It's happened again. There's a mayor in the news doing a food stamp challenge. At this link, you'll find the "rules" he'll be using for said challenge (it's $35/person of food and beverage for the challenge week, or about $140 for a family of 4).
Let me start by saying this: I am not opposed to food stamps. I think the program could be improved (oh, yes, I do), but the concept of feeding our hungry and needy is one I am completely 100% comfortable with.
However. (There's always a however isn't there.) However, these food stamp challenges always (always) irritate me. They irritate me on both sides of the coin. They irritate me because on the one end people are doing this little challenge for one week and considering themselves in tune with what The Poor have to go through. This can make us either over pity them (you've heard it a billion times: "no one can eat healthfully on food stamps") or disdain them (you've heard this too: "my family and I spend less than a food stamp budget every month"). I'm not sure either of those attitudes is very helpful to anyone.
And then these challenges irritate me on the other end because, well, of course it can be done. Yes, it takes a little effort, cooking, planning, and time, but of course if people are careful they can eat well on a food stamp budget. I think that generally speaking those who flat out say it can't be done are those who have generally lived most of all of their lives with plenty of money in their pockets. The rest of us are used to a bit of budgeting, planning, and sometimes doing without. The idea that this shouldn't be part of life (for The Poor or otherwise) is a little ridiculous to me. Come on, budgeting, planning, and doing without are often part of our lives in general--not just the food part of it. There are--and will always be--things that we want that we can't have, things that we wish were easier that aren't, and things that must be cut out because they will not--in the long run--contribute to that which will make us the most happy or benefit us the most. You don't have to be on food stamps to know what I'm talking about. It has just as much to do with marital fidelity as it does to screen time as it does to going to the grocery store. We give up some things so we can make other things work. It's called life. Welcome to it.
With that attitude which will surely irritate everyone on the political spectrum, let me offer my best advice and a little menu for how to eat on $5/person/day.
1. Cut out soda, bottled water, crackers, chips, processed snacks/cookies/candy.
2. Plan a menu that uses things from meals prior to build the coming meals.
3. Get to know your Quaker Oats man.
4. Take your lunch.
5. Eat soup, homemade or otherwise.
6. Try having breakfast for dinner at least once a week.
7. Eat your leftovers (even if they're too small for a full meal--you can always add a piece of bread, fruit, or something else to even it out)
8. You're probably not going to buy all organic (though if you're a savvy shopper or have even a mildly green thumb, you might be able to get a fair amount of your food organic anyway). This "how can they buy organic" is one of the arguments against the current food stamp budget. It's a silly one to me because I don't think that the majority of non food stamp consumers eat organic either. You may send me hate mail if you like, but I don't consider eating organic food an inalienable right. If it is, perhaps the government should regulate our food industry differently. Ahem.
A Few Thoughts on a Basic Menu for a Family of 4:
3 days a week: Oatmeal with brown sugar, a piece fruit, plus a cup of milk to drink.
2 days a week: Eggs and toast with an orange (or other seasonal fruit).
2 days a week: Generic cereal
2 days a week: PBJ's baby. With an apple or small Caesar salad.
2 days a week: Quesidillas or bean burritoes.
2 days a week: Large Ceasar salad with a bit of leftover chicken (from that roast down below).
1 day a week: Tomato soup
Dinner (most can be prepared in less than 30 minutes):
1. Roast chicken with potatoes and carrots. 90 minute cook time, unless you stick it in the crock pot before work. Then it's 10 minutes of prep and it's ready when you get home.
2. Spaghetti maybe with meatballs and a salad or broccoli on the side. 30 minutes or less
3. Fried rice (with some leftover bits from that chicken). 30 minutes or less
4. Soup soup soup with bread bread bread. You can make it with the stock from the roast chicken, but you don't even have to and soup is still kind to the budget. Butternut squash, tomato, potato, lentil, and noodle soups are all extremely cheap and easy to prepare. 30-45 minutes
5. Breakfast for dinner with applesauce or fruit. (We're talking eggs and fried potatoes or pancakes--that sort of thing.) 20 minutes
6. Fish with rice and broccoli. 20 minutes (40 if you're doing brown rice)
7. Leftover night if you've got leftovers. Otherwise, try a dal or bean soup with bread or tortillas. 30-60 minutes
Snacks (I am not an enormous snack advocate so you're not going to get a lot of boohoo from me here if this is skimpy):
Bread and PB
A few nuts
maybe even bean dip or salsa with toasted tortillas
Homemade chocolate chip cookies
Shopping List (Walmart-ish prices in the midwest):
2 dozen eggs: .58 (they're wicked cheap here right now; I realize this is not realistic, so we'll say 3.00 to be fair).
2 boxes generic cereal: 4.00
4 loaves whole wheat bread 4.00-8.00 (depending on whether you've got a bread outlet nearby)
jar PB: 5.00
jar jam: 2.00
tortilla shells: 1.00
8 oz cheese: 2.00
romaine lettuce: 2.00
caesar dressing: 3.00
4 cans tomato soup: 2.00
whole 4-lb chicken: 7.00
5 lb potatoes: 3.50 (right now, they're cheaper; we can get a 10# bag of russets for $1.00)
2 lb bag carrots: 2.00
1 lb spaghetti: 1.00
1 lb hamburger: 3.00
1 can generic spaghetti sauce: 1.50
2 lb bag rice (go brown if you want it healthier): 1.00-2.00 dollars
2 lb broccoli: 4.00
can corn: .50
3 gallon milk: 6.00-9.00 (cheaper here right now)
chicken stock: 1.00
bag of whole wheat flour or small bag pancake mix: 2.50
butternut squash (for soup or side veggie): 2.00
syrup or brown sugar: 2.00
1 lb fish such as tilapia or salmon: 6.00
bag lentils: 1.00
can tomatoes: 1.00
bag apples: 3.00
bag oranges: 3.00
bunch bananas: 2.00
seasonal fruit: 2.00
small jar peanuts: 2.00
bag chocolate chips: 2.00
pudding mix: 1.00
can refried beans: 1.00
salt and/or season all: 1.00
Total: 100.00. Divide this by 4 and you've got 25.00/person/week
No, you're not eating like a king (and I don't even know what damage teenagers can do, so this doesn't take them into account), but you're eating whole grains and fruits and vegetables and you've still got another 40 dollars to wiggle with. No, that's not a lot. I don't mean to say it's easy or you can eat whatever you want or anything like that. It would be a big adjustment if you were used to buying whatever, eating whatever, and doing it whenever. But it can be done. Most nights it can be done in 30 minutes or less.