Food Stamp Challenge: Week 2

This week was disheartening at best. It makes me shake my head with sorrow at our broken food system and the challenges that face poor, underprivileged and impoverished families. They are fighting an uphill battle – and few are on their side despite the lip service paid by government officials and corporate spokespersons.

And, now at week 2, I’m left with startling but sturdy conclusion that some of you may call premature: No, it’s not possible to eat optimally on a food stamp budget. I know that this is not what you expected me to write, nor what you wanted to hear. Don’t get me wrong: we’ve managed a far cry better than even the Standard American Diet, and I still maintain that it is possible to eat healthfully on a food stamp budget, but this better than solution of dodging pesticides, settling for “natural” meats and relying on vegetables purchased on sales and special that rot in a few days is not optimal. It seems that better than is simply not good enough.

Let’s Talk Quality

This week our cart, like last week, was full of fruits and vegetables: tomatoes, salad greens, bananas, oranges, garnet yams, acorn squash and even two pineapples bought dirt cheap on sale. Healthy, right? Wholesome, right?

Week 2: $55.44
1 lb Pink Beans: $1.19
1 lb Split Peas: $1.29
½â€gallon Whole Milk (Sale): $1.79
1 lb Butter (Sale_: $1.99
1 Frying Chicken: $4.77
2 lbs Laura’s Lean Beef (Sale): $9.98
4.5 lbs Bananas (Sale): $2.12
3.45 lbs Oranges (Sale): $3.45
2.65 lb Cabbage: $1.83
4.5 lbs Tomatoes (Sale): $3.57
1 Acorn Squash (Sale): $2.17
1 Spaghetti Squash (Sale): $2.07
2 Yams (Sale): $2.80
1 lb Raisins (Sale): $1.50
1 lb Organic Salad Mix (Sale): $4.99
2 Pineapples (Sale): $5.98
1 Jar Natural Peanut Butter: $2.10
Rolled Oats: $1.85

Yeah, those tomatoes I picked up at $0.79 / lb sure were bright red, but they sure weren’t ripened by the sun or grown in nutrient-dense soil. Lacking those two factors, they will similarly lack the micronutrients and antioxidants found in heirloom varietals allowed to ripen the way nature intended – that is under the sun’s warm rays. While the oranges were on sale for $1 / lb, the flavor is acrid and half-rotten. And that cheap 10 lb bag of potatoes I purchased last week with the intention of feeding my family all month long? Many of them are rotten and those that aren’t are rock hard. Do you know how long it takes for a potato to rot? A lot longer than a week – or it should.

If poorer nutrient profiles by comparison to farm fresh produce isn’t enough to concern you, consider the chemical load that these fruits and vegetables carry. Purchasing completely organic fruits and vegetables isn’t possible for many people – at least at the chain grocery stores in my area. First, the variety of organic produce is limited and, secondly, the cost of purchasing organic produce exclusively would be cost prohibitive for anyone struggling on a budget of $227 per month. Never mind that even if you are fortunate enough to purchase exclusively organic produce at the grocery store, much of that produce is still grown with fertilizers and pesticides, albeit organic inputs, and without care to holistic management.

Synthetic field inputs are a serious issue, and when you eat conventionally grown fruits and vegetables your body absorbs and must filter out any residual chemicals. Your body requires nutrients to make that happen, and fruits and vegetables start losing nutrients from the moment they’re picked. In the end, were operating at a loss when eating produce from our grocery store shelves as opposed to fresh picked produce at the farmers market or, better yet, from our own gardens.

Perhaps the worst of all, high quality animal foods are near impossible to find on grocery store shelves. Grass-fed beef? Not a chance. Ask for pasture-fed poultry, and they’ll laugh you out of the store.

Sure, there’s “better than” options like Laura’s Lean Beef which is, at the very least, antibiotic- and hormone-free. And there’s Organic chicken, which is extraordinarily expensive by comparison to the regular fryers and broilers. Most stores, fortunately, carry Kerrygold butter which is sourced from cows fed on grass thus conveying the nutritional benefits of retinol, beta carotene and CLA but it is expensive. Kerrygold butter runs $9.98 / lb at my store compared to $1.99 / lb for regular butter.

The resulting problem is one of balance and one of risk. Since all of these chickens, cows and even fish are fed largely on corn and soy, as opposed to their natural diet, the composition of their fat is disrupted resulting in a very high ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids. And that’s bad news for the health of consumers choosing these foods either from necessity or preference. Moreover, since these animals are fed an unhealthy diet, they’re more apt to become ill – putting consumers at risk for salmonella and e-coli infection.

It’s depressing. And I haven’t even touched on the challenges of grains and legumes found on grocery store shelves.

Sure, organic vegetables are better than conventional vegetables and conventional vegetables are better than none at all. Anitbiotic- and hormone-free meats are better than conventional meats, and some meat is better than none at all (though I can hear the vegans moaning about that one). But a food system that relies on “better than” choices is not good enough.

That’s why, over the next few weeks of the challenge, I’m not going to focus on bang-for-your-buck gimmicks and low-cost shopping. Sure, I’ll still post grocery lists and meal plans for download because there’s a real need for those too, but, instead, my focus will center upon the factors contributing to the dismal food situation for poor and underprivileged families.

In the end, real health comes from real food and real food comes from sustainable farmers’ fields not from the grocery store shelves.

Meal Plan, Grocery List and Other Goodies

On another Note

Did you see that Nourished Kitchen was nominated for best Green / Sustainable Food Blog?   Check out the other nominees and cast your vote.