Food Stamp Fail?

If I didn’t call this failure, it would be hypocritical. That said, I,m reporting back on the outcomes of our food stamp challenge. Challenge – it was. As a full-time working mom, could I feed my family of five, nutritious meals on a food stamp allocation of $30 per person per week?

flickr.creativecommons/photos/millsbaker/3568168515/

Let me get the failure part out of the way first. There are a couple things that might cause the purists amongst us to think we didn’t meet this challenge. First, my darling husband ended up being out of town for five of the seven nights. This wasn’t a problem except that I didn’t cut back our food budget to accommodate. I suppose if this was a reality show, we’d have received the money regardless so perhaps that isn’t the failure that I’m calling it. And, at the end of the week there were plenty of left overs which could theoretically be “his portions”.  Second, with the exception of one day, I was able to scrounge around the office and “find food” meaning that some meeting group had sandwiches left over or that I raided pretzels from the break room. And finally, we had one evening out during the week already planned where we ate quite well and it wasn’t included in our budget. Call it failure or call it real life.

The Menu

Monday: White bean soup with arugula and parmesan, salad

Tuesday: Okra and vegetable curry with brown rice

Wednesday: Black beans and brown rice with salad. (chicken thighs for the meat eaters)

Thursday: Leftover night

Friday: Pizza made from prepared dough and left over toppings, salad

Saturday: Dinner out

Sunday: Salad, bean soup, potatoes and steaks for the meat-eaters

For breakfasts, we had a mix of foods like waffles, eggs, oatmeal, cold cereal and potatoes. I even managed to slip in one green smoothie. Weekday lunches for the kids were exempt since they would be included in a free-lunch program and my husband could take from the fridge leftovers as desired. Kids snacks were fruit, tuna fish sandwiches and quesadillas. One of the hardest parts of the challenge was that I didn’t clear the cupboards before we began so when I got home from work and the kids were eating something that wasn’t on a menu or hadn’t been purchased with our psuedo-stamps, I added it to our list.

The Result

Despite the fully disclosed failure, we did it. The largest ticket item was our CSA subscription at $23. All of our produce was local and organic. Our eggs were local as was the honey on our cereal and the white cannellini beans for our soup. The meat was organic and sustainably raised. This can be done but that doesn’t make it easy. Read on.

The Lessons Learned

1. I have to start with the notion that this was easier because I do have a family of five and hence, with more per person allocation, I had more flexibility. This may be much more difficult for a single person with $30. For inspiration on one-person meals, take a look at Poppa John’s blog. Information about how to shop and prepare for one may be an unmet need.

2. Access to good nutritious ingredients is crucial. A few weeks back, Laura Silverman posted this link on my blog and I believe that the issue of food deserts must be addressed.

3. I quickly adopted a hoarder mentality.  This was especially true at lunch time where I was looking for a way to not buy lunch and therefore, possibly eating more than I otherwise would have. Does the thought of scarcity cause one to consume more?  It’s another concept worthy of exploration.

4. Planning is essential. Rather than wait until dinnertime when we were all hungry, I had a plan that was both nutritious and cost conscious. If I’d have left it to whim, and waited until spur of the moment pangs, prepackaged foods would have been much more convenient. What types of tools are we providing for individuals who are forced to budget this way?

5. We were able to rely on our knowledge of healthy foods in order to prepare nutritious meals. Remember from Jamie Oliver’s experience that it’s not just about educating kids but that many of the parents today grew up eating convenience foods. There is an opportunity to create a stronger knowledge base.

6. Knowing how to cook is paramount to making healthy meals. Clearly, this was not a fancy menu but knowing how to use a crockpot and what vegetables to throw together contributed to our experience. Are we offering food preparation classes to folks who live within a budget? How about the development of a crockpot camp?

Bottom line

The total cost: $135.77

The experience: Priceless

Leave a comment

70 Comments

  1. No. 3 is very interesting and thought provoking. You amaze me.

    Reply
  2. I think the food preparation issue is a huge piece of this puzzle. So many people believe that they simply must buy convenience foods to get by. Getting more information out in lots of different ways about how to simply prepare vegetables, grains and beans could save people a ton of money! We’ve been brainwashed into thinking “cooking” is something for chefs and tv stars, and that it’s a mysterious and complicated process…so much of it is simple and intuitive!

    Reply
    • I absolutely agree with you and I’m interested in thinking about those issues more deeply. There just has to be a solution or two in there! Cooking has been glamorized and while that’s fun and has spawned an industry, it does create an elitist aura.

      Reply
  3. Well done. I am fairly frugal with money and eat healthily but I couldn’t do it on $30.00 a week

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  4. Well done, Tammy! Loved your menus for the week and your success with the challenge.

    Watching the Food Network’s Cooking Shows is a great way for people to see how easy it is to cook quick and healthy meals.

    Reply
  5. This was fascinating to read, and I’m also in awe of you for deciding to give this a go! As a single woman, I’d have to be eating a lot of the same meals day in and day out to make this work, I think. Which would be doable, of course. I think I’m too nervous to try right now, though…

    Reply
  6. Fantastic article, Tammy. I’ve been thinking about this subject since viewing the movie, “Food, Inc.” There is a family of four in the movie that ends up at fast food drive-up windows for their meals, and lament over the fact that they can’t afford fresh vegetables, while buying 2-liter bottles of soda because it is inexpensive. They also spend a few hundred dollars per month on the father’s diabetes medicine. I can’t help but think that if someone just taught this family about healthy cookie and food choices, as you have pointed out, they could afford fresh easy meals and possibly save money in reduced medical expenses each month.

    Reply
  7. A few good lessons, Tammy, I think you’re spot-on with #3. I’m left quite ashamed at my own extravagance in the kitchen :(

    Reply
  8. Great challenge, Tammy. There’s a reason why so many low-income people are overweight. Cheap, processed food is full of chemicals. Our bodies produce fat cells to capture and contain those chemicals.

    Not knowing enough about food prep, food combing and food composition, people will miss out on great nutrition available through simple, healthy eating that can taste divine.

    Cutting back on food purchases or consumption puts bodies into starvation mode (more fat stored) and stimulates mental and physical hoarding behaviour.

    Reply
    • I think you’re right. It was really interesting and the learnings definitely lay out a few things that are worthy of further exploration.

      Reply
  9. You amaze me, too, Tammy. this is a combination of deep rooted values and pragmatic planning, and I have rarely wanted to try something so much. I’ll have to take a look at what our equivalent of the food stamp is here in the UK. A fabulous preparation for Christmas.
    Top post. Really.

    Reply
    • I’m very intrigued with our outcomes and am very hopeful that there is a way to create some social entrepreneurial activity from this.

      Reply
  10. What a great experience. It really gives you something to think about. Also, your menu sounds divine!

    Reply
  11. Hats off to you, Tammy & family! You make some great points here, too – I think you’re onto something with # 3.

    Reply
  12. Tammy, I am so proud of you for doing this challenge and posting the results. The twin prongs of the poverty/obesity issue lie in access to real food, and the ability to prepare it. In Nashville, we have a ReStoring Nashville campaign,designed to bring respectable food chains into food deserts, also bring farmer’s market goods into convenience stores in same food desert neighborhoods. It is a slow process, but some headway is being made. Community Gardens and teaching kitchens at a couple of the community centers are making a difference too.

    Reply
    • That is so great! It sounds like exactly the type of initiative that needs to be in place to respond to the issues. I’m going to google and see if I can learn more.

      Reply
  13. This is an interesting topic. One thing I would like to mention is that I’m from a small town and was there over Thanksgiving. I was craving a salad and so I went to the local Food Lion. I was amazed to find that there was hardly any organic options available and the vegetable freezer aisle only had two cases dedicated with a small selection. I currently live in bigger city and can walk in a grocery store that has organic options and a whole aisle at least dedicated to frozen vegetables.

    My point being most people living on food stamps will have an even greater challenge when living in a smaller town due to limited options. Eating healthy can be done though, in those situations, with education.

    I think educating and providing people with examples of easy nutritious meals is key. I had no idea how harmful packaged and processed food was until I saw Food Inc.

    Reply
    • Research to support the access issue. I think you’re right. I’m very interested to learn more about this topic and hopefully to write more about it also.

      Reply
  14. What a super challenge. It has me wondering about our weekly menu for two. I’m not a thrifty shopper but it makes me wonder how much we could save if I planned and was a bit more attentive to our menu. It would be worth while especially this time of year.

    Reply
  15. Great job, and what a great challenge. I love that you were able to come up with some healthy and delicious meals for your family.

    Regarding scarcity and hoarding, and somewhat off topic, you made me think of the problem my sister has with her dog, which will just gorge itself if there is food available, she does not know when to quit. She is a rescue dog, and they speculate the runt of the litter as they say this behavior is very common as they often did not get the food they needed and therefor ate as much as they could whenever they have the chance. My sister has this ingenious toy which is a ball with holes in the side that she fills with dog food. The dog is trained to role the ball around the floor with its nose to release the dog food and control her intake.

    Reply
    • Wow that is an ingenious dog toy! I was telling a friend today and the scarcity thing and she said that it’s definitely true when people travel. They’re always afraid or unsure of their next meal so they overeat.

      Reply
  16. Wow! Well done! Not sure I could do it myself! I think though that the more we cook “from scratch” the healthier, cheaper and usually tastier it is. The tradeoff, it seems is time, but as I’ve been cooking more it really is NOT such a big deal. GREAT post, Tammy – enjoyed this one a lot!

    Reply
  17. I love these lessons… it makes me think about my family eating! We’ve never kept track or budgeting of food. I need to try calculating our buying now :)

    Reply
  18. Lisa H

     /  December 6, 2010

    What a great challenge! Definitely knowing how to cook saves us a great deal of money. Also, the time-savers seem to become easier the more I cook at home. For instance, soaking a pot of dried beans at night and then cooking them in the crockpot the next day will give me two to three day’s worth of beans to use in different meals. This, of course, ties in with No. 4: Planning ahead.

    Reply
    • Yes and using the crockpot. I think it’s a great tool.

      Reply
      • Lisa H

         /  December 10, 2010

        I’ve caramelized onions a couple times now in the crockpot. They turned out great! I meant to freeze them, but ate them before they even made it into a ziploc bag!

        Reply
  19. Wow, that’s amazing. Now I want to see how much I spend each week. I’m pretty good about making my own food for lunch, but when it comes to dinner, I tend to like to eat out. At least there’s usually leftovers.

    Reply
  20. This is a topic that my green friends and I discuss often, especially the part about teaching people to cook well with local fresh ingredients. I’m just about ready to send out registration forms for the Adirondack Crockpot Camp!!! Thanks for another thoughtful moment.

    Reply
  21. Tiffany Anderson

     /  December 6, 2010

    No. 3 is something I got to explore in the book Switch by Chip Heath that discusses change in great notion.

    The expirement included stale popcorn (3 days or more) to movie goers in either a medium or extra large bucket. The results across the board showed greater consumption with the extra large bucket recipients.

    The medium bucket recipients only ate half due to a sense of scarcity. So the greater the amount provided, the more that’s ultimately consumed. Hence the supersize effects on our country.

    Reply
  22. Thanks for the mention. I am gonna break the $30 barrier with ease this week because its time for a periodic fast to cleanse the body. Of course that only works if you don’t count the dinner out for 2 on Sunday $70. and the “Break Fast” celebration on Saturday at the local Christmas Boat Parade which I expect will be the same.

    Like Tes and many others, I don’t keep very careful track of what I spend and my daily shopping ritual is more social than due to need. When I first started blogging, I keep careful track of the meals, calories and the cost. When I shed the pounds, I stopped worrying about either. I think its time to return to the habit.

    Reply
  23. Number 3 is so very very true! What a great learning experience and you are right about how much harder it is for a party of one or two to pull this off :)

    Reply
  24. Great work Tammy! This is some “food” for thought.

    Reply
  25. Thank you for sharing your experiences! Very interesting, and you’ve given us all a lot to think about.

    Reply
  26. Wow, what an interesting and inspiring challenge! Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  27. Kimarie Aycock

     /  December 8, 2010

    After finding about your blog Tammy, I just had to tune in since I know what a healthy lifestyle you and your family share. We are working on becoming healthier and it has to start with what we are putting into our stomachs or all the ab workouts in the world will bear no fruit!

    You inspire me not only to eat better, but to get back to writing too. Thanks Tammy!

    Reply
  28. I enjoyed this and am inspired.
    Although I’m not extravagant in the kitchen and cook a fair bit from scratch, I don’t ever really price it up. Most of my food shopping is done at the same time as other household goods – all on the same bill, so it would take some teasing out.

    What would be interesting is to price the food I usually cook and then see where I could reduce the cost .

    Reply
  29. Really interesting post, thanks Tammy.

    My partner and I rarely spend more than $60 on groceries for the two of us… but we have a very well stocked pantry. A few years ago I went from being an underemployed to student to working full time, and was amazed at the difference it made when I could finally afford to stock a pantry with staples, rather than just buy ingredients week to week. One of the worst things about poverty, IMO, is the inability to buy larger (more economical) packages of simple, nutritious ingredients like good quality oil, or nuts and dried fruit.

    Reply
    • Damn! That was one of my lessons and I can’t believe I forgot it. Bulk buying and providing opportunities to do so. Yes, that is an issue. When I needed 2 Tbs of olive oil, it cost me $3.69 because I had to get the smallest one. (and I tried to buy one pressed near our home). But yes. I’m so glad that you mentioned this. I’ve been thinking about things to write about next year. This is one. Thanks for reading Kath!

      Reply
  30. Tammy,
    As a new reader, and new foodie friend, I am catching up on your blog posts. This one brings back memories of my own “experiment” living off of food pantry donations for a week with my family. It was a lesson in humility that will never leave me. I at least did this for a story assignment with the Denver Post, you took this on solely as a life’s lesson for you and your family. Well done. I look forward to seeing what 2011 serves up for you and your family.

    Reply
    • Kim, You and your family were much braver than me and mine. We sought to eat good food and we did. Both ways, there are remarkable lessons and avenues for further exploration. Thanks for coming to the blog.

      Reply
  31. Sort of thinking you might be spam but the topics are related and I’ll let you stay for now.

    Reply
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