Christina Popp has a theory about ground beef: It’s more cost effective to purchase a leaner version because most of the fat cooks out.
“You have to measure the cooked meat,” Popp told a group of seven during a 90-minute tour of a Shop 'n Save grocery store in north St. Louis County. “More fat, more shrinkage.”
Popp, a registered dietitian for Operation Food Search, coordinates the tours to help people shop for healthy food on a budget. Some groups are geared toward young parents, diabetics or people with developmental disabilities. Organizers say the effort combats hunger in two ways: by teaching strategies to stretch a dollar in the grocery store and by helping participants reduce their risk of developing life-threatening conditions that are linked to diet, such as obesity and heart disease.
“What is often marketed and sold as soda and junk food is often a lower price,” Popp said. “Those items that we need for good health — fruit and vegetable, whole grain, fruit and dairy — are going to be replaced by low-cost, high-energy items.”
Other times, Popp gives tours to people who are newly diagnosed with conditions like diabetes, which can sometimes be managed with a healthy diet.
“Once they develop these diseases, a lot of people may give up and think, ‘That’s all I can do,’ or they don’t know what, exactly, they can eat,” Popp said.
In the produce section, Popp asked participants to point out which vegetables they didn’t recognize.
“These are some of my newer favorites,” Popp said, as she held up a turnip and a rutabaga — $1.29 and $1.19 a pound, respectively. “I love them with eggs. So if I chop them up, and sauté them, and make an omelet out of them…turnips and eggs are tasty.”
One in four households in St. Louis was identified as having limited or uncertain access to food in 2012, according to the Missouri Foundation for Health. That’s the highest food insecurity rate in the state, although rural areas like Pemiscot County also had high figures. Access to food can be limited by income, geography or whether a person has a car.
"The rate of food insecurity spiked in counties across the state during the economic recession starting in '07 to '08. The real story is that these rates haven't come down from that spike," Ryan Barker, the vice president of health policy for MFH, wrote in an e-mail. "This shows that the economic recovery hasn't equally affected Missourians, and many folks have been left behind and continue to struggle to meet basic necessities."
Nora Woodworth, a mother of three who attended Popp’s tour, said the statistics don’t surprise her.
“We’ve definitely been there,” Woodworth said. “We’ve had to use the pantries before, and try and work decent food out of that. There was a time when we were both out of work.”
Woodworth said the class was helpful and that she’d be willing to do it again.
“That’s why this really helped — to show ways to save, especially on meat,” Woodworth said. “It does show you a lot of alternatives.”
The grocery store tours are an offshoot of Operation Food Search’s longer-running program called Cooking Matters, which offers six-week cooking classes for school-age kids, families and low-income adults. According to Popp, demand for the seminars is high, and the waiting list can be as long as six months. Her 90-minute tours, funded by a grant from Shop 'n Save, are a bite-sized version that can be arranged a little sooner — an appetizer, if you will.
“If at the end of the day, after taking the tour, you spend 'x' amount of dollars less than you did last week, I would consider that a great success because people are now going to have more disposable income for other things,” Popp said.
Six more tips for cooking on a budget, adapted from Christina’s tour:
- Veggies starting to turn wrinkly? Don’t throw them out — cook them or slice and freeze. Buy bulk carrots, not the baby ones. You’re paying for processing.
- Your freezer is your friend. Sliced fruit, bread and meat bought on sale can be kept frozen for later use.
- When buying yogurt, check the unit price and the sugar content. It’s usually cheaper and healthier to buy bulk quantities of plain yogurt and add granola or frozen fruit.
- The least expensive sources of protein include eggs, lentils, beans and nuts. If you use canned meat, try rinsing it before eating to remove some of the added sodium.
- When it comes to meats, look for the words “loin” or “round” and purchase cuts at least 90 percent lean. Avoid pre-marinated meats, which are high in sodium. “It’s best to buy it plain and doctor it up yourself,” Popp said.
- Processed meats? The health risks outweigh the price, so it’s best to avoid them, Popp said — even with a deal like 10-for-$10 hot dogs.
“There is a price to pay. It may not be financial now, but it will be financial later,” she said.
Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.
The Missouri Foundation for Health is a donor to St. Louis Public Radio.