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Stretching your food dollars

Saving money on food requires planning and shopping for specials

Posted: February 28, 2009 1:20 a.m.
Updated: February 28, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Mikayla Hunziker, of Canyon Country, shops at the Farmer's Market which is open 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays.

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With unemployment on the rise and stocks on the decline, families across America are cutting back on their monthly budgets. While many are choosing to cut back on "luxuries" such as entertainment, food is usually right at the top of the necessities list.

A 2008 USDA Center for Nutrition Policy study showed that an average American family of four (two adults with two children ages two to 11 years old) spent between $495 and $1,100 per month on groceries, depending on their shopping habits (thrifty to extravagant).

How can you save as much as possible while grocery shopping? It can be easier than you think. By planning ahead, cutting coupons, sticking to a budget and being creative, the current recession doesn't have to show on your dining room table.

"With people unable to afford eating out as often, they're looking for more excitement, freshness and variety to bring home," said Phil Lantis, arts and events administrator for the City of Santa Clarita, which hosts a Farmer's Market in Old Town Newhall every Thursday from 3 - 7 p.m.

The Newhall farmer's market is becoming an increasingly popular way for Santa Clarita Valley residents looking to bump up the menu at home, said Lantis.

"Not only is your produce going to be fresher and often less expensive than at a grocery store, you can talk to the farmer who grew it and get ideas on how to prepare it in new ways. It contributes to making home cooking more vibrant," he said.

Other consumers are finding solace at markets long known for value, such as Stater Bros. The 166-store Southern California grocery chain, with a location on Sierra Highway in Canyon Country, has attracted more than 85,000 new shoppers per week in 2009, said Jack H. Brown, chairman and CEO.

"What has happened is people that normally don't shop with us have discovered our low prices, quality, and convenient locations, including Canyon Country," Brown said.

Brown, whose mother was an orphan and remembers the Great Depression, said Stater Bros. realized the recession was coming in January, 2008, and vowed to hold off on raising prices as much as possible, which meant a profit loss of 66 percent in the last quarter of the year. While the short-term hit was painful, Brown is thinking long-term. "When this downturn is over, and it will be, I don't want to be looking for my customers," he said.

The chain offers more than 10,000 "Stater Savers" to customers without a card membership, which are low-cost purchases from manufacturers that get passed on to customers, such as 10 ConAgra Banquet frozen dinners at 10 for $10 and a 10-pound bag of Idaho russet potatoes for $1.99.

"Families are hurting. I know what that feels like, that's why our staff is motivated pass along our savings to customers," Brown said.

Values can also be found at the high-end grocery stores. You just have to know where to look. At Bristol Farms, which just opened a new location in Bridgeport Marketplace in Valencia, it's in the produce section. This week, the store offers romaine lettuce for 99 cents each and tangelos and Bosc pears for 99 cents per pound.

"Our costs are really competitive compared to traditional grocery stores, often times even cheaper, and all of our produce is vine or tree-ripened. We go to market twice a day and bring in our produce fresh each day," said Pat Posey, vice president of sales.

The California-based chain of 14 stores also offers an inexpensive alternative to eating out, said Posey. "Our hot food bar and meat section all offer restaurant-quality food for a fraction of the price. If you pay $40 for a steak at Morton's, you can get the same steak here for $9. You just have to cook it yourself," he said.

At Valencia's Whole Foods Market, shoppers can sign up for a "Value Tour" every Sunday at 2 p.m. Stops include body care, where the company has introduced large-sized private label shampoo, conditioner, gel and lotion priced at $3.79 for 32 ounces and the bulk section, where customers can control the amounts of nuts, rice and beans they buy at sharply reduced prices versus their name brand counterparts.

"Whole Foods had been doing a lot with our pricing before the economic crisis, people just don't realize that about us," said Marketing Manager Tina Landrum.

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