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Cooking Matters Michigan

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

Filtering by Tag: Food Stamp Challenge

Thoughts on doing the Food Stamp Challenge

dorothy hernandez

In the documentary “Food Stamped,” nutrition educator Shira Potash goes grocery shopping with a man who is on food assistance. He prides himself on being a budget shopper but the foods he chose during this particular trip were far from nutritious: ramen noodles, pork and beans and other processed foods that were very cheap but not very nutrient-dense. The Food Stamp Challenge is typically a weeklong undertaking that puts people in the shoes of those who rely on SNAP funds. Over the past couple years, food stamp use has increased

After doing the Food Stamp Challenge for a few days, I could see why people on a fixed budget go for foods such as the ones the man was putting in his cart: they are cheap and they are quick, and when you’re juggling work (sometimes two jobs) with family, making meals from scratch is not a priority. The week I did the challenge was particularly tough on me as I had evening classes on three nights and then worked late the other two at my other job; juggling two jobs is something I only do once in a while but for low-income families that’s the reality if they want to be able to pay the bills and put food on the table. I could see why many participants at the beginning of CM classes say that they don't have time to cook; neither did I.

I also found myself grabbing some candy that was set out at my other job for Halloween; I almost never go for sweets. If I had been eating like I normally do, I would’ve easily passed them by because I would not crave them. But it was toward the end of the challenge when my food was running a bit low so I only had a sandwich and apple for lunch. When I saw the candy I didn’t hesitate to grab a handful of empty calories.

I have to admit that I came up short. I'm pretty sure I had a calorie deficit on some of the days (except for the candy binge). I ended up paying for dinner one night because I felt bad making my friend pay and then once I got to Chicago, where I was visiting my family over the weekend, my challenge ended.

But for five days I stuck to it as much as I could. Other than the food we made in our classes, dinner on Wednesday at a friend’s and two lunches that other friends bought for me I lived off the food I bought on Sunday.

There was a part in “Food Stamped” when the filmmakers, Shira and her husband, in the grocery store trying to figure out what to buy and they decide to forgo coffee for a week because it wasn’t in the budget. Shira's husband says that things that they thought of as staples were now luxuries. There’s also a part where they go dumpster diving for bread and making sure to find as many free samples as possible. One of the free samples they snagged was cheese, which they rationed for a special treat at the end of the week.

Their ground rules were:

    Whole grains, protein, vegetables and fruits at every meal
    To buy as many organic foods as possible and very little processed food
    To submit their menu for a nutrition evaluation

I was impressed by their ambitions to buy organic as possible because I know that wasn’t a consideration for me because here, you pay a premium for organic. I was trying to stay within budget. And they wanted to have protein at every single meal yet the only animal products that I could see that they bought were eggs and a can of tuna. Everything else was beans and peanut butter. From what I saw in the movie, it looked like they were sticking to their menus but turned into the Bickersons toward the end of the week, edgy because of the stresses of the challenge, no doubt. They did manage to save some of their best ingredients for last, capping off their week with a dinner of salad and frittata for their friends.

In comparison, I did not do as well as they did. I think it is doable to live off $31.50 a week and have nutritious meals but it's tough. You need to:

    You plan every meal and snack and make a list; there is no way you can wing it at the store and stay within your budget.
    You opt for non-animal, economical sources of protein; during my week I got enough turkey for five sandwiches, 3 chicken breasts and a dozen eggs. I could’ve gotten more fruits and vegetables had I just gotten beans and peanut butter for my sandwiches.
    Buy seasonal produce (especially important in ensuring you eat enough fruits, I only had four apples and 2 bananas so that came out to only one serving of fruit a day and it wasn’t even enough for the week)

Even though it wasn’t varied or met the recommended amounts for optimal nutrition, I felt like I had just barely enough food. But what about families of four? The rice and beans I made wouldn’t last a family a whole week, maybe 2 days.

Did you do the challenge? What were your thoughts? Share them with us!

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!