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!


  1. Interesting read. I'll be following your challenge. I had been doing the dementia care for the past 5 years and just wanted to say that you may be able to get meals-on-wheels for your mom as well as free Ensure. It varies from state to state, but pharma companies will often offer free ensure. I'll see if I can find a link for you.

    This is really a good resource.
    Do the 'find benefits programs'. You might be surprised. I hope so.

  3. Thanks, Cyndy! I will look at those. Free Ensure would be great.