Thursday, October 27, 2011

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.

1 comment:

  1. I am SO excited to keep up with you on your blog. This is going to be so interesting and helpful to so many of us. Thank you for doing this!