Mayor Cory Booker: My Organic Food Stamp Challenge

By: | Posted in: Blog, Featured | Tuesday, Jan 15, 2013 - 11:56am

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.

Food budget:

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.

Recipe: OATMEAL  

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.

Lunches choices:

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.

Success!

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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Thank you…..From my bones to yours,

Irma

 

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  • AnaMelikian

    Congrats Irma! I enjoy a lot reading this post. So much good information. Love the recipes.

  • http://www.food4healthybones.com ijennings

    Thanks so much, Ana.  It was quite an experience!

  • MargeBilheimer

    I really appreciated your sharing this experiment.  I am one who does live on food stamps and have not been able to do what you did.   I still need Almond Milk and organic butter and all kinds of greens…….it doesn’t work over a long period of time……can’t sustain the effort of planning and the time for food prep.   Also don’t have the support person to help…..in contrast, my son who lives with me won’t eat this type of diet.  Still it’s great to know you did it and that with limited choices it can be done.        Marge

    • SassyZen

      @MargeBilheimer You’re not running a restaurant, Marge…People who live in your home have to get on board and eat what you serve…or don’t eat…

  • MargeBilheimer

    I really appreciated your sharing this experiment.  I am one who does live on food stamps and have not been able to do what you did.   I still need Almond Milk and organic butter and all kinds of greens…….it doesn’t work over a long period of time……can’t sustain the effort of planning and the time for food prep.   Also don’t have the support person to help…..in contrast, my son who lives with me won’t eat this type of diet.  Still it’s great to know you did it and that with limited choices it can be done.        Marge

  • http://www.food4healthybones.com/ ijennings

    Thank you, Marge.  I hear you.  Having a buddy made this manageable.

  • WendyBlackburn

    This is brilliant. Thank you for sharing. I cooked like this for many years on a food stamp budget.
     
    Women who are pregnant and have children under 5 also qualify for WIC (Women, Infants, Children), which helps supplement food stamps. The mother gets coupons for protein-rich foods for herself while pregnant and breastfeeding. Coupons for produce, canned tuna or salmon, beans or peanut butter, brown rice, bread, cereal, eggs, milk, and cheese are given for children. California provides coupons for certain baby foods. I also took up urban foraging (picking fruit from publicly available fruit or asking neighbors if I could pick fruit from their trees), I learned to can and pickle, I grew a garden, I raised my own chickens for eggs, and I went to food banks. I built my chicken coop from free scrap wood, purchasing only the wire mesh and did have to spend about $50 on chick raising supplies. I figured out pullets (adolescent hens who don’t lay eggs yet) would have been a better investment for my money than raising chicks by hand. Our hens’ diet was heavily supplemented by kitchen scraps and bugs and grass they found on their own when allowed to roam around the yard. Anything that the chicken’s couldn’t or wouldn’t eat went into the compost bin to feed the garden. As a meat eater, I did buy meat, but I only purchased entire animals – cod or salmon on special or whole roaster chicken – and used every part of the animal, including the bones for bone broth. Butcher counters at stores also sell bones very inexpensively. The bone broth got used for soups and was used instead of water in cooking rice and other grains. If our finances had finally not improved enough to go off food stamps, I would have slaughtered our chickens for food, hopefully after I had been able to replace the hens by getting a broody hen to sit on and hatch some purchased fertile eggs.
     
    I think what should be added to your article is a discussions of:  (1) how to connect low income people to growing their own food or access to high quality fresh low cost or free food, either through space in community gardens or through programs that that help low income people to establish and maintain gardens or build chicken coops of their own; and (2) how to teach easily accessible meal planning, cooking, canning, and preserving skills to low income individuals.
     
    A menu like you created for yourself is only available to someone who knows how to cook. CSAs are really only viable if they accept food stamps. However even then, the produce provided is worthless if the recipient doesn’t know how to prepare it for eating.
     
    To everyone readings, I say also encourage your CSA to accept food stamps and ask them to include detailed recipes for the food it provides each delivery. Encourage your local farmer’s market to accept WIC checks and food stamps and to teach free cooking classes; to locate themselves where there is easy access to them by public transit. Advocate for community gardens and support organizations and programs that connect low income communities to healthy food and skills for making use of healthy food: gardening programs in public schools, especially where garden output gets used in school lunches;  programs to help low income residents start and maintain their own gardens; help advocate for improved food standards and accessibility for WIC, and increases in food stamp benefits. Bring your excess tree fruit or garden produce to a food bank and volunteer to teach recipients how to cook, can, or preserve it. Ask your neighbors for their excess tree and garden produce to take to your local food bank. While knowing that healthy nutritious food can be had on $4.40 a day is great, the goals should be improving food access from there, as eating on such a budget is stressful at best and insufficient at worst for growing bodies, which are the most vulnerable to inadequate nutrition.

    • http://www.food4healthybones.com/ ijennings

      @WendyBlackburn Wendy, I whole-heartedly thank-you for filling in gaps, especially from your long term personal experience.  I agree with you 100%.  My intention of this blog is to raise awareness.   You have not only helped but have made excellent suggestions.

  • SEMartin

    I like the idea of this however long term it seems difficult to substain a necessary calorie & fat count. Especially because I rely on certain staples too; butter, flour, honey, etc.  These alone would “eat” up $30 to purchase. Thanks for reminded me that a good meal doesn’t have to be an expensive one and to appreciate what we have!

    • http://www.food4healthybones.com/ ijennings

      @SEMartin Appreciate your comment.  The butter, flour, honey are not every week purchases.  What we found, as we extended the challenge into the 2nd week, was that we were able to build a small pantry of staples.  For me the sustainable piece was that I had a buddy to split costs with.