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Eating for one week on $47.25

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How well could you actually eat on food stamps?

The food aid program for poor Americans (formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) has been much in the news lately, as House Republicans last month passed a measure that would cut the program’s budget by billions of dollars – a measure that the Democrats in the Senate and President Obama oppose.

Regardless of that effort, beginning in November, everyone who relies on food stamps will feel a little pinch as the program becomes a bit less generous. That’s because a boost put into place as part of a federal economic stimulus program during the recession is set to expire.

In New Hampshire, that means the maximum monthly benefit for a single person will be cut by $11 to $189 per month. In a month with four weeks, that’s $47.25 a week; less in a longer month.

It’s certainly possible to live on that small food budget – in New Hampshire alone, 55,041 households rely on the program, according to state statistics. But how possible is it to create healthy, tasty meals on such a small allotment?

My brief research suggests a depressing truth: It’s hard! Many of the items I typically have on hand in my own kitchen would be prohibitively expensive – feta cheese, Greek olives, real maple syrup, fancy flavors of tea. (On the other hand, I don’t have the pricey addictions that some people do – I can easily go without coffee or Coca-Cola.) Cooking for one on a small budget means a lot less variety than you’d like, serious planning, very little serendipity and, I’m chagrined to admit, smaller portions than I’m used to.

I tried my best to create a healthy, interesting one-week menu for myself on $47.25 Here’s one way to do it – but I imagine it’s not the most interesting, most frugal or most delicious way possible. Smarter shoppers and better cooks could no doubt improve upon my efforts. Take a look at my work and then send us your own suggestions for improvements in both tastiness and economy. Send your shopping strategies and recipes to letters@cmonitor.com.

Shopping strategy

I went to the downtown Concord Market Basket on a Saturday afternoon. The place was jammed, which meant I didn’t draw too much attention to myself despite shopping with a calculator and note pad in hand. I bought the store brand whenever possible. I had no coupons with me – which was no doubt a mistake but made the project more straightforward. After my first pass through the store, my shopping cart of food added up to $66.71. Drat.

My immediate impulse was a bit of creative bookkeeping. Many of the items on my list would last a single person much, much longer than a week, but it was impossible to purchase them in smaller quantities.

On the theory that buying them this week would save me money in future weeks, I prorated the cost. (For example, I counted the cost of just one stick of butter toward the total, even though I had no choice but to buy four.)

Even with that sneaky math, I was still over my limit. I put back a head of garlic, a few tomatoes, a few onions, a lemon, a bunch of scallions and a cucumber. I decided a stir-fry recipe that called for chicken broth could do without.

The upshot: a fairly healthy but not terribly exciting menu.

The purchases

Based on the menu I’d planned – and after some adjustments – I filled my basket with the following:

A half pound of flounder fillet

A bag of raw almonds

A small sack of red potatoes

A cube of firm tofu

An 8-oz bag of fresh spinach

A 5-oz bag of dried cranberries

A little less than a pound of tomatoes

A 1-pound crown of broccoli

1 lemon

1 pound of onions

2 pounds of carrots

A head of lettuce

7 large Macoun apples

4 bananas

2 large sweet potatoes

A small carton of orange juice

Butter

Frozen whole blueberries

Frozen sweet peas

1 tub of plain, nonfat yogurt

½ dozen large eggs

1 jar of peanut butter

1 can of black beans

1 can of oatmeal

1 box of chicken broth

2 cans of tuna

1 jar of oyster sauce

1 bottle of vegetable oil

1 bag of rice

1 box of teabags

1 bottle of soy sauce

1 box of cornstarch

1 loaf of whole wheat bread

1 bottle vinegar

The menu

Sunday

Breakfast – Oatmeal with blueberries, banana, cup of hot tea, toast with peanut butter.

Lunch – Caribbean black beans over rice, carrot sticks, apple. (Make enough beans and rice for 3 portions; save 2. Also, make extra rice to be used later in vegetable fried rice.)

Snack – Yogurt with nuts, dried cranberries. Orange juice.

Dinner – Baked flounder with roasted sweet potato. (Make a double portion and save half for Monday’s lunch.) Green salad with oil and vinegar. Iced tea (make a large pitcher to use all week).

Monday

Breakfast – Oatmeal with blueberries and chopped apple, cup of hot tea, toast with peanut butter

Lunch – Baked flounder with roasted sweet potato. Green salad.

Snack – Yogurt with nuts and dried cranberries. Orange juice.

Dinner – Chinese tofu and vegetable stir fry over rice. (Make a double portion; save half for Tuesday lunch.) Iced tea.

Tuesday

Breakfast – Oatmeal with blueberries. Banana. Cup of hot tea. Toast and peanut butter.

Lunch – Chinese tofu and vegetable stir fry over rice. Apple.

Snack – Yogurt with nuts and dried cranberries. Orange juice.

Dinner – Two-egg spinach omelet with hash browns. Iced tea.

Wednesday

Breakfast – Oatmeal with blueberries and chopped apple. Cup of hot tea. Toast with peanut butter.

Lunch – Green salad. Tuna sandwich with tomato.

Snack – Yogurt with nuts and dried cranberries. Orange juice.

Dinner – Caribbean black beans and rice. Spinach salad. Toast with butter. Iced tea.

Thursday

Breakfast – Oatmeal with blueberries. Banana. Cup of hot tea. Toast with peanut butter.

Lunch – Green salad. Tuna sandwich. Apple.

Snack: Yogurt with nuts and dried cranberries. Orange juice.

Dinner: Vegetable fried rice with eggs. (Make 2 portions; save one for Friday lunch.) Iced tea.

Friday

Breakfast – Oatmeal with blueberries and chopped apple. Cup of tea. Toast with peanut butter

Lunch – Vegetable fried rice with eggs.

Snack: Yogurt with nuts and dried cranberries. Orange juice.

Dinner: Caribbean black beans with rice. Green salad. Toast with butter. Iced tea.

Saturday

Breakfast – Two-egg omelet with spinach and onion. Toast with butter. Banana.

Lunch –- Green salad. Peanut butter sandwich. Apple. Orange juice.

Dinner – Pureed roasted vegetable soup. Green salad. Toast with butter. Iced tea.

Some recipes

SATURDAY’S SOUP:

This is an easy way to use up a bunch of leftovers.

Roast potatoes, onions and carrots (other good ingredients include parsnips, garlic, leeks, winter squash, red bell peppers) with just a bit of oil at 425 degrees for about 45 minutes.

In a large soup kettle, combine roasted vegetables with 4 cups of chicken broth, salt and pepper. Puree with a blender.

CARIBBEAN BLACK BEANS:

1 ½ cup rice

1 medium onion, chopped

1 15-oz. can of black beans, drained and rinsed

¾ cup orange juice or pineapple juice

½ ts/ allspice or thyme

1 Tbsp. canola oil

Cook 1.5 cups rice.

In a skillet, sauté the onion in oil. Add black beans, orange juice, allspice and pepper. Mash some beans with spoon to thicken. Simmer over low heat until liquid is mostly absorbed, stirring occasionally.

Serve beans over rice.

VEGETABLE FRIED RICE WITH EGG:

2 cups long-grain converted white rice, rinsed

Salt

1/4 cup oyster sauce

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 large eggs, beaten until just blended

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup frozen baby peas, thawed

2 or 3 scallions, thinly sliced, including some of the green tops, 1/3 to 1/2 cup. (Or substitute chopped onions)

2 cups diced store bought roast pork, optional

1 carrot, chopped into small pieces

Sesame oil, as needed

At least 1 day before you plan to make the fried rice, cook rice, cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate.

Break up any clumps of the cold rice with your fingers and set aside. In a small bowl, stir together the oyster sauce and soy sauce and set aside.

Coat a large, nonstick skillet with nonstick vegetable spray and set over medium-high heat. When the skillet is hot, add the eggs, swirling them around to make sure they coat the whole bottom of the pan. Cook, without stirring, and adjusting the heat as necessary, until the eggs are firm and cooked through but not yet starting to brown, lifting the skillet and tilting it so that the eggs cook evenly. Slide the eggs onto a plate and when they have cooled, cut into small pieces; set aside.

Return the skillet to the burner and heat the oil over high heat. When it is hot, add the peas, carrots and scallions, and cook, stirring constantly, until the scallions are limp, about 1 minute.

Stir in the rice, sauce mixture, eggs and roast pork until well mixed. Continue to cook, stirring, until the rice is heated through, 1 to 2 minutes.

Legacy Comments9

So, I drove to Market Basket tonight and for $46 I was able to plan a weeks worth of meals. Here is what I picked up: 1 pound of hamburger (92% LEAN) Tuesday Hamburgers, save for sloppy joes on Sunday. (Just $3.29 for main dish for 2 meals) 4 chicken legs and thighs (for two meals one on Monday, one on Saturday) (total cost was $3.27 by the way) 1 loaf of whole wheat bread (on sale for 99 cents) 6 Market Basket yogurts two cans of baked beans 1 can of sloppy joe mix 1 lb bag of pasta (89 cents) 1 jar of spaghetti sauce (99 cents on sale) 1 bunch of brocolli 5 potatoes 1 2# bag of carrots 1 head of green leaf lettuce 4 tomatoes one large onion 1 half gallon of milk two cans of chicken broth (to make leftover chicken into soup) one dozen eggs (medium $1.89) 5 pkgs of Knorr Rice (5 for $5) 1 package of celery 1 box of tea bags 4 apples 2 pears 6 bananas 1 frozen can of orange juice 1 can of light tuna So, four dinners with hamburger and chicken leaves three dinners open. Tuna casserole, spaghetti with sauce and an omelet. Breakfast would be a poached egg on whole wheat toast for two days and yogurt for 5 days, a banana four days and a pear 2 days apple another with tea for breakfast . Next, lunches....tuna for two days with an apple and a banana. 3 days with a salad and apple. Two days Knorr rice with stir fried carrots, onion, broccoli. Potatoes and Knorr rice would round out the other days sides for dinner. Now, is this a tough menu....YES....but I can tell you I was behind a person with food stamps in line and then the rest of her $200+ grocery bill was paid for in CASH. She pulled out a stack of $20 bills and peeled off 10-11 of them to fill the rest of the payment. Then she stuffed about $600-$700 back into here wallet. So it may be tough on some people and I doubt much that most people on food stamps understand nutrition and would make the same choices that were made by Felice or myself.

ItsaRepublic: I'd love to publish a version of your experiment in the paper. Email me at letters@cmonitor.com and let me know if it's okay with you. Thanks! Felice Belman

Felice......Well, my shopping was more or less just seeing how I could come up with enough food for 7 days. I did NOT stick to the meal plan and break out recipes. With two children to feed, I will vary many of my meals but we could live off of this if necessary with the plan I outlined. But a suggestion to a single person trying to do this and live comfortably off of the $47 would be to focus on the different food groups. In retrospect, I would have picked up some bread crumbs for a meatloaf in place of 2 Knorr rice. Remember that the orange juice was frozen which if you purchase the store brand is much more affordable than a carton. Rice is very filling when you drink water with your meal and there is a Jasmine rice that keeps things interested in boil in a bag $2.99 for four servings. At Market Basket the large packages of shredded cheese (MB Brands) are just $1.89, lots of protein there. Baked beans have a lot of fiber and if you stick strictly to the sale items, you can save tons of money at Market Basket.

Pretty good eats Felice! If you want to augment the fish, tofu and beans with some meat I'll give you a package of venison. My bill at the butcher so far this fall is $163.00 and I have 75 lbs of free-range, cage-free, GMO-free, low-fat, high-protein, locally-sourced meat to show for it. That's about $2.17/lb - not a bad price for the finest meat in the land! Of course, that doesn't count money spent on licenses, equipment, etc. But we don't need to tell my wife that now do we?

Got a good recipe?

I'm totally impressed with what you've done here, Felice. I'm also aware of how difficult it would be to pull this off if you were elderly or disabled or had many small children and a job. As for food pantries, I used to accompany my clients to the surplus food handouts in the days before food stamps. I also am close friends with someone who runs a huge food pantry. The problem is two fold: transportation and the ability to lift and carry. You would not be aware of the first because people who lack transportation simply won't be in your pantry to be seen. You may think because someone helps a person carry stuff to their car that the carrying problem is solved but they still have to schlepp it up a flight or two of stairs, not an easy task for someone in their 70's or 80's. I was only able to help one or two of my elderly clients each time. It was frustrating because my caseload numbered over 400. Had I not done the lifting and carrying for those few people they would have gotten nothing because they were unable to get there and/or to carry anything much more than a tin of beans. The other problem I have with food pantries is the huge amount of processed food they give out. It's inescapable, of course, due to storage concerns and the availability of donations. It's WONDERFUL that they give out soap and toilet paper as you cannot purchase those vital items on food stamps.

Ducklady: Thanks for your comments. I can tell you that for even a single week, this was a challenge -- even without the added difficulties you're describing. We have a good followup planned for Saturday's paper on this topic.

The word "toney" comes quickly to mind. Anyone, and especially a single-Mom household, is very welcome at our food pantry where you'll stretch that food stamp allotment and receive many groceries and personal hygiene items to help save dollars needed so desperately for rent, gasoline, utilities, and clothing.

A primary objective of the food stamp program is to be concerned with the affordability of 'exciting' menus?? I guess I don't understand the program.

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