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The food stamp challenge. January 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I recently read about something called the Food Stamp Challenge in an article called “7 Foods to Buy When You’re Broke” on U.S. News & World Report. The article explained that more and more people were trying to live on the amount of money they’d get for food from SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps) for a week to see what it would be like to eat on 4 dollars a day.

Mind you, this is $4 a person, which is certainly better than $4 a household (unless you’re a one-person household). But those costs still add up fast, and trying to add variety when you’re restricted to $4 a day can be a challenge. Reading through the list of recommended foods in the article, I disagreed with some because of time constraints and some because they were simply appalling. Others definitely needed help to be edible, and some crucial foods were left out altogether.

So here’s my list of best foods for folks on tight budgets:

* Beans. The article recommended dried beans, which will swell from 2 cups dried to 6 cups cooked. But that’s assuming you’re unemployed and have all day to soak and cook the damned things, as opposed to simply being poor and working three jobs at minimum wage while trying to care for a family. Yes, dried beans are cheaper than canned beans, but watch for sales and buy the canned beans at 59 cents each, it will save you tons of time and they’ll be just as nutritious (full of protein, vitamins and minerals).

* Rice. The article I read recommended brown rice, which is certainly more nourishing than white rice. But there’s a reason why every single culture where rice is a staple food, from Japan and China to India and Pakistan, eats white rather than brown rice: It tastes better. It’s also, ironically, cheaper (you’d think unprocessed brown rice would cost less than processed white rice, but you’d be wrong). I eat brown rice often, but I make sure I make it palatable by adding sauteed onion, scallions (green onion), sauteed mushrooms, sesame oil, chili oil, shoyu (fresh soy) sauce, salt, herbs or spices, or the like.

* Oatmeal. “Old-Fashioned” oats (as opposed to instant) are a nourishing, cheap, delicious, filling breakfast. Like rice, however, in my opinion, you can’t eat them with pleasure unless you add ingredients like skim milk and a sprinkle of cinnamon, at a minimum, which certainly ups the cost. Plain oatmeal, like plain air-popped popcorn, plain potatoes, plain Cheerios, or plain anything else is an abomination. Maybe there are people out there who choke this stuff down plain, but God help them. Go for the toppings, but count the cost.

* Popcorn. Speaking of popcorn, if you need to fill up, a bag is cheap, and 1/2 cup quickly expands to a huge, full bowl. This is filling and cheap, but you’ll need, in my opinion, to cook it in oil and add salt, at the very least, to make it palatable. Or air-pop, as we do, and add a little melted butter to up the fullness and satisfaction factor, and/or some shredded cheese to add protein.

The key with both butter and shredded cheese is to look for sales: half-price sales on butter and shredded cheese (I’ve often found shredded cheese at 2 packages for $4.) This is significant, since you can also buy a jar of salsa on sale and use the cheese and salsa to flavor your beans and rice.

* Lentils and split peas. Lentils and split peas are legumes like beans, with all their protein and health benefits, but unlike beans, dried lentils cook up quickly. You can cook dried lentils in half an hour, and dried split peas in little longer. You can add them to rice in a rice cooker, put them in a slow cooker, or cook them up on the stove. Add sliced onion, carrots, and potatoes for lentil stew, or onion, garlic, tomatoes, and a little chile and curry for dal, a delicious, filling Indian dish that’s a perfect meal with rice, plain Greek yogurt, and a spoon of chutney.

* Whole veggies and greens. Those pre-made salad mixes and pre-chopped veggies and veggie combos are so tempting. Who wants to wrestle with a bunch of kale or collards or a head of cabbage when you could buy ready-chopped kale, collards, and cole slaw mix? Who on earth would want to struggle with a butternut squash or sweet potatoes when you could buy them peeled and ready-cubed? You can find every conceivable combination these days, from sliced mushrooms and asparagus to diced onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, and herbs.

Who doesn’t love convenience? Who doesn’t love the bright colors and dazzling combinations? But before you grab those packages, check the price against the cost of the whole head of lettuce or onions or sweet potatoes or squash. You might be in for a strong case of sticker shock! Not to mention that whole foods always last longer than pre-cut foods, and are probably fresher in any case, since those savvy grocers know how to maximize sales by chopping up past-prime veggies to add eye appeal while slapping on premium prices. Buy whole asparagus, mushrooms and onions and cut your own.

* Buy the small fruits. Who can eat a whole premium apple these days, anyway? They’re simply too big. And they’re expensive. Instead, buy a bag of smaller apples, which are so much cheaper, and are just the right size for a snack, or even a lunch combined with a couple of slices of (on-sale) cheese and a handful of nuts.

* Buy fresh produce in season. Buy fruits and veggies in season to save big bucks. Corn on the cob, tomatoes, peaches, and watermelon in summer are plentiful and cheap. Find out what’s in season in your area and stock up, but make sure you and your family will eat what you buy.

* Buy frozen foods out of season. Craving corn or strawberries in fall and winter? Your best bet is the frozen food aisle. Frozen fruits and veggies have fewer pesticides and are harvested at peak freshness, so they’re actually better for you (as well as cheaper) than many fresh foods. Just don’t assume that those frozen pizzas, breakfast foods, and branded meals, or for that matter fancy sauced veggie mixes, offer you the same health and price benefits as plain single-veggie or fruit packages.

* Skip the colas, granolas, fried foods, chips, wings, cocktails, and all the rest of it. We know what’s bad for us and what costs money. The problem is, we’re addicted to junk food. But on a Food Stamp diet, we simply can’t afford it.

* Don’t waste food. This should be the ultimate lesson the Food Stamp Challenge offers us: Don’t waste food. As a nation, we waste 40% of our food while so many go hungry. If we buy food we’ll eat and eat food we buy, we could make a real difference. Please, let’s try it.



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