No groceries for a year: How one family saved money, lost weight, and lived well

Photo courtesy of Lori Eanes
Photo courtesy of Lori Eanes

"A spider bit the goat, so we didn't have dairy for a month," says Rachel Hoff describing one of the misadventures that occurred during her family's year without groceries. As for bread, she, her husband Tom Ferguson, and teenage son, Tom, Jr., had to do without when the both the oven and the bread machine went kaput in the same week. Despite occasional mishaps and deprivations, Hoff describes the experience, which she documented in her blog A year without groceries, as "surprisingly easy." And, as of October 1 st , the family is sticking with the challenge for another year.

Although they already grew some fruits and vegetables and raised chickens, rabbits, three turkeys, and four goats on their quarter-acre lot in the city of Vallejo, California, their initial goal was not to try to be self-sufficient. In fact, they barely had any of their own crops ready to harvest for the first six and a half months of the project. Concerned about pesticides on conventional produce and chemicals in processed and packaged foods, they mainly wanted to eat healthy and know where their food was coming from. Hoff points out that even "mom and pop sounding companies" such as Ben and Jerry's, Stonyfield Farms, and Walnut Acres are now owned by huge corporations.

Over the course of the year, the family reaped more benefits than they had expected. They saved at least $2,000 dollars on groceries despite the fact that everything they were eating was either locally grown or organic. They saved even more money by avoiding restaurants. Purchasing and freezing an eighth of a steer from a local farm lowered the price of grass-fed, organic beef to $2/per pound and a loaf of fresh bread cost them 50 cents to bake. Eating higher quality food paid off health-wise. Both Hoff and Ferguson avoided colds all year and felt more energized. Hoff lost 20 pounds "without counting calories."

Hoff describes the economically depressed downtown area of Vallejo as a "food desert" - lacking a supermarket and with little access to organic or local goods. The foodie mecca of San Francisco lies 30 miles south, but both Hoff and Ferguson work full-time and neither had the inclination to spend all of their free time grocery shopping. After reading the book No Impact Man, which chronicles a New York City family's effort to live sustainably, including giving up processed foods, for a year, they thought, "If they can do it in an apartment in New York City, we can certainly do it here."

In August 2010, Hoff and Ferguson started preparing for their year without groceries, which would begin in October. Aside from planning all the family's meals around seasonal produce, the most challenging aspect of the project was the research phase and figuring out where they could obtain certain items such as milk, says Hoff. They were allowed to purchase produce, meat, and dairy from the weekly farmer's market and directly from farms. For staples such as sugar, rice and flour, Hoff located a local woman who had set up a buying club in her garage where members pooled resources to buy organic food in bulk directly from the source. They were also allowed to barter and trade.

They were not allowed to buy food at regular grocery stores, supermarkets, or convenience stores or eat at restaurants. The first weekend without groceries, with the help of a 30-minute mozzarella kit purchased online, Hoff was able to deliver on her promise of serving lasagna for her son's thirteenth birthday. Hoff says he still likes eating junk food and soft drinks (at friend's houses), but the he thinks the project is "pretty cool" and talks about it in class. To make it easier to adjust, they designated Fridays as pizza night.

The first six months were so easy, that the family decided to up the ante, and for the last three months they could eat only what they already had on hand, could produce on their urban farm, or barter.

Hoff doesn't recommend trying go without buying food at all and admits that after a couple of months, "I was close being fed up." Their fruit trees didn't produce and they were stuck with eating zucchini, green beans, and cucumbers for weeks on end. Ferguson became sick of the limited choices but tried to focus on "the bigger picture of what they had accomplished over the year." Hoff, on the other hand, posted on the blog, "I'm so over not buying food." When I spoke with them the day after their project ended, they had just returned from their first trip to the farmer's market and were happily cooking up a feast of pork with potatoes and corn.

For Hoff, the best thing about the project was that it "brought us closer together. We've become a team and work together really well." She also loves grabbing food for dinner right out of the garden and says, "Shopping doesn't feel like a chore any more." Their friends and family claim they could never do it, but she insists that, "you don't have to have an urban farm to eliminate the grocery store from your vocabulary."

Hoff advises people to make the transition gradually and to try to replace one item at a time, such as pickles or bread, with something homemade. The blog offers tips on how to get started.

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