When I heard about Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s (now Senator) one week Food Stamp Challenge on the Sunday Morning Show, I was intrigued. As a bone health and nutrition coach, I wondered whether you could not just survive but eat well on food stamps.
When I say eat well, I mean eating fresh, unprocessed, organic, non-GMO food. Now that’s a challenge!
With my friend Vicki, we set a goal to eat well on a budget of $4.40 per person, per day — the same “per day” budget Mayor Booker used.
Daily: $4.40 per day, per person
Weekly: $30.80 per person, $61.60 combined/per week.
What We Ate
Vicki is a vegetarian but I’m a meat eater so we ate a mostly vegetarian diet except for some sardines for moi!. The rules were no junk or processed foods with the emphasis on organic and non-GMO foods.
Here’s what our provisions looked like for week #1:
Protein: Eggs, black beans, red lentils, full fat Stonyfield French Vanilla Yogurt, peanut butter, sardines
Fat: Peanut butter, yogurt, olive oil, flax seeds
Veggies: Kale, red cabbage, string beans, celery, salad, carrots, onions, tomato sauce, garlic
Grains: steel cut oats, Lundberg rice
Fruit: lemons, bananas, apples, raisins
Other: Green tea on sale and Sprouted Ezekiel Bread
Breakfast every day was slow cooked steel cut oats (cook once, eat 4-5 days) with a few raisins and yogurt. Our two pounds of oats lasted the week, feeding two people for just $2.80. The yogurt’s full fat and sweetness sustained me.
Beats any boxed cereals that are heavily processed. You DO NOT get the nutrients (think empty calories), not to mention the added sugars in boxed cereals.
Eating foods in their whole form, not processed, is the way we were able to get through this challenge.
Soak 1-2 cups oats overnight to remove phytic acid.
Throw away soaking water. Bring 2-4 cups of fresh water to a boil. Add raisins. Cover. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Add ground flax seeds and yogurt.
When not on the food stamp challenge, I’d spice my oatmeal adding cardamon, cinnamon, clove, vanilla, raisins and goji berries. I’d use either plain raw yogurt (for the probiotics) or almond butter as my source of fat.
RECIPE: SIMPLE BLACK BEANS
Soak dried black beans overnight. Beans are a wonderful source of protein (and inexpensive) and black beans are a particularly good bean for your bones. Throw off soaked water.
Chop: 1 onion, 2 carrots, 2 celery stalks. Adding 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil sauté onions first (4 minutes) than sauté carrots and celery with the onions.
Add beans and 2-3 cups of water. Bring water to a boil, lower flame to a simmer, cover and cook for 1-1 1/2 hours until beans are soft.
The cooked beans would become: beans and rice dish, bean soup, and later bean burgers.
Dinners: Soup and salads, black bean burgers, or 1 egg, toast and a salad. Eggs were either scrambled with veggies or prepared sunny side up. Rotating food choices was key.
A sweet and simple side dish was (ok this might sound odd…remember this is all about being creative) steamed red cabbage and apples. Really yummy!
We were seriously hungry the first two days. I savored my snacks (half a banana or apple or celery with peanut butter) to make them last. We kept busy so we wouldn’t think about eating but I still obsessed about wasted food in restaurants. I also noticed my brain was a bit dull during the first two days.
I recall watching a news clip about a NYC teacher who gets 90% of her food from the trash; or commonly known as Dumpster Diving. One of my favorite restaurants in NYC Le Pain Quotidian, throws away their unsold bread at the end of the day. Those beautiful loves of bread. Guess what? The teacher found one of those beauties. With her broad smile, holding a loaf up to the camera, she claimed “Bingo”! Dumpster Diving was beginning to sound like a good idea.
Realizing every morsel counts, I became a vigilant steward of my food. Smelling burnt toast one multi-tasking morning, I panicked, knowing the allotted slice, charred or not, was all there was.
After just 3 days, we were recycling leftovers, turning yesterday’s rent lentils into tomorrow’s soup. It took creativity to prepare fresh looking meals.
We hadn’t included any cookies, candy or treats even though it was the holiday season. When Vicki wanted to celebrate Chanukah, we had to scramble. With two sweet potatoes, oat flour made in my Vitaminx (I’m fortunate to have one) and two eggs, and VOILA! We had delicious sweet potato latkes, string beans with a side of our yogurt.
Midway into the second week, I was craving a hamburger but settled for a homemade black bean burger. It was very good but….it wasn’t a burger. There was lots of settling, compromising and making-do during the two weeks.
Our biggest challenge was preparing balanced meals with limited ingredients. We compared prices, bought in bulk, watched for sales and pinched our pennies.
At the end of two weeks we stayed within our food stamp budget, and all of our food was good for our health and for our bones. And our choices were 97% organic.
After the first two days, our appetites adjusted to our more modest meals. Interestingly, we both lost five pounds without feeling hungry. From an emotional side, they ran high. Frustration arrived knowing I couldn’t buy what I wanted. I felt the checkout embarrassment; thinking I calculated correctly yet found I was over budget. I noticed the impatient stares from the shoppers behind me at the checkout as the huffy manager voided the purchase. “So sorry” I heard myself say to the vacant stares.
I shopped late in the day on a full stomach. Shopping hungry is a liability.
Most importantly, we both felt grateful and fortunate for the choices we enjoy. We also have renewed respect and empathy or those who face a real food stamp challenge every day, and our hearts go out to them.
I am more careful with food now and I don’t waste it or scrape it into the garbage. But I also feel empowered knowing that I can feed myself well for $4.40 a day.
Having gone through this experience, I can tell you that food stamps do not have to mean bad food or junk food. Wholesome, organic, nutritious food is affordable food. It does take additional effort to find it and cook it, and it helps to have the support of urban gardens, community supported agriculture (CSA) and co-ops to keep costs down. As in most activities it also helps to buddy up.
But when you trade junk and processed food-like products for whole, organic, real food, you get so much more nutrition for your dollar, and that makes all the differenece in your health.
We can make a difference!
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