Friday, May 31, 2013

May Grocery Challenge Recap and Thoughts

Alright folks. The end of May has arrived and so has the end of my $21 grocery challenge where I tried to see if I could make it an entire month spending no more than $21 on groceries - and the tally is in...

I spent a grand total of $19.71 on food this month. Woo Hoo! 

Now, I had several reasons for undertaking this $21 challenge. First of all, I really needed to eat through some of the food that I had in my pantry and freezer, and this seemed like a good way to get myself to do that.

I also saw it as a part of my larger long term food stamp (SNAP) challenge where I'm trying to see if I can eat healthy and well on a budget of $137/month (which is the average SNAP benefit in my state.) Soooo if you average together the amounts I've spent on food since I started (March: $197 April: $141.65 and May: $19.71) it comes out to an average of $119.45/month, which is well beneath the SNAP level.

I'm still not convinced that it's a fair average though, since I did eat a lot of food purchased before I began the challenge, so I think I'm gonna have to keep going for at least a few more months in order to get a fair average.

Anyhow, recent discussions in the comment section have made me realize that I never really did a good job of explaining why I'm undertaking these challenges in the first place. Guess I have a tendency to jump into the middle of things and then work my way backwards.

So, without further ado...

Part of the reason I wanted to do all this is because I really want to explore the issue of poverty on a more personal level.

I live in one of Denver's poorest neighborhoods. To put that into perspective, at the elementary school a few blocks from my home, 94% of the students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program (84% free, 10% reduced). For those of you not familiar with the program, students who live at 130% of the federal poverty level or below qualify for free lunch, and students who live between 130 and 185% of the federal poverty level qualify for reduced lunch. Yup... this is where da poor folk live!

I often think that I know what it's like to live in poverty since I have spent a great deal of my life living very near (and sometimes below) the poverty level. But in reality, my poverty is totally voluntary. I have a degree from a prestigious university, I've got tons of marketable skills, I've got money in the bank from the years when I did make good money, and I have a family that's always trying to give me more.

I could quite easily go out and get a well paying job if I so desired, I just decided long ago that I didn't want that life, so I chose to trade money for freedom.

And even though the judgement of other people's food choices annoys me to no end, I'm not totally immune from it. I watch my neighbors fill their grocery carts with ramen noodles, soda, frozen pizza and bottled water and shake my head in dismay. I often find myself thinking things like "Gee... I don't spend much on food and I eat a very healthy diet full of fruits and veggies - if those people just made better choices..."

But the truth of the matter was that I didn't really know how much I spent on food in the first place, and I certainly don't know what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck where the food budget is not just an arbitrary goal or number, but a fixed reality of how much money you have to spend on food - period.

I guess I figured that perhaps I ought to try walking a day (or a few months) in their shoes and see how it really feels to try to feed myself on such a small amount of money.

So that's part of my reason for undertaking all of these challenges, the other reasons are a bit more personal.

The past few years have been quite lean money-wise. This isn't really a problem because I'm a saver and I figure that it all evens out in the long run. I've been working on making more money, and all was going really well, but circumstances beyond my control took over earlier this year, and it was looking like I was gonna have another really bad year, and would be lucky to make $8-$10K, so I was starting to worry about drawing down my savings too much.

As it turns out, it hasn't actually been that bad, but the whole experience made me feel like I really ought to do a better job of watching my budget, especially where groceries are concerned.

I've also noticed over recent years that I've got some, ahem, "hoarding tendencies" when it comes to food. I think I tend to react to uncertainty by surrounding myself with things that make me feel safe, and a full pantry and freezer seem to be part of that.

But when I did a pantry clean about a year ago and had to toss out a remarkable amount of food that had gone bad, I decided that perhaps my system (or lack thereof) wasn't really serving me very well. Anyhow, I decided that I needed to get a better handle on how much food I really need to be buying/stockpiling!

All in all, I have to say that these grocery challenges have been quite eye opening.

I have much more to say on the issue of food and poverty, and I'll probably devote another post entirely to that topic, but for the moment I'll start by saying that when your money and transportation are limited, so are your food choices.

The other thing that's been a big eye opener is how tremendous your savings can be if you're willing to stick mostly to the loss leaders. For those of you not up on retail jargon, a "loss leader" is an item that a store sells at a deep discount, usually at a loss, in order to lure or lead customers into their establishment where they will hopefully spend more money on other full price items - hence the name loss leader.

Anyhow, pretty much all of the amazing prices that I've quoted over the past few months have been loss leaders. So when you ask yourself how the store can possibly make any money selling xyz things so cheap, the answer is: they can't. I'm basically taking advantage of the store's marketing strategy by going to different stores and purchasing only the loss leaders at each one.

This strategy only works, however, if you're willing/able to frequent a bunch of different stores and have the personal discipline to buy only the items that are on sale. It requires a great deal of flexibility with both shopping schedules and menu planning. So it's a great way to save on food, but it's not without its drawbacks.

OK... and the final eye opening bit is that I HAVE A TON OF FOOD! OK, that may strike some of you who read my food stock post as a line straight out of Captain Obvious, but I have to say that I'm amazed at how much I still have left even after living pretty much entirely off of my food stores for the past month.

Sooooo, while I'm not up for another month of rationing fruit and fresh veggies, I do think that I'll probably try to keep eating primarily from the pantry and freezer for the next month, and limit my purchases as much as possible to fresh produce and dairy.

And that brings me to my goals for June. Y'all got me thinking about "food issues" so I think that I'll try to focus this month on exploring some of the "better" food choices out there. While the choices in my immediate neighborhood are quite limited, there are other options like Farmer's Markets that I haven't really given as much consideration as I probably should.

I'm not saying that I'm gonna stick to purely organic or local foods this month, because that could be cost prohibitive, but I'm certainly gonna focus on exploring what's out there and seeing if there are ways to do it on a tight budget.

OK, so there you have it! I'm not sure how long I'm gonna keep up these little challenges, but for the moment I'm still finding them to be fun, challenging and eye-opening (as opposed to an oppressive pain in the rear) so I think I'll stick with it for at least a bit longer.

So how about you? Anybody have any great ideas for me about other ways to explore different food shopping options?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Denver, Colorado - My Hometown

Recent posts over on An Exacting Life and Everyday Life on a Shoestring got me to thinking that maybe I should do a post about Denver, Colorado, the beautiful city in which I live.

Denver, Colorado view from City Park - Photo by Matthew Santomarco

I've lived the vast majority of my life here in Denver, nestled at the feet of the Rocky Mountains. My family of mostly Italian and Slovenian immigrants has lived in Colorado for several generations, settling in Leadville, a mining boom town, near the end of the 19th century. The Italians worked in the silver mines and the Slovenians owned a saloon. See, I come by my rowdy nature naturally!

Leadville, Colorado ca. 1904
Colorado has a very colorful history. Gold was discovered here in the mid-19th century, and by 1859 the Colorado gold rush was in full swing.

Cities and towns literally sprung up overnight, and many were quickly abandoned when the frenzy was over, leaving the mountains dotted with ghost towns, which are scenic and beautiful, though they're also an ecological disaster with open tailings pits and the like - but that's a rant for another day.

Irontown - Colorado Ghost Town - photo by Matthew Santomarco
Today, tourism makes up a large chunk of the state's economy, with many former mining settlements converted to ski towns.

Breckenridge, Colorado - Photo by Nate Zeman
In 1991 voters passed a law allowing limited casino gambling in a few mountain towns. In a way, this has returned the towns of Central City, Black Hawk and Cripple Creek to their former "glory days," though, not without a fair bit of controversy.

Black Hawk, Colorado lit up with casinos

But our mining heritage is not the only interesting thing about our beautiful state. Colorado is also home to ancient Native American Anasazi ruins.

Mesa Verde National Park
We have dinosaur fossils galore.

Dinosaur Footprints at Dinosaur Ridge just outside of Denver

Colorado also enjoys a rich farming and ranching tradition highlighted by the National Western Stock Show held every year in January.

And, of course, our state is home to many natural wonders.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The Garden of the Gods - Photo by Matthew Santomarco
The Maroon Bells - Photo by Matthew Santomarco
Hanging Lake - Photo by Matthew Santomarco
Cave of the Winds in Manitou Springs, Colorado

Denver, which is the state capitol, was founded in 1858, and the gold leaf (yes, it's real gold) covering the dome of the capitol building pays tribute to our mining history.

Denver is often referred to as the Mile High City because we actually sit one mile above sea level. The fifteenth step of the capitol building has an inscription at the exact spot which reads "One Mile Above Sea Level," although subsequent surveys placed the actual spot at the 18th step, and later the 13th.

Denver sits at the confluence of the South Platte river and Cherry Creek, a site where gold was once found that is now a park enjoyed by hundreds every day.

Confluence Park, Denver, Colorado
Throughout my lifetime, Denver has been undergoing a period of tremendous renewal. There was a massive flood here in 1965, after which the city built three dams for flood control, each of which now serves as a major recreational center making camping, boating and hiking available just outside the city limits.

Chatfield State Park just south of Denver
There was also a major effort undertaken to clean up the city's rivers and streams by lining them with a system of parks and bike trails known as the Greenway. This effort received a major boost in 1983 when voters approved the Colorado State lottery and determined that the proceeds should go to support parks and open space. I can literally hop on the greenway about 5 blocks from my house and I have hundreds of miles of bike path at my disposal!

South Platte Bike Path outside of Denver, Colorado
Downtown Denver has also undergone a transformation in my lifetime. In the early 1980's Denver decided to convert one of its main downtown streets to a pedestrian district known as the 16th Street Mall. Today the 1.25 mile stretch is the heart of downtown, lined with shops and restaurants, complete with a free shuttle bus.

16th Street Mall in Downtown Denver
But the renewal wasn't limited to 16th street. Major efforts were undertaken to reclaim areas that had fallen into decay, and today the city boasts any number of beautiful shopping districts, art galleries, brewpubs, and even a baseball stadium in neighborhoods that formerly housed only abandoned buildings, street gangs and drug dealers.

Larimer Square in Denver, Colorado
Coors Field - Home of the Colorado Rockies
First Friday Art Walk at the Santa Fe Art District in Denver, Colorado
Denver has a vibrant music scene ranging from opera to hip hop with everything in between

Ellie Caulkins Opera House
The Soiled Dove Underground in Denver Colorado
Red Rocks Amphitheater - scene of many a rock concert during my ill-spent youth!
Also where my high school graduation was held

And, of course, Denver is home to four major league sports teams, including my beloved Denver Broncos

Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium

John Elway finally won us our first Super Bowl in 1998.
He also happens to be a great down to earth guy
who even helped coach the Pop Warner team that
my friend's son played on.
The climate here in Denver is semi-arid, with temperatures that can range from 20 below zero (-28C) in the wintertime to 105 degrees (40C) of sweltering heat in the summer. Those aren't extremes that I pulled off of some statistical website either, those are just numbers I've experienced over the past 5 years or so - although the 105 did tie a record. The lack of any large bodies of water nearby means we don't have much temperature moderation like coastal locations do.

However, we do enjoy one of the sunniest climates on the planet with an average of 300 days of sunshine per year. When we do get precipitation it often comes in the form of major storms - sitting at the foot of a large mountain range will do that. Blizzards that dump over a foot of snow at a time are not uncommon here, but generally the sun comes out the next day and all is right with the world.

The park a few blocks from my house the day after a big storm

In the summertime we often get big thunderstorms that can dump enormous amounts of rain and hail in very brief periods of time - "gully washers" or "frog stranglers" we call them.

Colorado is often called the "hail capital of the world" and given the fact that I've lived through more hailstorms that I can count, I'd say the title is justified. The worst I remember was the softball sized hail that fell when I was in high school, but it's a regular occurrence here in the spring and summer. It can make gardening a bit challenging though!

The remains of one of my tomato plants
after a big hail storm a few years back.
But the extreme weather certainly makes things interesting! And all in all, I have to say that I feel privileged to live in such an amazing place.

Now it's your turn! Tell me all about the place where you live!

p.s. Many thanks to Matthew Santomarco for allowing me to use so many of his wonderful photographs in this post. If you'd like to check out even more of his incredible photographs of our beautiful state, please visit his website.

Colorado Sunflowers by Matthew Santomarco
This picture has nothing to do with anything, except that I think
it's just an amazing photograph!