My 7-day hunger challenge kicked off on a jaw-dropping note, as I walked the aisles of the H-E-B at 281 and Evans in Stone Oak, daunted by what I could afford and salivating over what I could not.
Joining me on my shopping adventure: San Antonio Food Bank President/CEO Eric Cooper. Eric proved to be an invaluable resource in directing me to the low-cost, nutritious must-haves. And away from the higher-cost, empty calories.
Remember, I entered the store with a budget of $31.50, which is the exact amount supported by anti-hunger watchdog, Feeding America, during its SNAP Challenge in September for Hunger Action Month. Under the terms of the challenge, I was obligated to buy food items, but otherwise, anything edible was fair game.
Armed with a calculator and Eric's know-how, it was time to get started.
First stop: the produce section, where it became readily clear that I would need to prioritize based on cost, and plan smartly based on vitamin intake and calories. In: 5 bananas, 3 green apples, 3 limes, cilantro, celery. Out: asparagus, arugula, pineapple.
Never before have I weighed the necessity of a purchase based on its sheer weight. We nickle-and-dimed the relevance of every purchase, bent not to make an early mistake in produce. At one point, we placed a large white onion in the cart, only to pull it after finding a savings of roughly .40 cents if we purchased bulb onions instead.
The meat aisle presented one of the tougher purchases. I wanted to be sure to leave the store with some form of protein, but I knew my budget would preclude high-dollar purchases. My first run-through of this section yielded nothing promising, and so I sought out the help of the butcher.
He directed me to a small package of chicken thighs, and from there, I found some affordable ground turkey. At a cost of $2.97 a piece for the turkey, I put two of the packages into my cart for a total of $5.94.
With a budget of $1.50 a meal, the turkey purchase represented four meals of food, and a significant chunk of my budget. But I needed the protein, and so onward, I marched to the dairy aisle.
All told, my shopping trip turned into a two-hour expedition. I studied ingredients. I compared prices. I weighed the values of my purchases. Typically speaking, I shop with scrutiny, but never to this degree.
Eventually, I approached the cash register with great uncertainty. Eric and I lost count of our cost estimate late in the process. We projected we might be a few dollars over, because I threw a few non-essential items into cart, as my stomach got bigger than my head.
I scanned. Eric bagged. It turned out to be another methodical adventure, because we studied the price of every purchase and double-checked that every cost at the register matched the advertised price on the shelves.
The signature beep of the scanner had never sounded so pronounced. Then again, I had never scrutinized a grocery store visit with such care.
As the bottom of the cart turned visible, my grand total inched closer to the $31.50 cut-off mark. My last purchases turned out to be small packets of taco and chili seasoning- which proved to be cheaper alternates to salt and pepper- and two packets of Ramen Noodle Soup. At 17 cents a pack, the soup turned out to be too cheap to pass up, notwithstanding its questionable nutritious value.
In the end, I hit the proverbial jackpot with my purchases. Bingo. Nailed it. $31.50 on the nose. Eric and I welcomed the achievement with wide smiles and a hearty high-five.
Shortly thereafter, off I went with my grocery cart into the parking lot, to face a week-long epic challenge marked by less than hearty meals.