Notes on the Food Stamp Challenge

My recent post drew a lot of criticism and a lot of support, which is good because at least people are talking about these issues. And while I certainly don’t believe anyone should throw up their hands and resort to twinkies because food stamps and chain grocers can’t possibly cover optimal foods at this time, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t discuss these issues and fight the good fight through nutrition education and by improving accessibility of optimal foods. That is, in part, what the challenge is all about.

Traditional foods is considerably more than what we choose to eat, it’s how we choose to prepare the foods we eat: with care and attention. It’s choosing whole, unrefined foods. Traditional foods are peasant foods, and peasant foods were strikingly varied (not all pease porridge, and neither all wild game and foraged berries); however one thing remains constant: the foods were naturally raised and naturally grown and that is something that is simply not available at chain grocers regardless of your budget.

Providing grocery lists, meal plans and recipes illustrates that you can, indeed, eat healthy and unrefined foods on a minimal budget. While not optimal, these meals are healthy and a lot healthier than the Standard American Diet whether it’s purchased on food stamps or an ampler budget. Fresh produce, even conventionally grown, is a far cry better than no fruit or vegetables at all. Meats, even those that aren’t raised on pasture, still provide protein and micronutrients. Legumes and grains, when properly prepared, still fill bellies and provide much needed nutrients such as folate, dietary fiber, magnesium and phosphorus.

Read More about the Challenge

Many folks have said we should be thankful for what we have because it fills our bellies, but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent. In a nation of wealth and plenty, we shouldn’t have to settle for beef laced with e coli, chicken contaminated by salmonella, potatoes that rot within a week of purchase or even oranges that are half-rotten before you get them home. We deserve better.

Did I expect to buy pastured poultry and sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes at my local Safeway and Kroger? Hell no!

We’ve lost touch with our food and there are no seasons at your grocery store. Bananas, apples, cabbage, berries and tomatoes are available year-round. If you think those red ripe tomatoes lurking in your produce aisle are sun-ripened in either July or October, you have another thing coming. I’d love to focus on seasonality as my family generally does, but on this challenge price is the bottom line as the concept of seasonality is largely absent from grocery stores these days.

Read More about Budget Food

Life is about choices, priorities and exchanges. What do we give up in order to acquire something else? My family is not rich – or even close. We are a single-earner household and we hover on the line at the nation’s median income and are squarely middle class. Valuing nutrient-dense foods we’ve made the choice to give up common luxuries to acquire wholesome foods. So I don’t buy into the defeatist attitude that good food is only for the rich. It’s not.

Purchase the best you can with what you’ve got, and if that means filling the grocery cart with gassed tomatoes or feedlot beef, so be it. But, don’t settle. Don’t be complacent. Ask for more because you – and the people around you – deserve more.

If you need help determining how to eat healthful, unrefined foods on a budget and to plan low-cost menus, please download the challenge’s meal plans and grocery lists which are available each Monday. If you’re up in arms and are ready to act, contact me because in November we’re going to start effecting orchestrated change in our communities.

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What people are saying

  1. Lisa Z says

    Excellent post! I’m linking all of your posts on the food stamp challenge on Facebook, and it’s getting my friends and me talking.

    One of the things I was thinking about today when I was grocery shopping is that I am able to feed my family nourishing food (mostly, my kids still want white flour in their bread products!) because I basically have it down to a science and am rather obsessive about it. Our diet is varied by season, but we do tend to eat the same things over and over again while in season. I have a meal plan that rotates meat and seafood/fish throughout the week, and we eat grains on a “schedule” too. It makes shopping and budgeting so much easier. I also know what to stock up on when it’s on sale, and what to buy in bulk from the buying club.

    We also live on one income and are at just under 75% of the median income for Minnesota, and our grocery budget is about $400 a month, give or take a hundred bucks some months.

  2. says

    Now, THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about!!! CHOICES!!! That’s the only excuse there is- choices. Twinkies & the broken food chain are there, because people ALLOW a broken food chain. It’s called voting with our wallets!! People can claim ignorance, and while I’m sure it’s there for some things- it is NO secret that McDonald’s is BAD for you. It is NO secret that TWINKIES are bad for you. I’ve been thinking a LOT about your posts the past couple weeks. Ignorance is no excuse for 100% of what people do. Anyone that claims they don’t know how bad certain foods are for you are full of moo-poo.

    A bag of clementines is not only the same price as a bag of doritos, but they are already portioned out. So many CHOOSE to allow their child(ren) to scarf a bag down, and then wonder a) why the bag is gone; b) why their kids are unhealthy, fat & extraordinarily hyper/misbehaved and c) why there’s no money. They don’t wonder out of ignorance, because they KNOW those doritos are a BAD CHOICE. They don’t CHOOSE to face the facts or CHOOSE to take responsibility.


    I can’t wait to see what you’ve got up your sleeve for next month, but I’m anticipating it!

  3. says

    I’ve long disagreed that junk food is particularly cheap. I glance at prices of junk equivalents of the foods I buy and I wonder why a bag of sugary cereal, for example, which would last only a day or two in my house, is considered “cheaper” than a bag of bulk oats, which cost half as much and last twice as long. I guess it must depend on the product.

    I recently blogged some of my thoughts about the WAPF, NT and traditional diets in general, and one of my concerns was cost. If we could replace all feedlot animal products with those from pastured, grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free animals, what an incredible benefit to the earth, and to the animals and the people who eat them. I can’t imagine eating meat again myself, but I always encourage people to source their animal products from high-quality sources. This is difficult approach, however, from the perspective of wanting to work with the poor, and I haven’t quite decided how to deal with it.

    I’m glad that you’ve been honest about your experiences. I’m just trying to get my family’s food budget down to $400 a month. I’m already wondering what new concessions I’ll be making on top of the ones I’ve made already. It makes me tired just to think about it!

    I find it interesting how many people are critical of an “elitist” diet of whole foods. When we were very poor, my parents were insistent that we grab hold of those bootstraps and stop eating so well. But we have small children, and I’m a nutrition student. I know very well how important it is that we provide growing children with the tools they need for a lifetime of good health. It’s very sad that we consider a healthy diet – good health itself, perhaps? – a luxury, something for the rich, and expendable for everyone else.

    I have recently decided to bring eggs into my family’s diet. My partner works in a Waldorf school and many of his students live on small farms. The parents occasionally offer eggs from their backyard chickens, so we decided to make a regular arrangement with one family. We’re getting a dozen eggs for $3 every week, which seems pretty reasonable for a local protein source. I can’t stand to eat them myself, at least not yet, but my kids are enjoying them, and I feel a little better about the vitamin A issue on an otherwise plant-based diet.

    Thanks for all you do here.

  4. says

    @Chandelle – and not just the health of your children as it relates to them and their lifetime, but also for the future generations that will come after them. Their children and their children’s children. If epigenetics holds true than our dietary choices (and the choices we make for our children) can have long lasting consequences.

    As for as the “elitist” comments – I think there is a misunderstanding on this aspect. So many times when I’ve mentioned “elitism” when it comes to some of the more dogmatic proponents it’s been dismissed as if I was talking about their diet and not their attitudes. It’s easy for one person to take their own personal experience and extrapolate that “everyone” should be able to do likewise when in reality there are a number of factors at play including some of the privileges that may very well be available to a person that perhaps they aren’t aware of.

    I’m especially pained whenever this common line is brought out as it was above:

    Valuing nutrient-dense foods we’ve made the choice to give up common luxuries to acquire wholesome foods. So I don’t buy into the defeatist attitude that good food is only for the rich. It’s not.

    I must admit that this argument is getting very tiresome – this idea that the folks who are saying they can’t afford the more “ideal” sources of nutrient-dense foods just haven’t made the necessary sacrifices or haven’t given up “common luxuries.” While there are certainly folks out there for whom this is true, generally speaking, though I think it’s a red herring. In my mind it’s akin to the many “personal responsibility” arguments made in our society. It’s not productive and it doesn’t really address the issue at hand.

  5. says

    Completely concur – buy a grain grinder and learn to bake bread. I spend $15/month for pancakes, bread, pizza dough, pretzels, cracked grain cereal etc for 4 of us. Imagine how much that is in boxes of cereal, crackers, meals out, loaves of bread or all the other things made from grain you might buy in one month.

    By forming wholesale buying clubs I’ve been able to buy grassfed meat, wild caught fish, raw milk cheese and raw milk at wholesale prices. We got chickens for the eggs. They eat grass, food scraps and things we grew this summer like sunflower seeds, flax and cammelina. We spend less on food now then when we ate exclusively from the large chain grocers.

    What really pains me is the number of people who would not bat an eye at a $100 monthly cable bill AND a $100 monthly iphone bill but they expect to only spend $400/month on food for their families. It’s time people got their priorities straight.

    I’ve loved reading your foodstamp challenge. You rock my world Jenny.

  6. Marilyn says

    Jenny ~ I think that I’ve been failing to keep in mind the premise on which your challenge is based (Can a family eat OPTIMALLY on a food stamp budget)! But I do appreciate another attitude showing through in today’s post ~ I do know that, because of the basic purpose of your experiment, “doing the best you can with what you’ve got” has merely taken “second chair” to your passion for change (which is desperately needed) I believe that what is becoming evident is that not everyone, in our present economic/whole-food availability dilemma, will be able to attain to the ideal ~ but, with education, they CAN do better (within their particular limitations). I agree, a rich nation should not be doling out sub-standard food, and especially not subsidizing an agricultural system based on greed, so you are doing a great thing to strive for change. I do, though, like to keep gratitude always as a halo over everything. I once had an acupuncturist advise me that gratitude changes the way your body digests and assimilates the food you eat (OPTIMAL usage, you might say!)
    BTW, for your readers ~ Azure Standard is a company that makes deliveries to drop-off points in most western and mid-west states. They have an impressive inventory of organic foods(some in bulk), supplements, and household products which you can order online. You pay a minimal fee to the “drop-off” company or store for receiving your order (I pay $2), but there is no shipping charge! It is a wonderful service and they carry many gluten-free flours/foods. Check it out and see if a city near you has a drop-off point ~ I don’t think there is a listing of the cities online, but you can call for that info. After I signed up they sent me a booklet with the listings in all the states they serve.
    Keep up the good work!

  7. lynn byrd says

    For those of you who are ready, willing, and able, here’s a suggestion:

    1)make an appointment with your local Wal Mart (I know, yuk) store manager – the one who can make calls and decisions

    3)get permission for a special project (below), and ask for assistance with a table, maybe some signage, use of some raw material, etc

    3)for a few hours one day a week, volunteer your services by offering their customers help with grocery shopping; no judgment, just show them how to pick the best they can within their budget

    if you’re willing to do that, then you are throwing your heart into your words.

    It may take awhile for this to catch on, but perhaps Wal Mart (yuk, I know)will eventually donate items for a drawing each week…maybe a knife set, or a nice cast iron skillet, or pot holder.

    Grassroots, ya’ll – positive action can move someone’s world. Now, here’s a cool and simple visual for you to use: 1 teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams, right? of course, YOU read the back of your labels to see how much sugar is in a food or drink, but who else does? Get yourself a little calculator, a 5 pound container of sugar, and a teaspoon; ask people to measure out the amount of sugar in their food choices. Simple, yet effective. Give it a go!

    PS – of course it doesn’t have to be Wal Mart. It can be your church, or your local women’s shelter…but GET OUT THERE! Show ’em how it’s done. We can’t assume people know better, because believe me, they don’t.

  8. says

    I think going to your supermarket is a wonderful thing, but it’s just that. I think going to the “smaller” stores first is the best plan (totally MHO!!!) and seeing how walmart catches on. I don’t have a wm closer than 1.5 hours away (YAY!). By starting with the “smaller” chaines, this also gives you some practise before hitting the giant monster. I have actually started with my grocery, by asking them to order many organic things. I let them know I’m tired of going in & getting the last 2 organic milks, when I really want 6. I have them order organic produce, and cases of organic teas, etc.

    It definitely is the small things we can do that add up. As I’ve mentioned before- though I can’t ALWAYS do it, I try hard to vote with my wallet, and I get the word out by not only posting across the web, but by speaking to friends & neighbors. I started a co-op several months ago through Azure, and I’ve been known to stop complete strangers in the stores & ask if they’re interested & handing out flyers & catalogs!

    I send emails about recalls, and how the small farm doens’t have the large percent of recalls as the large corporations. I recommend many books to many people. I send them on their way to the library (sustainable!) to check out books. I send excerpts & recipes.

    I talk WAY too much, so I’m out there, peddling my beliefs. LOL

    Lynn, I’d say this meets your criteria of getting out there *grin*

  9. says

    PS- even my kids speak to their friends about HFCS, chemicals in ice cream, etc. I’m so chuffed when I hear their words of wisdom to other small ears 😀

  10. Clarissa K says

    Wow, I am so encouraged by reading this post and also reading the fantastic comments by your readers! You gals are awesome!!!

    I am also in the median income, but we do without A LOT of things like cable, cellphone plans (have a cheap pay-as-you-go), and going out to the movies. We WILL NOT compromise on food though. Even if I have to buy our clothes at the Goodwill (which I do on occasion).

    I am into saving money wherever I can, but cheapening our diet is not a good idea. In fact, we spend, on average, a significantly lower percentage of our incomes on foods that many other western countries. It is a lower priority for us! And many of those countries have higher taxes!! I feel that when we cheapen something so essential as food we are cheapening our quality of life. Food turns into our bodies, every cell and sinew! France spends about 13.5% I’ve read, compared to our 9.8%. Makes ya think…

    Here is a good article on the subject:

  11. Dana says

    I have a question. Given that so much of Weston Price’s work showed that physical development is better when people have access to good fats, minerals, and fat-soluble vitamins, why is it I’m seeing so much emphasis on fruits and vegetables in this discussion?

    This is a point of furious contention among the “experts,” but seriously, nobody NEEDS to eat plant foods. They’re convenient, they add variety to the diet, and if your health is already a mess, some of them contain nutrients that help mitigate the effects of chronic disease.

    But all plant parts, with the exception of fruit, need special processing of some kind to make them safe to eat. And you can’t get complete nutrition from plants. Also, plant foods spoil quickly, freezing tends to ruin them unless you know how to do it, and not everybody has the fridge space to lacto-ferment everything. This is not even getting into the health issues of using large amounts of seed foods over a long period of time–poor people often also do not have the time or space to ferment grains and beans.

    (Another issue with this, especially with things like sourdough and kefir where you leave it partially open to the air, is that if you live in “affordable housing,” chances are very good the owner of your home is not taking proper care of it and you probably have all manner of mold and filth in your ventilation system. I ran into this problem the last place I lived when I kept losing sourdough starter to mold, despite covering it with several layers of cheesecloth. People cannot afford to replace that much organic flour if they’re already low-income. I was lucky to have help.)

    The real problem is that poor people do not have access to good, nutritious animal foods. I can source grass-fed dairy now that’s been pasteurized at the lowest permissible temperature, non-homogenized as well, but it’s twice the price of conventional. Butter is off the map entirely for a whole group of people. It would be for me, if I didn’t have help getting it.

    As to the first commenter here, I’m going to grouse a bit, but I’m pretty damn tired of everyone assuming the poor are stupid. We don’t get the Doritos because we think they’re health food. We get them because we can’t afford many treats, so we get the ones we *can* afford. It is wearing on the human spirit to be forced to live in austerity with nothing to break up the monotony. For the same reason, we’re known to drop money on a CD or a movie or a manicure that winds up coming out of our electric bill or car payment. It is what it is. Charitable organizations cover the necessities that keep us alive; we’re not viewed as “entitled” to anything more. But we’re just as human as you are, and life can’t be all about survival and nothing but.

    And it’s all well and good to tell us to save up our garbage and construct a home movie theater and movie reels out of recycled bedsheets and Scotch tape. Some of us aren’t quite that talented. Just saying.

  12. Jenny says

    Clarissa –

    I think you raise a very, very good point about the amount of money we spend on food.  50 years ago, the average family spent about 20% – 30% of their income on food; yet today we spend less than 10%!  We typically spend between 20% and 25% of our income on food and forgo other things in order to do that: entertainment, new vehicles, expensive gadgets and much of what we buy is used.  To ignore that what we eat is a combination of our personal financial situation and our personal choices to spend in other areas is foolhardy.  We eat three times a day, at least!  We better make it count!

    – Jenny

  13. says

    I found these posts and comments very interesting (even though I am late coming to the discussion) since we are currently trying to do GAPS diet (healing diet of bone broths, pastured meats, fermented foods, vegetables, no grains) to overcome health issues including corn and soy allergies. I currently live in a rural area of Alabama and have very few foods available in local stores that are tolerated by us. I don’t buy processed foods since there are little or none that do not contain corn or soy in some form. I have read posts about allergy avoidance diets being more expensive but I don’t agree. The fastest way to cut your food bill is to avoid corn and soy. If you can’t eat corn that cuts out entire aisles of the grocery store and in fact, I believe there are maybe 9 items in my local Walmart that we can tolerate except for the produce (and that includes personal products or cleaning products). I suppose if people are avoiding gluten they could jack up food costs by buying prepared GF snacks but with corn allergies that is not even an option.

    One of the things I wanted to comment on is the quality of food available in grocery stores (where all food stamp recipients in this area would have to shop – no farmers markets or CSAs). Most of the poor people around here (neighboring county is one of the poorest in the nation) load their carts up with empty calorie junk and convenience food out of ignorance and limited selection. So much so that heads of lettuce are endangered species being replaced with pre-washed lettuce in a bag (preserved with corn derivatives) almost exclusively. What do we expect when the government programs require four year old children to be fed 2% milk?!! (Good for the poster that sneaks by whole milk!) Along with the absence of fat that is so vital to young brains’ development, 2% milk contains dried milk powder which is a source of toxic free glutamic acids and oxidized cholesterol. That is criminally stupid, plain and simple.

    I have an idea why convenience foods rule the marketplace. Before I found out what my problem was I got very sick. The sicker I got the more my family relied on convenience foods. The more we relied on convenience foods, the sicker we all got. The sicker we got, the harder it was to conceive of cooking meals from scratch. The more processed a food is, the more additives and harmful chemicals it contains. The more harmful additives you ingest, the more exhausted and sick you get. It took herculean efforts on all our parts to break free of this vicious cycle (did I mention that food additives are addictive?) once we realized that food additives could be most of our problem.

    I try to spread my story to educate others on the dangers of food additives, but I have found that people get very defensive about their food choices (even when they are not the product of careful calculation or study – maybe especially then) and are very attached to their way of life, even if it is not working for them. When I go to the grocery store and get behind a young mother with toddlers with a cart full of diet sodas, potato chips, frozen chicken nuggets and pizza, I just want to cry. Those poor kids don’t have a chance in hell.

  14. Lori says

    I was at the grocery store today, Winco, in fact–well known around here for their cheap food. The woman behind me had her cart loaded up with vegetables, fruits, and whole foods. I noticed that because it was soooo unusual. Usually when I look around at the grocery store, carts are full of convenience, packaged, pre made foods with a minor % devoted to whole foods. I, too, cringe for the families who are eating themselves into disease.

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