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The Agony of Receipt


The Agony of Receipt
UMaine Extension's hottest hints for battling high food prices

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In a normal year, people call Kathy Savoie because they're up to their ears in corn. Or because they crave pickles. Or because nothing else compares to grandma's strawberry jam.

But this isn't a normal year, and Savoie, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator, isn't getting the normal calls for the canning and food preservation classes she teaches.

"We're hearing from a wider variety of community groups," says Savoie, who is based in the UMaine Extension Cumberland County office.

"A church group requested a class. Their concern was not to just learn the skill. They were specifically interested in food preservation in the event they couldn't afford to pay their electric bill."

In the face of soaring energy prices and a long winter ahead, people in Maine and beyond are turning to UMaine Extension experts for tips on how to cut costs - specifically food costs - in tough times. And their advice goes beyond canning.

Just ask Jane Conroy, a budgeting maven and UMaine Extension educator who writes the Money Sense newsletter. She works with the directors of Piscataquis County food cupboards, who anticipate falling donations and rising demand as the temperature drops. But she also helps people who are looking for ways to stretch their food dollar.

"The energy crisis is on their mind," Conroy says. "Folks are preparing for the increase in their grocery bill - high bread costs, milk obviously went up. But then it's other staples too, like laundry detergent. What $100 used to buy a family is now less."

Making that $100 - or $25 or $50 - go further is Conroy's mission these days. She urges families to create a weekly meal plan, working in leftovers to save money. The plan can then form the basis for a grocery list, which helps keep shoppers on task.

Staying on task can be difficult when "buy one, get one free" offers, promotional displays and coupons abound, but a little homework can go a long way. Conroy's advice: Look at your trash. Seriously. By knowing what you throw away, you'll gain a better understanding of where you can cut back.

Scan supermarket sale flyers to comparison shop for best prices. Don't bother with coupons worth less than $1 unless the store doubles or triples the savings; you may end up spending more than you budgeted. And avoid Internet coupons altogether, unless they come from an established Web site.

In shopping, as in life, timing is everything. Don't hit the supermarket when you're hungry. Factor in enough time to compare prices and try to leave the children at home - the fewer distractions, the better. If that's impossible, turn it into a learning experience for the youngsters.

For those on a really tight budget, Conroy recommends bringing a calculator to the grocery store.

"If you know you only have $125 to spend, a calculator is going to tell you if a little less is going to have to go into your shopping basket," she says.

When money is tight, and especially if you have children, it's essential to get the most nutritional bang for your buck. That's where Eat Well comes in. Since the 1960s, UMaine Cooperative Extension has sent nutrition associates into homes and schools.

To be eligible, individuals must qualify for food stamps, while schools need to have at least 50 percent of their students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches. However, Eat Well's hands-on, practical, easy-to-understand curriculum can benefit people of any income.

"The biggest thing I hear people say is, ‘It costs too much to eat healthy,'" says Alan Majka, a UMaine Extension Kennebec County educator who serves on the Maine Nutrition Council's Board of Directors. "I would say there's some truth to that, but it isn't necessarily so."

Majka says fruits and vegetables, which some Eat Well clients consider a luxury, don't need to be fresh in order to be healthy.

Flash-frozen options can be less expensive, and they may retain more nutrients than their "fresh" counterparts, many of which have been shipped thousands of miles to get to the grocery store. Canned fruits and vegetables are another option that could cost less.

When it comes to meat, less expensive cuts that require moist, slow cooking for tenderness are often healthier because of their low-fat content. But Majka also urges people to "eat lower on the food chain" by using meat as a small addition to a meal rather than the main component. Nutrient-rich legumes and whole grains, such as beans and oatmeal, are a relative bargain.

"I encourage people to think of the cost-per-nutrient value and eat more nutrient-dense foods," Majka says. "If people looked at the amount of money they spend on beverages and foods that contain a lot of calories - things that contribute to the obesity epidemic - they would be shocked. A lot of these are impulse items and it all adds up."

Eat Well associate Karen Toohey says many of the young parents she advises grew up eating fast food; they know it's a quick, cheap way to put a hot meal on the table. She shows them how to stretch their food dollar even further by cooking with pantry staples and preparing meals with staying power.

"If you cook a chicken dinner, then you could have chicken sandwiches, then you could have chicken soup," says Toohey, who is based in Oxford County. "It's kind of a surprise to them that they can do all these things because they never saw anyone do it."

Barbara Murphy, who coordinates UMaine Cooperative Extension's statewide Plant a Row for the Hungry outreach, has seen a surge in demand for the program. With the assistance of UMaine Extension Master Gardener volunteers, Plant a Row provides upward of 100,000 pounds of fresh produce annually to needy individuals and organizations, including soup kitchens and food pantries.

"They have more demand than they can meet and it's been that way for more than a year," says Murphy, who is based in Oxford County.

But that's not the only demand Murphy sees. Many Mainers reacted to rising fuel and grocery bills this year by tilling up a plot and growing their own vegetables. This summer, UMaine Extension educators fielded an unprecedented number of garden-related questions.

In an average summer, one in four calls to the Oxford County office is garden-related; this summer, three in four calls were rooted in growing your own.

Murphy anticipates that the number of home gardeners will only grow in 2009, and she's planning classes to help them get more from their gardens. A two-part workshop will cover planning a garden with nutrition and economics in mind, seed starting, succession planting, season extension and how to harvest to keep the crops coming in. In addition, the annual UMaine Extension Master Gardener course will also teach participants how to maximize the return from gardening dollars.
"The reason why more people are gardening is they can't afford food," Murphy says. "Prices are through the roof."

So are fuel prices, which have caused many home gardeners to consider - or reconsider - canning and other means of extending the harvest to save money. For Savoie and her colleague Louise Kirkland, an educator with UMaine Extension Penobscot County who also teaches food preservation classes, late summer is always a busy time of year. But 2008 proved busier than ever. By mid-July, 100 people had already taken Savoie's preserving class; she anticipated another 250 students by season's end. Seasonally, she usually teaches a few dozen canning enthusiasts.

"The demand is much larger," Savoie says. "The real danger is that someone will can using improper equipment or using improper methods for the type of food they're preserving."

Techniques have evolved through the years, so even people who have been putting up pickles and green beans for decades should brush up on their knowledge. Manuals such as the Ball Blue Book of Preserving include up-to-date information. For all would-be canners, a visit to the National Center for Home Food Preservation online is a great place to start.

While it is easy to preserve, a lot can go wrong - spoilage, discoloration or, worse, botulism. Which is why Beth Calder, a UMaine Extension professor and food science specialist at the University of Maine, and her colleague Al Bushway, a professor of food science and human nutrition, provide guidance to amateur and small-scale commercial canners. They urge canners to embrace modern techniques and be sure they're using the right method for the type foods they want to preserve. Calder, Kirkland, Majka, Conroy and
their colleagues Nadine Reimer of UMaine Extension Knox-Lincoln County and Kate Yerxa, Extension's statewide nutrition and physical activity educator, also are part of a statewide call team answering specific questions.

"I think people are just looking for resources," Calder says.

by Kristen Andresen
September-October, 2008

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