Eat & Drink

Food Stamp challenge: One week, four people and a tight budget

This story originally appeared in the May 28, 2007 edition of The Kansas City Star

Can you eat for $5.54 a day?

Stop off for just one fancy latte on your way to work or grab a burger and fries for lunch and you're likely to blow through that amount, the maximum food stamp benefit for a single person, and go hungry for the rest of the day.

I’ve never been on food stamps, so I don’t really know what it’s like to be hungry. Nor do assorted members of Congress and governors, so hunger relief advocates across the country are challenging us to step up to the plate. They want us to feel, if just for a week, what it’s like to be hungry.

When Harvesters, Kansas City’s local food network, asked me to take its Food Stamp Challenge, I was immediately intrigued. But I wasn’t sure I could stay on budget. Even worse, what if my kids really did go hungry?

But the goal of the challenge was actually to get us beyond the growling in the pit of our stomachs. It’s the hidden emotional and social stresses of a bare pantry that can take a toll.

Loath to be a short order cook, I quickly decided that if I was going to be the menu planner, shopper and cook for an entire week (a duty I typically share with my husband), I needed the whole family to sign on for the challenge.

André, 13, was my first ally. He likes social studies and politics, so this was just the kind of social experiment I figured I could get him interested in. He didn’t take much convincing, although his idea for staying on budget was to eat off the dollar menu at a fast-food restaurant.

This was, of course, not only not allowable on food stamps but also not the way I want him to eat. Besides, food stamp recipients do not have the same convenience foods available to them. When you’re on food stamps you are not allowed to buy prepared items: no fast food, deli sandwiches -- not even a rotisserie chicken. Accepting food stamps forces you to cook.

Daniela, 8, took a bit more convincing. She was willing to join in the challenge only if she could continue to buy school lunch. She loves school lunch. I’m not sure what that says about my cooking.

As a family, my husband, Otavio, and I talked with the kids over several dinners about the changes that would be necessary in our diet: No more hormone-free local milk in a glass bottle. No more artisan breads at nearly $3 a loaf. No lunches out. No pizza Friday night. And, for the adults, no more wine with dinner.

Shopping strategies

A refrigerator cook most nights of the week, I tend to open the door, look inside and begin to put together a meal from what we have on hand. But with a budget of $129.50 per week -- the maximum amount a family of four can receive on food stamps -- I knew I would need to sit down and carefully plan out every meal.

A few nights before starting the challenge and André was at trumpet lessons, Daniela and I sat in a nearby pizza parlor and went through the stack of recipes that Harvesters dietitian Stephanie Ziebert had shared with me after a class I attended with real-life food stamp recipients. As I called out dishes, Daniela gave me a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. There were more yucks than yums, but by the end of the hour we had agreed on a week’s worth of meals.

With the menu planned, I divided the yellow legal paper into the sections of the store and made a list of ingredients I would need for the week. Practically speaking, I wanted to shop close to my home, but I also wanted to shop at stores that were typical of the average food stamp recipient.

The vast majority of Harvesters clients shop at supermarkets, grocery stores or discount stores (90 percent), not convenience stores (2.8 percent) as some obesity experts had led me to believe. Price clubs like Costco were out because of the fee required to join.

I chose to do most of my shopping at Aldi on 67th Street in Shawnee. I had never shopped at Aldi before, but when I called Mark Bersted, vice president of the Olathe division, he was ready to fill me in on what I had been missing. The German-based discount chain stocks 1,300 items, as opposed to the 40,000 stocked in a typical supermarket.

The store keeps overhead low by charging a quarter for a shopping cart (refundable when you reharness the cart in a corral), charging for bags (and you bag your own) and not accepting checks (the store does accept debit cards and, for a 25-cent charge, Missouri shoppers can use Discover). Recipients can use their food stamp debit cards at the store. Food stamp recipients also do not pay tax.

Bersted admits Aldi has a reputation as "the food stamp store," but that image may be changing. A home economist I work with told me at Christmas her foodie friends were buzzing about the store’s $35 French Champagne, which Aldi sold for $8. Bersted says plenty of Aldi customers just like to save money.

I found nearly everything on my list at Aldi, but I was holding out for a whole chicken and some bakery bread. After André’s tae kwon do class, we headed to Wal-Mart, where the majority of Americans are reported to shop.

I was surprised to find that all the chicken was precut into pieces, mostly boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Not wanting to head for yet another store at dinner time, I settled for six breasts.

By the end of the day I had spent three hours grocery shopping for a grand total of $99.23.

I was relieved: I did not have to put food back on the shelves like the governor of Oregon, who was followed by a camera crew.

The nutrition challenge

The first meal was Thai Peanut Noodles, a tasty vegetarian dish. Even though he is a big fan of peanut butter and eats it straight from the jar with a spoon, André immediately wanted to know where the meat was. It was a refrain I heard throughout the week.

I made six chicken breasts last for three meals. We had a vegetarian and a near-vegetarian pasta (Do slices of pepperoni count?) dish, but we also had salmon fillets and turkey burgers. Clearly, we were not starving.

And in some ways the kids were eating a more kid-friendly diet than I usually serve. For instance, I always buy artisan-baked breads. But frequently they mold before we eat them.

Not surprisingly, André argued for spongy, no-nutrition white bread -- the kind he really liked -- by insisting that it was more typical of what a food stamp recipient might be able to afford.

But for a food writer, nutrition was not a totally negotiable point, even if money was tight. We compromised on a honey-wheat loaf, which both kids wolfed down in record time. I picked up some whole-grain tortillas and whole-wheat pita pockets and ate them instead.

"See, don’t buy the kids the good bread," Thrifty Soccer Mom told me when I saw her at our daughters’ soccer game.From the get-go Thrifty Soccer Mom had been offering advice on how to get through the challenge. This friend, who e-mails me when San Marzano tomatoes are on sale at Costco, routinely feeds her family of four for less than $129.50 a week.

She likes the challenge, she enjoys cooking and she likes saving money for home décor. She became an invaluable resource throughout the week as I began to feel stressed and lose focus. My friend admits that not working outside the home makes it easier to shop and cook this way for her family.

On the nights when I stayed up cooking until 10:30 p.m. to have food ready for the dash between softball practice and dance class, I wondered how anyone who works a full-time job could actually pull off this kind of planning week after week.

The time investment

As the week progressed, I realized that I hadn’t really given enough thought to our lunches. Otavio and I often take a lunch to work, but probably just as often if we can’t get it together in the morning we eat out instead.

I could tell Otavio really hated the bean burrito I had made for lunch on Thursday. "It wasn’t my favorite lunch," he said diplomatically. "I don’t really like any burrito."

By the end of the week we were running out of protein sources. I think a dietitian would have said our meat intake was about right, more like a condiment than a main dish, but it was making André a wee bit cranky.

"Hey, I’m a carnivore. I can’t help it if I like meat," he kept telling anyone who would listen.

It was time to spend the rest of our money, but I wasn’t thrilled about heading out to the supermarket for a third trip in one week. Usually I make a list and send Otavio to the store, but that is always risky in terms of budget. If the sushi looks good, he’ll probably buy it.

By Sunday night’s dinner, I was in a mood to splurge. We had wild salmon fillets, roasted potatoes, a gourmet bean salad made of leftover beans, spinach, green beans and cherry tomatoes and red onions in a vinaigrette, steamed broccoli and the pièce de résistance: strawberry shortcake.

We had skim milk on hand, and I didn’t think I had enough money to buy heavy cream, which seemed perhaps too indulgent. I decided to see whether I could turn a truly decadent recipe into a thriftier production.

The shortcakes turned out to be flatter and not quite as rich, but they worked. Instead of topping them with whipped cream, a dollop of vanilla yogurt worked just fine.

By now I had spent $123.54. Tired but satisfied, I could see the home stretch, but I can only imagine what it feels like to run out of food before the end of the week. And I hope I never have to worry that my kids are truly hungry.

To reach Jill Wendholt Silva, food editor, call 816-234-4395 or e-mail

jsilva@kcstar.com

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TAKE THE FOOD STAMP CHALLENGE

As part of Hunger Awareness Week (June 2-10), Harvesters is issuing a challenge to the community: Learn about the economic, physical, emotional and social difficulties of poverty and food insecurity by living on a food stamp budget for just one week, as I did.

SOCIAL IMPACT

A family friend invited us to a birthday dinner at a restaurant, but we declined because it was not in our food budget for the week and entertaining them in our home was out of the question.

It’s easy to see how people on food stamps might turn down social invitations such as a birthday party or a potluck because it may be difficult to reciprocate.

We passed up two school-related events that had an additional food cost involved, including a "family dinner" night at Daniela’s school.

EMOTIONAL/PHYSICAL IMPACT

Although I did not suffer hunger pangs, but I did feel light-headed one night during yoga.

The challenge felt like a diet. I spent nearly every moment I was not at work thinking about or preparing food.

It was exhausting to shop three times in one week to get the best deals.

I feared I would run out of food.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

I stayed on budget, but the entire family lost the freedom to choose what to eat and when.

MAKING ENDS MEET

The key to stretching your food dollars? Make a plan and stick to it.

Plan a week’s worth of meals and snacks. Gather recipes you will use for the week. Make a menu that takes into consideration nutritional value, seasonal items and family preferences. Check the weekly food ads for sale items and use any food you already have on hand.

Make a shopping list, and stick to it. Organize your list by grouping items according to the sections in the grocery store. Avoid shopping when you’re hungry, tired or rushed. Leave the children at home, if possible. Deviate from the list only when there is a better buy or unadvertised special that fits the meal plan.

Be a smart shopper. To save time, familiarize yourself with the layout of several stores. Take a calculator to the store and keep a running total as you put items in the cart. Compare price and size to find the best bargains. Consider selecting generic or store brand products. Buy just what you can use before it spoils; spoiled food is wasted money.

Strive to make healthful choices. Read nutrition labels and choose energy-dense foods, a choice that means you actually get more for your money. Buying foods with lower nutritional value, even if they are less expensive, may be more expensive in the long run.

Source: Johnson County K-State Research and Extension A global perspective

What does a week’s worth of groceries look like in other parts of the world?

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats

(Material World Books, 10 Speed Press, $40) by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio is an eye-opening look at what 300 families in 24 countries eat each week.

As you might expect, a refugee family of six in Chad eats sparsely, on just $1.23 a week, while a French family of four spends $419.95 a week at the local hypermart.

As my family and I flipped through the pages, we were spellbound. We surveyed the groceries I had piled on the counter; they paled in comparison to the foods purchased by most of the families in the book.

But aren’t we one of the richest countries in the world, my children wanted to know?

Yes, but it appears that bounty does not extend to those who must rely on food stamps.

| Jill Wendholt Silva, The Kansas City Star

Thai peanut noodles

Makes 4 servings

3 cups (8 ounces) dried whole-grain spaghetti or fettuccine

2 large carrots, peeled, cut in half lengthwise and sliced into 1/2 -inch thick half moons (about 2 cups)

1 medium red bell pepper, sliced into thin, 1-inch long strips (about 1 cup)

1 cup snow peas, trimmed

1/3 cup creamy peanut butter

1/4 to 1/2 cup boiling water

1/4 cup reduced sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

3/4 teaspoon dried ginger

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 cup unsalted roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped

2 green onions, sliced (optional garnish)

Bring a large saucepan of water to boil. Add the pasta and carrots and cook according to pasta package directions. Add the bell pepper and snow peas 3 minutes before pasta is done. Drain and return to pan.

While pasta is cooking, whisk together the peanut butter, boiling water, soy sauce, oil, vinegar, ginger and garlic powder in a medium bowl until well blended.

Add the peanut butter mixture to the pasta and stir to combine. Reheat if necessary.

Serve in individual bowls and sprinkle with peanuts.

Challenge notes: I made an executive decision and used whole-grain pasta for added nutrition, although it is an added expense. I chose reduced sodium soy sauce for the same reason.

Source: Harvesters

Pizza pasta salad

Makes 8 servings

1 pound spiral shaped pasta, cooked according to package directions

2 plum tomatoes, chopped

1 (4-ounce) can sliced mushrooms, rinsed and drained

1/2 small red onion, diced

1 small green pepper, diced

1/2 package turkey pepperoni (about 3 ounces)

2 cups part-skim mozzarella cheese, cubed

1 cup light Italian dressing (or make your own vinaigrette, see note)

1 rounded tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning

1 teaspoon garlic powder

Black pepper, to taste

Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Combine cooked pasta, tomatoes, mushrooms, onion, bell pepper, pepperoni and mozzarella in a large bowl. In a small bowl, combine remaining ingredients, whisking with a fork to combine. Toss dressing with pasta to coat evenly. Sprinkle with Parmesan.

Challenge notes:

To up the nutrition content, I substituted whole-wheat pasta for regular. I couldn’t find turkey pepperoni at the stores I shopped at so I opted for regular. I also substituted my own vinaigrette because I needed olive oil and vinegar for other recipes. (Use a 4:1 oil to vinegar ratio.)

Source: Harvesters

7 foods to stretch your budget 1. Dry beans:

Canned beans are certainly convenient when you’re time pressed, but dry beans are a more economical choice. Soak them the night before and plan several hours of simmering time on the stove.

2. Rice:

Rice and beans are a staple food around the world. Switch your family to brown rice and you’ve upped the nutrient and fiber content over plain white rice. Even discount stores are stocking exotic rices, including brown, basmati and jasmine.

3. Whole chicken:

The boneless, skinless chicken breast has become ubiquitous at most supermarkets, many of which no longer employ meat cutters on the premises. But if you buy a whole chicken and cut it up yourself, you’ll not only save money, but you’ll also get a more chicken-y flavor. Throw the carcass in a soup pot with diced carrots, celery, onions and parsley and let it simmer on the stove to make homemade soup stock.

4. Greens:

Collard greens, beet greens, turnip greens, Swiss chard and kale are among the least expensive vegetables in the produce section, but they provide a big nutritional bang for your buck. Greens are easy to prepare; wash leaves well to remove any grit, remove tough stems and chop. Steam or sauté and serve, no added fat required.

5. Peanut butter:

A kid-friendly favorite, peanut butter is a versatile protein source that spans the gamut from main dishes (such as Thai Peanut Noodles) to desserts. But there’s no need to get fancy. Spread on bread it’s a great way to keep hunger pangs at bay.

6. Eggs:

In moderation, eggs are a healthy and inexpensive protein choice.

7. Cheese:

Fight the urge to buy pre-shredded cheese. Chunk cheese is usually cheaper and stays fresher longer. Individually wrapped cheese slices are also more expensive per ounce than unsliced.

Chicken noodle soup

Makes 8 (1-cup) servings

1 tablespoon butter

1 cup chopped carrot

1 cup chopped potato

1/2 cup thinly sliced celery

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

3 1/2 cups reduced sodium chicken broth (about 2 cans)

1 cup water

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 cups uncooked wide egg noodles (about 4 ounces)

1 pound skinned, boned chicken breast halves, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Melt butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add carrot, potato and celery; sauté 3 minutes. Stir in flour. Gradually add broth, water, salt and pepper, stirring with a whisk; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes. Add noodles and chicken, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes. Stir in parsley.

Challenge’s Notes:

Daniela liked this soup so much she asked if I would make it after the Food Stamp Challenge. She also reveled in the joys of something as simple and forgotten as bread and butter. The whole family was so enthusiastic about the soup that we ate it all in one sitting. No leftovers as I had planned.

Source: Harvesters

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