CLEARWATER — Grocery shopping had become one of Dawn Jones' most dreaded chores.
The single mom couldn't afford to plunk down $100 or more per trip. So Jones and her 10-year-old daughter would visit the store daily, buying one or two meals at a time.
But Jones' outlook changed last weekend as she walked away from St. Paul's Lutheran Church with a 25-pound box containing enough meat, vegetables and other groceries to feed a family of four for a week.
The cost: $35.
"This is awesome, because if I were to go to Publix, I'd spend $150 for what I'm getting for $35," said Jones, a 38-year-old Morton Plant Hospital medical assistant who lives in Clearwater. "The stuff they offer is absolutely a deal."
The bargain was made possible through Angel Food Ministries, a nonprofit that partners with 4,300 churches in 45 states to offer "restaurant-quality" food at discounted prices.
From meat, cheese and vegetables to eggs, dessert and breakfast items, organizers say their price comparisons show the food is typically priced 30 to 50 percent cheaper than what you'd find in retail grocery stores.
Prices range from $22 to $55 per box.
In November, St. Paul's became one of roughly 50 Tampa Bay area churches — and one of nearly 20 in Pinellas County — that participate in the monthly program.
Teresa Stewart, program director at St. Paul's, said the church signed on following research into ways the church could help the community.
Anyone is welcome to sign up. No proselytizing is allowed.
Shoppers may use food stamp benefits, but the target audience is "the regular blue-collar worker in this broken economy," Stewart said. "We know things are a little tighter, and that's a problem for the average person."
Angel Food provides roughly 12 menus a month, including large boxes for families; smaller heat-and-serve meals for seniors and people on the go; allergen- and gluten-free food; and after-school snack or fruit and veggie boxes for children. Each menu boasts new offerings each month. There's also a rotating roster of specialty boxes that contain items like this month's sirloin steak, tilapia and crab cakes.
Shoppers may order online or visit the church to pay in person.
Angel Food spokesman Steve Savage said the 17-year-old nonprofit is able to give patrons such good deals by buying in very large quantities. The group also doesn't face the same costs for advertising, storage or packaging as regular retailers.
Angel Food gives $1 back to churches for each box they sell, for a total of $23 million since 1994, according to Savage. He said 20,000 to 30,000 volunteers a month unload trucks that deliver food from Angel Food's Georgia headquarters to local distribution sites.
"Food prices are up considerably this year, and a lot of it has to do with fuel prices," Savage said.
"The USDA predicts grocery store prices will be up 31/2 to 41/2 percent this year," he said. "Combine that with what's going on at the fuel pump — gas costs 35 percent more than it did a year ago."
Each month, Stewart purchases the $46 Bountiful Blessings box, which she says can feed her family of four — breakfast and dinner — for a week.
"I said, 'Wow, if I can spend $46 a week on my groceries instead of $120, I can take my family out to the movies and dinner one night and it doesn't hurt,' " she said.
And many people buy multiple boxes each month.
Susan Taylor, 39, of Clearwater signed up after the 20-year-old Share Florida Food Network, a Tampa-based food co-op, ended in December.
The eight boxes of food she purchased Saturday will feed her family of three teens and three adults for a month.
"It's cheaper than going to Sam's Club for the amount of food you get," she said. "And a lot of boxes come with recipes you can use the items in the box for, so you don't just have to wing it."
She added that the gluten-free items especially are much cheaper than what you'd find in a health food store.
Jones, who used Angel Food for the first time Saturday, said the program is definitely worth it.
"Being a single mom, I'm glad there are people out there willing to help," she said. "I thought if somebody's willing to help, I'm willing to put a little bit in to get some help, too."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.