I just realized that I am lucky. Very lucky. I have the luxury to be able to dash to the grocery store frequently and rarely think of the cost of groceries, unless I’m splurging on an item like crab or shrimp. But a hunk of Parmesano Reggiano? No problem – just grab a hunk and head home.
So when I saw a news article recently advertising a “Food Stamp Challenge,” I was intrigued. Only $4.00 per day per person??? Could I really
live on cook delicious food with that??? Not just live on drive-thru food-like substances, but make real, healthy, delicious, actual food?
I decided to take the Food Stamp Challenge and find out. Next week the state is challenging folks to try to eat with the same amount of money as folks who live on food stamps November 8 though 14. That’s $4.00 per person per day. It almost goes without saying that this is incredibly hard to do. Even chicken thighs, a very frugal cut of chicken, are about 75 cents per thigh, which is half of the allotment for one entire meal.
It was hard – very hard – to come up with even one day’s menu – let alone come up with a week – or, Heaven Forbid, a lifetime – of menus that fit the challenge.
My heart goes out to all the folks who live this as a way of life and not just a limited and obviously artificial challenge – especially the single moms who work hard, nurture kids, pinch pennies and deal with all the stress that comes with poverty. Years ago a very close lifelong friend of mine had a period of extreme poverty with an unemployed husband and five small children. She said to me “When you’re poor, you can’t do anything else but Be Poor – all your energy, your whole being is focussed on survival, and you have room for little else in your life.”
So, here is my small token of empathy – a day’s worth of meals with a recipe for Mahogany Roasted Chicken Thighs – at approximately $4.00 per person per day.
Breakfast: $.80 per person
Oatmeal ( fiber, protein and low in carbs – and incredibly cheap ), with a sprinkle of brown sugar
Poached Egg ( a protein powerhouse at Â about $.12 per egg )
Glass of 2 percent milk ( other milks are much more spendy )
Lunch -$1.20 per person
Peanut Butter and Grated Apple Sandwich (2 Tablespoons peanut butter; one-quarter apple, grated)
2 cups tortilla chips
1/3 cup salsa mixed with 1/3 cup cottage cheese ( cottage cheese amps up the creaminess and protein )
Snack – $.25 per person
1 banana ( so satisfying, and so frugal )
Dinner – $1.75 per person
Mahogany Roasted Chicken Thighs ( recipe below )
Barley Risotto ( about $.30 per serving, a Rice Pilaf here would be even less)
Maple Syrup Glazed Roasted Fresh Pumpkin Wedges ( when in season, pumpkin is an extremely frugal and healthy food )
— posted by Donna
Â Note from Anne:
News of this challenge hit home for me, to say the least. Â I haven’t discussed it much on this blog, to date, Â but as of early this year, I’ve become a single mom, and due to a number of changes in livelihood, am now on food stamps myself. I don’t qualify for much, but I’m also not in a position to turn down any amount of help as I try to pull a life together for myself and my daughter.
To say it has been humbling is an understatement. You might have noticed that I haven’t been posting nearly as much as Donna has, and this does, frankly, have a lot to do with it. I can eat and cook fairly well, if anxiously so, for the first week and a half or so after my SNAP allotment arrives, but thereafter, it gets dicey. It’s hard to prioritize what would be new and exciting,much less Â photogenic, as a Food Blog Recipe when your top priority is trying to eat decently, period. To think: our previous blog incarnation focused on frugal cooking – and I still have a hard time coming up with material now. I also have a whole new understanding of how obesity is affected by poverty, and it has less to to with fast food than it does with the fact that variations on starch (and processed crap in general, it goes without saying) are by far the cheapest foods available.
The judgement out there for those on any kind of assistance is astonishing, particularly when it comes to food choices. Go to one internet item about food stamps and you’ll find in the comments (or sometimes the body of the article) someone inveighing indignantly about the person she saw buying what she considers junk food with food stamps. Go to another post and you’ll find another commentator offended to the core that someone on food stamps was buying organic produce or gluten-free items or something that they clearly consider too good for someone receiving assistance. You. cannot. win.
So even though my experience with SNAP is limited and hopefully temporary (as are most recipients), and I am still incredibly privileged in the big picture of the world, I still bristled a bit at the concept when I first learned about this challenge, however well-meaning. Such contrivedÂ experiences are often laden with classism; I worried that some of the entries might come off with an air of “See? It’s not so bad to be poor!” I also worry that zeroing in on one isolated aspect of poverty misses the big systemic picture – it is an incredibly complex issue in the macrocosm as well as an incredibly complex state of being in the microcosm.
Some experiments have attempted a more thorough, more realistic facsimile of life. I am reminded of the TV series “Thirty Days”, created by Morgan Spurlock of “Super Size Me”. In each episode, people were challenged to immerse themselves in environments that were completely foreign to them, and likely to be uncomfortable. The homophobe goes to stay with a gay couple in The Castro, the pro-life crusader goes to work with pro-choice activists, and so on. In the premiere (watch here), Spurlock and his fiance both decide to see what it’s like to live on minimum wage – and they commit to every detail of it: finding an apartment, having no health insurance, no clothing or pantry items or any amenities of any kind from their former lives, and so on. By the end of the experience they were as truly changed as people could be, given that it was still contrived and temporary. Barbara Ehrenreich went a bit further in her fantastic book “Nickel and Dimed”, where she chronicles living on a number of subsistence level jobs in a similarly thorough fashion.
But what I’ve read so far, including Donna’s entry here as well as those she links to, have been very worthwhile and as empathetic as this kind of Â artificial situation can be. It always helps to have some more frugal recipes up your sleeve, right? So I hope some fellow recipients are able to get some new ideas for affordable but nourishing meals, and that the participants in this challenge who are coming from a place of privilege walk away with a renewed sense of compassion for those less fortunate. Â And I hope we are all inspired to you are able to reach out to others, especially as we enter the holiday season.
MAHOGANY ROASTED CHICKEN THIGHS
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons frozen orange juice concentrate
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper sauce (optional)
8 skinless chicken thighs
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Whisk together all ingredients except chicken.
Place chicken on a baking sheet. Brush with soy mixture on both sides. Roast for about 40 minutes until well browned and cooked through, basting on both sides every 10 minutes.