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Extreme couponers help co-op maximize donation

Maureen Kornowa, left, Executive Director for the North Gwinnett Co-op talks with Brad and Katherine Cary about their food donation as a result of extreme coupons at the facility in Buford on Friday (Photo: Karl L. Moore)

Maureen Kornowa, left, Executive Director for the North Gwinnett Co-op talks with Brad and Katherine Cary about their food donation as a result of extreme coupons at the facility in Buford on Friday (Photo: Karl L. Moore)

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Linda Ferrin, from left, Julia Hall, Melanie Wright and Beverly Finney mark the expiration date on the donated food to be put up on the shelves at the North Gwinnett Co-op in Buford on Friday. (Photo: Karl L. Moore)

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Katherine Cary, right, talks with Linda Ferrin, as Brad Cary looks on as they mark the expiration date on the donated food to be put up on the shelves at the North Gwinnett Co-op in Buford on Friday. (Photo: Karl L. Moore)

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Chip Cary, right, hands a box to Nick East while Geraldine Cates, center, and Taylor Bryan, left wait for their turn in unloading the donated food at the North Gwinnett Co-op in Buford on Friday. (Photo: Karl L. Moore)

BUFORD — Always looking to squeeze a little more out of a donation, Maureen Kornowa found a creative way to buy even more groceries than a $2,000 check would reflect.

The executive director of the North Gwinnett Co-Op Ministries, Inc. sought out a couple who donate regularly to the Co-Op, Suwanee residents Brad and Katherine Cary. The Carys have practiced couponing for 20 years, and it was such an important part of their lives that Brad incorporated his marriage proposal in a Sunday coupon, and they’ve developed a software app and a web site, www.dustywallet.com where people can learn more about couponing.

“The more we did it, the better we became at it,” Katherine Cary said.

So Kornowa’s challenge was to take the $2,000 that was recently donated from 12Stone church, and stretch it as far as possible.

“A lot of people do extreme couponing as a hobby, and who really needs to sit on 25 jars of peanut butter?,” Kornowa said. “When a food pantry is feeding 350 families a month, that’s valuable.”

The timing of the project is ideal for the the Co-Op, Kornowa said, because shelves in the summer are typically lean. Midway through the project, which began in May, the Carys purchased $5,895 worth of food with $1,019, a savings rate of 82.7 percent and a leverage factor of 5.5 — meaning every $1 is worth $5.50 of food.

“By the time they’re done, we could have over $10,000 worth of food after we started with $2,000 that was gifted,” Kornowa said.

On Friday morning, the couple made their first delivery of more than 5,500 items for the food bank, focusing on the items most needed such as boxed dinners, pasta, pasta sauce, canned pasta, canned meats, cereal, peanut butter, beans and chili.

One twist to this project is that those items are considered “shelf stable” and not typically listed on coupons.

“Most of these are mature brands,” Brad Cary said. “They don’t need to drop a lucrative coupon to get people to buy peanut butter.”

At the midway point, the Carys had collected about 800 cans of chili, 500 boxes of pasta and 500 jars of pasta sauce, 300 cans of tuna or chicken and 200 jars of peanut butter. It hasn’t come in one shopping trip, the Carys said they waited for items to go on sale.

“We literally have over a ton of food,” said Katherine Cary, who added that the family’s basement was full of boxes of groceries.

Added Bray Cary, “It’s unbelievable what we’ve been able to acquire just with patience.”

Because Katherine Cary worked for Kraft Foods following business school, the couple is aware of the coupon industry as consumers and from the manufacturer’s perspective.

About three years ago, they discovered that manufacturers published a new style of bar code that tracked personal information including phone numbers, IP addresses and physical addresses, especially if coupons are purchased online at sites like eBay. What bothers the Carys is manufacturers don’t have to disclose to consumers that the coupons are being tracked.

So with the help of their nephew Stephen Cary, a recent Georgia Tech graduate, the Carys developed a software app called “QSeer Coupon Reader,” which reports in English what information is in the bar code.

What they learned, and what the app reveals, is the true value for each coupon, which isn’t necessarily what is on the label. Some coupons are labeled 55 cents, which doesn’t allow for doubling, but are only worth 50 cents.

“Manufacturers program bar codes to suppress doubling,” Brad Cary said. “An ordinary consumer wouldn’t find out. There’s no oversight on this. That’s the big problem. The reason it occurs is because this new bar-coding system is complicated.”

The Carys have followed the coupon industry since 1990 when Brad Cary proposed. And they got involved with the Co-Op after a neighbor was on the food bank’s Board of Directors. They said they’re trying to help in a way that matches their skills. Instead of making a cash donation, the Carys would rather maximize the amount of food with coupons.

“We hope maybe this will motivate more people to try and get involved with food banks,” Katherine Cary said.