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.


  1. I don't blame you guys at all for stopping at McDonald's, but I AM struck by how much more than your cooking the McDonald's cost. And people say they "have" to eat McDonald's, etc., because it's so much cheaper. It gives me pause for thought, anyway.

    Good rant. I shared on FB and said, heck, I've heard all this stuff and I'm not on food stamps. There are plenty of self-righteous people out there!

  2. Eating from the dollar menu costs $3-4 for not very much food. And you only have $4.50/day. That was one meal... what about the rest of the day? And you CANNOT use Food Stamps at Mickey D's! So, it is a misconception that people on food stamps do all their eating at fast food joints. Some people living in food ghettos may eat too much fast food, but they are not using food stamps to buy it.