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Final Thoughts from the Food Stamp Challenge Experience, from a Participant

September 30, 2010

I’ve found that shopping and cooking within the limits of the Food Stamps Challenge is both more time-consuming and more challenging.

I spoke with a friend of mine who is a senior citizen on a very limited income and who had been on food stamps previously and now obtains some of her food from a local pantry.  I thought she could give me some good tips on shopping and food preparation.  When she found out I had to feed a man with a big appetite on $20.49 for five days, she thought I couldn’t do it — at least with healthy foods.  She recommended eggs, rice, chicken legs, and dry beans and advised that I’d better be prepared to spend some serious time in the kitchen and also look at different stores for the best prices.

She was right.

I wanted to provide the most healthful and most filling foods possible, while still making sure to have the food last through the week and also be tasty.  I did some advance research on the internet and found a grocery store that had a sale on some of the items I thought I might need. I decided that I would go to only one store, since I wanted to limit my transportation expenses (the market I chose did require that I take a bus roundtrip.)  I shopped armed with a calculator and a notepad.

It didn’t surprise me much to find out that I had to make some hard choices.  Dry beans cost more than lentils, so lentils went in the basket.  Chicken thighs on sale were only available in bulk — as were many of the “sale” items, like apples — so I could only afford to buy 4 thighs at the more expensive per-pound price (and apples never even made it into the equation).  Whole wheat pasta (on sale) was 2/$3.00, whereas regular pasta was on sale for $0.59.  NYC food prices are much higher than the prices my rural Pennsylvania friend was quoting me — she paid less than $2.00 for a dozen and a half eggs, while I had to pay $2.50 for only a dozen — and that was the cheapest sale price at the stores within a reasonable distance that I researched.

It took me a few hours to plan my meals and do the shopping. I’m guessing that many food stamps recipients don’t have this kind of time — or access to the internet.  Plus, bus fare was $4.50.

Cooking was more time-consuming than it would have been if I’d used the more expensive convenience foods.  I made everything from scratch, including breakfast and pasta sauce.  Regular (cheaper) oatmeal takes longer to cook than instant.  Healthier, but more takes more time.  I ended up with 10 ingredients to work with — not including oil, spices and condiments, which I already had in the apartment — and I felt a bit like an Iron Chef trying to figure out different ways of combining these limited ingredients to provide variety and something that tasted good.  Anyone who is picky about eating leftovers must have the luxury of eating something new each day.  If you are on a limited income, variety is not always an option — especially if you have limited time to plan your meals and search for recipes or if you are not an experienced cook.

My 10 items:  chicken thighs; brown rice; pasta; canned crushed tomatoes; onions; potatoes; frozen chopped broccoli; eggs; rolled oats; and lentils.

End result?  The food I prepared lasted the entire five days and was fairly healthy and filling.  There was no fruit, not nearly enough vegetables and protein, and the food was very starch-heavy.  An increase in the food stamps allotment would have allowed for a much healthier and tasty week.

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