan that grows low to the ground and therefore is more vulnerable to pesticides, such as strawberries, lettuce, spinach, arugula, grapes, and bean sprouts. Baby foods are now almost fully converted to organic with Gerber jumping on board. Nothing beats Californian produce, though the Northeast corridor has great local offerings in shorter seasons.

Some supermarkets are dishonest and try to pass off conventional produce as organic. Read the stickers and if the code begins with a "4" it is non-organic and if it begins with a "9" it's organic. Remember, "nine is fine with me!" Don't buy from salad bars as they are generally expensive as well as unhygienic and often not covered by food stamps; one exception would be Lifethyme in the Village where you can dine out with style upstairs on deli food (tax included) paid for by food stamps.

Nutritious meals are provided by Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), Momentum AIDS Project, and a few other agencies (see chart in this issue). They provide a choice of meat, fish and various vegetable dishes at either lunch or dinner seven days per week that will help you stretch you limited food budget. Remember that we all deserve the best available!

Mike E. Minogue is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
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