From the moment we first heard about Congressmen giving up cocktail parties so they could stick to the Food Stamp diet, we asked ourselves if we could live on $42.00 worth of food each week. We knew the answer to be yes, but we decided to document the effort. Last week, we shopped and cooked as if we, too, had to get by on food stamps. Here in Florida, that means $21.00 per week for each eligible household member. Our household is comprised of two food writers who love to cook.
We began our week-long experiment on Sunday, July 15, with $42.00 and the smugness of insiders. We ended our week on Saturday night with a steak on the grill and $5.46 remaining. Today, we’re talking about how we did it; whether we could sustain our enthusiasm if the dependency were real; and what we could have done better.
As we studied the Web pages describing how others had attempted to meet “The Food Stamp Challenge,” we noted that many of the participants didn’t cook. They simply went to a grocery store and bought the cheapest food they could find.
Recently the restaurant critic at one of Sarasota’s alternative newspapers did a feature on “The Food Stamp Challenge.” The author contrasted his own food choices with those of two young women with children, who really do receive food stamps. By his own admission, the critic’s synthesized experience was not a happy one. The women, who did not go into great detail about their meals, seemed to have worked our strategies for meeting their personal needs.
We suspect that most of the public figures participating, unlike the food-stamp mothers, didn’t spend the sort of time we did thinking about how one would shop and prepare a week’s meals. Political office-holders have other agendas. Furthermore, we started our project with significant advantages over most who had attempted this challenge before us.
• We’re foodies. We cook—from scratch, and we actually like grocery shopping and creating meals. For people like us, hunting for food bargains can be as much fun as yard sales and Ebay are for others.
• We’re informed—over-informed, some might say—about food issues, nutrition, and myriad ways to prepare food. Our favorite lunchtime conversation is, “What shall we have for dinner?”
• We began the week with a well-stocked larder: among other staples, we already had our bargain-priced 3-litre bottle of extra virgin olive oil (e.g., we did not have to lug it home in a folding shopping cart in 92 F. heat nor did we have to drive to BJ’s to buy it.) Nevertheless, if we dipped into the pantry for something that made a significant contribution to our diet (the milk for our coffee, olive oil, bread we had frozen),we deducted its cost from our budget as if we had actually purchased it with our Food Stamp funds.
• Because we own cars, we’ve no problem getting to the Vietnamese grocer on Fridays when he has fresh, whole kingfish. Or swinging into a Publix parking lot because it’s an easy right-hand turn and we just remembered their 2-for-1 special on canned garbanzo beans.
• We live an easy drive from an open-air produce market where we can buy more than a week’s worth of produce for approximately $11.00.
So how was our week? Were we preoccupied with food? Absolutely, but then, because of our professions, we usually are. However we were not hungry between meals, and very satisfied as we made and consumed them. Certainly, we needed to be attentive to what we planned to eat and to whether or not we’d need to draw down our allotment. We cooked and sat down to eat two nourishing and delicious meals every day. We didn’t feel the need to snack, except for a few handfuls of sunflower seeds.
We suffered no symptoms of fatigue or cabernet sauvignon withdrawal. Of course, wine isn’t eligible for the food stamp budget anyway, but it does soothe hunger. And although we often have wine with dinner, to play fair, we didn’t consume any during the challenge. To sum up, we did well, extremely well, and ate pretty much as we usually do.
A nutritionist we know checked in during the week to tell us that she absolutely loved our food journal and intended to direct her entire mailing list to our blog. If she were more doctrinaire, she could have scolded us for not eating a “balanced” breakfast. But, if our mothers couldn’t do it when we were teenagers, we’re even less likely to start eating oatmeal or scrambled eggs now. We do eat those things—just not at the hour most folks do.
In a typical week, we might have one or possibly two meals with meat as the focus. The key word here is might. Certainly the Sicilian member of this partnership feels that there is no such thing as too much pasta. And our culinary repertoire includes scores of dishes that pay our respects to the Holy Trinity of vegetarians everywhere—beans, greens and starch—be that rice, barley, bulgur, potatoes or pasta. We’ve gone days without more meat than an ounce of pancetta in some pasta alla carbonara. But when we do make meat the main event, it’s almost never a New York strip or loin lamb chops.
We are big fans of lesser cuts over American favorites like rib-eye steaks and loin lamb chops. Our choices are not out of economic necessity nor because we have our grandmothers’ recipes for things like tripe, but because many inexpensive cuts of meat are, simply, the most flavorful.
Short ribs and oxtail have been discovered by the foodie community, and their prices have risen. But beef cheeks are still a bargain. How weird can they be if Mario Batali is getting $23.00 per portion? As omnivores, we shop low and eat high. Nothing is off-limits, neither offal, nor meatless meals.
One thing we felt we couldn’t do during the challenge was take full advantage of supermarket sales. This might be have been the hardest thing we faced all week: beef chuck shoulder steak was only $1.49 per pound at our local Sweetbay during the challenge. Ordinarily, at that price, we would have bought one steak for immediate use and a second to freeze. But as we thought we should keep some funds on reserve, we bought only one.
Could we sustain the Food Stamp Challenge? Of course we could, but we’ve already confessed our own ‘unfair’ advantages. Eventually, we’d need to replace items depleted from our pantry. Even a small bottle of good olive oil could wreak havoc with a budget as austere as this. But if we were to really feel the pinch, we could eat more meatless meals, and it would be no hardship to eat more pasta. And since it is midsummer, we’ve barely dipped into the repertoire of hearty pulse and grain combinations that occupy our thoughts and table during cool weather. So was this week even a “challenge” for us? Not really.
Does this mean we think the U.S. Government’s food stamp program is adequate? No way—but our reasons for claiming the deficiency have less to do with money than with education and eligibility. We’ll expand our ideas on this topic in a post within the next few days.
Our thanks again to Derrick at Obsession With Food for mentioning us on his blog. We’d like to see more food bloggers take up the Food Stamp Challenge. We’d love to have the insights and recipes that come out of other bloggers’ kitchens during a week of living on the food stamp budget. Please let us know if you join the experiment. We’ll put a link to you on our blog.
Links to the other posts in our series:
Living on $42.00 Per Week—the Challenge
Living on $42.00 Per Week—Day 1
Living on $42.00 Per Week—Day 2
Living on $42.00 Per Week—Day 3
Living on $42.00 Per Week—Day 4
Living on $42.00 Per Week—Day 5
Living on $42.00 Per Week—Day 6
Living on $42.00 Per Week—Day 7
Living on $42.00 Per Week—Redux