As it turns out, we finished well under our $434.40 budget. Our total spending on food groceries totalled just $340.84, with just under $40 in purchased meals (including one full dinner, one fancy coffee, and a couple of lunches at the very cheap cafeteria down the street from my office). Even if I accounted at a fair price for the spices and such that we didn't have to pay for because they're in my basic pantry, we'd make it in under budget.
Following the suggestions of some of the commenters, I drove out to the Grand Mart supermarket on Little River Turnpike last weekend, which serves a largely Asian clientele. I was mindboggled by the array of vegetables they offered -- four different kinds of eggplant (American, Italian, Thai and Japanese) -- and the prices. If someone can explain to me why Giant or Shoppers can't have half as good produce for twice the price, I'd be very grateful. Unfortunately, after I had loaded up my cart and got on line, the manager announced that their computers were down, they couldn't run the cash registers without them, and the store was closing. And I didn't have the time or energy to return later in the week.
We ate pretty close to our typical diet, although a bit heavier on the eggs and homemade pizza than an average month. Although I didn't track it, I'm sure we didn't come anywhere near meeting the food pyramid recommendations for fruit and vegetables. I'm not sure we do that much better in mid-winter even when we're not on a budget, as I find the seasonal offerings awfully uninspiring. (Although worries about the budget did stop me from buying some of my usual mid-winter healthy treats, like frozen cherries.)
The time-money tradeoff was a big factor in the budget, both in the shopping (do I make a separate trip to another store that has a better price on specific items?) and in the preparation (is the two dollars saved buying regular spinach v. the prewashed stuff worth the time involved in preparing it?). And I truly can't imagine doing this if I didn't have access to a car, or had to bring my kids along on every single shopping trip. (Shopping with kids can be much more expensive, both because you don't want to spend the extra time studying price labels when they're getting restless and because they constantly ask for things that aren't on the shopping list.)
Although I wasn't tracking our expenditures on non-food items, this experiment made me much more aware of all of our spending. Friday we took D. to the doctor because his cough was getting worse, and came home with a nebulizer and two kinds of medicine. Even with our quite good insurance, the copays totalled $60. For us, that's not a terribly big deal. But if every dollar that comes in is already spent, an unexpected expense like that has to come out of somewhere. And food is almost always the most flexible part of poor families' budgets. That, rather than the cost of food, is why so many American families are "food insecure"