What $40 gets you at 7 grocery stores in San Francisco



What will $40 buy you in food in San Francisco?

In an expensive city such as ours, if we did our math correctly, $40 will get you a loaf of artisanal, French brioche, with some money left over for coffee — although you may need to hold off on the oat milk. (We figured we probably couldn’t budget for a bone broth cleanse or food made by robots.)

READ MORE: I tried to eat at all the Bay Area robot restaurants. They were almost all broken.

On the Thrifty Food Plan, however, $40 is the weekly food budget for one person. This is specified as the least expensive option among four official meals plans designed by the USDA. Using dietary guidelines and data on spending patterns, the agency calculates the cost of food to develop nutritionally adequate meal plans, with recommendations varying based on household size, age, and sex.


So we decided to see if we could meet that $40 budget in San Francisco.

The food plans require that all food and snacks must be prepared at home. (So say goodbye to all those Postmates-delivered munchies for the week.)

RELATED: Price comparison: Does Berkeley Bowl beat Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods?

To see how far a dollar stretches in San Francisco for a week’s worth of food, we compared prices at several grocery stores in the city. These stores included popular chains such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Grocery Outlet, and Foods Co.

Local San Francisco-based sellers were also surveyed like Rainbow Grocery, a vegetarian co-op, and the Heart of the City farmers’ market at the Civic Center.

We picked food items that follow a healthy eating pattern: fruits, veggies, lean proteins, and whole grains. While the USDA provides a sample grocery list for a family of four, for the purposes of this article, we modified the amounts to feed a single person.

The rankings

With a $40 budget, we were able to get a majority of pantry staples and food essentials like milk, eggs, bread, beans and produce at most San Francisco grocery stores.

Foods Co., owned by Kroger, provided the largest bang for our buck. Our haul of groceries at Foods Co. cost $28.67, which was $4 to $10 less than its competitors. Veggies, in particular, were significantly cheaper.

Rainbow Grocery went over our budget, coming in at a whopping $56.53 without any meat. The big gap between the vegetarian co-op and its competitors was due to its exclusively organic produce section.


Whole Foods was the second-most expensive store at $38.37, but not by much. It was only 34 cents more than Safeway. The notoriously pricey organic grocery store sold several produce items at comparable prices to Safeway. The prices at Trader Joe’s and Grocery Outlet were a few dollars cheaper, hovering around $33.29 and $32.43, respectively.



The price of apples and bananas at Safeway versus Trader Joe's varies, and the two stores sell them in different ways at their chain. Photo: Nikki Tran / SFGATE


Photo: Nikki Tran / SFGATE


The price of apples and bananas at Safeway versus Trader Joe’s varies, and the two stores sell them in different ways at their chain.


Surprisingly, the farmers market had some of the best prices for produce. Some sellers even lowered their prices toward the end of the day. About 3 p.m., many stalls were selling produce for a dollar per bag. But you won’t be able to hit all the food groups with just a trip to the farmer’s market; the one at Civic Center didn’t sell dairy or protein products, besides nuts.



Final thoughts

Although Foods Co. was the winner, these visits to the grocery store showed that to get the best bargain, you have to shop around.

It’s possible to get healthy food at San Francisco grocery stores while staying within a thrifty budget. But it’s not the easiest task. The stores are far from one another, and the farmer’s market is open only certain days of the week.

Additionally, prices fluctuate from week to week, depending on what is seasonal and on sale.

Add the fact that most people don’t just buy a single banana, $40 is admittedly a thin budget, one without a lot of room for zest. (There was no spice on the USDA’s grocery list!) We based our calculations off the cost of a pound of food to keep things simple, but buying more than these small amounts would likely break the bank at many of these stores.

Which store is the most expensive place to buy produce in San Francisco? Where are the best deals? The answers may surprise you. Click through the slideshow above to see where we were able to stay within our budget.

Nikki Tran is an SFGATE intern. Email: nikki.tran@sfgate.com



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