How do we Know How Much to Grow?
Part 1: The Ultimate Receipt Sleuthing Guide
Growing all of your food is quite a feat that takes patience and understanding of plants, nutrition, and soil health. Most people start with small gardens and work their way up to growing more and more, until they only head to the grocery for a few things they cannot make on their own. When we lived in Carbondale, I’d say we only grew 5% of our own food because of our limit on garden space. We would like to get to the point where we grow 90% of our own food. But, first things first: how do we know how much to grow?
To answer this question, I took some advice from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. In her year of only locavore food, meaning she either grew it herself, got it from neighbors or friends, or bought it at local farmer’s markets, she was posed with this very same dilemma. So, being an avid receipt saver, she went on a detective mission to determine how much to grow of all the food items her family consumed, like how many tomato plants would be required to supply her family with pasta sauce, ketchup, salsa, and the like for an entire year. I’ll explain how to do this and then I’ll give you my results for comparison. I’d love to hear how your grocery habits compare with mine.
First of all, what can we learn from examining our grocery store receipts?
- How much do we spend on food in a year? This will be a rough measurement depending on how often you eat out, or eat at friends’ houses, etc. The answer to this question may be really simple if you get food stamps and receive a set amount each month.
- Items we buy a lot of. If you’re not ready to make the leap of growing all your own food, you might be able to replace just one item, i.e. if you buy a lot of eggs and have some space for them, maybe you’d be better off investing in some laying hens.
- Items we need to cut down on. Whoa! We bought $250 worth of breakfast cereal last year! And 25 of those were Fruity Pebbles, Apple Jacks, and Lucky Charms! (Not healthy).
- Carbon Footprint#1: How many trips to the store did you take? Do you have hundreds of receipts with a few items, or a few receipts with a lot of items? Perhaps with better list-making, or holding off on items you can wait for, you could dramatically cut down on gas by taking fewer and more productive trips to the store.
- Carbon Footprint #2: How many items had a lot of excess packaging? Individual juice containers, Lunchables, and individually wrapped 6 packs of apples and caramel dip are among the culprits of excessive packaging. Depending on your lifestyle and how much time you allot for cooking meals, you might be able to change those habits, and save money by buying some items pre-processed and process them yourself. For example, to avoid those expensive frozen stir-fry kits just buy some rice, chop some veggies, add some soy sauce, and viola! You don’t have to buy the Viola! brand anymore, and you’ve probably saved money.
- Different prices at different stores.
- Healthy diet indicators. Maybe your grocery lists reveal that you buy way too much meat and not nearly enough vegetables, or maybe like myself, you go a bit crazy on the discounted bread.
- We can also keep track of how much we spend on paper products or other frequently bought items.
Instructions for Receipt Sleuthing:
- Keep your grocery store receipts for a year. If you think this might be impossible, (yeah, like I’m going to remember), then put a jar near the spot where you store your reusable bags, or make a habit of sticking them in your glove box.
- If you frequent farmer’s markets, keep a list with you of the money you spent and the items you bought.
- If you get food from a CSA, you may be able to have them write up a receipt each week.
- After a year of receipt-saving, you can then start the detective work.
- Make lists of your different categories. Mine were; Grains, Dairy, Fruit, Vegetables, Meat Seafood, Eggs, Nuts, and Coffee. If you’re keeping track of other items like vitamins, paper products, prescriptions, diapers, or other household items, add those categories as well. In each of those categories, list some examples. For my Dairy category I included; Milk, Cottage Cheese, Cream Cheese, Cheese, Sour Cream, Evaporated Milk, Butter, Yogurt, and Ice Cream. You’ll have to decide whether Macaroni and Cheese fits in Dairy or Grains. I chose Grains. You can make subcategories as well. For example, my Vegetable category included Fresh and Processed, like tofu, hummus, and Boca Burgers. I did not include into categories things like Q-tips, mustard, marshmallows, or toothpaste because we only bought them once or twice, and they don’t fit into any of my categories.
- Then, assign a highlighter color to each category. My Grains were purple and my Dairy was blue. You may have to make double lines or use some other symbols depending on your access to highlighters and how many categories you have. Go through each receipt and highlight the different items with the color of their category. It may be hard to discern what some of the codes mean, for instance, it took me quite some time to figure out that JSEOLE SNDWC – .99 is a Jose Ole Burrito, and KVLU CHK BRS – 7.69 is Kroger Value Chicken Breast. Sometimes, the price will help you determine the item. I’m still unsure about STO TP RND LN BRLPC – 12.04, though I presume it’s some kind of meat.
- Finally, the tedious part: Go through the receipts one by one and write down the price of each item under a category heading. Add up the prices and you’ll see how much you spent and how many items you bought in each category. At the same time, keep tally marks of things you think you’ll be able to replace or grow on your own, or things that you simply buy a lot of.
My Results in a Nutshell:
(I’ll spare you the boring details and just give you the highlights.) You will see some surprises pop out of your lists as you go through them.
Grains: Chips/Crackers, Bread/Tortillas, Cereal, Pasta, Rice, and Other. The vast majority of these items were bread and cereal. My husband has a chips and salsa habit, so we bought 36 bags of Santito’s $2 Only! Tortilla Chips. ($694.98)
Dairy: We drink a lot of milk, so I was surprised that we only spent $197 on milk for the year. 55 gallons! There is no doubt that we’d be a great family for a dairy cow. We spent $144 on block cheeses. What can I say? We have a thing for gourmet cheeses. ($559.99)
Fruit: I divided this category into fruit we can grow, like apples, watermelon and kiwi (yes, it can grow in Oklahoma) and fruit we can’t grow, like bananas, lemons, coconuts and orange juice. Because I often talk myself out of buying fruit grown in other countries, we actually bought more fruit grown in the US than tropical fruit. I wonder if we can grow a lemon tree indoors. ($391.11)
Vegetables: Fresh: $408.77 and Processed: $281.70. The fresh vegetables actually took up 3 lines of space. This past year, I think we bought more fresh veggies than I have ever bought in years past. I was happy to see that every single time I bought carrots, about 15 of the 5lb bags, they were organic. The salsa habit contributed 26 jars of Mrs. Renfro’s Habanero Salsa totaling $69.91. ($816.27)
Meat: For part of this year, as a simple test, I did not consume any beef unless I knew the farmer that raised it. Hence, we only spent $40 on beef the entire year. In replacement, we bought A LOT of ground turkey and chicken breasts. And bacon. ($368.30)
Seafood: Shrimp, Tuna, and Tilapia are all family favorites. About 60 pounds of fish actually. We shall miss those when we eat mostly from the farm. ($152.30)
Eggs: I cannot wait to stop buying 30 packs of those uniform bleach-white eggs! They are so exactly the same size, it’s creepy. Like they weren’t even created by a chicken, but by a machine! We bought 25 of those 30 packs of eggs last year. That’s 250 eggs per person! In this category I also included mayonnaise and eggnog. ($73.95)
Coffee: We like coffee, a lot. 24 bags. Sometimes Fair Trade organic, sometimes not. ($96.04)
Nuts: 14 jars of peanuts, peanut butter and other nuts. ($52.67)
Farmer’s Market: While we did not keep track, we estimated that we spent about $50 and bought mostly greens like kale and spinach and other various veggies and fruits. ($50)
According to a Gallup Poll, the average American (I strongly dislike this term) spends $151 a week on food. ₁ This does not include eating out. Mine only totals $63 per week, but I typically only made 2 trips to the store per month and spent about $200 each time. So, I spend less than the average American. Whatever that means. The bigger picture here looks like this:
This looks like a pretty good diet to me, though it’s a bit heavy on the grains. Now that I know how much of each item we buy in a year, I have an idea how many plants to grow, how many nut trees to plant, and how many chickens to raise. However, we’ll need to do a bit more calculating. In Part 2, you can read about how to calculate just how many seeds to buy and how much you’ll likely harvest. It’s sort of a garden-planning guide, with some real examples of what our family will need to grow.
Just by looking at our receipts, I notice some habits that may be hard to break on the farm, as well as some that will be accentuated by being so close to our food supply. It appears that we’ll either need to cut down on our breads and cereals, or grow lots of them. We’ll have to replace seafood with some other protein, like nuts, and we might want to find a coffee substitute. We should definitely get a dairy cow! What do your receipts tell you?