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Cooking Matters Michigan

Empowering families with the skills, confidence and knowledge to prepare healthy and affordable meals

Food Stamp Challenge: Living on $31.50 a week

dorothy hernandez

About a month ago during one of our weekly meetings, our fearless leader Ra suggested that our team take the Food Stamp Challenge, a national call to action to live off the food stamp allotment ($31.50) for one week. I was personally interested in taking it because I wanted to get a better understanding of where our participants are coming from.

Here are the guidelines (modified from the Fighting Poverty with Faith rules): 1. Keep your total food and beverage purchases under $31.50 for the week. 2. Include fast food and other restaurant meals and beverages in the total cost. 3. You may use pantry items you have at home like spices, but avoid staples like canned tomatoes, which should be included in purchases. 4. You may include free meals to you. 5. You can start and end anytime, and if you don’t make it, that is ok. You will know what it is like to live on a food stamp budget.

Most of us decided to start Monday, which coincided with Food Day, a grassroots effort to push for healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way.

When prepping for my week of eating on a food stamp budget, I took a long look at my habits and likes. I know I drink way too much coffee and don’t pay enough attention to what I buy. I try to make lists that I inevitably forget at home and even though I try to plan my meals I end up eating out a lot more than I should. I love to go out for lunch and dinner with friends and family … both of which are luxuries that one on a food stamp budget can’t afford.

I sat down to write a list and after I thought I had a pretty good variety of food, I set off for Kroger Sunday to buy food for my week of eating on a food stamp diet.

At Kroger, I bought:

1 pound of yellow onions, $.81 1 head of garlic, $.75 4 jalapeno peppers, $.50 1 pound of Honeycrisp apples, $1.99 1 bag of brown rice, $.82 2 cans of black beans, $1.72 1 green pepper, $.52 Stonyfield yogurt on sale 4 for $3 with card Loaf of whole grain bread, $1 Package of corn tortillas, $2.29 1 can of diced tomatoes, $1.39 1 container of romaine lettuce, $1.59 2 bananas, $.31 Collards, $1.29 Kroger total: $17.98

Then I went to Meijer and bought:

¼ pound of deli turkey, $1.08 ($3.99/lb) Dozen eggs, $1.79 Shredded cheese $2 Granola, $2.79 Package of chicken breasts, $4.68 ($2.49/lb) Meijer total: $12.34

Total between both stores: $30.32

Yikes! Now I only have $1.18 for the rest of the week. Not much of a cushion. I figured I could use that to get more apples or bananas when my fruit runs out.

When I get home I realized I probably should’ve gotten a tub of yogurt instead of the individual cups of Stonyfield, which is my favorite but I got distracted by the pretty sign that said it was on sale. Despite the gimmick, it was still expensive. I also should’ve gotten a whole chicken instead of the chicken breasts. In terms of fruits and vegetables, I feel like I am woefully lacking in this department. I kicked myself later when I saw apples were $.59/pound at Meijer but I rationalized it by saying I only like Honeycrisp so they wouldn’t have gotten eaten anyway. I also don't have enough dairy ... definitely not enough for 3 cups a day.

While planning my meals, I figured meat and seafood would be out of the question since these are usually the budget busters. So I figure I could get some chicken and plan on making two things to last me the week. Luckily for me I like leftovers. I decide to make a huge pot of black beans that I can use in a variety of meals from my morning eggs to rice and beans at dinner. I also poach the chicken breasts and save the liquid to use like broth (I added some onions and garlic while cooking) and then I can shred up the chicken to add to the rice or to salad. Using the poaching liquid, I also made a batch of tortilla soup. Finally I cooked two cups of brown rice.

Also, I decide that this is the week that I’m going to attempt to forgo coffee because at $9.99/bag for my favorite coffee, that is a third of my budget. Even Folgers or Maxwell House coffee would be $4-5, which is not budget-friendly. For those of you who know me, no, I haven’t been abducted by aliens. Going from at least 6 cups to zero is going to be rough. But I figure I have to cut down anyway so might as well start now. (I apologize in advance to my friends and co-workers for my bad behavior.) I have a coupon for a free coffee at Starbucks that I will be cashing in when I’m going through withdrawal, probably this afternoon before my teen class.

I worked a long day Monday (9 a.m. to 9 p.m. between two jobs) so this required planning the night before. Usually when I’m doing a long day like this I get takeout, which can run up to $10.

Here’s how Day 1 went:

Breakfast 2 scrambled eggs wrapped in 2 tortillas with some beans

Lunch Food Day lunch, which we ordered from our volunteer chef Alison at the soup kitchen. We brought healthy lunches for our fellow Gleaners at our different distribution sites. Ra said as part of our challenge we could include free food, so here’s today’s freebie. I picked the turkey sandwich and there was also a small cup of potato salad, an orange and granola bar. I ate the sandwich and potato salad and saved the granola bar and orange for a snack later.

Mid-afternoon snack at about 4 p.m. Now I'm at my second job. At this point I’m getting really hungry (not to mention sleepy as this would’ve been coffee time) so I scarf the granola bar and an apple that I packed in my bag for dinner (I’m saving the orange for another time since eating an orange at a keyboard is not an easy feat). And then about an hour or so later I’m hungry again! I think it’s all in my head. But it is worth noting that I can’t just dig into my bag and pull out a snack or hit the vending machine. I drink more water.

Dinner Rice and beans with some cheese ... really craving something else, like veggies for a more well-rounded meal 1 orange

This is more or less what I’m going to eat every day; the only other variations would be to have granola and yogurt instead of the eggs in the morning or have a salad with chicken instead of a turkey sandwich for lunch. The only other thing I’m going to cook is the collards and I’ll probably do that on Wednesday so I can eat something new other than rice and beans.

What do you think of the food I got? If you’re doing the Food Stamp challenge, share your thoughts with us this week!