Last week was the official week of the Cal Fresh Challenge where individuals are encourage to eat for a week on a budget of $4.90 per day or $34.30 for the week. I wanted our family to partake but I had a major fundraiser dinner that week which would have blown the entire budget, plus some, in one sitting. So rather than blow it off entirely, I sat down and looked into the numbers and analyzed our family’s eating habits. I also watched as a few of my friends participated. Here are the things that I learned:
Planning ahead is key. When you are on a limited budget, making your money go far can be best accomplished with planning. This means looking at what meals need to be prepared for the week, what deals are available where, and awareness in general of the cost of what you are eating. Often those who live of food stamps don’t have the time to spend to research and plan, depending on their situation.
Shopping shouldn’t necessarily be done in one location. All supermarkets are not created equally. Some have better connections to obtain product X for a lower rate, or perhaps they over stocked. Paying attention to weekly circulars and shopping and multiple markets can shave off several dollars. And you don’t necessarily have to drive all over town. A store two blocks from where I normally shop was selling melon for a dollar cheaper and potatoes for a 1/6th of the price.
Eating on less money, sadly means eating less. This is a different sort of dieting. Portioning meals and planning usually means no room for snacking. Both Omar Passons and Lorena Gonzalez found themselves starving throughout the week. Protein is hard to come by except through eggs and beans. As a vegetarian, I don’t tend to purchase meat anyway (note, my husband and child are happily meat eaters).
Most farmers markets/stands don’t take food stamps. I contacted my local market and Suzie’s Farm (who we have a CSA with) and discovered that they currently don’t take food stamps, but they are working towards it. I didn’t hear what was the hold up for making this happen, but I am glad to here that it is on their radar. With a small box costing $18 for 2 weeks worth of veggies, it is possible to create a rounded out diet for very little. Of course you are at mercy of the seasons.
Eating on a food stamp budget is more “difficult” as an individual than as a family or a couple. Well, sort of. It is easier in the sense that the budget is larger so items can be purchased to share. Since purchasing in bulk is cheaper per serving, you can get more for your money. Of course, it is hard and heartbreaking to tell a child, “this is all you get.”
Variety can be hard to come by. Planning and preparing larger meals means you will be eating the same meal for several days. Luckily, my child wants the same thing everyday (chocolate pancakes for breakfast, peanut butter and jam for lunch, and rice or pasta for dinner) but we as adults would probably go nuts.
There are great resources for recipes out there. Casual Kitchen is one of my favorite places to go for cheap recipes. In fact he thrives on showcasing “laughably cheap” healthy recipes to prove that you can eat well on a budget. We just made this lentils recipe last week that cost us about $3 and served my husband and I for about 3 meals EACH. Also, I live off of this No Cook, Refrigerator Oatmeal. I just priced it out to around $1.00 ($1.58 with the chia seeds). If you purchase the generic Greek yogurt and generic oats, add milk and a little jam and whatever fruit is in season, you have a healthy breakfast that goes a long way.
I really want to make this challenge happen for my family, but I would rather attempt it for a month or longer, like this Princeton Alum’s family. I feel that a week doesn’t account for some staples that last you for a month’s worth of meals like flour and rice. My biggest problem are work events/business lunches that are required of my in my job. But I am happy that I spent a little time to become more aware of what my family and I are eating, if only to reduce our grocery bill and become a bit more empathic of people, who find food stamps are their reality.