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The shopping trip

Shopping at The Berkeley Bowl is something of a contact sport on a Saturday afternoon. It’s crowded, a surprising number of shoppers seem to have phones glued to their ear, and if you get in someone’s way they will cut you.

Off, that is. They will cut you off with their cart.

I ordinarily go in steeled for shoppers’ battle, but on this trip, I lost my nerves of steel.

Chalked up to experience
I chalk it up to experience. Back when I was in graduate school, I took a reporter job with The Frederick News-Post that paid me $9.65/hour. I happily agreed to cover the most far-flung towns in our coverage area because it meant I could pad my paycheck with mileage reimbursements, but still, I was not in anything resembling financial shape.

With maxed out credit cards, grad school tuition bills due (that tuition reimbursement benefit offered by the paper, it turned out, didn’t extend to my M.A. in Writing…because it was Fiction Writing…), and a mounting sense of dread every time I had to write a check, I took a second job in the mornings at a psychiatrist’s office. They only paid $6/hour, but they paid me weekly for my eight to ten hours of work each week. That money, which usually worked out to $40 after taxes, became my budget for all household items: food, toiletries, cleaning products, you name it.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it. That sucked. I would shop sales at K-Mart and make very careful meal plans that allowed me to use leftovers from one dish in another. Luckily, five other reporters and I had a meal club three days a week—one person of the six of us cooked and brought in dinner for the rest of us, and we’d all eat together in the breakroom. That meant three nights a week (except for the once every two weeks when I’d have to cook), someone else bought me dinner.

I took a calculator to the grocery store in those days, and would walk around the store adding to the total as I put things in my cart. When I hit the budget limit, I had to decide: put something back? Or just stop shopping no matter where I was on my list? Grocery shopping took twice as long as it ever had before, and my anxiety mounted as my items rode the checkout belt toward the cashier. If my calculations had been off, I would have had to ask the checker to take some things back. I didn’t have any room for error.

When I left that job, I vowed never to have to walk through a grocery store with a calculator. But in the Bowl, even though now the calculator was on my iPhone (and yes, I’m aware of that sheer First-World-Problem absurdity…), it was back to that same pattern. Put something in the cart. Add it to the total.

Choosing economy over nutrition
The choices confounded me. Full fat peanut butter? Available for $2.99. Reduced-fat? $3.15. Ordinarily, that $.16 wouldn’t make a difference to me, but in these circumstances, it absolutely did. The full-fat version went in the basket.

The only option for jelly to go with that peanut butter was a huge jar of Welch’s grape for $2.98. It was way more than I would use in a week, so I couldn’t justify it. Everything smaller was some kind of gourmet, organic, whatever jelly or jam-nothing under $3.98. I found myself in front of the jelly no fewer than three times, raging against the prices, whining in my head about how much I hate plain peanut butter sandwiches.

I found single sticks of butter, which meant that was feasible, and a dozen eggs for $1.95. Celery, at $.59 for a bunch, surprised me as such a bargain. Carrots were available individually, and yellow onions were on sale, so I picked up the aromatics that would make pots of soup and/or beans tastier and a little more nutritious.

When I first got to the bulk section, the rolled oats bin was empty. I thought about going for the steel-cut variety, but to be honest, I haven’t even tried cooking those, and could not see purchasing a bag of anything I didn’t think I could convert into something edible. I would have no margin for error in that case.

I put a container of Quaker Oatmeal in my basket, but then, later, noticed the staff had refilled the bulk bins. I leapt at the oatmeal, garnering a bulk bag for $1.60 instead of the $2.89 pre-packaged container. “Is this stuff really better than that stuff?” asked an elderly man next to me at the oatmeal, gesturing first at the bulk option, then at the container in my basket.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But it’s certainly significantly cheaper.”

That last-minute shift allowed me to pick up two pears (on sale for $.59/pound) and two Pippin apples, which were listed at $1.09/pound, but which the checker rang up as Gravenstein apples at $.89/pound. I didn’t notice that until I got home, but I probably wouldn’t have said anything, to be honest.

Where I did say something was when the woman weighing my bulk raisins handed the bag back to me. She had marked them as sweetened cranberries at $6.99/pound, rather than the $2.15/pound I was expecting. “I’m sorry—I think these are mismarked,” I said, handing them back.

She fixed the labeling, but I was glad I had caught it. Ordinarily, it’s the kind of thing I would have never paid attention to.

Checking out
By the time I got to the checkout line, I had been shopping for nearly an hour, pacing back and forth in front of shelves that held items I wanted but couldn’t fit into the budget, and trying to find unobtrusive places to stand and calculate my total—a near-impossible task in such a busy store.

By the time I got to the checkout line, I had actually gotten nauseous, so anxiety-ridden by the whole experience that I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I remember what it’s like to do that kind of calculating week after week after week. I swore I’d never do it again, and it makes me sick that people all over this country have to do it every time they go to the store. I’m not talking about just the average person setting a budget and trying hard to stick to it. I’m talking about knowing you only have a set amount of money with you, and if you don’t make that amount, you’re going to have to face humiliation at the checkout counter.

As it turned out, my calculations were right, and the total for all my purchases, once the cashier took out the $.05 discount for my bringing along a canvas grocery tote, was $19.92. The cashier stood there, bemused, while I took a picture of the screen. I’m glad no one took a picture of my face, because I think I might have been green at that point.

So, no jelly, no ham hock to flavor soup, no tuna, no salsa, no corn tortillas, no American cheese and no ground turkey. Those were the things that didn’t make the cut when all was said and done. But everything else on my list did make it, setting me up for a spartan, but fairly nutritious week. I would be subsisting on a lot of rice and beans, but at least I had a few vegetables and a couple pieces of fruit thrown in there for good measure.

15 Comments on “The shopping trip”

  1. #1 Jason
    on Sep 21st, 2008 at 8:06 am

    Sounds like an enjoyable shopping trip… Wish we had places like that in Iowa..

  2. #2 inadvertentgardener
    on Sep 21st, 2008 at 9:37 am

    Jason, I’ll admit that the Bowl was one of the stores I was most looking forward to shopping at when I left Iowa, but certainly not for trips like this! And like I said…it’s nuts there. SO crowded. So it can be pretty unpleasant even for the non-budget-minded. But this trip? This one was rough…

  3. #3 Hunger Challenge: Day One at The Inadvertent Gardener
    on Sep 21st, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    [...] Wacky paths to the garden « The shopping trip [...]

  4. #4 Katie
    on Sep 23rd, 2008 at 3:18 am

    A newspaper reporter (either the SJ Mercury or the Argus) did a similar project a few years back. He, too, was eating a lot of peanut butter sandwiches. I learned this technique when my college dining hall plan ran out, I had no refrigerator, and the rich kids who had to stay on campus were eating in restaurants.

    I’d be interested to see all the items that you purchased, if you can share that. I hope you bought some eggs! They used to be way cheaper than they are now, but they are still relatively low cost, filing and fairly versatile.

    Good luck with the rest of the challenge!

  5. #5 inadvertentgardener
    on Sep 23rd, 2008 at 6:47 am

    Katie, there have been a number of reporters across the country who have tried this — a lot of them tried it along with (or in the wake of) the Congressional members’ attempts last year. And yes — I’m definitely going to post my entire list of items, as well as a recipe or two, at the end of this. Eggs were definitely on that list!

  6. #6 Hunger Challenge: Day Four – The Inadvertent Gardener
    on Sep 25th, 2008 at 1:19 am

    [...] refrigerator to put away the rest of the bread, I noticed an ominous brown spot on the bottom of one of the two pears. I picked it up, and sure enough, it had gone from too-hard at the store to beginning-to-go-bad in [...]

  7. #7 Hunger Challenge: Day Seven – The Inadvertent Gardener
    on Sep 29th, 2008 at 8:37 am

    [...] dollar and eight cents. That’s what I had left from my shopping trip at the beginning of the Hunger Challenge, and I’d been carrying it around all week in case of an [...]

  8. #8 End to the month…not the thinking – The Inadvertent Gardener
    on Oct 1st, 2008 at 12:03 am

    [...] also wouldn’t have been able to shop at the Berkeley Bowl, would probably not have been able to drive there in my fairly well-maintained Toyota Camry, and [...]

  9. #9
    on Oct 5th, 2008 at 7:32 am

    Sounds like quite an ordeal. I’d guess that many people forced to live on a super tight budget just don’t have the time to spend looking for healthy options for their money. I talked with a guy who said he ate more instant ramen than he cared to imagine and figured out how to turn it into different meals. I’m sure many people have to eat box after box of hamburger helper and other processed and sodium rich foods because they can get it for 15 cents after doubled coupons and because it provides a larger mass of food than greens and rice.

    Looking forward to catching up on how you managed the budget :) I’m a bit behind in reading the posts…

  10. #10 inadvertentgardener
    on Oct 6th, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Happy Cows, I’m sure you’re right — the sodium content on the average low-income diet must be outrageous…which surely ends up costing everyone more in the long run when it comes to healthcare…yikes.

  11. #11 Telling stories with the Hunger Challenge bloggers – The Inadvertent Gardener
    on Nov 6th, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    [...] little recklessly, said I would. I’d probably change up how I did it—I don’t want to recreate my experience in the Berkeley Bowl, but I remain committed to raising awareness and making a difference on this issue. And I stand in [...]

  12. #12 Al_Pal
    on Sep 21st, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    I’ve heard some sad stories about ramen, and mushroom soup. ;(

  13. #13 inadvertentgardener
    on Sep 21st, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    Al_Pal, yeah…ramen is so cheap and easily available and SO unhealthy. It makes me sad that so many people subsist on it.

  14. #14 Rachael
    on Jun 5th, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    I was looking for meal ideas when I found this article, and I must commend you for your empathy. It’s nice to know that somewhere, someone does truly understand how difficult it can be. As a full-time college student AND a single mother of three, I am one of those people who must stick to a tight budget [$125-150/mo... only $76 of which is from food stamp benefits]- and you’re absolutely right about how mortifying it is to have to choose, at the register, what item to have put back.

    As far a nutrition vs. economy goes, I agree that it’s nuts! Thankfully, my grandmother has been able to pass on some Great Depression era food-sense, and I find that though I can’t afford things like fresh salmon or quinoa or whatever healthy fad food is in at the moment, my little cupboards are always full of the ‘old fashioned good foods’ that Gran ate as a girl: oats, rice, split peas, peanut butter, and so on. “Make every dollar accountable,” my Gran says- ramen might be cheap, but it’s far from healthy or filling… We don’t starve, but let me tell you, there are days when I wish I could afford luxuries like boneless skinless chicken or juice boxes for my girls.

    Thank you again for your efforts!

  15. #15 inadvertentgardener
    on Jun 5th, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    Rachael, thanks so much for adding your perspective here — it’s really helpful to hear from someone who is facing this challenge day by day. I wish you all the best as you work to feed your kids…it sounds like you’ve got an incredibly good way of dealing with it, but I cannot imagine how hard it must be. Thanks for stopping by!

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