Friday, January 24, 2014

Reasonably priced food in Upper West Side, NYC.

Many journalists now-a-days are experimenting with living a week with the constraints of SNAP, at least the financial constraints. I saw one such report in WSJ, and another in Slate. The one in Slate, by Sarah Gray, was partly about buying/making/eating food within the budgetary constraints of SNAP, and partly about public policy.

Public policy aside, Ms. Gray's choice of foods for the week long experiment are poor. Says Sarah:
My final menu: a baked pasta dish with whole wheat rigatoni ($1.59), lean turkey sausage ($4.99), two cans diced tomatoes ($1.89 per can) and mozzarella cheese ($4.59); a stir fry with chicken ($6.10), brown rice ($2.59), Green Giant vegetable medley ($2.99) and a red bell pepper ($1.55).
And breakfast: Key Food instant oats ($1.99) and Tropicana OJ ($2.99), a splurge item that I purchased because it was on sale for about half off. I also purchased eight Yoplait Light yogurts as part of a “buy 4 get 4 free” promotion ($0.99 each), baby carrots ($2.00), organic chicken broth on sale ($2.99) for cooking, and a small bag of ground coffee ($1.99 on sale).
No wonder she was quite frustrated pretty soon. She used up her $40+ to purchase foods quite unwisely, as she herself realized. Says Sarah a little later in the article:
I realized I should have bought things like bananas (a purchase that I put back when I went far over my limit). They’re nutrient rich and keep you full. Canned soup should also have been a purchase — you can make it quickly, it keeps you full longer, and certain soups can be used in other recipes. 
I, fortunately, do not have the $41 per week constraint but I do try to minimize $$ spent on (reasonably high quality) fruits and vegetables.

I love eating, cooking, and shopping for food too. I live in the Upper West Side and used to shop at Fairway, which is not too far from where I live. When my parents visited us for a few months, I realized how costly it was to shop at Fairway. There are some really good quality stuff that you get there but it is a total rip off when it comes to dollars and cents. My father would go around all the grocery shops in the neighborhood (and not in the neighborhood) and compare the costs. So, Fairway went out of the window pretty soon.

So, where should you shop if you wanted pretty reasonable prices? Big caveat - I know only about vegetarian foods. West Side Market is a good choice for most fruits and vegetables. Especially during summers, this is the place to go for peaches, plums, nectarines, and any other such fruits you can think of. Most commonly used vegetables like carrots, potatoes, peppers, eggplants, leafy greens, green beans, etc are pretty reasonably priced. Large potato bags are usually pretty cheap. Since I don't buy them often, I am not sure of their prices. Usually, it is less than 75 cents per pound. Carrots also cost around 69 cents per pound. Reasonably priced peppers cost around 99 cents a pound.
The cheese collection at West Side Market is one of the best, rivaled only by Trader Joes, where I have started to buy from once again. In any case, the cheeses are pretty reasonably priced too.

What West Side Market is not cost effective for is any other food item. Dairy - no way. Run far away from this place. A gallon of milk costs $ 4.50 or $ 5. A standard container of yogurt (I think 2 pounds) is always higher than $ 3. Most other non-dairy items are pretty costly too. For that, I like the Met and C-Town, which are not too far from the Amsterdam/125th street intersection. In both places, you get some pretty good steals. For instance, I found a 32 pound tub of PollyO ricotta cheese on sale for $ 4 a few weeks ago! That is pretty cheap, especially for one who loves ricotta cheese. Usually around weekends, C-Town has tomatoes sold at 99 cents per pound. Sometimes, you get luckier and it is priced at 79 cents per pound! Bananas at 49 cents per pound is a total steal. In Trade Joes, they price bananas differently. Any price around 20 cents per banana is pretty reasonable.

Dairy at C-Town and/or Met is also very reasonable. Especially yogurt. Unlike Sarah from, one should never buy the small containers. Always go for the larger one. At least in these two grocery stores, you get 2 pound yogurt containers at $ 2.50 (sometimes $ 2). That is the lowest priced yogurt I've seen in the North East!

The nice thing with Met and C-Town is that you get vegetables that you do not necessarily at other American supermarkets. For instance, you get plantains ($ 1.29 for a bag of 4 or 5), batatas, etc. Finally, my opinion of canned foods: avoid them. They are usually pretty costly per unit weight. I know it is convenient to use canned food sometimes but the costs mount pretty soon.

All in all, I think there is pretty good access to reasonably priced raw ingredients that can fit well into even a SNAP-ish constraint. Don't get me wrong. The SNAP constraint is not only on $$ but also on time, stress, and other intangibles thankfully I am not subject to. Still, if you love to cook, and can spare a bit of time to shop for what you cook, you can make some things a little better.

With so much, I dont think you will find it necessary to look for food anywhere else. Except, you'd miss out on a lot of good and reasonably priced food. More on that later. Happy food hunting and cooking.

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