NEW YORK — Three adults squatted in the cereal aisle of the Key Foods grocery store in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Each had plucked a different kind of oatmeal from one of the lower shelves. They were trying to determine which was the most healthful and the most affordable.
It shouldn't have been that hard. And yet, it took a good five minutes for three smart grown-ups to analyze the serving sizes, sugar and sodium contents and the price per unit before they could settle on a 2-pound-10-ounce drum of old-fashioned oats. It contained no sodium or sugar and was $1.06 cheaper per pound than the runner-up, a smaller box of quick oats.
Helping shoppers make good decisions was the goal of this supermarket tour. It was part of a course called Cooking Matters at the Store, developed by anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength and administered by local partners, such as City Harvest in New York City and N Street Village in the District. The tours explore how to buy fruits and vegetables on a budget, how to read food labels and how to identify whole grains and compare unit prices. In 2012, 21,000 low-income adults attended a tour in 46 states; 68 percent of them were receiving some kind of federal food assistance.
It has become conventional wisdom that Americans don't know how cook. But shopping for food, especially on a budget, is for many an equally daunting prospect. In a world where busy schedules mean that reheating a frozen pizza counts as cooking, shopping smart might be even more important.
"I read labels, but not all the time," said Tony Ferreira, 58, who attended the Brooklyn tour. "This puts me on my guard. Now I know."
The curriculum began as one part of Share Our Strength's Cooking Matters program, a six-week course that teaches low-income families how to cook healthfully. In the fall of 2011, the organization began to offer stand-alone store tours as well. Many partners do not have the resources to offer a six-week program, said Janet McLaughlin, Cooking Matters' senior program director. "The shopping tour is always the true 'aha' moment for the families in our courses," she said. "Smart grocery shopping is the first step to making healthier meals at home."
Indeed, putting healthful food on the table starts long before cooks turn on the stove. Students examined labels on whole-wheat bread (to make sure that whole-wheat flour was the first ingredient listed) and cartons of Welch's Strawberry Breeze Cocktail (only to discover that a single eight-ounce serving contained 32 grams of sugar). But the big focus of the tour was buying produce strategically. According to a 2012 Share Our Strength survey of low-income families, 81 percent knew that fresh produce was healthful but only 32 percent thought the same of frozen fruits and vegetables, which are often cheaper and don't run the risk of rotting in the crisper drawer.
On the Brooklyn tour, leader Aliya Rowe praised the convenience of frozen vegetables and made a few converts. She also tried, less successfully, to convince the students that canned vegetables were a convenient, economical alternative. "I know you don't like them as much," she said holding up a can of green beans. "But sometimes, when you're in a hurry, these are great. And it's better than no vegetables."