Category Archives: Food budget

$35 week second thoughts – added costs of being poor

Here’s an issue related to the Food Stamp Challenge that, I’m ashamed to admit, didn’t occur to me until I was grocery shopping this morning. Poverty doesn’t just mean food stamps; it also tends to mean no car, or an unreliable car, as well as living where there are few or no supermarkets. (All the mom-and-pop corner grocers in my town went out of business decades ago, but next door to my town is Camden – one of the poorest cities in the country, and still full of corner stores. And the economics of running a corner grocery mean higher prices and smaller selections.)

I was able to get through the week under the $35 ceiling because I could drive to Wegman’s – the cheapest supermarket within 5 miles (8 km) of  my home – and use the car to lug back whatever I bought (instead of needing to carry it myself, while walking dangerously along the side of a high-speed road). Even depending on the supermarket that’s less than a mile from my house would have put me over the limit; their prices are that much higher. If I were really living like a poor person, I don’t think I could have finished the challenge successfully after all.

How many people on food stamps can’t be as thrifty as they need to be, because there’s no practical way for them to get to the stores with the best values?

A week at $35

Last Monday, I started the Food Stamp Challenge – an experiment to try to live on the average food stamp (or SNAP) benefit of $35 a week. Now it’s Sunday. How did things turn out?

The experience was very, very stressful at the beginning of the week when I was inexperienced and anxious about what a day’s worth of food was likely to cost. By this time, I have a clearer idea of what I can get away with eating, so I’m less worried – but I’m also pretty sick of counting pennies.

On the other hand, I did come in under the $35 limit – by the end of the day, I expect my food for the past week will have cost $29.32. (But who’s counting? 😉 Millions of people who have to go right on living like this, that’s who.) So you can say I was successful – but what did being successful require?

First, I relied on cooked-from-scratch food. I like to cook, I have enough free time to cook, and I’m in good health and have the energy to cook, so that wasn’t a burden – for me. With a job or two plus kids to care for plus health problems? Could look very different. Second, I had pay a lot of attention to what I was planning to eat and what it would cost. Third, I ate less meat than usual – over the course of the week, about four ounces (a very little more than 110 grams) of chicken and two ounces each of cod, pork, and hamburger.  And finally, I ate less food of any kind than usual – there’s a pound, or not quite half a kilo, less of me than there was a week ago.

(Could I have had more meat and more food? To some extent, one or the other. Not both. Meat becomes shockingly expensive when you’re trying to keep your food costs under $5 a day – I would have had to eat even less overall to afford the amount of meat I usually eat. And I could have traded off meat and milk and cheese and vegetables for a lot more bread and rice. But I was also trying to come up with a reasonably healthy diet.)

What did this approximation to a healthy diet look like? Lots of beans. Plenty of vegetables. Not many sweets – and that’s counting the muffins as sweets. Not a lot of meat. So far, that’s reasonable – nutritionists are forever complaining that we Americans eat a lot more meat and sugar than is good for us. Does that mean there are no problems with eating like this?

There’s at least one. Quantity. I’m a five foot one inch (1.55 m) tall woman who stopped growing (except sideways) years and years ago. I make a point of exercising, but if I chose I could spend most of my time sitting down. And I lost a pound in a week without trying to. I don’t think this would be enough food for my six foot two inch (1.88 m) tall husband – active, but with a job that’s not physically demanding. (I didn’t try to talk him into joining this project. It didn’t seem fair to pressure him into a project that I had mixed feelings about myself, and he habitually eats lunch at work anyway.) I’m positive it would be too little for growing teenage boys (I don’t have any daughters, but I do have experience with trying to keep fourteen year old boys fed) or those doing manual labor.

Again, you might be able to make up the calorie deficit by leaning harder on rice and bread and pasta than I did – but what’s the nutritional cost in the long run? I can’t stress hard enough that there are a lot of people who live like this indefinitely, because they have no choice.

So here I am at the end of the Food Stamp Challenge week. Only not; I plan to try to stick this out for at least a month. Why? To give myself a better picture of just how possible it is to stick to this budget, for one thing. The challenge rules allowed you to ignore the cost of condiments. And that makes sense when you’re only tracking expenses for a week, because it’s hard to figure in the price of small quantities. But condiments tend to be relatively expensive. Over the long haul, you have to either find the money to replace them, or go without. And, beyond that, to get a feel for the longer term psychological and nutritional effects. And it still seems as if it should be possible to use this experience toward programs for my church to help people who are hungry more effectively.

I put up a couple of other posts related to this challenge:
Could I live on food stamps?
Three days into the $35 week
186 cookbooks – 7 days of lentils

For those with a thirst for detail – what I actually ate:
Monday, black coffee and seven or eight peanuts for breakfast. Lunch, red lentils with ginger and garlic, and homemade pita bread. Dinner, African peanut chicken (chicken cooked with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and thyme, plus peanut butter at the end), rice, and salad. Also, two cups of milk.
Tuesday: coffee and peanuts for breakfast; lunch, lentils with caramelized onion, pita bread; dinner, macaroni and cheese, asparagus, salad.
Wednesday: Breakfast, coffee and peanuts; lunch, lentils with spinach, pita bread; dinner, cheese and veggie omelet, bread.
Thursday, coffee and peanuts again; lunch, Greek style peppers with yogurt, pita bread; dinner, New England fish chowder and salad.
Friday, more coffee and peanuts; lunch, lentils with chilis, pita bread; dinner, pork sate (skewered cubes of pork marinated in a mixture of peanut butter, soy sauce, lemon juice, brown sugar, and spices, then broiled), green beans, apple-raisin-walnut muffins. Two cups of milk.
Saturday, a change in the pattern – leftover muffins for breakfast and lunch, with coffee as usual. Dinner, spaghetti with meat sauce and salad.
And today, coffee and peanuts for breakfast and lunch; dinner will be chicken enchiladas (with corn, peppers, and onions in the enchilada filling as well as chicken), refried beans, and salad. Probably some more milk; at least, I included its cost in my calculations.

Three days into the $35 week

Last Friday, I posted that a number of people in Philadelphia were preparing to spend a week living on a Food Stamp budget, and I was planning to see if it was possible myself. Here’s a half-week update:

First, I now understand a little better what’s going on – basically, it’s political theater. (Which is not always a bad thing, mind you.) The state of Pennsylvania is about to impose restrictions on how much people getting food stamps can have in assets; a number of people consider the restrictions way too harsh. In addition, the Republicans in the (national) House of Representatives cut the Food Stamp budget in 2010 (cuts in benefits kick in as of 2013) and want to continue cutting it over the next ten years; Democrats don’t agree. (More detail in this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

But what am I learning? First, there’s a lot of discipline and anxiety in trying to keep food costs under $35 a week. More to the point, though: Just how generous or how stingy are such benefits?

On one hand, so far I am sticking to the $5 a day limit – I’m averaging a little over $4 per day. So it’s theoretically possible, with qualifications. I’m a short woman who doesn’t do a lot of physical work, and I’ve been fairly hungry. Could you feed a man doing manual labor on this amount of money? What about a teenage boy? I don’t think so.

Of course, you could argue that I’m being too luxurious. And I’ll agree that some of what I’ve eaten (fresh asparagus, bought last Thursday before I heard about this project) was expensive. On the other hand, it’s been an almost entirely vegetarian week, bordering on vegan. What did I eat so far?

Breakfast each day, black coffee with a small handful of peanuts (7-8 nuts).

Lunch, lentils cooked with several Indian recipes (more about this in a few days) with homemade pita bread.

Dinner: Monday, African peanut chicken / groundnut chicken with rice and salad. Tuesday, spicy macaroni and cheese, asparagus, and salad. Tonight, cheese and veggie omelet and bread.

In all honesty, I don’t see a lot of extravagance there, and not a lot of food either. I say it’s time to raise the allotments, not cut them.

Could I live on food stamps?

Just across the river, in Philadelphia and the adjoining Pennsylvania counties, the Coalition Against Hunger is making plans for people – people who don’t have to, that is – to live on a food stamp budget for a week. The estimate is that this comes out to $35 a week for one person. (Food stamps, or SNAP as the program is now officially called, are provided in varying amounts depending on family size and a lot of other complex variables.)

I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about this experiment. In some ways, it smells – no, reeks – of an upper-middle-class game of pretending to be poor, and thinking that this shows some sort of symbolic solidarity with people who really are poor. Folks, how about using the money you save to give your cleaning lady a raise? (And maybe some of the participants will.)

But I think I’m going to try it in spite of my doubts. With modifications. The Official Rules say that you’re supposed to use all newly purchased food for the week of April 23 – 29. I’m not going to do that; I have a lot of fresh produce that I bought during the past week, and it won’t keep till May. It seems completely against the idea of thrift (let alone imitation poverty) to just throw it all away unused.

Besides, I’ve been carefully tracking what I spend on food for several months, so it should be pretty easy to calculate how much it costs to feed me for a week, even if I am using food that’s already in the house. (The other semi-modification is that I’m not going to try to force my husband, let alone my adult son, to participate. I will be interested to see whether they feel as if I’ve been shorting them on quality or amounts of food for dinner; I’ll ask them at the end of the week. Meanwhile, I’m just going to calculate how much my food costs.)

But again, it isn’t right to do something like this purely as an experiment. Not when there are thousands of people for whom living on food stamps is no experiment; it’s just daily life. So how can I put the experience to use?

Well, one of the committees at church is looking into ways we can do more to help people who are short of food. (My church sprouts committees the way trees sprout leaves.) Maybe what I find out can be used toward that end. And, if I find out that I can manage on a food stamp budget, that means that I have some knowledge I should offer to anyone else who can use it (warning: more blog posts!). Also, if I can live on this restricted budget, I’m sure there are lots of charities that can use the cash I save.

Tomorrow, I can go on eating like a middle class person with a stable income. Monday, the test begins.

Money money, food food…..

About a month ago, I decided it was time to figure out where all the money goes, and if some of it could be persuaded to stay with us a bit longer.

The one thing I buy most often is food, and there’s lots of ways to tweak the food budget between stingy and extravagant. So last month, I kept a log of what I spend in supermarkets – this will get more complex next month when the Farmers’ Market opens. On the other hand, alas, it’s simpler than it used to be now that my favorite fish store has gone out of business.

I won’t bore you green with the details of how I analyzed the costs. Basically, I figured it made sense to start from the USDA’s figures for “cost of food at home”, and tweak to allow for the fact that my husband eats about six meals a week at work, but our son comes over for dinner about two times a week.

The results? Not bad; I landed pretty close to the “low-cost” USDA budget. Could be better; I should be able to save $80 or so a month if I can get down to the “thrifty” level.

There are plenty of people on the Web who blog about their astonishingly low food costs – I’ve been following, and enjoying, K. at $35 a Week. I’ll try some of her suggestions, but others just aren’t practical for us – for instance, if I started raising chickens in the back yard, the neighbors would get upset pretty quickly. And soon after that, the Township would get upset. And then I’d be looking for someone who wanted to adopt my chickens.

Still, there are other things I can be more careful about. (Two weeks ago I got enthusiastic about salad. There’s only so much lettuce you can eat, even at two big salads a day, before it spoils.) I’ll be commenting from time to time about what does, or doesn’t, seem to work.

And once I finish slimming down our food budget, it’s time to see where else we can save.

Thrift. Again.

February's grocery receipts

I’m almost afraid, superstitiously, to bring this subject up. Last fall, I was just starting to try to keep track of Where The Money Goes and blog about it, when my mother was suddenly hospitalized.

Ah well. You can’t stay keyed up to cope with a crisis forever. It’s too exhausting. So, here on the extra day of February, a week into Lent, I’m going to make another try at figuring out if there’s any padding to trim from our food budget.

That’s harder to judge than you might think. I totaled up what I spent on groceries in February, leaving out nonfood stuff and things I bought to donate to the food bank, and it comes to about $390. Is that good or bad? Well, I consulted the USDA monthly estimates on what it “should” cost families of different sizes and resources to provide a month worth of meals, and I’m still not sure.

On the one hand, there are two people living here, me and my husband. So that means I should use the “Family of 2” estimates, right? Well, not so fast. Paul rarely eats lunch at home; on his teaching days, he has lunch in the faculty cafeteria, and this semester he squeezes in Wednesday dinner there, too, before teaching his evening class. So I should decrease our estimate to take that into account.

Well, yes – but what about the times our son comes over for dinner? On a typical week, we have three people, two of them grown men, dining here several nights. Gotta increase our estimate. So we should spend less than the USDA two-person estimate on food, and also we should spend more.

My plan – and I hope it doesn’t get interrupted again – is use March as the test sample. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be keeping records of who eats which meals here, and probably of what we eat. By the end of the month, I ought to learn that (a) we’re wildly extravagant or (b) we’re thriftier than the thriftiest mommy-blogger on the Internet or (c) we’re nuthin’ unusual.

Thrift, food, and turkeys

Long ago – back in September, before things fell apart – I was planning to blog about cutting our food budget.

Buying a bunch of fresh produce and then spending a week out of state is not very thrifty. (Might as well just drop the cash directly into the garbage.) Neither is coming home so exhausted, mentally, emotionally, and physically, that you can’t face anything but a restaurant meal. I don’t really know right now what I spent on groceries in October – I did keep the receipts, but haven’t added them up – but I’m pretty sure it was well over my target of $300.

Well, my life seems to have stabilized, temporarily. Not that I plan to try for a three hundred dollar December – come Christmas, all bets are off with budgeting. But I do intend to start inflicting some recipes and some thoughts about finances on you, whoever you are out there.

Besides, I had some blog posts plans over the past week or so that didn’t get uploaded on schedule. And I had a Thanksgiving Sunday turkey to use up – the one I served my father in law, after the one I cooked on Thanksgiving Day for my mother.

So here you are, a guaranteed non-authentic whitegirl South Jersey Turkey Lo Mein. With pictures.

Turkey Lo Mein

(Or chicken. Or beef. Or pork. Whatever kind of leftover meat you need to use up.  Or tofu, if you’re vegetarian, I suppose.)

This is a what-you-have, use-stuff-up recipe – so measurements are VERY approximate! It takes about fifteen minutes to cut things up and maybe ten minutes to cook.

1/4 c. sliced onion
1 1/2 c. fresh broccoli (or 2-3 c. fresh spinach) (or peas or green beans or chopped peppers, I suppose – some sort of veggies)
1 c. cooked turkey
6 oz. fine egg noodles (half of a 12 oz. bag, the usual size they sell around here)
2-3 T. oil
1 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 T. soy sauce

Put a pot of water on to boil for the noodles.

Peel broccoli stems (because the outside is tough and unpleasant to eat, unless you cook the broccoli so long that everything else is disgustingly mushy) and cut the broccoli into small pieces. Cut the turkey into smallish pieces.

When the sides of the pot of water are covered with small bubbles that keep detatching themselves and rising to the surface, turn the heat on as high as you can under a large frying pan. Let it heat for about half a minute, add 1 T. oil, and stir-fry the broccoli until it’s bright green.

When large bubbles start rising to the surface of the pot of water, dump in the noodles. Stir for thirty seconds or so to make sure the noodles don’t glue themselves together as they cook. Check the time – you need to drain the noodles 3 to 4 minutes from right now.

Back to the frying pan. Add the onion and stir-fry until it becomes translucent instead of opaque white. Add some more oil and the turkey. Continue stirring everything together till it’s time to drain the noodles. Dump the drained noodles into the pan. Add some more oil (this is not a low-fat dish, I’m afraid) and a teaspoon of sugar. Stir well. Add the soy sauce and stir for another minute. Serve to two or three people, depending on how hungry they are, or one teenage boy.

What I was planning to talk about today

Money.

Nearly everyone has been binging on money. I was lucky enough, or cautious enough, not to go head over heels in debt during my binge. But it’s still time to cut back.

So, since I like experimenting with food, I’m going to experiment with whether I can trim back to eat well on the USDA “thrifty” food budget. The USDA comes out monthly with an estimate of how much it costs for households of various sizes and ages to eat at a “liberal”, “moderate”, “low-cost”, or “thrifty” level – unfortunately, it seems to take them a couple of months to work out the numbers. Now that it’s October, they’ve released the figures for August.

Well, you work with what you have. And two month old numbers are only the first problem. I could use their costs for a two-person household, ages 51-70; except that my husband is almost never home to eat lunch, and works late two nights a week, and a couple of times a week our son comes over for dinner. And I’m trying to lose weight, like pretty much every adult woman in the country.

Anyhow, the official “thrifty” July estimate for us was $350. (August wasn’t out yet last week when I started thinking about this project.) I massaged the numbers and decided that my goal is to spend not more than $300 on food this month. That doesn’t come near some of the more heroic mommy bloggers or extreme couponers; but we’re in our sixties, and my husband has had one heart attack, which was plenty. Thrift has to make room for nutrition.

Dinner tonight (for three) was chicken enchiladas, approximately. A closer description would be chicken burritos (homemade flour tortillas instead of corn tortillas) enjitomatas (the sauce was heavy on tomato and contained no chiles; I put a roasted slivered poblano in the filling instead). We’ll see how things go over the next month.