The Mrs. has been away Christmas Market hopping this past week. I have been left to tend to the cabin, critters, and my own meals. Certainly the Mrs. offered to set up meal for me, but being a liberated-male, I shall not require such doting over me, as if I could not boil water. Also, I had a question… could I live for a week on food that I could procure within 5 miles of our rural home. What brought on this inquiry was the opening a Dollar General store near us a couple of years ago.
In years past, we were classified as a “food desert”. While this seems a little silly concept in that in season, we can step out our front door and harvest a table full of food, and in winter we have stores a-plenty in the canning pantry and chest freezer. But, for those less able or interested in our gardening antics, the closest groceries stores are 30 minutes east or west. But most folks around here drive 60 minutes or more for “real stores”. For someone living on a fixed income, say disability or social security, or who counts “gas money” when choosing how far to travel, the 5 miles to the Dollar General store can be a savings.
Now, when I think of Dollar General and food, I think of milk, eggs, beer, chips and frozen pizza. Thus, I took a scouting mission a few weeks back to look at the possibilities. Yes, all those items, akin to the gas station mini-mart, are available (along with tater-tots, Texas toast, popcorn shrimp). But, I found a variety of options that would not send me into a carbohydrate-comma.
As to whole meats, there are various types of sausage (breakfast, hotdogs, sweet & hot, smoked), ground beef, whole and grilled chicken, and some fish-like thing that was pink and my housemate in NYC used to love to stink up the apartment with. Well, we are not exactly talking about Amish sausage from Lancaster, onr free range poultry of Pollyface Farms, nor grass feed beef from Capon Crossing farms, nor wild-caught sock-eye salmon form Alaska, but at least I would not be limited to pigs-in-a-blanket.
Next, I found frozen vegetable medlies of various sorts: onions-and-3-colored-peppers, broccoli-cauliflower-carrots, peas-carrots-corn, and even whole brussel sprouts. Granted I found no fresh vegetables, salad mixes, apples, oranges, nor bananas. But, at least baked beans and fried potatoes would not be the closest thing that I could find for vegetable ingredients. And, the frozen vegetables reminded me of one of my college era strategies to add something nutritious to a meal: any soup, stew, pasta sauce, rice dish, etc. could have some frozen vegetables add to fill them out (and the meats above beat all the tofu that I ate in my 20’s).
For starches, instead to dried whipped potatoes I did find bulk rice, beans, and pasta (but none whole-wheat), along with several rice-mix boxes in several seasoning styles.
Sauce options were somewhat limited to stewed tomatoes or diced tomatoes with green chili peppers. Prepared sauces included a couple of brands of pasta sauce and Mexican flavored sauces.
Of course, there were the staples, milk, eggs, bread (even whole wheat, without the fake “enriched whole wheat” ingredient), cereal, lunch meat, and block cheese.
So, after dropping the Mrs. off at the airport with her travel companion, I drove home, stopping at the Dollar Store. About $75 later, I had a counter full of food for a week. Most of the meals I would cook with left-overs in mind, for easier preparation after returning home from work.
Breakfasts were pretty standard, Cheerios and Raisin Bran cereal, milk. I could have oat meal for hot cereal, and even found walnuts and pecans to grind up and add for a protein and “good” fats. Fruit and yogurt was a bit more of a challenge. I did find frozen, mixed berry fruit bags, that I could split in 1/2 or 1/3’s. Yogurt options… well, there were the fruit cups with Mn’M, or Dannon smoothies for 4 year-olds. I opted to pour the later over the frozen berries at let the whole mess defrost.
Lunches, for work, consisted of a meat & cheese sandwich (PBJ was also an option, but I had plenty of ingredients for that already & was not going to buy stuff just to duplicate what I already had in the refrigerator), crackers, milk… hmmm, getting a bit thick on the carb-loading and thin on the vegetables/fruit that I usually eat at lunch. As we have 2 bushels of apples in the root-cellar and carrots and celery at home, I opted to add these. My sacrifice would be to forego bananas, as Dollar General did not stock them & I do not grow those. When at home, I had Progresso soup from the can, and toast.
Dinners left more options for creative cooking. Combining the meat, frozen vegetables and starches into various combinations, I came up with:
Meal 1: Elbow Pasta with Smoked Sausage, with tomato sauce with sautéed onions, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, topped with grated cheese. I added brussle sprouts for a side vegetable.
Meal 2: Vegetable Scrabble and Smoked Sausage with Toast, eggs, onions, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots. (made 2 left-over meals)
Meal 3: Enchiladas with Spanish Rice, using flour tortillas, so they looked more like burritos, with a mix of ground beef, peas-carrots-corn mix (made 1 left-over meal)
Meal 4: Elbow Pasta and Grilled Chicken strips (same as other pasta meal, just with chicken), (made 1 left-over meal, though I probably could have used better portion control and divided it into 2 left-over meals)
Meal 5: Chili Burritos, with same mix of ground beef and mixed vegetables, plus the rest of the Spanish rice (abundant left-overs, which I will not finish by the end of the week. Hope the Mrs. likes these).
As to my experiment, I was able to find sufficient food to live for a week in our rural area. A few months ago, I read an article in Forbes magazine about Dollar General’s business strategy. As the big-box stores (e.g. Walmart, Costco, etc) which have various levels of grocery stores in them have populated the outskirts of cities and suburbs, Dollar General saw an underserved niche market in the spaces in-between those mega-stores. By limiting the number of brands, they could keep their store’s square-footage small, but still have 1 or 2 options on many standards household and food items. Again, for the person who cannot afford to drive to a populated area, or relies on someone else (or public transportation in an urban area), a nearby Dollar General store provided an option.
But, this also begs the question of nutritional value of those options. Forget organic. Forget pre-biotic foods (e.g. fibrous vegetable and fruits). Anticipate that most products (other than the whole meats and frozen vegetables) have some degree of processing. This means lots of sugar and salt.
Reading the ingredient lists of most of the canned items (soups, sauces) or season mix, the salt content per serving was usually around 13% to 20% of the daily recommended amount. But, then add the number of servings in the package, 2, 3, 4, up to 8 (pasta sauce). Who eats only one serving by the standards on the box/can? No, start multiplying that percentage, and one bowl of cereal is getting the day started, and the can of soup at lunch exceeds your daily recommended level of salt. We are not even to dinner. Sugar intake is the same.
Now, for someone in relatively good health, these may not have short-term concerns. But, for someone with diabetes and cardiovascular issues, finding a nutritional balance that they should likely eat is probably impossible. Might as well go for the frozen pizza and Mac ‘n Cheese meals. Someone who needs to develop better gut-health biome, say after taking an antibiotic for a UTI or other infection, good luck finding any pro-biotic invested foods. I don’t think that I could consume enough of those smoothies with “cultured milk products” for all the sugar in them.
But, I shall not fault Dollar General alone. As our dietitian friend says, “When you go to the (standard) grocery store, shop along the outside sections. That’s where you find real food: fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy products. Avoid the shelves. That’s where you find all the processed food.” The combination of our preference for someone else to cook for us, convince, persuasion of commercials, and de-skilling our ability to prepare meals ourselves, leads us down the road of indulging our taste buds while depriving our bodies of healthy food. Dollar General, standard grocery stores, and box-box super-stores and our industrial-food-complex are all part of the problem.
Such were the successes and risk of my experiment. I think that I shall go out to the greenhouse and pick some salad greens today.