Food Stamp Challenge: The End and $1.05 Over

This is the last week on the food stamp challenge.   In the end, our bellies are full, we maintained a tight budget – going over by only $1.05. And, while far from optimal, our meals were nourishing, satisfying, wholesome and healthy.   Aside from this week’s splurge on conventional gala apples priced at only $0.49 per pound, we maintained our original principles: purchasing the highest quality unrefined foods on our minimal budget.   We enjoyed a wide and varied assortment of meals this month: roasts, mussels in broth, salmon, cornish hens, beans with olive oil, plenty of mixed green salads, loads of vegetables and we did so affordably.

That’s not to say such a challenge was easy – far from it.   Traveling to the store, shopping, researching brands and pesticide levels, planning out meals and menus in excruciating detail all takes enormous energy and time. Frankly, it’s exhausting.   Time is as great a luxury as money.

The Compromises

This month has not been without its compromises. While we never added conventionally raised beef to our basket, we did settle for antibiotic- and hormone-free meat.   We didn’t settle for canned goods as the processing reduces nutrient content, and never purchased frozen foods as they’re not as affordable as they seem.   We even managed a handful of local foods including winter squash.

What We Missed The Most

In the first week to two weeks of the challenge, I found I missed the luxuries the most – raw milk artisan cheeses and fair trade chocolate.     I’d grown accustomed to luxuries and forgotten that luxuries are just that – rare treats, not everyday indulgences.   That initial sense of want eventually faded, and we missed more practical things: cinnamon for the oatmeal, chili powder for the beans and other seasonings that can bring a little life to the supper table.   And there was simply no room to breathe in a budget this small; don’t get me wrong: our bellies were full and we enjoyed some beautiful, low-cost meals but a little bit of breathing room is a good thing.   Lastly, with a budget this restrictive, there’s no opportunity to build a pantry or to take advantage of low-cost, bulk pricing.

Myths Surrounding Low-cost Cooking

The cost food varies from region to region, but, in our experience some of the low-cost standbys fulled false.   Frozen foods, for example, are often heralded as affordable foods; however, when calculated on a penny-per-ounce basis, they’re often more expensive than fresh produce on sale.   Neither do you have to settle for beans and grains.   While they certainly help to round out the menu, beans and grain need not be the staple of a low-cost meal plan.   Indeed, fruits and vegetables served as the largest volume of our diet on the affordable menu just as it does on the months when we are watching the pocket book so vigilantly.

What frustrated me the most; however, was that I often spent more money purchasing less than optimal foods at the grocery store than I spend purchasing them through alternative means.   Grain-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free meat, while better than standard conventional meats, is a far cry from its grass-fed counterpart.   To add insult to injury, it’s more expensive too.   I can purchase grass-fed meat for less than the cost of natural beef at the grocery store.   Similarly, grass-fed lamb is considerably less expensive when purchased farmer direct than the grain-fed lamb available at the grocery store.   Apples, turnips, greens and seasonal produce are far more affordable purchased farmer direct than they are when purchased at the grocery store.   The problem, in our area, is that farmers markets, buying clubs and natural foods store do not accept EBT thus making these foods largely inaccessible to recipients of supplemental nutritional assistance program benefits.   That is a problem that needs fixing.

Maximizing Nutrition, Minimizing Cost

In the end, while being thrifty in our purchases – focusing on sales, manager’s specials and, to a lesser degree, coupons certainly helped to maintain a low budget; however, the true saving grace was mindful use of the food in our kitchen.   Using ever bit is not a novel solution to low-budget cooking, but it is an oft-forgotten one.   Bones and vegetable scraps make broth. Bread crumbs season vegetables and meats.   Rendered fat adds fat-soluble nutrients and flavor.   Lastly, painstaking attention paid to menu planning helps to reduce waste.

A Word on Supplements

Should you need to grossly reduce your budget, be wise as to your nutrient intake.   Meals tend to be repetitive and lack variety, thus minimizing the variety of micronutrients that your family can consume.   Though whole food supplements can be expensive, it’d be wise to investigate a good whole food based multivitamin and add cod liver oil.

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What people are saying

  1. Laura says

    Hi Jenny! Great post and awesome budgeting! You are quite an inspiration =) I was wondering… how do you filter your water for drinking? Or do you need to? I have a reverse osmosis countertop system that suspiciously looks like it might contain BPA. The company wont get back to me. Which makes it even more suspicious! Do you use well water? Have you ever looked into this topic before? Thanks!

  2. lynn byrd says

    Jenny, GREAT job with this challenge. You know, I’m one of those “sense of urgency” people who wants to change the world overnight – especially when it comes to food issues. But, try as we might to bring people up to our speed, we’re always gonna be a few giant steps ahead of the majority.

    While you’ve demonstrated how difficult it is to eat to your (and my) standards, you’ve also proven that it IS possible to make healthy choices on a tight budget. This, my dear Jenny, is where we begin.

    Thank you!

  3. Al Hunter says

    We don’t have food stamps here in Ontario so I’m not sure about the US rules and regulations. I do know that to be eligible for welfare here a family is only allowed $1550 of assets, and a single person only $572.

    That pretty much eliminates private transportation and also makes public transit an expensive proposition. The cost of traveling to multiple supermarkets for specials often eliminates any savings.

    Spending less for grassfed meats at the farmgate is just a dream without a car that, even if paid for, requires ongoing insurance, fuel costs, and maintenance.

    Even finding the food bargains, as you described, takes much time and effort. I bet you used a computer to help you find deals, nutritional info, and recipes. Being able to afford a computer plus the connection fees here in Ontario is often an unreachable luxury for the welfare poor.

    Food stamp users in the US, and welfare recipients here, face a continuing challenge and don’t get the option to end their struggle.

  4. says

    This is a great analysis, Jenny. Thank you for being honest in the sharing of your findings. It makes me thankful that my food budget is very decent, but also makes me realize in Florida, how much local food is lacking. I am looking forward to our move to change that.

  5. says

    What a great experiment to conduct and thanks for sharing the results. Many times whether on a tight budget or not, I think our poor food choices are based on lack of good education regarding nutrition. It’s great to have a blog like yours that is continually teaching and training!

    Karla

  6. says

    @Al Hunter – So very true!!

    I can purchase grass-fed meat for less than the cost of natural beef at the grocery store. Similarly, grass-fed lamb is considerably less expensive when purchased farmer direct than the grain-fed lamb available at the grocery store.

    Ahh…the proverbial buy direct from the farmer. I’m assuming your talking in bulk here? Yes, buying a whole, half, or split-half (quarter) can be much cheaper on the per pound price. Of course that assumes you can afford the up front cost which around here is somewhere north of $400 or more. I know many families (without the so called luxuries that are often pulled out) that can’t afford that. Without that in my area we’re talking more than $5/lb for grass-fed ground beef…forget about the so called “cheap” cuts of beef. They end up being far more than we can afford.

  7. Clarissa K says

    Great summary to a very interesting experiment!

    I am not on a tight budget, but am looking for ways to cut wasteful food costs. I have already cut it back, by not buying so many processed foods. Pop, cereal, baked goods, etc. will always be more expensive than what we can make at home. And I am upset at how much money I was wasting on non-nourishing food.

    Six months ago I was existing on frozen bean burritos, processed pasta meals, lots of cereal, toast, and sandwiches, and lean chicken or fish 2 times a week. I was not being nourished, and we were spending a lot on food! I was never full either, so I overate, was always tired, etc.

    Makes me so sad to think that many people are hungry in this country, and it is largely due to making the wrong choices, unknowingly. I was always hungry on a high-starch processed diet, but never nourished. And we spent A LOT to eat that way! I hope that you can send your findings to some magazine or newspaper or groups who feed the hungry. I assume that people who live off things like boxed Mac and Cheese could never be full, but they live on that stuff because they only know how to “cook” processed foods. Your ideas would be such a help, if people only knew what the heck to do with food! There is such a disconnect for everyone, with regards to what REAL food even is. So money is an issue, but even I didn’t know how to eat well with a GOOD food budget. Sigh.

    You also make a good point about how time consuming it is to eat well, and doing that on a tight budget must be maddening. I am a SAH Mom so I have more time, but even I get exhausted trying to work it all out. Add in food intolerances and I sometimes skip meals due to not having a good, quick option! But it is worth persisting and making small changes each week.

    My son, for example, is getting MUCH healthier only after 3 months of re-thinking our diet, and his teeth are healing! He was in danger of getting 4 pulled, due to decay, but we hesitated, changed his diet, and one of the worst teeth has filled in with white enamel!!! It is like a miracle. ;)

    I love your site, really want you to know how much good you are doing. I have just ordered “Nourishing Traditions” too, and can’t wait to get at those recipes.

    Best wishes,
    Clarissa K.

  8. says

    What’s interesting with your observations is that in my area, some (many?) farmer’s markets accept WIC and food stamps, but the prices are often higher than the supermarket. I think it’s because real estate is so high in this area that the farmers have to charge more money.

    Wouldn’t it be great if there were a co-op that provided meat at direct-from-farm prices and could accept food stamps for those who need it? Actually, it would be good for people who can’t afford to buy or store a whole or half cow at a time too. I wonder how one could organize something like that.

  9. says

    Wow! What a great series of posts! While not on foodstamps, we had several budget categories that went up a few months ago (necessities, like homeowner’s insurance, electric company, and health insurance), and there was nowhere to take it out of than groceries. So, we cut our grocery budget in HALF! It’s been a challenge, and we found ourselves eating more processed foods than ever at first, until I had enough! Now, we’re trying to transition back. It’s been tough, and tougher to figure out how to lose weight, because my doctor told me to go low-carb (NT way). But, we have $100/week for a family of five ($85 after raw milk and fresh beef we bought by the 1/4). That INCLUDES toiletries, diapers, etc! :) I’m trying so hard, and praying alot! Anyhow, these posts were VERY helpful to me. I can’t do great right now, but I can do as good as I can. :) Wish I didn’t have to eat so many grains to make things stretch, but it’s a season of life we’re in, and we’re doing the best we can.

    We took a big pay cut when my husband transitioned into being an associate pastor two years ago, and we’re learning how to make it work, since I stay at home. A challenge for sure, so I’m always looking for help!

    Thanks again, and God bless.

  10. Heather says

    @Kari
    Cloth diapers would make a big difference in your available budget. The ones I have I made. There are free patterns online, and it’s easy sewing, for you or someone you know who can sew. Or used diapers can be quite reasonable on ebay. I also use cloth wipes with my diapers (made out of scraps of the fabrics used to make the diapers. The absorbent part of many of my diapers is old towel, because a big box of old towels was $5 at an auction. I keep some disposable around for convenience, if we’re going to be out all day or away overnight, but they’re not necessary, just convenient.

  11. Elizabeth says

    I am actually living on food stamps right now and am deeply frustrated by my inability to buy direct from farmers. I have not given up raw milk (at least for the first two weeks of each month) but Ihave given up coffee, sodas, and my once-a-week Fair Trade chocolate. We still go over budget and have to resort to either cash or charity every month. Someone in WAPF Portland referred me to a buying club called Know Thy Food that offers grass-fed beef at prices I might be able to afford … especially the organ meats and bones, at least once in a while… if only I could afford the gas for the 100-mile round trip!

  12. Gringo says

    “That initial sense of want eventually faded, and we missed more practical things: cinnamon for the oatmeal, chili powder for the beans and other seasonings that can bring a little life to the supper table.

    It is total nonsense to claim that one has to forgo spices on a low-budget diet. I eat frugally and use plenty of spices. Wal-Mart has inexpensive spices, to mention one place.

    I doubt that the government refuses to pay for spices on food stamps. I recently saw someone purchase an enormous cake on food stamps.

    • Dana says

      Probably they were having a birthday. My little girl’s dad’s family was on food stamps when he was a kid and they were allowed to buy one cake per person per year to celebrate birthdays. At the minimum that may still be a rule. Hope it’s not a problem that poor people appreciate having been born.

      As for whether herbs and spices are affordable, this family was not living on boxed dinners the whole way through. They were trying to eat *healthy* on a food stamp budget. That means prioritizing. And it is not the same thing as “being frugal.” If you’re just “being frugal,” that means you had a *choice* to spend more, and you *chose* not to do so. So naturally, you can *choose* to eat healthier and still get the herbs and spices. But if you are on food stamps and that’s your only food money, you have no *choice.* You have to work with what you have and you have no more wiggle room than that. If she chose to eat seafood and that meant she had no money left for chili powder, then so be it. And I happen to know that even at a “cheap” price, with that $1.40 she had left over, you can get maybe 1.5 bottles of herb or spice. The “cheap” stuff at Kroger tends to run a dollar a bottle around here.

      And speaking of which. The words “inexpensive” and “spices” do not belong in the same sentence. Call me an insufferable snob but I don’t know how grocery stores are allowed to so ill-treat herbs and spices and still claim that they improve cooking. With most spices you have some leeway because they are hard plant materials and can better retain their volatile oils–but with leafy spices, not so much.

      I came to understand this years ago when I grew some of my own herbs. I had several of those and also my own potted bay tree. The fun part was pruning everything. The bay tree in particular was a delight, it perfumed the entire room. Then I dried the leaves and was surprised to learn that freshly-dried bay leaves are still dark and glossy, just like they were when fresh. This did not square with my experience with store-bought bay leaves, which are just sad–all faded and dull. I didn’t use all my bay leaves before my life fell apart and I had to leave a lot of my stuff behind, but eventually they got old and took on that sad faded look. Then I understood the problem.

      Grocery-store dried herbs and spices are sold in clear containers under UV lights. They are not new in the first place when they get to the store. You’re getting plant parts that have not been stored properly, have not been sold quickly and have been in stock so long that they have lost much of their color and volatile oils. They do not taste as strong as freshly-dried herbs.

      On top of that the store then overcharges for what you are actually getting, even though you are getting less than you *should* be getting. At least twice the reasonable price for half the flavoring power or less. It’s like buying one-ply toilet paper to “save money” and then finding that you need to use it doubled up if you don’t want to get your hands nasty. Not at all frugal.

      On top of that herbs and spices are supposed to have health benefits but as their volatiles have been so radically reduced, they’re not doing much of anything for you, not to mention not adding much flavor. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people never learn how to cook with herbs and spices *because* they are so disappointing.

      So feel clever that you find a shaker of thyme for a dollar, or that you bought one of those huge restaurant-size refill containers for so little per ounce–but it’s in a clear plastic container and it’ll lose its flavor by the time you get through the canister. You’re not getting what you think you’re getting.

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