Nearly 20 percent of households in Oregon rely on food assistance programs. Our writer takes the food-stamp challenge to see if her family can last a week on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s grocery budget.
Where can I put this? Why is the fridge so packed?” I hear my husband calling from the kitchen.
It’s a Thursday afternoon, and there’s not even two inches of space for his water bottle in our standard refrigerator among the containers of carrot sticks and jars of chicken stock. Not because of a recent spree at Costco or upcoming party, but because we’re on food stamps.
Allow me to explain.
I’m no stranger to budget cooking and eating. I’ve had to work hard to make ends meet for most of my adult life, and for years kept a (now-defunct) blog about my husband’s and my attempts to feed ourselves as healthfully as possible on a food-stamp budget.
But this was before the birth of my son, and my latest incarnation as an exhausted, 35-year-old working mom juggling several part-time jobs. Could I live on a food-stamp budget now, without the pre-kid luxury of endless amounts of energy and time in the kitchen, unfettered by a filthy house, mountains of laundry, multiple looming deadlines, and a child pulling on my shirt every 5 minutes?
It turns out that, yes, it is very possible … with a few days’ worth of hard work, an arsenal of kitchen appliances (pressure cooker, food processor, waffle iron), and a willingness to subsist on a diet nearly devoid of fresh fruit. (Keeping in mind that merely having those tools at my disposal—and the space to store them—is a luxury many parents on food stamps, who often work long hours at minimum-wage jobs, simply don’t have.)
For help in starting, I turned to the Food Research & Action Center’s SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Challenge toolkit in calculating my estimated benefits ($120.70 per person per month for Oregon, so for our family of 3, that’s $90.50 per week).
I also asked the Oregon Food Bank (OFB) for guidance on what kinds of challenges I might be facing. The answer? Time. And produce.
“Most people do say the cost of produce is a barrier keeping people from eating the way they want to eat,” says Myrna Jensen of OFB, which offers cooking and gardening classes for SNAP participants, along with guidance for grocery shopping (see sidebar). “Farmers markets take SNAP, and you can grow just about anything year round in Oregon — though it may not be your kid’s favorite.” (SNAP can also be used to purchase food-producing seeds and plants.)
And what about obstacles for parents, specifically?
“We all know that time, when you have small children, is difficult,” Jensen said. “But you don’t always have to reach for the processed food — if you’re cooking, you can make multiples of healthy meals at the beginning of the week and freeze them.”
With that in mind, one Sunday in late August, with both my son and husband home on summer break, I got started planning my week of meals.
I knew from my old budget-blogging days that every single meal, snack and dessert had to be accounted for before I even set foot in the grocery store, and each item I bought should serve multiple purposes: A bag of dried garbanzos (aka chickpeas) could be cooked and roasted for a snack or pureed into hummus, for example, or the meat and stock from a whole chicken could yield multiple meals over the course of the week. I also had to ensure at least a couple of the meals — in this case, ramen and macaroni and cheese — could be thrown together at the last minute in case of emergency to prevent resorting to too-expensive takeout.
With a non-negotiable shopping list in hand (presupposing no pantry items except for salt, pepper, a tablespoon of plain vinegar and baking powder), I set out for my two favorite budget-shopping destinations: WinCo, across the Columbia in Hazel Dell, Wash., and Grocery Outlet in St. Johns.
At WinCo, I focused on bulk items and staples: black and garbanzo beans, sugar, cornmeal, raisins, whole-wheat and all-purpose flours, long-lasting perishables (bananas, a couple of onions, a lemon, carrots, spinach, chard, a large cabbage), two 18-packs of eggs, vegetable oil, pancake syrup, two loaves of airy wheat bread, butter, four packages of ramen noodles, and a four-pound chicken.
At Grocery Outlet, I chose more processed versions of items we as a family were used to eating in our day-to-day lives: alternative milks (I usually make my own almond milk, but found that cashew milk at $2.49 per half-gallon was actually cheaper), organic cow’s milk for my 3-year-old, almond butter, tahini (only $3.99!), 2 pounds of Colby Jack cheese, turkey bacon, a four-pack of Yoplait Kids yogurt, dried mango, four fruit pouches, one box of macaroni and cheese, corn and flour tortillas, and coffee (a 1.5-pound bag of “Java Time” for $4.99 was an especially good find — it lasted two weeks).
It’s a surprisingly large amount of food, enough to pack every square inch of the fridge.
My total for both stores: $82.18
BREAKFAST MENUS FOR THE WEEK:
- Cashew-milk shake with protein powder
- Whole-wheat toast with almond butter and a banana
- Scrambled eggs and turkey bacon
- Egg in a hole
- Green whole-wheat pancakes (regular recipe with spinach blended with the milk)
- Green whole-wheat waffles
LUNCH MENUS FOR THE WEEK:
- Quesadillas (2 days)
- Grilled-cheese sandwiches
- Ramen noodles with sauteed cabbage
- Hummus and carrot sticks
- Egg salad sandwiches
- Chicken and black-bean burritos
DINNER MENUS FOR THE WEEK:
- Black-bean tacos with chimichurri using herbs from outside (oregano,sage and thyme grow just about anywhere and require very little care).
- Chicken soup with hand-cut noodles
- Roasted chickpeas over polenta with sauteed chard
- Ramen with chicken and sauteed cabbage
- Black bean and chicken enchiladas
- Macaroni and cheese with turkey bacon and tomatoes from the yard
- Biscuits with chicken gravy
SNACK MENU FOR THE WEEK:
Yogurt,fruit pouches,dried mango,hummus and carrots,hard-boiled eggs,crispy chickpeas, whole-wheat carrot raisin muffins,carrot sticks
DESSERT MENU FOR THE WEEK:
Black bean brownies, banana “ice cream” (partially frozen blended bananas)
- Cook black beans in pressure cooker
- Cut up some carrots for hummus throughout the week, grate others
- Make whole-wheat carrot raisin muffins
- Bake black-bean brownies.
Giving my son a specific task, even if it means “peeling” the carrots until there’s no carrot left, is allowing me to get a lot more done than I would’ve expected. All in all, it took less than two hours.
The kitchen is still a mess from my whirlwind cooking the day before, but I manage to cook a double batch of green pancakes and freeze the rest for later in the week, and cut up two bowls of mirepoix (carrots, celery and onion) to keep in the fridge for later on.
I also cut up the chicken, cook the breasts and thighs in the pressure cooker, and divide the meat into three bags, then break out the pressure cooker again to make stock with the carcass (using carrot, onion and celery peelings). After straining the pot, I’m left with about eight cups — the equivalent to two 32-ounce store-bought cartons, which run about $1.99 each. I pick another bag’s worth of meat off of the carcass, too. I make another pot of coffee.
My husband also decides today at the last minute to play in a dinnertime men’s league soccer game, so my plans for chicken soup went out the window. Instead I throw together a 39-cent box of macaroni and cheese with some tomatoes from the yard and chopped turkey bacon. Not my proudest parenting moment, but my son eats two bowls.
Today is actually pretty easy; all the major prep work for dinner is done (stock, mirepoix and cooked chicken are ready in the fridge from yesterday), so the only cooking I really have to do is help my son make noodles for the chicken soup. I use a pasta machine, but I’ve used a rolling pin before to great success. It’s no secret kids will eat noodles no matter what they look like.
I think it turns out pretty well, and makes enough for us all to have thirds.
I pressure-cook a huge batch of chickpeas, puree half into hummus and roast the other half with lemon juice, oil, salt, and a little paprika. They’re so good even my son is eating them by the handful. Great as a snack, or as a protein-packed topping for salads, pasta, soups, polenta and more.
I could really use some fresh fruit, so after work I make a quick run to my neighborhood farmers market. There’s not much selection, so I choose the only two items I know the whole family will eat: strawberries and Asian pears. Total for a pint of strawberries and three Asian pears: NINE DOLLARS. No wonder they do SNAP matching! I actually feel depressed thinking of all the bulk-bin items I could’ve purchased for $9.
My son has eaten all the green pancakes, so I wake up a bit earlier than usual to make a double batch of waffles and freeze those. I start worrying about both my electric and water bills, as we’re now running the dishwasher nearly every single day. I cannot imagine having to do this without a dishwasher.
I’ve actually got this cooking-with-a-3-year-old thing down, and he’s getting better, too. We make “buttermilk” for the biscuits by adding a tablespoon of vinegar to our last cup of milk and letting it sit for an hour or so, and use the last bowl of mirepoix, bag of chicken, extra stock, and some flour as a thickener to make a gravy for them — kind of an inside-out chicken pot pie.
I have to admit, I’m tired — tired of waking up early to cook, tired of doing so many dishes, and tired of eating such a starch-heavy diet. But I also feel a little empowered. Why have I been buying processed waffles in a box when only an hour’s investment one morning can produce two weeks’ worth of nutritious, veggie-packed homemade versions? Why is there not more hummus in my life? These are all easy questions to ask, of course, when I’m only doing this for seven days; where failure simply means having to try again, or, at worst, rewrite the story. All I know is, I’m thankful to be on my way to the store right now — to buy fruit.
3 cups cooked chickpeas (you can use 2 rinsed and drained cans, but they won’t turn out as crispy)
oil (preferably olive oil, but any will do)
spices of your choice (I like smoked paprika)
Preheat oven to 400˚ F. Toss the chickpeas with oil and a generous pinch of salt, bake on a sheet pan for about 20 minutes, stirring every so often and making sure they don’t burn.
Remove from oven, pour into a bowl, and toss with lemon juice, spice(s), and a little more salt if needed. Return to the sheet pan and bake for 10 more minutes or until crispy. Store in an airtight container.
Drop into boiling stock for instant soup, or serve with butter or pasta sauce of your choice.
1 cup all-purpose flour
milk or water as needed
Mound the flour on a cutting board; make a little well into the top, and drop eggs in well. Beat the eggs, drawing some flour into the eggs as you go. Mix the egg and flour together with your hands until you have a relatively cohesive ball. Add milk or water if it’s too shaggy. Knead for a few minutes (as long as you have time or patience for), then let rest for a few minutes. Roll it out in a pasta machine, or with a rolling pin, as thin as you can get it. Cut into strips (or shapes!) with a pizza roller, knife or even cookie cutters; cook in boiling chicken stock or salted water for 4-5 minutes until al dente (taste a piece to check).
Makes about a dozen large pancakes.
1 cup milk
1 bunch spinach, rinsed, thicker end of stalks cut off
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 cup whole-wheat flour
pinch of salt
vegetable oil to grease the griddle or pan
Combine milk and spinach in the blender, blend until uniformly bright green with no chunks. Pour into a bowl and mix in melted butter, egg and sugar. Stir in flour and salt and mix until just combined; some lumps are okay. Add just enough vegetable oil to grease a pan or griddle preheated over medium heat. Pour batter onto pan or griddle, cook until firm and lightly golden on each side. Serve with plenty of butter and maple syrup.
Oregon Food Bank: Get Help
Search for food pantries (“We’ve found most people do cook daily when they have access to a food pantry,” says Jensen), harvest share distribution sites for produce, and free meal sites: oregonfoodbank.org/Get-Help
Oregon Food Bank: Cooking and Gardening classes
From shopping and meal-planning guidance to year round learning gardens: oregonfoodbank.org/our-work/building-food-security/education-programs
Kitchen Share kitchen tool libraries
Borrow food dehydrators, canning equipment, mixers, and more at no cost from two locations in Northeast and Southeast Portland: kitchenshare.org/
Portland Farmers Market: Fresh exchange for SNAP
Though produce is still expensive, most markets offer a dollar-for-dollar match for SNAP participants up to $5 per week: portlandfarmersmarket.org/programs-events/fresh-exchange-for-snap/