Monday, October 31, 2011

Challenge Day 4 Report - Cooking

I mentioned yesterday that I would talk more about how to figure out what to cook and eat.

We didn't always eat like we do now. I used to cook in restaurants, I have always liked to cook, but it was a process to get to this point. I cook like this even when we have more money - I just buy more seafood, better meat, produce from local growers. I am frugal by nature and enjoy "the hunt" for food bargains and new recipes. You do not need to be on food stamps to cook better food for less money.

When my DD18 was younger, one of her favorite meals was chicken breasts cooked in canned Campbell's Cream of Chicken soup, over rice. As we started cooking as a family, she later learned to make better sauces from scratch, and is famous for her sage-flavored chicken gravy. We ate more processed food, more take-out, baked more sweets. I didn't know how to cook cabbage, and didn't think I liked onions or potatoes very much. We ate a lot more beef and chicken breast, fewer veggies. Comfort food from my childhood was Kraft Macaroni & Cheese or Chef Boy-Ar-Dee canned ravioli.

When SO went back to college, and then grad school, it became my job to figure out how we could live on less money. I switched from flower gardening to vegetable gardening. I started cooking from scratch more, learning to grow some, learning to can, exploring new places to shop. I started reading about building a pantry, trying to eat more whole food, and looking for more local food. I joined the "prepper" movement. When we had to move in with my ailing mother, it become even more important.

When you need to cook frugally, you (and a lot of nutrition experts) wish that you could plan a cheap, nutritious, easy-to-prepare meal and have the whole family eat it. I laugh! At one point, I had a child with an OCD eating disorder, a teen that suddenly became vegetarian, a meat-and-potato man that wanted to eat later than everyone else, a dementia patient who forgot what she like to eat. And me - I have my own strong food likes and dislikes, too. That's what families are like.

If you are not already an experienced frugal cook, there is a process to becoming one.

Think about your needs. Who do you need to feed, when, and what are their special needs? What foods will everyone eat? What favorite foods does each person need in order to feel OK? We all drink tea, for instance. What foods and beverages do you eat now that you will not able to afford on food stamps? What can you substitute? We stopped buying tea in dairy jugs and brewed our own. If you have family members with serious fast food habits, or who are picky about brand names - they will need to make some changes. Try asking them to cut down to one fast food visit per week. See if the brand-eater will help you evaluate different store brand foods.

Keep a shopping and cooking diary for a week or two. Look for clues. What do you already eat that is cheap, filling, and at least somewhat healthy. Build on it. What consumes the most money? Work on replacing those things. If you eat a lot of snack food, find less expensive sources, learn to make some of your own, find new things that cost less. If you buy a lot of bottled beverages, start carrying a reusable water bottle. We only beverage we regularly buy in bottles is milk. If you are fond of name brands, shop the private-label discount stores and try their brands - they are often made by the brand-name manufacturers. If you normally prepare packaged food, choice a favorite and learn to make it from scratch. You never need to buy Hamburger Helper once you figure out a few things.

Assess your cooking skills. You need to get some basic scratch cooking skills to make this work. There is plenty of help online. Plenty of basic cookbooks at book sales and in libraries. Try Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Or find a friend to show you some basic techniques. Anyone can make oatmeal, fry potatoes, bake chicken. Involve all the family members. Maybe it becomes one person's job to bake, someone else makes soup on a regular basis. SO makes big batches of pasta sauce, and I can it. He also makes good meatloaf and brownies. DD15 is a competent baker and pizza maker. DD18 makes great curries, roast vegetable pasta dishes, pan gravy.

Gather resources. Start bookmarking websites with a focus on frugal cooking. Figure out how to get all the local grocery store ads online. Start a family recipe collection. I use the recipe website, where I have over 800 recipes, and I have more than a 1000 more bookmarks saved to review and add. Collect your cookbooks onto a shelf.

I have a binder in my kitchen, where I have printed out my most frequently used recipes and put them in plastic sheet protectors. If my power goes out, if I can't pay my internet bill - I can still get to my recipes. This is a great family project. Collect recipes from your parents and grandparents. Encourage your kids to find recipes on TV, in magazines - have them learn to politely ask for a recipe if they eat something they like at a friend's house.

Experiment with various food trends. You don't have to feel like Food Stamps control your eating all the time. You can learn to make bread or pizza dough because it's relaxing. Or feel good about mastering a new cooking technique from Food Network. Or enjoy the "hunt" for the best deals when you go shopping. If you add something new, especially as a family activity, there is less focus on what you can no longer afford to eat. Try Fondue Night. Try Family Cooking night where each person makes part of the meal. Bake you own Cheez-its. Learn to make jam.

I also can jam, pickles, chutney, and no-extra-sugar fruit sauces in the summer, to use on yogurt, oatmeal, and ice cream. I grow basil and make pesto to freeze into cubes, grow mint for tea. I grow and dry herbs: thyme, sage, rosemary. But that stuff is not required to make it on food stamps. Not everyone gardens or cans stuff. I just like it.

You need to start identifying go-to meals that you can afford, cook easily, and that most people will eat all or some of the food. Some of our go-to meals:

hot cereal with fruit and yogurt
eggs, fried potatoes, toast, piece of fruit omelets with ham chunks, thyme, and cheese
homemade waffles, pancakes, or french toast bread pudding from day-old bread
cereal and milk with a banana a bagel with cream cheese and a piece of fruit
a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread
on weekends we make bacon or sausage, if we have it
dinner leftovers
homemade soup grilled cheese
sandwiches out of leftover meat homemade pizza canned chicken noodle soup for DD15 PB and homemade jam on raisin bread toast for Grandma DD15 makes pizza from dough we buy, homemade sauce
Dinner - the meal your family is most likely to eat together.

Master the protein, veggie, starch combo with go-to recipes
protein - eggs, roast chicken/turkey, pulled pork, seared shrimp, sausage, pork chops
veggies - steamed broccoli, sauteed cabbage/onions, cauliflower, brussels
starch - mashed or fried potatoes, sauced pasta, beans, stuffing, potato
chicken, shrimp, or pork on a bed of ceasar salad with potato or pasta side
Pasta hash of leftover meat, red sauce, vegetables, pesto, cheese
Asian thing with leftover meat, vegetables, rice and favorite Asian sauces
Texmex with refried beans, meat, cheese, toppings in burritos or over tortilla chips Country pork ribs in crockpot with spicy BBQ bean sauce over mashed
curried meat and veg over rice
Spanish potato tortilla
Quesadillas, Burritos, Enchiladas - you can put anything in there
pasta with sauce and sausage or chicken
potato soup with kielbasi
pasta bake full of chicken bits, spinach or broccoli, pesto Alfredo sauce
meat with tortellini and pesto sauce
summer melon and sweet corn with anything grilled
chili, sometimes over fried potatoes or rice, with corn bread
SO's meatloaf with baked mac-n-cheese
I often make batches of staple foods we can have on hand and combine in a lot of ways. If I make rice or pasta, I cook extra and out it in the fridge for another meal. I make my own hummus, pizza sauce, pasta sauce, alfredo sauce, chicken or pork stock, taco seasoning mix, baking mix, house seasoning. In the crockpot, I make refried beans, bean soup, pea soup, pulled pork, whole chickens.

I often look for a good deal on a large piece of meat: a whole chicken or turkey, bulk chicken thighs, a pork roast, a ham. Then I cook it, and we eat part for the first meal. I turn the rest into smaller bits and make 2-3 more meals from it. Combine it with veggies, some sort of starch (rice, pasta, beans, potatoes, grits) and some kind of sauce (asian, italian, texmex, etc). Or put it in pan sauce and ladle it over mashed taters. Add salad if there is not enough green in it. Divide a whole cantalope between four of us, if it is in season. The leftover meat can also become sandwiches, quesadillas, or burrito filling.

After I am done with the busy blogging of the Food Challenge I will assemble a list of links to my go-to recipes.


Sunday was another day where people ate separately. I woke up late, made a pan of gingerbread to take to lunch at a friend's house, and spent most of the afternoon grocery shopping. My mother had her usual late morning oatmeal, and then my brother took her to his house until after dinner. DD15 ate cereal and went to work. SO was the only one home all day, and he made his own breakfast and lunch.

I will try to find time to talk about the grocery shopping, and some of the shopping decisions I made. But it's hard to find time to blog your cooking and eating in such detail!

I made us dinner. It only took about 15 minutes, and would not have taken much more time to make it for more people. Took apart one of those leftover chicken legs and heated the pulled meat in a pan with a bit of onion gravy, some taco seasoning, a little salsa. I made quesadillas (photo at the top) by putting fajita-size flour tortillas in a dry pan, sprinkling with grated cheddar, putting some of that saucy meat on one side, and heating until the cheese melts - then you fold over the tortilla. Each one takes only a few minutes, and there is soon a little pile of them. I served them with sour cream. Made a Caesar salad. Refrigerated Caesar dressing is one of the things I splurge on. I get Marie's or Marzetti on sale, or Walmart's version. I buy croutons at the liquidator for .50-.75 a bag. I usually add a little extra Parmesan and cracked black pepper. Makes a great bed for grilled meat or shrimp, or an appetizer/side.

I used the last of the taco seasoning, so I mixed up a new batch. I used this recipe, x4, to make two jars that will last a few months. I also frequently mix house seasoning: 4 parts kosher salt, one part ground black pepper, one part granulated garlic. I sprinkle that on potatoes and veggies when I saute, on meat before I roast or bake. I also regularly mix sugar and cinnamon to sprinkle on hot cereal and toast.

SO $2.50 = cream of wheat (.22), fried rice with egg (.08), greek yogurt (.75), chicken quesadillas with sour cream (.80), ceasar salad (.55)

DD15 $3.97 = cereal and milk (.33), fast food at work (3.14), pretzels (.50)

Grandma $0.62 = oatmeal (.06) with raisins (.07) and banana (.20), yogurt with honey (.17), tea x3 (.12)

Me $1.20 = hot cocoa (.25), pan of gingerbread (.30), quesadilla (.20), frozen yogurt cup (.45)

Total for the Day: $6.29

Notice, half of that was DD15's fast food. And two of us had meals that other people cooked. You aren't supposed to do that during challenge week, but it's artificial. Everyone sees other people, and entertains other people.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Challenge Day 3 Report - Shopping

Today's post is something of a how-to for food stamp living. But there is a little ranting in here, too, just to warn you.

Food stamps are technically called SNAP benefits - Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. It is intended to supplement your food budget. Applicants are expected to use other sources of income to buy some food and any non-food supplies. When you apply, they look at your income and take into account certain costs of living - allowances for housing and utilities, insurance, transportation to work, medical expenses. The rest you are supposed to spend on food, first.

But many people rely on food stamps alone, because they have commitments and expenses that the Dept. of Welfare does not take into account. Or they miss work for illness and don't get paid. Or have some small crisis that becomes an emergency. Or they are feeding someone that isn't considered part of the household, but needs feeding.

Eating exclusively on food stamps takes practice and lifestyle changes. You have to go against the flow of a lot of cultural messages. It can be hard on children and teens, who are surrounded by peers that want to do things food stamps do not cover. You can't go out for pizza, or get snacks at school, or get ice cream with everyone else after soccer. You may argue that kids should not be eating trashy food like that to start with. That may be true, but our culture, and all of our mainstream media tell them it's wonderful and normal. Watch TV for an evening and count the food ads. None of that can be eaten on food stamps.

To be really successful with food stamp eating, you might want to work on these things, as you are able:

Think about how you cook and eat - We have done this, and continue to tweak as needed. I will talk more about how to do that later in the Challenge Week. Today I want to focus on shopping.

Investigate all of the food sources that take food stamps - Generally, farmer's markets and farmers do not take food stamps. But investigate your market stands. The larger the city you live in, the more likely they are to do so. More vendors are staring to realize the families with food stamps each have hundreds of dollars of real money to spend every month. Look at specialty stores, warehouse clubs, grocery liquidators. Trendy markets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's do take food stamps, but be careful to compare prices and focus on loss-leaders. Visit neighborhoods poorer than yours. Visit rural supermarkets. I found a pick-your-own orchard that takes food stamps. You will want to develop a circuit of stores that you visit every few weeks or months.

People on food stamps have to take into consideration the cost of transportation. If you don't have a car, you have limits. It's tough to shop by bus. Cabs cost cash. Rides with friends mean you are likely to shop where they shop, when they shop. When I did not have a car for 6 months, I regularly shopped at Aldi and Redner's with a wagon - both are less than a mile away. Friends kindly took me on larger shopping trips. I am happy to have a car again, but gas is expensive - I still shop very carefully, in as few trips as possible, and I am happy to shop with others.

Make an eating plan and a written shopping list. Don't shop hungry, or in a rush. Don't take children if they whine for unaffordable treats. Be prepared with lists, coupons, reusable bags, etc. Read coupons carefully. Know what is already in your cupboard, so you can take advantage of managers special's and other unexpected opportunities. You can afford a few indulgences, but avoid the temptation to buy too much at the beginning of the month - reserve some for the end as a buffer and to be able to snap up super-bargains you might find later. It's a shopping adventure!

Comparison shop to develop a "price to beat" list. Develop, over time, a list of the best regular price for the staples you buy all the time. Never buy them for less than that price, and buy extra if you find a better deal. I never pay more than $3/pound for cheese, $1.38 for a quart of yogurt, $2 for premium bread, etc. I know to buy my whole grain cream of wheat and bulk popcorn at Walmart, my pine nuts at Trader Joe, my boxed cereal at BRL liquidator. I have a list of the best place to buy about 200 items. If I see a 42-oz box of rolled oats for less than 1.49, I buy them all.

I shop regularly at 8 stores: Bottom Dollar, Aldi, Giant, Redner's, Walmart, BB's Liquidator, BRL Liquidator, and Trader Joe's. I know what to buy in each, from a list. Bottom Dollar has better prices on veggies, dairy, cheap meat, and a very good weekly loss leader, so I go there weekly. Redner's and Aldi are close to my house and good for bread, milk, eggs, produce specials. I visit the liquidators once a month. Walmart and Trader Joe every few months for specific items. I know where there is a produce outlet that takes food stamps, and a produce auction (which does not), if I want to do large-volume canning.

Giant used to be my regular grocery store. I might only go once every 3 months now - for their store brand decaf tea bags. I also like the bulk food aisle. I can buy just a few pieces of chocolate - 40 cents of chocolate-covered pretzels, 60 cents of licorice all-sorts, a half-pound of sesame snack sticks. Those are affordable indulgences.

Buy staples in bulk, on sale, each from the best sources. This is a key practice. Build a pantry over time. Have more than one back-up of an item. When you use the next-to-last, put it on your shopping list. You never want to "have to" buy something that is not on sale. Inventory management, in your own home. A deep pantry buffers you from the ups and downs of living in poverty. You can make it through little spells of pennilessness, or afford fancier holiday food, or to cook for a birthday party.

Where does the pantry money come from? It comes from the days you do not eat the whole allowance. I spent $8.61, not $16.50 yesterday - that $7.89 is pantry-building money. Each week, you stock up on one, two, or three items - whatever is on sale-of-the-year, in season. Examples:

  • Bottom Dollar had a grand opening price on canned tuna - 25 cents a can! But, you could only buy 8 at a time. I stopped there every for 5 days, with both kids, and we each bought 8 cans - $30 for 120 cans of tuna. We have enough tuna for almost three years. That kind of deal fits into a monthly shopping plan.

  • The grocery liquidators are fabulous for pantry-building. I got 10 boxes of Betty Crocker Gingerbread mix for .25 each when they were clearing them out. I can't buy bulk ingredientss cheaper. Boxes of name-brand cereal for $1.50. Canned pumpkin, beans, organic tomatoes, exotic sauces and condiments. I never pay full price for mayo, mustard, salad dressing. I am going there this coming Wednesday, so I can give you more examples.

  • Bottom Dollar periodically mails out coupons worth $10 on a $20 purchase - that's half price. I will go buy $20 worth of canola oil, or oatmeal, or raisins - half price.

  • Weis market has a Grand Re-Opening sale on 5-pound bags of sugar and flour for 99 cents. I am all over that. Holiday baking approaches.
Be able to cook and store that food safely. Food waste is your enemy! You have to be able to safely store and rotate your pantry inventory. Use the oldest stuff before it spoils. Keep bugs, mice, pets, and children out of it. I have a chest freezer, sturdy pantry shelves in the basement, plastic tubs and sealable buckets, a ton of glass jars.

If you are new to scratch cooking, you may need to reorganize your kitchen, or acquire new cooking skills. there are PLENTY of resources for that on the internet. I will round up some links in a later post. I have streamlined my kitchen storage system. We use standardized quart and pint containers from the restaurant supply store, and glass canning jars. Almost no tupperware - who wants to match up all those lids? There are only 4 lids sizes/shapes in our kitchen, ever.

And here is the final thing you need: thick skin. When you shop, you will be insulted on a regular basis. No matter why you get food stamps - no matter how many sick and handicapped people you care for, or foster children you raise, or how long you have been desperately looking for a job - when you hand over an EBT card, people feel entitled to examine your food, your clothing, your car, the behavior of your kids. They will look over the food on the conveyor belt and make comments out loud. Over and over, you will hear someone say, "Get a job," and not always under their breath. Despite the fact that 40% of food stamp households have at least one employed adult.

Resist the urge to lecture those folks in the grocery store, or to defend yourself by justifying why you are on food stamps. Especially in front of your children. Do discuss it with them later in the car, so they do not internalize the things they hear. The other people are NOT your problem - feeding your family is your problem. You can't start dreading the shopping, or end up with high blood pressure. Let it roll off your back. You are doing what you need to do to feed your kids. And doing it well!

What will you hear?

Do you look too put-together? You must be committing welfare fraud. Do you look a hot mess? Evidence that you are too lazy and stupid to hold a job. Did you buy junk food? You are wasting their tax dollar. Did you buy organic food? You should only be allowed to buy cheap junk food. Are you fat? You should not be buying cheap junk food. Are you thin? Must be the drugs you abuse. Do you have any children with you? You should not have had them, if you can't feed them now. Are you white? Then you should not need welfare. Are you any other color? No wonder you get welfare. Do you have an accent? You are an illegal alien stealing food from the mouths of decent Americans. There is a sense that you should not be able to afford a home, car, teeth, or shoes in order to "deserve" food.

God help you if you smoke! I quit years ago, but I have seldom discussed food stamps without someone telling me they are certain they saw someone buy cigarettes with food stamps. What they see is someone pay the food part of their order with an EBT card, and then use some other form of payment for non-food items. You simply cannot use food stamps for cigarettes, alcohol, or even toilet paper and tampons - it is a common mistaken belief that you can. Apparently, many people feel that when you lose your job/house/health/spouse, you should immediately have quit smoking, at that most-stressful moment of your life. If you smoke, many people believe your children do not deserve to eat. Seriously.

I feel bad for some of those angry, frightened, self-righteous folks. In this economy, some of them have lost or will lose their retirement funds, health, marriages, houses, or jobs. They may be on the other end of the grocery conveyor belt at some point, and feel far more shame than necessary.

I was commenting on a friend's surprised observation about the level of hate that people display toward the unemployed in the "99% " news coverage. I believe some of it might just be fear. They see someone who used to have a job just like theirs, and now they live in a car. They could be next, and they just push that away, angrily. "No! That other person must have been lazy or something, and I am not! It will not happen to me!" It is unimaginable that life isn't "fair" to someone that works hard. We were all raised on platitudes about working hard to earn a good life."

OK - enough of the negative. But if you end up needing to use food stamps at some point in your life, I thought you should be forewarned.

Today's food will look very odd. On Saturdays, everyone gets up at different times, goes different places, and often fends for themselves foodwise (except Grandma). We were out doing a lot of errands in a slushy snowstorm, and DD15 went to work. We were sucked in by McDonald's, and then seemed immobilized by the weird too-early layer of snow snapping off tree limbs all over the region.

SO: $9.66 = eggs with cheese (.40) and toast (.30), McRib (2.99), McHotCocoa (2.65), seafood salad (3.00), one pancake (.12) pack of PB crackers (.20)

DD15: $2.96 = bowl of cereal with milk (.32), meal at work (2.64 employee discount)
Grandma: $1.54 = oatmeal (.06) with raisins (.07) and banana (.20), yogurt with honey (.17), tea x3 (.12), stack of pancakes with syrup (.37), bagel (.37) with butter (.18)

Me: $4.36 = banana (.20) w/PB (.15), hot cocoa (.25), McFishFilet (2.79), flaxseed crackers (.07) with cream cheese (.15) and homemade chutney (.10), leftover mac-n-cheese with hot sauce, PB crackers (.25), can of peaches I dropped and dented (.40)

How did Grandma get pancakes? I keep a jar of homemade whole wheat baking mix than can be turned into waffles, pancakes, or muffins. Recipe here.

Total for Day 3: $19.52

Uh oh! We are over-budget. The less spendy days will even it out, but it eats into the pantry surplus I was talking about. That $8-something would buy a LOT of pantry. It's hard not to succumb to the childhood taste of McDonald's. Hard not to sometimes have such a sense of deprivation and exhaustion that you say "f**k it!" and waste money on over-priced junk.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Challenge Day 2 Report - Protein

I have a chest freezer in the basement, so the over-the-fridge one has only things I use regularly, or things I plan to use soon. Upper left has containers of frozen stock, bags of pesto and mint cubes. The basket corrals opened bag of veggies and such. Bottom shelf has a bag of chicken legs, a whole roaster, an an ice bin. On the door is a can for bacon fat, bags to store bones for stock-making.
We had our first cold snap Thursday night and it was very chilly in the morning when I drove SO to the station. I needed some hot cocoa when got back. And a banana. Then I went back to sleep for another hour or so. I am not ready for the cold, so I am comfort-seeking.

Breakfast : $1.80
SO: Banana (.20)
DD15: Nothing
My Pre-Breakfast: hot cocoa (.25), banana (.20)
Me: Whole grain cream of wheat (.30) cooked in skim milk (.45), with mashed banana (.40) and sprinkle of cinnamon

Lunch: $.89
SO - on his own
DD15 - school lunch
Grandma: oatmeal (.06) with raisins (.07) and fresh pear (.45), yogurt with honey (.17), tea (.04)
Me: pasta Florentine casserole ("free" leftovers), tea (.10)

I didn't charge for the leftovers, because the cost would have been attributed to last week's cooking. It was a skillet casserole of ground beef and onion, with pasta sauce and elbow macaroni, punched up with spinach, garlic, pesto, a handful of mozzarella. If will cost out the price of a whole recipe, not per-portion. So, if I generate leftovers this week (like the quart of rice from Wed night), they will be "free" to use in the food stamp budget later.

Afternoon Snacks: $1.12
Me: PB crackers (.20) and more hot chocolate (.20)
Grandma: baked sweet potato with butter and cinnamon-sugar sprinkle (.40)
DD15: Bowl of cereal (.32)

Mom slept late today, and didn't come downstairs until after noontime. I listed her breakfast in the lunch slot. She will get only two meals today, so I gave her a solid afternoon snack. I roasted a huge sweet potato that I grew this summer. I think it cost more to put the butter on it than it did to grow it. It would have been .79-.99/lb in the store. I watch for them to go on sale for Thanksgiving and buy a lot at .49/lb, to last for a few months in a cool part of the cellar.

To prepare for dinner, I put that bag of frozen chicken legs into a sink full of water to thaw. That 10-pound bag cost $3.90 at Bottom Dollar - .39 per pound! This is probably a good place to talk about protein.

That's 10 lbs of chicken legs for $3.90. How can I say 'no' to at least 4 meals worth of meal for less than 4 dollars? I will roast the legs, pick the meat from the bones, and scrape up the pan drippings for sauce-making, save the skin and bones for stock. But I know this is the lowest quality chicken. The legs have appearance issues that do not affect the eating - they are damaged. And they came from the biggest processor, supplied by terrible factory farms owned by families that are virtually enslaved by the processors. "Gold Leaf" is Tyson's private label brand and these are Tyson's "seconds".

People on food stamps buy cheap meat. Certainly, you can be a vegetarian on food stamps, but most people are not. And, you could carefully pare down the cost of other foods to support the purchase of organic meat. But it will be very expensive "high volume commercial" organic meat at a grocery store, and many people argue that is just another form of factory meat.

You can almost never get locally-pastured meat with food stamps. It is rare to find a small farm or butcher that can accept food stamps. Most farmer's markets do not, either. Where I live, there is one country butcher, one farmer's market butcher, and one farmer's market poultry stand that take food stamps. All have only conventionally-raised meat, but I can at least comfort myself that the money stays in our local economy. You could use your food stamps to buy all your other food, and use cash to buy pastured meat, but not if you depend exclusively on food stamps to eat.

That country butcher that takes food stamps also stares at you when you produce an EBT card. They probably don't mean to, but it's a small store, in a small agricultural community - I am an outsider "on welfare"buying $50 worth of meat. I know that some of them are resentfully thinking, "Look at her spending my tax money." I get their email newsletter with the week's sale items. They make their own lard, which I like for baking, so I go there every few months. Great source for a big ham bone to make split pea soup.

I buy cheap meat and do a lot of braising. Most of it comes from "soft-discount" or private-label grocery chains. We eat a lot of chicken, pork, sausage, ground turkey, a little beef. I get meat at Bottom Dollar, a discount US grocery chain owned by a Belgian company that also owns FoodLion. Aldi is a discount chain owned by a German company. Price-Rite is at least owned by Wakefern, a US company. But none of those food dollars go back into my local foodshed, except as wages to store clerks.

I do buy bags of local organic chicken backs and necks from a butcher for cash, to make good chicken stock. They cost $2 for a 5-pound ziplock, and that produces about 8 quarts of excellent stock for the freezer. The best meaty pork neckbones for pork stock have been coming from Bottom Dollar - I think they are Smithfield seconds, and Smithfield is the Evil Empire of pork. I try not to think about it.

There are other sources of protein, of course. We eat a lot of eggs (try not to pay more than .99/doz), cheese (no more than $3/lb), and dairy. The price of milk is controlled by the state of Pennsylvania, in every store, so no comparison shopping. I do keep nonfat dry milk in the pantry for baking and emergencies. We occasionally buy raw milk (with cash - no direct dairy takes food stamps). I love raw whole milk for making yogurt and hot cereal. But when money is very tight, we buy skim milk and commercial yogurt. Plain nonfat yogurt is $1.38 a quart at Bottom Dollar. I can't make it cheaper, and we go through at least two quarts a week.

We also eat canned tuna and whole grains. Occasional frozen shrimp on sale, occasional frozen fish filets. That seafood comes from the fish factories that supply discount grocers. Good salmon (not excellent, just good) can cost a whole day's food stamps for a single pound.

Beans and peas are protein. I love beans. Bean soup, baked beans, bean casserole, chili with beans, refried beans, beans and rice, hummus, dal. But my mother has become irrationally afraid to eat beans. And we try to avoid weeknight foods that might put my SO in a business meeting the next day with "digestive disturbance." I make batches and freeze portions.

One of the traps of food stamp living is that you become almost completely focused on price. It's not the quality, or the ethical considerations - it's all about making it through the month.

Above is a 3/4-poun piece of genuine Government Cheese. My mother is signed up for a food supplement program for senior citizens, through the local food bank system. One a month I pick up bags of commodity food. Dried or canned milk, canned meat, canned vegetables and fruit, juice, whole grain cereal, and a 3-lb block of Land O' Lakes 2% American Cheese Product. Way to much like Velveeta for my taste, but it makes good macaroni and cheese. I use a recipe (cut in half) from Ina Garten, substituting whatever cheese I have on hand. In case, I grated the weird Government Cheese, threw in a handful of grated Parmesan and end of bag of grated cheddar. For the milk, I reconstituted enough nonfat dry milk to make 2 cups.

Costing the mac-n-cheese was awkward. The Mac was leftover, the cheese and milk were free. Only the butter cost "counted."

Grandma wouldn't eat the chicken, as sometimes happens, so I gave her a bottle of Boost. And what's with the DONUT HOLES?? I ran a bunch of errands, and they had Dunkin' Donut Munchkins in the gas station where I paid for gas. I spent a dollar on 4 chocolate glazed. I know, I could feed 4 people lunch with that dollar. But they accept EBT cards, so if I had food stamps, I could well have succumbed to the temptation to use it there. Lots of places that carry only soda and snack food accept EBT cards. To be fair, I could also have purchased a nutritious bottle of organic fruit and vegetable smoothie -a nd I love that stuff. But it's more than $4.

That's a food stamp-driven choice. I may want that smoothie, but no way does it fit in the budget. I don't want to waste $4 on just one person. But I had a busy day and I want that treat. So it's donut holes.

Dinner: $4:30
All 4 of us ate: Roast Chicken (3.90), baked mac-n-cheese (.40)
Grandma: Boost supplement (.25)
Me: 4 donut holes (.99)

Total for the Day: $8.12
Now we are talking cheap-ass food!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Challenge Report for Day 1

Grandma's breakfast was the most expensive, at $1.35.

Yesterday went well, but it took a lot of time to figure out the cost of things I bought in bulk. Calculating meal costs will go faster as the days go by and I get to know the portion costs for more things.

Breakfast: $2.71
SO: Banana (.20)
DD15: Nothing
Grandma: Eggs, fried potatoes, toasted roll, applesauce, tea (1.35)
Me and a guest: oatmeal (.95) and tea (.21)
I drive my SO to the bus station downtown each morning at 5:30. About 2-3 days a week, I also pack him a lunch and make breakfast to-go. This morning, there was only time to grab a banana. We go through 4-6 bananas every day. Happily, they are cheap.

I get back by 6am to supervise DD15 getting ready to go to school. Sometimes she eats something, but often not. I would have at least made her toast, but she needed me to print out the homework she left to the last minute. She gets on the bus at 6:50.

Hmm, I can see that this Challenge is going to reveal all of my little failures as a parent. Two people left without food, so far.

A friend came for breakfast at 7:30, so I had a chance to redeem myself. I made us oatmeal. Hot cereal with seasonal fruit is a staple here, and I keep jars of oatmeal, raisins, whole grain cream of wheat. One serving of oatmeal, all dressed up, still costs less than 50 cents.
Oatmeal - 1 cup dry (2 servings) (.12)
raisins 1/4 cup (.14)
salt, sprinkle of cinnamon sugar
1/2 cup homemade chunky applesauce (.25)
1 cup plain nonfat yogurt (.34)
drizzle of honey (.10)
My mother showers and dresses very slowly, so she did not appear until almost 10am. She usually has oatmeal, but today she asked for eggs and potatoes. It is unusual for her to be able tell me what she wants to eat these days, so I usually try to give her what she wants if she does ask. She does not have diabetes or heart disease, so her dietary limits are only the ones imposed by her dementia - she forgets what she likes to eat, asks for the same things, and fears eating too much. I give her a protein supplement like Boost or Ensure, with increasing frequency. I get them at the grocery liquidator for .25-.50 instead of several dollars at the store.

I am working through a 20-lb sack of Kennebeck potatoes I got from a farmer in Lancaster county for $7 (.35/lb), when I had to drive in that direction for a dentist. I also have 3lb bags of onions I got for .99 each. I buy day-old bread and rolls from the local grocery to make crusty toast. I buy eggs for .88-.99/dozen at Bottom Dollar or Aldi. Potatoes, onions, and eggs are big staples for us, and can appear at breakfast, lunch or dinner in various forms.
a half-pound potato (.18)
bit of caramelized onion from the fridge (.02)
house seasoning (salt, peppper, granulated garlic)
tbl canola oil (.01)
2 eggs (.15)
tbl butter (.18)
day-old roll (.25)
2 tbl homemade white peach and lime jam (.25)
2 tbl ketchup (.02)
1/2 cup warm homemade applesauce (.25)
decaf tea (.04)
A word about tea. All of us are decaffeinated. We favor Giant-brand decaf tea, which costs $2.99 for 72 bags - I buy 10 boxes if it is on sale. So, that's about 4 cents a cup. I also like fancier herbal teas, which average 2.19 on sale for 20 bags - but I also get those deeply discounted at the liquidators. And, I brew pitchers of iced tea with family-size bags that cost about $2.50 for 24 - about 10 cents per pitcher.

Lunch: $2.30
SO: On his own - brewed him a pitcher of tea for later (.10)
DD15: School lunch
Grandma: PB crackers (.19), tea (.04), raisin bagel (.37) butter (.18) banana (.20)
Me: tuna (.49), Miracle Whip (.03), 12 Triscuits (.40) banana (.20) tea (.10)
My mother and I eat at different times, because she comes down late and naps off and on in front of the TV all day. I get things done when she is asleep. The stove has the knobs taken off, so she will be puzzled about how to turn it on if she wakes up and comes into the kitchen when I am elsewhere in the house. She is no longer safe with hot or sharp things.

Time to start thinking about dinner. Let's look in the fridge! I am always patrolling the fridge to make sure we use leftover bits of food. Food waste is your enemy. You want to use every bit. You keep an eye on what is going to get old soon, and use it.

On the door of the fridge are eggs, butter, milk. More important are the condiments. I don't quite know how I will cost out the use of these, but I will give it a shot as I go along. The "rules" of the Challenge say you don't have to count spice and condiments. But, gee, people on actual food stamps do!

The bottom of the fridge has a chunk of cabbage, a few Brussels sprouts, some carrots and celery. The drawer on the right isn't "mine" - I am storing condiments for someone that is moving. The meat drawer has a bag of shredded cheddar, a few links of chiorizo, and some sliced Swiss. The messy-looking shelf has a bag of pizza dough, a bag of pulled pork from last week's roast, some cooked hot Italian sausage, and the pickle jars. There is normally more produce in there, but I didn't get to the store yet.

The top left shelf is homemade jelly, chutney, pesto, a jar of cooking wine, containers of things like yeast and wheat germ. Below it is the "use me now" shelf with a container of cooked macaroni, homemade pizza sauce, jars of stock and sauces. On the top right are several large chunks of cheese, some soy milk, mayo, yogurt, and leftover pasta Florentine. Below it is a chunk of Government Cheese, a container of roasted squash, and some sour cream.

Need to keep using that pork or freeze it. I got a great deal on a 9-lb boston butt, and it was almost all meat, with little bone or fat. I think I got 7 lbs of cooked meat for $10.21. We have gotten at least 4 meals and have a lot left. The hot sausage, I sliced and froze for future pizza.

So, I think Pork Fried Rice for dinner. I made a 6-cup batch of Basmati cooked in chicken stock. The leftover rice will be used later in the week. Cooking a big batch for now-n-later is a time-saver when you do a lot of scratch cooking.

Dinner: $6.67
SO, Grandma, Me: Pork Fried Rice (3.75)
DD15: Coke Slushie, bag of popcorn, bag of Cheetos (2.92)

Whaaa? Did you just read that DD15 had popcorn and a Slushie for dinner?? Yes, with her own money. But I am counting the cost for the Challenge. She came home from school and said she had eaten enough lunch. Food is not a battle I fight with her, most days. I buy her ingredients, she makes food, or not. She has a weekend job at a fast food restaurant, and decides how to spend her earnings.

I stopped at Aldi when I picked up SO from the bus station at 6:30. (Yes, he had a 13 hour day. Most days.) I spent $8.92 on broccoli, yogurt, black pepper, hot cocoa mix, bananas, and eggs. I will include their cost as I use them.

This is how the Pork Fried Rice broke down:
2 cups basmati (.80)
4 cups chicken stock (leftover from other cooking)
1 lb cooked pork (1.35)
1/2 lb cabbage (.30)
6 brussels sprouts (.45)
med. onion (.15)
2 eggs (.15)
assorted seasonings and condiments.
Total for the Day: $12.22 (surplus: $4.28)
Breakfast: 2.71
Lunch 2.30
Dinner 6.67
Misc tea and snacks (.44)
The average daily budget is $16.50. (You might remember that we have $115.50 for the week.) I am happy with this day. I would have liked to come in under $10, but Cheetos happen.

Food Stamp Challenge Ground Rules

It's all gonna happen on this little piece of ugly 70s countertop in my mother's kitchen. My jars of oatmeal, sugar, unbleached and wheat flour. A digital scale that weighs in grams. That annoying extension cord is the work-around for a kitchen circuit that doesn't work - everything in the kitchen and dining room is plugged into the one outlet that works, on power strips. It's on the endless to-do list.

My family is doing the Food Stamp Challenge this week, from today through next Wednesday.

This Food Stamp Challenge is not the first event that challenges folks to eat on a food stamp budget. What's the point of these things? Is it a game for well-to-do liberals to "play poor" for a week, as a political message? For me, my purpose is to help dispel some food stamp myths, but also to make food stamps less scary for people who might need to use them one day. The Food Stamp Challenge is an everyday event for families that really use them, not just a week of awareness, fundraising, or political activism.

My family does not currently get food stamps - but we have, during a recent long period where my partner was unemployed after grad school, while we provide full-time care for my elderly mother. So, I know how food stamps work, and do not work, in intimate detail. My family is food-insecure. We do not have enough income to pay all our bills, and we make choices about what to pay, how to buy medication, and how much to eat.

I work hard for us to eat well and regularly. I garden, cook from scratch, can and freeze, shop very carefully, and seldom shop in a regular grocery store. I shop at discount grocers like Bottom Dollar and Aldi, and at grocery liquidators - "scratch and dent" stores like Buy-Rite and B-B's Outlet. I buy in bulk when there is a really good deal, if I have the cash to do so. I use a lot of herbs, sauces, seasonings, and condiments gotten inexpensively. I do not generally coupon, because I don't buy name brands.

It's why my blog is called "City Peasant." We live like peasants, just outside a small city. Peasant food is traditionally made from inexpensive basic ingredients, cheap cuts of meat, local produce. It represents elbow grease and lots of simmering. But it is also the kind of "Grandma food" that is celebrated in every culture.

Living on a food stamp budget is do-able, but not if you eat like a typical American family. There are no bottled beverages, no packaged snack food, little prepared food, no Starbucks, no lunch dates. You absolutely must plan and shop well. And if you don't stick to the plan, you will run out of food and before you get more food stamps.

You also must accept other forms of assistance, like free lunch at school for your kids. An occasional (or regular) visit to a food bank. My mother gets a special supplemental food box from a program for seniors. We also grow some of our food - herbs, greens, tomatoes, sweet potatoes.

How did I prepare for this Challenge Week? I didn't. I am just going to do what I always do, but I will cost it out for the blog. I will "shop" mostly from my own pantry, and tell you where and how I bought that cheap food. I did photograph my fridge and shelves before I started, and we will tour my pantry in a future post.

We are going to feed four people, most of the time. Myself (age 50), my mother (age 83), my daughter (age 15) and my Significant Other (age 37). I will not count my daughter at college. I will count my high school daughter for weekday lunch, because she gets free lunch at school - and that is allowed with food stamps.

I had to figure out how to count my SO. He needs to eat normally in front of coworkers in the city, and that is part of the cost of having a professional job. But I still need to give him breakfast and dinner. So, I will pretend he does not exist at lunch, and take away his $1.50 in our budget. (He normally packs a lunch 2-3 days per week.)

Here is my budget for the week:

Breakfast: 7 days x 4 people x $1.50 = $42.00
Lunch: (5 days x 3 people) + (2 days x 4 people) x $1.50 = $31.50
Dinner: 7 days x 4 people x $1.50 = $42.00

We are not trying to spend exactly $1.50 per person per meal at each meal. The goal is to get the most nutrition and satiation from the overall budget. We average $1.50/person/meal. Food stamps are distributed once a month. If this were a real budget, we would get about $475 once a month, on a sort of debit card called an "EBT Card" for Electronic Benefits Transfer.

Notice, I said nutrition and satiation. Satiation is feeling "satisfied" with what you ate. Feeling physically, emotionally, and sensually satisfied. You can live on protein drinks and nutrition bars - but is that living? Satiation is getting a treat once in a while, or a favorite food, or having enough of something that feel you have eaten as much as you wanted. Full warm belly plus good taste in your mouth plus the enjoyment of having prepared and eaten food together. You can't have that at every food stamp meal, but you can have it quite often.

Along the way, I hope to share my knowledge and experience about food stamps and talk about common food stamp misconceptions. I will show you my shopping, cooking, and food storage routine. This is personal stuff! No one likes to talk about being poor. As a society, Americans treat poverty like a moral failing, or a contagious disease. We only value thrift if it is "voluntary simplicity, " not if if it reflects necessity. We say, "Money isn't everything," but we certainly look down on people that cannot pay their own way.

With the uncertain economic future we all face right now, we need to get over that.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Happy Blog Launch!

I am returning to blogging after a hiatus of two and a half years. We will discuss what I did during the hiatus - but not now. Suffice it to say that we moved in with my mother, who is a hoarder and who also suffers from Vascular Dementia. The house is now under sufficient control that I can start writing again.

As before, I am protecting the identities of my family, who are less comfortable with public sharing than am I. Those of you who know me, well, you know me.

I am going to dive right into it with a week of The Food Stamp Challenge, starting tomorrow. This is a challenge to feed your family for a week on the average food stamp budget. That is $1.50 per person, per meal. This gives us plenty to talk about! All sort of food, frugality, and reality.

The appearance of the blog will also change as I work on it, and I will explain why I am calling the new blog "City Peasant."