Friday, October 17, 2008

So We Begin the Food Stamp Challenge

When I posted about this year’s Food Stamp Challenge yesterday, underway in various locations in the US, I assumed it was going to be much harder this year to stay within the allotted budget despite an almost double amount of money last year. My regular readers may recall, last year I reviewed the sales circulars online to get the best bargains, planned the week of meals before I went shopping, had to include a fairly high level of canned goods (especially beans) and barely made the budget. We did well nutritionally – with the exception of Vitamin D, we met all nutrient requirement RDA’s and managed to keep carbohydrate intake at an average 97g per day for the week; 73g net if you deduct fiber. But, as I noted, it wasn’t easy to do on a budget of just $3.00 per person per day, or $63 for the week for my family.

This year, with a nearly double budget – $123.27 for the week ($5.87 per person per day) – I changed the rules I’d follow in response to comments last year. Unlike last year, this year I’d shop in only one store, no pre-planning; instead I’d grab a sales circular on my way into the closest grocery store to my home and do my shopping for the week without any menus planned ahead of time.

Now I don’t shop for many routine items at the grocery store – most meats for us are usually ordered from a local farm, I buy a lot of produce at the local Farmer’s Market, and some things, like cheese, I usually buy at a specialty shop in town. But I do shop enough in the grocery stores to note that prices have definitely risen over the last year, with some items nearly double what I remember from last year.

When I did our grocery shopping yesterday, at HyVee (closest to my house) I was surprised that I wasn’t just within budget, but that I didn’t spend the entire budget. And, I included a number of items that were “maybe” items, held back until I could see the running total for the “must have” foods; “maybe” things like crumbled blue cheese, roasted red pepper hummus, name-brand coffee, a small container of heavy cream, a fancy brand of fajita wraps and a small pumpkin my son asked for that we aren’t going to actually eat.

That isn’t to say I didn’t make any compromises – I did buy canned green beans over the fresh, they were much less expensive in the can; I chose frozen whole strawberries over the fresh for the same reason; and frozen broccoli won over the fresh too. My cuts of meat, poultry and fish were all selected by price rather than higher priced selections. For the most part, organic foods were out….one compromise I would not make was the organic, grass-fed, VAT pasturized, non-homogenized milk for my son; that was one thing that would be included no matter how much it cost. Luck had it though that it was on sale this week!

I also decided once I saw the sale circular for the week, that I’d see if I could do a week with low-carb – basically keep carbohydrate (for my husband and I only) at or below 60g a day on average and not have to include much in the way of beans or starchy foods, although I did buy two bread items (wraps and pita) when I saw they were possible within the budget. My goal again this year is that in the week we are able to eat well and meet our nutrient requirements. I think I did fairly well too!
When all was totaled, I spent $115.55 before tax, $120.91 with tax.

What did I get for my money?

*Items with a star were “maybe” items included when I saw the total was still within budget, listed in order placed into the final order.

1-pound butter
3-quarts half & half
2 dozen large eggs
1/2 gallon organic whole milk
1 8-ounce brick store-brand mozzarella
1 8-ounce brick store-brand cheddar
1 container sour cream
1 container cottage cheese
1 package cream cheese
10 8-ounce containers assorted store-brand yogurt (including plain)

1-pound deli ham (it was a steal at $1.99 a pound!)

1-pound bag frozen broccoli
1-pound bag frozen spinach
1-pound bag frozen whole strawberries

Box of tea bags
1 can bean sprouts
2 cans green beans
Small Hellmann’s mayonnaise
2 Bottles store-brand salad dressing
1 small bottle soy sauce
2 cans mandarin oranges
1 bag dried split peas
1 packet taco seasoning
1 can tomato paste
1 can diced tomatoes
1 bag sauerkraut

5 bananas bunch
2 pears
1 head cauliflower
2 cucumbers
2 bags of store-brand mixed salad
1 head iceberg lettuce
2 kiwi fruit
1 yellow pepper
2 red peppers
2 green peppers
Yellow and green squash
1 spaghetti squash
2.5-pounds carrots
1 package Wholly guacamole
4 lemons
5 onions
1/2 cantaloupe
5 apples
2 plums

1 package Johnsonville sausage patties
1 package Oscar Mayer bacon
1 whole chicken
1 package chicken leg/thigh quarters
1 package split chicken breasts
2 pounds ground beef
1 large pork roast
1 package coconut crusted fish filets (store made; raw; frozen)
1 package eye-of-round steak
Folgers coffee* (I had a smaller, less expensive container, but added this instead)

1 package boneless skinless chicken breasts*
1/2 pint heavy cream*
1 small bottle olive oil*
1 small jar minced garlic*
Assorted bags, very small amounts, open/loose spices sold by the ounce*
1 container blue cheese crumbles*
3 small sample size cheese (butterkase, gouda, gruyere)*
1 container roasted red pepper hummus*
1 5-pack Toufayan tomato wraps*
1 package pita*
1 small pumpkin*

You’ll notice that above I don’t have any tomatoes or tomato sauce. That’s because we have a garden and right now, an excess of tomatoes that have to be eaten or made into sauce, so I’ll be using those tomatoes in some dishes this week.

As you can see, I wasn’t left with little choice – I didn’t have to buy boxes of macaroni & cheese or ramen noodles. In fact, with the higher budget this year, I was able to buy much more fresh produce and meat, along with some “goodies” to enhance the meals I’ll make, like blue cheese to top salads, assorted cheeses for snacks, and decent coffee for our morning brew.

Last night we kicked off our week with a delicious chicken & beef fajitas, complete with tomato wraps, sour cream, guacamole and cheddar cheese that I shredded from the block of cheese. Since our son isn’t too keen on spicy food, I made him some plain chicken and onion sautéed in a little butter, and with that he had some broccoli and a blueberry yogurt, and then a plum for dessert.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Food Stamp Challenge 2008

In May 2007, I decided to step up to a challenge getting a lot of press as the Congress was readying to pass a new farm bill – it was to feed my family with a budget those recieving food stamps must stay within each week.

At that time, the average per day was just $3.00 per person each day, which translated to $21 per week per person, or $63 total for all three of us to eat for one week. I chronicled my shopping, meals and my thoughts afterward between May 25 and June 5, which are still available on my blog.

Making the news this week is a new challenge as we near the holiday season and more individuals and families find themselves in need of assistance. Yesterday kicked-off the Grand Rapids for the Michigan Food Stamp Challenge where those participating try to live on $5.87 per day per person (the new, higher maximum level provided to recipients).

From news reports, “300 state and local leaders who have pledged to live on the equivalent of food stamps for five days.”

Apparently the governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, is participating in the challenge. As reported by, “The governor says she took her son shopping Sunday at a Meijer grocery store. They could only spend $5.87 per day per person. She says she bought a lot of macaroni and cheese.”

Like last year, I’m not surprised by the belief perpetuated in the media that one must eat poor quality, high carbohydrate, cheap foods to survive on a limited budget. Last year I showed that was untrue as I fed my family a high-quality, nutrient dense diet for the week on just $3.00 a day per person. This year recipients receive even more money and I have to wonder, given the current economic situation, is the increase enough or not?

So this year, once again, I’m going to see what a food stamp budget, $5.87 per person per day, buys us since food prices have steadily increased in the last year.

Can we eat as well as we did last year?

Will I need to make compromises?

Will we eat better?

Last year a number of comments criticized that I shopped in three different stores, had access to the internet to review sales circulars and plan based on sales, and had time to plan our meals before I shopped. For this challenge, I will shop in the closest grocery store to our house, will pick-up the circular when I enter the store and do my best without pre-planning the week since it was pretty clear that time and ability to plan ahead are both issues for many.

Like last year, I invite readers to step up to the challenge too and share your experience in the comments as we move forward for the week, starting tomorrow.

Here’s our rules for the October 2008 Food Stamp Challenge:

1. Maximum per person is $5.87 per person per day. For us, a family of three, this means I have to feed us with just $123.27 in the coming week. Your total budget does not include any sales tax since recipient purchases are not subject to sales tax.

2. Salt and pepper are considered in your pantry, so you do not need to buy either. But any other spices, condiments or cooking fats/oils do need to be purchased or you need to deduct a portion of your cost when you did buy the item that is in your pantry since it’s difficult to have a stocked pantry when you’re on food stamps. For example, if you do have chopped garlic in your house, you don’t have to buy another jar for the week, but should – if you use some – deduct a part of the cost. If the jar cost $5.00 and you use one serving from a 10-serving jar, take 50-cents off your budget to account for the garlic you used.

3. It’s best to plan ahead, so if you have mailed or newspaper ad circulars, review what’s on sale and make a list before you shop. This time around, I’ll personally not plan ahead like I did last year and I’ll shop in only one grocery store. You don’t have to unless you want to also.

4. If you have a child in school and they receive or buy lunch, do not deduct this from your budget. Any foods you pack for lunch or snacks does have to be part of your budget however.

5. The budget does not include paper products, cleaning supplies, over-the-counter medicines, prescription medication, or non-food items not covered by food stamps. If you do need to buy these while you’re shopping, just make them a separate order, paid for separately, so you can accurately add up what you’re spending on food only.

6. We can shop for, prepare and cook whatever we want to eat, and can eat free food at business functions, meetings, work, or other places just like anyone else; in addition we can sample from tasting stations in grocery stores, and eat at parties we attend, hosted by friends or family. We cannot take home leftovers to stretch our budget though.

7. We can also eat out – but do need to include any meals we pay for and include the tax and tip since food stamp recipients cannot pay for meals out with their debit card, but also do have the expectation that the food stamps are assistance, not their sole source of buying food…we’ll include any meals out in our total budget.

Basically, the challenge includes preparing and eating what you are able to purchase throughout the coming week, and any meals eaten out, since it’s one thing to have to shop with a limited budget and another to live with it for a week.

Who will join me this week?

Again this year, those participating in the challenge are encouraged to email me photos of their groceries for the week, along with recipes and meal ideas and insights about your experiences during the week. I’ll highlight them here on my blog next week and open discussion about the various challenges we all faced, and the things we learned along the way! As always your comments are welcome as the challenge gets underway!