Over the weekend, I had a major wake-up call moment.  In the midst of blithely blogging about how you can make a high-quality chicken dinner for 6 with a price tag of about $15, and how shopping wisely at Whole Foods actually came out to be cheaper for me and my family than shopping at the local supermarket, I got smacked in the face with a cold wet chunk of fiscal reality.  I did the grocery shopping for my family of four, with a couple of guests (my parents) figured in for a few meals; I did everything just the way I thought I should, with trips to two different stores to get good values and good quality; I thought I’d planned for relatively affordable meals.  And I walked out with a grocery bill that was fully fifty percent HIGHER than what I consider to be really the top of what we should spend.

Yeah, I had houseguests, but they don’t eat that much.

Yikes.  As I tried to recover from my shock, guilt, and panic over the bill, I combed through the receipts and racked my brains.  How had it all gone so horribly wrong?  Yes, I had picked up one or two items that were not technically on my list — something I NEVER do — but that little $4 expense here and there wasn’t going to totally bust my whole system, was it?  And, okay, the chickens weren’t on sale for QUITE as low as usual — I’d miscalculated when the sale prices would be at their lowest, something I’m usually pretty good at as long as I track things carefully — but really…

As it dawned on me that I couldn’t find the glaring flaws to explain the massive expense, I realized that there was not a single item on that list that I would truly have given back.  No, I didn’t technically need the “everything” bagels or the sale-price cans of chunk light tuna, but the bagels would stay fresh in the freezer and the tuna would be a great thing to have on hand for emergency lunch packing, especially given L.’s love of a lemon and olive oil tuna melt.  No, I didn’t need the bags of chocolate and butterscotch chips, but I really wanted to make my oatmeal-choco-butterscotch cookies for my Dad, J., and the boys.  These were comfort necessities, and I wasn’t going to give them up.  I was going to have to deal with the price issue.

To put it in perspective, this was a REALLY oddball week — we don’t usually spend astronomical amounts of money, though I know our grocery bill might seem a bit high to friends of ours who shop for “value” only.  I’d feel bad about the money we devote to food, except for one thing: I know how much people receiving food assistance in our state get.

At last check, if you’re receiving SNAP benefits from the State of Rhode Island (also known as food stamps), you get $30 per person, per week to spend on groceries.  It doesn’t sound like much, really — but that’s $120 for our family of four.  When I was out of work a couple of years ago, we tried to keep our grocery budget at $120; I didn’t know at the time that it was the food stamp rate, but it seemed a reasonable number when we looked at our finances.  We found we couldn’t do it.  We raised our bar to $150 just to feel comfortable with what we were putting in our systems.

Now we’ve got an extra mouth to feed, with P. an active toddler, and L.’s got to be eating almost double what he ate back then.  $120 CERTAINLY wouldn’t do it for us, nor would I want to be trying to eke out our existence on the same amount of money the state considers to be the bare minimum to keep people from going hungry.  $150 might do it if we shopped only sales and didn’t care about where our food came from.  So I have to ask myself, what’s all this self-education worth to me?

Is it $20 a week?  $50?  Where’s the threshold at which I’m getting all the things my journey towards understanding food and eating in this country has led me to want and believe that I deserve; but still being financially wise and living appropriately for our means?  It’s a tough call.  We’re not a nation set up for healthy food, so it can be challenging to figure out ways to get the good stuff without paying super-premium prices.  On the other hand…

The ever-brilliant Mark Bittman ran a piece in the New York Times yesterday, which many of my friends circulated on Facebook (I’m so proud to be friends with such cool, intellectual, socially conscious people).  In his column, he spoke about the long-term costs of our food system, and how just the financial toll of treating chronic preventable illnesses that arise from a poor diet — like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease — could be a factor in the budgetary demise of the United States.  Bittman says that by the year 2030, if we were able to cut heart disease, ONLY heart disease, by just 10 percent…we’d save $100 billion dollars a year as a country.

$100 billion.  It’s a jaw-dropping number.  By comparison, an extra…what?  $50 a week?  seems almost laughable.  That’s what it’s worth to me, friends.  I can’t guarantee that I, or anyone else in my family, will be exempt from coronary disease or Type 2 Diabetes…but I’m going to do what I can to give us the best shot.  And every time I sigh over my grocery bill, I’m going to think of it as my contribution to the savings of that $100 billion.  We all have the opportunity to make a choice about this, and if there’s one thing I know we all respond to, it’s the bottom line.  Let’s make sure our numbers really add up.