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
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
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
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
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
"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
"I think people are just looking for resources," Calder says.
by Kristen Andresen
for more stories from the current issue of UMaine Today Magazine.