Keeping Food Spending Low When You Live in a Food Desert

Last week, I published an article entitled How to Find – and Get the Most Value Out of – Your Local Discount Grocer that tackles head-on one of the tougher frugality challenges we all face: how does a person find the cheapest grocery store in their area and, once they do, how do they really get the most value out of it?

This article generated far more feedback than I expected, with people asking for advice in situations that went beyond the boundaries of the article. One of the best questions was a simple one: how does this advice translate to places where there just aren’t many stores, period? In other words, how does a person keep their food spending low in a food desert? To clarify, a “food desert” is simply the term for any area in which there is little or no access to nutritious low cost food, and “food desert” is the term I will use for such a place going forward.

Food deserts are most commonly found in low income areas in cities (where the only grocery retailers tend to be high-priced convenience stores) and in rural areas distant from large cities (where there are often no grocers at all). In both cases, it’s pretty tough for a grocer to earn a good profit, so there tends to be a small number of stores and those that do take root often charge high prices and offer a pretty poor selection of highly processed foods that can stay on the shelf for a long time.

What can a person do in these situations? As is always the case, the reasons that people find themselves stranded in a food desert vary widely. They might simply live in a small town where there isn’t a real grocery store for many, many miles. They might live in a low income urban area and not have a car available to get to other areas with more grocery selection. In both cases, they might be struggling with the financial resources necessary to even buy many groceries.

The solutions in this article won’t work in all food deserts. Some work quite well in rural food deserts but won’t work in urban ones; some will work well in urban food deserts, but won’t work in rural ones. Some will work in both, depending on the exact situation.

Also, my focus is on practical solutions that will help people in food deserts right away, rather than social solutions to the overall food desert problem. While it would be wonderful for food deserts to no longer exist for anyone, chasing that dream doesn’t help the hungry family in a food desert right now. I’m interested in helping that family put food on the table sooner rather than later.

Many of these strategies came from my own childhood, where we lived a healthy distance from the nearest grocery store. The nearest grocer that I can identify using Google Maps was about nine miles away from our house and required use of a toll bridge to get there; there were two other very small and rather pricy grocers a little further away than that in a different direction that didn’t require toll. While that wasn’t a complete food desert, it pales compared to having a discount grocer within easy walking distance of my home as I have today. In other words, I am personally more familiar with strategies in “rural” food deserts rather than “urban” ones, though most of these strategies will work in both situations.

Here are some strategies to employ if you find yourself living in a food desert.

Carpool

Whether you simply have to drive to another part of the city to get discount groceries or you have to drive 50 miles tot eh nearest city of any real size to do so, one way to make that trip much more cost effective is to carpool with others in that situation. Make that trip with one or two other people who also have to buy groceries and you halve the cost of transportation for each of you.

It’s easy. If you don’t have a car, ask someone who might drive out of the area for groceries if you could carpool with them for $5 or $10 toward the price of gas. If you both have cars, suggest alternating trips to keep the price low. The carpool driver simply picks up the other person (or people) on the trip and then goes to wherever the store is, then both people shop for whatever groceries they need, then the driver drops off the passenger and his/her groceries.

This also effectively adds a social element to your grocery trips. I remember when my great grandmother, who lived in a bit of a food desert herself, would look forward to going to the grocery store with her oldest son, who would come and pick her up and they would go to the store together, both of them buying their food for the week.

Practice Careful Meal Planning and Trip Planning

My basic strategy for cost-effective grocery shopping is as follows:

Step 1: Get a Flyer
Step 2: Find Sales on Fresh Ingredients
Step 3: Do Some Recipe Research
Step 4: Create a Week-Long Meal Plan
Step 5: Make a Shopping List from the Meal Plan
Step 6: Go Grocery Shopping – And Stick to Your List

This list still applies in a food desert, except that your planning might be longer than a week – you may even be planning two or three weeks of meals, depending on the availability of a ride to the grocery store (as noted in the above section). You also can’t rely on easy availability of staples.

This means that you need to be particularly careful when it comes to meal planning. You need to plan out at least some meals that don’t rely on fresh produce and ensure that you are either buying or already have every single ingredient on hand for all of those meals. This takes some time.

A grocery list in this situation is absolutely essential, too. Once you’ve assembled that long meal plan and figured out, meal by meal, what items you have on hand and which ones you need, you simply must have a big list of all of those necessary items. In areas where there are a lot of stores, a grocery list is simply a useful tool to avoid a redundant trip and to keep you focused on what you have to buy. In a food desert, a grocery list does those things, but since a grocery store isn’t convenient, it’s probably the difference between actually being able to make some meals or not.

If you live in a food desert, every trip to a discount grocer in another area should involve a detailed meal plan for the next week (or few weeks) as well as a grocery list that was carefully checked to ensure that nothing’s missing. This ensures that you’re actually able to carry out that meal plan without the convenience of a grocery store.

Buy Shelf-Stable Foods in Enormous Bulk

One of the most effective strategies to live by in a food desert is to have an abundance of common shelf-stable foods on hand, particularly if you live in rural areas with harsh winters. Don’t shy away from giant bags of dried rice or dried beans, or entire boxes of things like tomato sauce.

Besides the fact that having huge quantities means that you’re unlikely to run out between grocery store visits, the advantage of buying such things in huge quantities is that such bulk buys are usually pretty cheap. If you have to drive 50 miles to the nearest city of any size and that city has a warehouse club (Costco or Sam’s Club or BJ’s), you can probably save quite a bit of money by simply buying many of your nonperishable items there in bulk. Be aware that the first time you do this, you may wish to have a large vehicle available as you’re stocking up on bulky things like toilet paper and large sacks of rice – that can take up a lot of space.

Don’t rely solely on a warehouse club, however; while they’re typically quite good on prices, they rarely beat the loss leaders at other stores. So, when you’re preparing a meal plan and grocery list, use the flyers from the discount grocers in the area you are heading to and focus on buying those items and other items you don’t need in large quantity at the discount grocers, then buy many of your remaining bulk items at the warehouse club.

Practice Preservation

What about fresh foods? It can be hard to find fresh foods in food deserts, so the obvious solution is to buy fresh foods in decent quantity when you can find them during your trips out of the food desert.

The only problem is that fresh foods can go bad quite easily. That’s why preservation techniques are really important to learn if you’re in a food desert.

Whenever you bring home a healthy quantity of a particular type of fresh produce or fresh meat, you should be asking yourself what you can do to preserve the extras for the future. With many items, you can simply freeze them with almost no additional effort. I consider a deep freezer to be a vital purchase for people in food deserts, as you can simply fill up freezers with meat items and many vegetable items with minimal effort.

Another good option is canning. Canning offers the advantage of long-term storage of vegetables, fruits, and even meats without the necessity of refrigeration or freezing. It can be a bit time consuming; one great strategy for canning is to simply have a “canning day” where you get out all of the equipment you need for many canning batches and fill up your pantry all at once. This was a pretty common activity at my house growing up; we would have a “canning day” every month or so when the garden produce was coming in where we would simply can every bit of unused produce we could get from the garden – whole tomatoes, tomato sauce and juice, green beans, pepper slices, and so on. We had a “pantry” in our basement that was nothing but canned vegetables in glass jars.

Start a Garden

If you have a patch of ground available to you, take advantage of that patch to start a vegetable garden, which will provide produce for you throughout the late spring, summer, and into fall.

During periods of overabundance of produce, you can easily use the techniques above to preserve the extras for the late fall, winter, and early spring when your garden isn’t producing.

Yes, a garden takes some work. You have to turn over the soil and plant things in the spring. You have to maintain the garden with weeding and fertilization. You have to harvest regularly throughout the harvest season, and you’ll probably have to deal with sudden floods of food.

Still, a garden is well worth it, particularly in a food desert. It provides a source of food that produces without you even have to leave your property. Fresh tomatoes, fresh beans, fresh cauliflower and broccoli, fresh peppers, fresh lettuce… all of it is easily available and more if you take the time to grow a garden.

Raise Chickens (or Other Livestock)

Another strategy for providing your own food is to raise chickens or, if you’re ambitious, other livestock.

Raising chickens is relatively easy, generally only requiring a small coop and a small fenced-in area for the chickens to wander. Within the coop, the hens will lay eggs regularly, which you can harvest daily for a steady and practically free supply of eggs. The chickens themselves can be harvested for their meat if so desired. This can be done in almost any yard; I’ve seen many chicken coops in rural food deserts as well as a few in urban food deserts. A friend of mine in an area of Des Moines with few grocery stores nearby had a neighbor that had a chicken coop in his back yard, right in the middle of the city.

Other livestock can be raised as well, but they generally require more work and space. A better approach might be to work with a local farmer that provides a co-op service, whereas you pay for most of the expenses of a single farm animal along with an additional fee for the farmer’s effort and in exchange you receive the meat from that animal. This is often an option in rural food deserts, but is largely unavailable in urban food desert settings.

Cultivate a Food Network

This final strategy is a very important one. Cultivating your own “food network” when you live in a a food desert is an absolutely essential tool.

A “food network” is a really straightforward idea. It’s simply a collection of neighbors and friends that live in your immediate area that you can rely on for food items as needed, just as they can rely on you for food items as needed.

With someone in your food network, depending on your exact relationship, you can easily ask them for staple foods that you might need to make it through your meal plan for the week, and they’d be able to do the same for you if needed. You might swap excess produce with them, or swap canned goods with them. You might even plan to have a regular dinner together – perhaps each family prepares dinner for both families one night out of the week.

In essence, your “food network” becomes your protection against food shortfalls so that you don’t have to skip meals and you also don’t have to rely on highly expensive local grocery stores or convenience stores if you’re in a pinch. Instead, you can rely on your good relationship with your neighbor.

How can you start this kind of relationship? A good way to start is by simply giving or swapping some of your excess food. If you find yourself with an abundance of produce, give it to a neighbor. You’ll find that if you do so and they find it useful, they’re much more likely to share food with you later on if you are in need.

Another good way to start is to simply ask for a small food item – a cup of rice or something like that – when you need it. Then, promise to help them out in a similar pinch and when they come knocking, do so. You’ll find that, as you help each other out with such small moves, the relationship builds into a certain level of trust, and that kind of neighborly trust is incredibly valuable.

The easiest way to start building a relationship of trust is extending your own trust a little. Don’t be afraid to give first. If you find out later that the person doesn’t reciprocate, it’s not a big deal. It’s just a small loss. If you find out later, however, that the trust is reciprocated, then you’re building the foundation of a great relationship, one that’s going to save you a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of little worries over the years.

Final Thoughts

Obviously, there is no perfect solution for living in a food desert. Not having easy access to reasonably priced groceries is a challenge for anyone, and there is no perfect solution to the problem.

Rather, the best approach for dealing with the problem is using several different strategies at once. Don’t just rely on carpooling; also plant a garden. Don’t just rely on meal planning; also build a food network. Don’t just rely on buying in bulk; also spend time preserving food.

Do lots of things. Do all of the strategies that will work in your area.

“But won’t this take a lot of time?” Sure, but living in a food desert means that no matter what you do, food acquisition is going to take extra time and extra cost. By applying your time in a smart fashion, you can save quite a bit of money along the way.

Good luck!