Before I write anything else, let me point you in the direction of our General Manager’s Blog. She took the SNAP Challenge last year (I think that’s actually why she started her blog), and she has some great insights. Read, or at least skim, it.
- Peanut Butter Toast: $0.37
- Orange: $0.36
- Milk: $0.16
- Total: $0.89
I don’t know why I didn’t eat toast for breakfast this entire week. It’s so affordable. Heck, I even got to eat an orange this morning! And I’m still under $1 for the entire meal, leaving me with $4.11 for the rest of the day. I’ll need it, too – I’ve been avoiding doing extraneous bicycling (see Tuesday’s post for my rant about biking while hungry), but this morning is chock full of appointments that will be faster to bike to than to ride the bus to. And that means I’ll need more calories. I’m going to go pack my lunch and two snacks right now, because I won’t have time to later.
- Snack Mix: $0.22
One of my appointments this morning got canceled, so I have a bit more time. However, I’m still packing two snacks today – I’ll let you know if I eat them all. For the snack mix, I could have complemented the protein of the sunflower seeds with peanuts and gotten more out of it; however, I’m running tight on my budget today with two snacks, so I opted for the cheaper option of sesame seeds instead.
- Hamburger Pie: $1.66
- Pineapple-Corn Bread: $0.40
- Cherry Tomatoes: $0.00
- Total: $2.06
I was so happy to eat the pie for lunch. Like I said, I had a bunch of appointments around town today, and by the end of the day I probably will have made 10 miles of bike tracks through Champaign-Urbana. So, having a rich, protein-filled lunch was awesome. I wish I had made the Hamburger Pie earlier in the week.
I forgot to mention this in earlier posts, but my tomato plants are finally putting out tomatoes, so I’ve been snacking on home-grown cherry tomatoes this entire week. Eating even just one upon getting home from work perks me up – they’re so sweet and juicy. So, I had a handful for lunch today, and because I grew them myself, they’re free. It was a well-rounded lunch today.
You might notice that for how much I’m talking up this lunch, it only fills maybe two-fifths of my lunchbox. (This is a Laptop Lunchbox – we sell them at the store. You don’t have to be a kid to use one!) So, I might not be getting enough calories per day. Perhaps.
- Milk: $0.20
I had milk for my late afternoon snack before heading home. This puts me at $3.37 so far today, with $1.63 left. I actually don’t have a plan for dinner tonight, so I’m heading home to see what I can scrounge up…
- Hamburger Pie: $1.66
Even if the Hamburger Pie tasted bad (which it most certainly does not), I would eat it tonight. I am far too hungry and tired to price out or plan another meal. Yes, I went over on my last day of the SNAP Challenge -the pie puts me at $5.03 for the day– but to be frank, right now I don’t care. I’m hungry. I’m going to eat, even if it is an hour before my usual dinner time.
Summing Up the SNAP Challenge…
Another bit of plain-faced honesty: I am very glad and grateful that this is the last day I’m doing the SNAP Challenge. This has been a really eye-opening experience, and I’ve enjoyed sharing my process with all of you, but it has taken mounds of time and energy. I am quite ready to get back to eating what I want and spending my time not looking at scales and spreadsheets. It has become very viscerally difficult for me to think about the people standing at the end of this week who can’t look forward to a weekend and foreseeable future of food security. Like much of the rest of the country, I knew hunger was a serious problem in the US, and something should be done about it – and yet, again like much of the rest of the country, I never took time to do anything about it.
Well, now I’m going to. The next week will be pretty busy for me with finalizing our October classes and newsletter and preparing from the Annual Meeting of Owners (MOO!), but the week after that -the week of October 3rd- I’m going to post a follow-up on the SNAP Challenge. I’m going to talk about what exactly it took for me to eat on $5 a day, what effects the Challenge had on me, and, by far most importantly, what we can do about hunger – in our community, state, country, and world. I hope you’ll read the follow-up post and join me in doing something about hunger.
- Chai tea: $0.21
- Pineapple-Corn Bread: $0.40
- Super Oatmeal: $0.34
- Total: $0.95
I really felt like chai this morning, so I had some before I priced it out. “An eighth of an ounce can’t be that expensive,” I told myself.
Well, having chai nearly cost me half of my breakfast this morning. I was going to make some “super” oatmeal (add peanut butter to get some extra bulk and protein – complementary protein analysis courtesy of Diet for a Small Planet again) in addition to my bread, but I didn’t want to go over a dollar for breakfast. It looked like I was going to be stuck with the corn bread again (queasy sugar stomach, here I come!).
But then I had a brilliant idea – have half the corn bread, and then I can have oatmeal! Oatmeal is cheaper than the bread, so I’d get more food for a cheaper price. The amount of bread I ate yesterday morning plus chai would be $1; halve that amount of bread, add the chai and oatmeal, and you get $0.95 – five cents off my breakfast with more to eat. Now that’s a price I can stomach! (Sorry.)
I’ve now eaten my breakfast at 9:50 am. Anyone want to take a stab at guessing how long it took to price out, plan, and modify my breakfast, compared to the time it took to cook and eat it? (This is actually a topic I’ll be covering in a SNAP Challenge follow-up post two weeks from now – stay tuned!) The oatmeal was incredibly filling, so I only ate a couple bites of the bread. I’ll eat the rest as a snack later, so I’m leaving my breakfast price as-is.
- Quiche: $1.20
- Green Sunshine Salad: $0.26
- Total: $1.46
Okay – I’m eating this as I type, because pricing out the salad and my snack for the day left me with no time to eat before work. I’m having more of the quiche from yesterday, and I again forgot to take a picture before I ate it. Maybe I’ll get one uploaded later.
I do, however, have a picture of the Green Sunshine Salad I am halfway through. Once again, my chard comes to the rescue – without it, I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford/make this dish (it called for kale, of which I had none). The chard makes the salad a little bitter, but because it’s been marinating in the fridge for a while -a good thing with this dish- you can’t tell. The olive oil gives me some healthy fats, I get protein from the nutritional yeast and sunflower seeds, and I get veggies with the chard and the onion. Excellent! Now it’s time for non-SNAP Common Ground work. I’ll be back in touch for snack time.
- Milk: $0.12
It was kind of a busy day, so I just drank some of the milk I brought to work today around 5 pm. I’ve borrowed a scale for pricing out my food at home that measures in ounces, but the scale at work only measures in fractions of pounds, so it was a party trying to figure out how many fractions of a pound of milk I had while I was hungry. I’m going to eat the rest of the snack I packed once I get home.
- Tortilla chips: $0.15
- Cheddar: $0.13
- Total: $0.40
I totally brought a block of cheddar to work because I didn’t have time to price it out at home. And then I brought it home, because I didn’t have time to eat it at work. Funny how these things work out, eh? Anyway, I ate the chips when I got home, and ate the cheddar while cooking dinner. It was a pretty wee little smidgeon, but it was snacky and satisfying. I have now spent $2.81 for the day, leaving me with $2.19. Now, dinner – can we make a meal based mainly around meat work on this budget and fill me up?
- Hamburger Pie: $1.66
- Apple: $0.32
- Total: $1.98
Finally! A meal that I can justify putting on a dinner plate instead of a salad plate! (Well, that I can kinda-sorta justify.) Regardless of the size of this meal, it’s the first meal I’ve eaten since Monday that feels like a regular meal. It’s filling, it’s rich, and… I have an apple. I have been jonesin’ for an apple ever since I found out I couldn’t afford them. Like the ice cream, I bought a whole bag last week, and it’s just been sitting on my shelf… watching me. Always watching.
But seriously – I got to have an apple. I’m taking a bite of it right now (8:50 pm). And it tastes great. I had no idea how much fruit I normally eat, nor how much I would miss it and crave it. At least from the way I’ve done the SNAP Challenge, it doesn’t seem like fresh fruit would be terribly affordable on $5 a day. This has very suddenly made me appreciate fruit a whole lot more.
I actually hadn’t made this meal before, but it was a good pick. My Hamburger Pie recipe has every component of a healthy meal, except fruit. It has meat (pork and beef), dairy (cheese), carbohydrates (mashed potatoes and probably the tomato soup), and vegetables (green beans and onion). Actually, tomato is more a fruit than a vegetable, so I guess Hamburger Pie is a complete meal. Not bad for $1.98! (Before anyone turns me in to the Vegetable Police:
tomatoes are scientifically classified as a fruit. They are legally classified as a vegetable due to a court case about tariffs in the late 1800s.* This debate went all the way to the Supreme Court, as you can read here if you don’t trust Wikipedia on Nix v. Hedden. Me, I’m sticking with science. Tomatoes are a fruit.)
Today I spent $4.79, leaving me with $0.21 to spare. I don’t feel like ice cream tonight, so I guess that makes a day of it. More tomorrow on my last day of the SNAP Challenge!
- While I was writing the breakfast portion, I left the uncooked quick oats + water on the counter. When I came back, the oats had absorbed all the water – they were ready to eat. Revelation: you don’t need to cook quick oats to make oatmeal. I’m not sure if this makes me an innovator or the slowest person on the block, but I wanted to share my findings anyway.
- If you’re not drinking water during the SNAP Challenge (or in general) – START. Water will save you a ton of money (maybe literally) by filling up your stomach and keeping you hydrated. Firstly, tap water is basically free, and we have some of the best water in the world – take advantage of it. Secondly, when you’re thirsty, you often mistake that for hunger. Drink water first whenever you feel hungry – it will fill your stomach, prevent some of that tummy rumbling, and diagnose if you were actually hungry or just thirsty. Yes, you might have to visit the restroom a little more frequently if you stay well hydrated, but you’ll feel better for it. As an example: as a 5’9″ tall, 135 lb (before the SNAP Challenge, but more on that later), physically active, female young adult, I drink almost a gallon of water every day.
- If you don’t like water (which isn’t all that uncommon), don’t worry. There are lots of things you can do to make water more appealing: add flavor packets, carbonate it, add flavor syrup, dilute it with juice (you get less calories from the juice, but your water is now naturally flavored at a pretty low cost), or make tea (the chai tea in the picture is my fourth cup made with the same leaves – it’s a little diluted, but very recognizably chai tea). These will all cost money -some options more than others- but if you really aren’t drinking enough water, they’re worth it.
- I have to grudgingly thank my significant other for encouraging me to buy instant mashed potato mix. It’s a long story, but essentially: I didn’t want to buy it, and he thought it would be a good idea, and I thought it sounded disgusting, and he pointed out I had eaten some before and liked it, etc. etc. Main point is, I bought it. Second main point is, it enabled me to make the Hamburger Pie. Not just for the SNAP Challenge – period. I hate making mashed potatoes from scratch. It has to be Thanksgiving for me to give it even a second thought. So, yay for instant mashed potato mix.
* I learned this in my Intro to Vegetable Gardening class in college last year. Any U of I students reading this – it is a class totally worth taking!
After going to bed hungry, I was afraid I would wake up famished. Actually, I feel fine – good news! Now, for breakfast at 10:30 am (someone may have been up late working on a blog…):
- 1/4 of Pineapple-Corn Loaf – $0.79
- ~1 cup of milk – $0.13
- Total: $0.92
I have to say, I am totally surprised by how affordable local milk is for this challenge. I normally don’t drink more than a cup of milk in the morning anyway, so I don’t feel deprived right now. I’m eating less than I normally would, but because the bread has pineapple (fulfilling my dire fruit desire) and honey (sweet!), I’m not feeling cheated. I did lick the plate, though – might as well get all the calories I can. The bread is another complementary protein recipe from Diet for a Small Planet, so I’m getting a fair deal of protein out of it. It would be~6 grams of protein if I had used soy flour, but because I’m allergic to soy, I had to cut it out. Still, that’s not bad for a one-egg recipe.
I bet this bread would taste great hot, but I wanted to eat it, not heat it. This is my lowest cost breakfast yet, leaving me with $4.08 for the rest of the day. Onwards! (Update: later in the morning I began to feel a little queasy from all that sugar, but it was totally worth it.)
- 1/8 Spinach-Rice Pot – $1.62
- 1 onigiri with nori – $0.22
- Total: $1.84
This is a pretty cheap lunch. It’s also pretty small – the rice ball is the size of my palm, and I have maybe a 1/3 of a cup of the rice pot. However, I have a lot of the nutrients I need here – carbohydrates from the wheat germ and rice, protein from the combination of wheat germ, rice, cheese and egg (the rice pot is another Diet for a Small Planet complementary protein recipe), and vitamins and minerals from the nori and spinach. Even though it isn’t much in terms of quantity, it’s a quality meal (should’ve made my onigiri with the brown rice, though – see yesterday’s post), so I can feel good about eating it. And let me tell you, while I’m in the process of eating this – a rice ball has never felt more filling. Go carbs to fill up!
I’m going to go ahead and plan my snack now to avoid yesterday’s evening meltdown – I think I might be able to skip dinner, but I’ll need to eat something between now and 6pm.
I have some crepes and cheese filling left over from last week that would probably be pretty cheap, but at this point, the thought of costing out any more ingredients repels me. Orange juice is significantly more expensive than milk (0.3/oz versus 0.03/oz, respectively), so if I decide to have a beverage, it will be milk. I priced out an ounce of tortilla chips (a handful and a half), and it’s cheaper than a slice of bread, so I’m going to go with that.
- Nachos – $0.29
- Crackers – $0
- Total: $0.29
The nachos were an excellent pick-me-up halfway through my work day. The 1/2 teaspoon of salsa I added was enough to give it that extra kick, and it didn’t really cost me anything at all. I’m surprised at how distracted I became when my coworkers are eating – the smell of course gets me hungry, but it caught me off guard that even the sound of eating (which I normally find disgusting) made me hungry. A coworker tipped me off that we had FREE, PUBLIC SAMPLES of multi-seed crackers, so I got an extra 0.5 ounces for my snack. This boosted my fiber, protein, and carb intakes for the day at no cost to my budget. I haven’t been this excited about store samples in a long time!
And I just remembered that I forgot to defrost my quiche for dinner tonight…. darn. I guess I’m eating late again.
- Swiss Chard Quiche – $1.20
It’s 7:30pm and I’m eating a third of my homemade quiche. I made it a while ago and froze it, and entirely forgot to put it in the fridge this morning to thaw. So, I popped it into the toaster oven (toaster ovens are one of my favorite kitchen tools – they’ll fit and cook anything from a casserole to a muffin pan without heating your entire kitchen) as soon as I got home and let it defrost and warm on 250 degrees for an hour and a half. I could have put the toaster oven on a higher temperature and warmed the quiche faster, but I really didn’t want to brown the outside before the inside was thawed. How did I make quiche work for this cheap? Again, I used my homegrown Swiss Chard for the veggie component – free minerals and flavor. I also left out the cheese called for in the recipe. This is actually something I do pretty regularly: I think cheese in quiche is a waste, because I already have the protein from the eggs and I either can’t taste the cheese or it overpowers the dish. My guess is that I saved somewhere between $0.50 and $1.50 by eliminating the cheese. Also – it was great to come home from work and not have to cook, even if I did have to wait a while before I could eat.
I am now at $4.25 for the day, so I have an extra $0.75 cents I am keen on using. I really could stop here, eat nothing else today, and save the $0.75 for a rainy/more expensive day, but I’m really feeling like an orange, apple, or some ice cream. In my excellent lack of planning for SNAP, I bought a quart and a half of ice cream, which I rarely do. It’s been sitting in the freezer this entire time, goading me; I am a real chocoholic, so this has been a struggle. I stuck my finger in it yesterday and licked it so I could at least get the taste of it. So, although ice cream would have basically zero nutritional value, I am sorely tempted to have it instead of the fruit. Also, I’ve reached my $5/day a day sooner than I expected and feel like I should reward myself. I think this is a dilemma most people trying to eat on a very limited budget will run across – when you work so hard to fit your budget and occasionally end up with a smidgeon extra, you want to reward yourself, not eat something nutritious. …I’ve just talked myself into having the ice cream. Let me go price it out.
- Chocolate ice cream (2 scoops): $0.19
- Orange: $0.43
- Total: $0.62
I don’t know why I was worried about being able to afford ice cream – this is America. Ice cream is more affordable than most things. Here, let me give you some comparisons of what ice cream is cheaper than per ounce: whole grain brown rice, cheese, nuts, concentrated orange juice, cornmeal, garlic, ground pork, cooking oils, raisins, tortilla chips, and whole wheat flour. These aren’t all from one store – ice cream’s just cheap. And this is “natural” ice cream, too, not the stuff you buy in big tubs. (Natural is in quotation marks because there is very little regulation of that term – the FDA has said “natural” can only be used on products containing no artificial or synthetic ingredients. However, as far as I know, the FDA doesn’t audit products using the “natural” label more than once. That said, I more or less trust the authenticity of this ice cream company. But that’s a story for a different day.)
So I got my ice cream and ate it, too. I also got the orange I’ve been craving. And I’m still under my $5 for the day: I finish with $4.87 spent today.
I’ve met my goal of eating on less than $5 for one day! It is, however, just one day; I’m still going to try to fit my $5 budget tomorrow and Friday. I’m curious to see if I will be able to afford a reasonable portion of my hamburger pie for dinner tomorrow night, or if I’m going to be stuck with something really small. We will see! I part with you tonight with a full stomach and in excellent spirits.
FYI: I didn’t calculate my totals until before dinner today.
- Homemade granola (1 c) – $0.60
- Milk (1/2 c) – $0.12
- Jasmine tea – $0.10
- Total: $1.35
I felt better about the feasibility of the SNAP Challenge. $1.35 is more than I probably should have spent on my smallest meal of the day, but I felt full and alert. The tea really helped – I use the same tea leaves a few times, so I get a lot of bang for my buck. I included some raisins and walnuts in my granola to bulk it up and add some extra flavor and protein.
- Leftover pizza – $3.78
Yep, the leftovers screwed me up. That put me at $5.13 total for the day – 13 cents out of my pocket, plus the five-odd from yesterday. Though I felt okay hunger-wise, I wasn’t comfortable skipping dinner.
- Bread with marmalade – $0.42
- Orange – $0.43
- Total: $0.85
I got home around 6pm. I bike for transportation, and I eat a fair deal for a woman my age and size even when I’m not biking too much. So, by this point, hunger kicked in – seriously. I’ve felt hungry before -and exclaimed I was “starving” at various points in my childhood, much to my parents’ displeasure- but this felt noticeably worse. It didn’t feel bad because of my immediate hunger – it felt bad because I knew I couldn’t do too much to relieve it. I tried to find a cheap snack – I wanted a slice of bread and an orange, but I priced out the orange and decided it was too expensive. Plain bread seemed depressing, so I priced out some marmalade and decided it would be okay. Let me tell you – that was the best bread and marmalade I’ve ever had. Even though I couldn’t afford to, I ate the orange shortly after anyway, while I was pricing out dinner. It irked me that I could afford marmalade and not an orange. Also, the orange smelled good – I didn’t even know you could smell oranges through their rinds until today.
Now I’d paid $0.98 out of pocket for the day, and I hadn’t even eaten dinner – at this point it looks like the orange wasn’t worth it. I’m still pretty darn hungry at this point, so I decided to not sacrifice dinner. However, my kitchen was a royal mess (
I’ll post a picture soon
picture posted), so I was torn between the problem of not eating and the problem of cleaning and cooking. (I think cleaning stresses me out slightly more than cooking does.) I compromised and decided to clean up the kitchen and spend some time outside in the lovely weather, go to a publicly-open young adult religious group that often has free food, and then come home and eat a little dinner.
So, I biked a couple of miles at 7:30 pm, got to the group location, locked my bike up – and found nobody. One of my friends later emailed me asking where I had been, so the group must have been there, but I couldn’t find them. Things like that usually peeve me, but the thought of having spent calories and time to get there to find no food (for body or spirit) downright upset me. So, I got on my bike and went home.
At this point I started to feel lightheaded. It was probably my asthma, triggered by emotions and exercise, rather than hunger – regardless, being lightheaded and hungry on a bike after dark isn’t fun. At the same time that I thinking about how upset, lightheaded and hungry I was, I was also realizing that I really don’t have it all that bad. This is one day hungry, with well-fed weeks before it and well-fed weeks to come. I started to feel ashamed for being self-absorbed and whiny – although how I felt was well outside my norm, it wasn’t unbearable. So I got home, finished cleaning my kitchen, and made dinner.
- Spinach-Rice Pot: $2.60
Yeesh. As soon as I priced out this dish, I knew it would be a problem. However, spinach doesn’t keep very long, so I made the dish anyway. This means I would have paid $3.58 out of pocket today – my snack and dinner would have been entirely on me and whatever resources I possessed. I had some sauteed summer squash with dinner too, which made me feel better. The squash were given to me as leftovers of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share, and I didn’t feel right about rejecting them, in case they would have gone into the trash otherwise. I wasn’t sure how to price them out as part of a CSA share, so I didn’t. So, my daily total was probably a little higher than it shows. I made some Pineapple-Corn Bread, but the rice pot was pretty filling, so I didn’t eat any. It was $3.17 for the entire loaf – breakfast for tomorrow, maybe?
$8.58+ spent for Tuesday. It’s an improvement upon Monday, but I’m still way above my goal of $5, even though I tried. I’m also still hungry and kind of ashamed for being distracted by it. I keep thinking “Isn’t this one of those mind over body things?” I’ll have to skip dinners soon if I can’t reduce my spending per day. I’m currently telling myself skipping dinner would give me an excuse to go to bed early, in order to make it sound more doable and appealing. I know there’s absolutely no risk for me skipping one meal a day for maybe three days in a row, and yet I’m rather frightened by it. I like having a fairly regular schedule, and missing a meal seems like a big alteration to me. In any case, we’ll see what tomorrow brings.
- Homemade granola is pretty easy and super cheap. I doubled the recipe from Diet for a Small Planet months ago and have had granola ever since. Making granola is a hot and sticky enterprise, so be prepared. Also, the granola will be denser and not as “fluffy” (for want of a better word) as store-bought granola – it doesn’t clump very well, so the texture might seem a bit odd to you. My favorite thing about this granola is its flexibility – adding different fruits, nuts, and yogurts to it totally changes it. This granola is super easy to make your own.
- Eating part of the orange instead of the entire thing would have been affordable, met my fruit urge, and prevented some guilt.
- Spinach and some kinds of cheese aren’t cheap – avoid them if possible during the Challenge.
- Have snacks planned or priced out in advance so you don’t have to think about what to eat when you’re already hungry.
- If you can survive without it – don’t eat it.
Introduction to the Challenge
The SNAP Challenge is, essentially, a week-long challenge to live on $5 a day. According to Feeding Illinois (a great organization of Illinois food banks), $5 per day is the average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit for someone living in Illinois. They have explained the Challenge eloquently as “an exercise in empathy—a call to live in someone else’s shoes for one week. By raising awareness of the barriers to accessing high quality, nutritious food on a food stamp budget, we hope to mobilize the public to end hunger in Illinois. Please join us.” I’m writing this after a day of the SNAP Challenge, so Feeding Illinois’ words have a more visceral impact now than they did the first time I read them. But more on that later.
I’m participating in the SNAP Challenge because hunger is a real problem in Illinois. It’s easy to say that – we all know hunger is a problem. We don’t all know it by experience, though; it’s simpler to sympathize with hungry people than empathize with them. Sympathy is, of course, important in this situation, but empathy is what causes action: when you feel how another person feels -even just slightly, for a brief period of time- you have more insight into their life, their struggles, “the mile in their shoes” that you have walked. Of course, it’s only a mile, and it’s still from your perspective – but it’s a path you wouldn’t otherwise take. You’re going to see and feel some things you wouldn’t otherwise. It’s a little easier to see what the rest of this hypothetical person’s path in life looks like after that mile – and from that mile you just walked, that path might look a little frightening. Maybe this -or a specific experience you had, or a new insight, or a feeling- will lead you to improve the path conditions, or shoe designs, or whatever other variables you can impact (to carry the metaphor about as far as it can go).
Of course, you can never understand the entirety of another person’s experience from a few days of slightly changed behavior, but you’ll probably have a broader perspective. That, in any case, is my hope, and why I’m participating in the SNAP Challenge. Even if you aren’t doing the Challenge yourself, I hope you leave this series of blog posts with a changed outlook on the issue of hunger.
To help you understand how I’m approaching the SNAP Challenge, let me give you a little background information: I planned for the SNAP Challenge so well that I forgot to write it on my calendar. Come Sunday the 18th, I’d planned my next two weeks of meals and purchased all my food – for a regular week. So, I’m trying to do the Challenge with the food I already bought and the recipes I already picked. My plan is to do modifications and substitutions to meet the SNAP Challenge $5/day limit without radically changing my meal plan. This may be, and probably is, impossible, but I’m going to try it. I had planned to only do the SNAP Challenge for one day, so my goal is to build up to spending only $5/day on food by Thursday or Friday.
Before we get to the actual meals, a few more things:
- Food items I purchased from Common Ground may be priced differently than you’d expect. As a staff member, I have a store discount, and I entirely forgot about it until I had finished pricing out my meals. I haven’t had the time to un-discount the appropriate items, so I’ll try to keep that in mind and keep my daily food total further below $5. Ideally, I’d remove the discount on the items to reflect actual prices, but I don’t think I’m going to find the time.
- I don’t purchase water from the store, so I’m not going to count it when it’s needed in recipes.
- I use a few different tools to help me. One tool is cookbooks, online and print. The specific ones I use are New Cook Book: Prizewinning Recipes published by Better Homes and Gardens, Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe (1976 printing), Food For All recipes from Common Ground, class and sampling hand outs from Common Ground, and recipes I’ve collected from random places. If you’re interested in seeing any of the latter ones, I can make some photocopies or direct you to the originals. Another tool is spreadsheets. You may determine I’m a little obsessive compulsive from the detail I put into these, but they really helped me understand where my money was going. SNAP Challenge price sheet is my specific meal plan – breakfasts, lunches, snacks, dinners, and substitutions all priced out. It’s a work in progress, so things will change on it. Food Price Comparisons is mostly so I don’t have to keep scrolling around to find out how much butter costs per ounce, and it’s already saved me a bunch of time. The final tool I used was a cooking conversion website (this specifically). The thought of weighing every single ingredient out nearly drove me nuts (truth be told, cooking stresses me out), so this tool was a great find. It will probably make my SNAP Challenge inaccurate, but it made me calmer, so I can justify the tradeoff to myself.
- I am sure I have messed up my math somewhere in the spreadsheets. If you notice a mistake, email me and I’ll fix it.
- Because I purchased my food before I remembered the Challenge (and am therefore at the end of my personal food budget!), I’m not going to go purchase more food. This will warp my results pretty significantly, but I am still going to try to do it on $5/day. You have been warned: this will probably be the least successful SNAP Challenge in Champaign-Urbana.
- BUT… I will provide tips. Where my poor planning caused me to fail, it can help you succeed. Look for the tips.
- One last thing. I am a Common Ground employee, but I am also an individual: not everything I write here will be Common Ground canon. Just because I hold a certain perspective does not mean Common Ground and everyone affiliated with it holds the same perspective. This blog is more about a free flow of information and ideas than co-op doctrine (if there is such a thing) anyway, but I wanted to put that out there so no one gets confused.
Alright? Great. On to the Challenge.
Monday, September 19, 2011
I didn’t have time on Sunday to adjust my Monday meals, so I went with what was on my regular schedule. So, Monday was a more-or-less accurate portrayal of how I normally spend my food money. Here goes:
- Quaker Oats Chewy Granola Bar – $1
Yeah. Great start to the day, week, SNAP Challenge, etc. I woke up 30 minutes before my dog needed to be at the vet, so I grabbed what I could. $1 down the hole already. Next!
- Meat soboro – $0.82
- Onigiri – $0.43
- Apple salad – $0.87
- Total: $2.12
This was my bento (Japanese lunchbox) day, so I had some ground meat, rice balls, and salad (I cut my apples into bunnies – a skill learned from our bento class last fall!). I was pretty surprised that the salad cost as much as the meat component. No fresh fruits from now on, I guess. At this point, I would have had $1.88 left for the day.
- Cashews – $0.41
- Bread with Nutella – $0.26
- Iced tea – $1.35
- Cookie – $1.05
- Total: $3.07
Yikes! What happened? I forgot to bring in my water bottle to work, and I didn’t want to drink out of a paper cup for the rest of the day. So, I bought tea, drank it, and then refilled the bottle. Not economically efficient, but it worked. The cookie just kind of happened – the Chewy Bar didn’t set a good precedent. I can make all kinds of excuses, but the fact is that if I was using SNAP, I would probably be $1.19 into my own limited pocket. At this point, I consoled myself that I wasn’t actually doing the Challenge that day, and hoped dinner would be cheap.
- Pizza Bianco with Chard – $3.70
- Squash bread – $0.30
Well, so much for cheap dinner. For half of a homemade pizza, that’s pretty inexpensive, but it’s not truly affordable on SNAP. The squash bread – well, I was visiting family, and the squash bread came out of the oven shortly after I arrived. Supposedly it didn’t taste good, so I had a taste. And then another. So, I’m estimating it was 30 cents’ worth to keep myself honest. (Side note: summer squash works really well in place of zucchini in zucchini bread. You might have to increase the dry ingredients if your squash is really moist. Because summer squash isn’t green, it hides in the bread really well, and is just as sweet as zucchini – great for sneaking veggies to the kids!) If I was doing the Challenge, I would be $5.19 over my budget now, with a grand total of $10.19 for the day – not exactly affordable.
- I wrote a note to myself “bring more snacks.” With $10.19 for Monday, I don’t think I’m going to be able to afford snacks on Tuesday.
- The chard on the pizza came from my garden, which saved a bit of money. My garden’s small – I’m pretty sure it could work in an apartment via container gardening, so I’m using what I’ve grown. I might post a picture to show how small it is sometime. Update 9/23: picture posted below.
- Sushi rice is surprisingly more expensive than brown rice – $2.39/lb and $1.69/lb, respectively. Long grain brown rice doesn’t work for sushi, but if you cook it well (not to the point of mushy goopiness – just well), short grain brown rice will work. Also, brown rice is more nutritious than refined rices like sushi rice – brown rice retains the grain’s endosperm and bran, which give you more fiber and healthy minerals and fats than are added back in to refined sushi rice. Takeaway: buy whole grains like brown rice, which are cheaper and more nutritious!
- Tomato paste wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be, but you could probably substitute ketchup to make it cheaper. I know this sounds gross, but I’ve done it before -adding a little tomato paste or sauce- and I couldn’t tell the difference.
- Using cheaper olive oil would help a lot. The same goes for cheese – just substituting the Oaxaca cheese for the mozzarella would have saved me $0.38.
- I had no idea I spent $10 a day on food. That’s more than I thought.
I’m a champ at not having my meals prepared on time. I usually don’t begin cooking until I realize I’m hungry, and so I end up eating an hour or two later than I intended to. This is fine on Fridays and weekends. It’s not so fine, say, when it’s 12:15 and I need to be at work by one, such as was the case last week.
So, what to do? I tend to have a handy stash of oh-so-quick (and oh-so-environmentally-unfriendly) instant soups and quick-cooking grains. While these are good for a snack or filling up the stomach, they’re not great for meals – too little protein and too much sodium. While there’s not much you can do in ten minutes about the sodium (if you have an hour, soaking a peeled piece of potato in the soup will soak up the sodium), you can remedy the protein deficiency with beans, peas, or legumes.
Well, this particular day last week, I didn’t have any instant soups. I didn’t have any bread, pita, or tortillas, so no sandwiches or wraps. No leftovers in the fridge. (Sound familiar yet?) What could I eat?
Just the previous day, I had dog-eared the page on tabbouleh (a Middle-Eastern grain salad) in one of my cookbooks (Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe – totally worth another blog post on my end and a reading through on yours). At a loss for what else to do, I took it out and skimmed the ingredients list. I had no cooked garbanzo beans, not enough parsley, no mint, no scallions, not enough tomatoes, and no lemons – in short, I lacked about half the ingredients.
This is where normal people give up and grab something on the way to work (especially easy for me, seeing as I work at Common Ground). For better or worse, I am not normal. I immediately noted which of the ingredients I did have -lentils instead of garbanzo beans, bulgur, some parsley and tomatoes in my garden, onions instead of scallions, lime juice instead of lemons, and olive oil- and decided I could make my lunch from scratch and get to work on time.
Knowing what will make a quick lunch is no superpower. Let me walk you through the process of food on the fly:
- KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE. You can’t make food on the fly if you spend half an hour figuring out what ingredients you have. Organize your shelves and fridge so you can see what food you have at a glance, clearly labeling anything that’s in an opaque container. If you want to go the extra mile, keep a running inventory of what you have in stock (this really helps you figure out what to buy on your next shopping trip, too). Regardless of what method you use, make sure to organize your food storage in a way that makes sense to YOU; if you put your pickles in the door of the fridge because that’s where they should be -not because that’s where you would naturally put them- it’s going to cost you time.
- KEEP YOUR OPTIONS OPEN. If you don’t have baked goods (read: bread, tortillas, pitas, crackers, rice cakes, etc.), you’re not going to be able to make a sandwich. If you don’t have veggies, you can’t make a salad. This sounds more intuitive than it is. I don’t eat my bread fast enough to keep it from molding, so I freeze it. Guess what? You can’t make and eat a sandwich in half an hour with frozen bread. Similarly, if you don’t have beans or peas or nuts/seeds (canned, cooked from bulk and refrigerated, in nut butter form, chopped, etc.), dairy products or substitutes, or meats on hand, you won’t be able to get your protein on quick notice. Keep your options open – have basic staples prepared and on hand. Depending on who you are and what you eat, this could be a diverse as chopped vegetables, single-serve containers of pre-cooked rice, sliced deli meat, chopped nuts, canned kidney beans, soy cheese, or yogurt. Keeping your options open takes some prep time in advance, but it makes making lunch a snap. And then, for example, you have chopped vegetables all prepared for that stir fry dinner you wanted to make!
- HAVE FAVORITES AND KNOW HOW TO SUBSTITUTE. Know what you like and run with it. Food on the fly is not the time to be experimenting with new recipes. Either have a few simple, fast recipes you love, or a couple of formulas that always work for you. An example of a recipe would be Confetti Rice (again from Diet for a Small Planet), which I can make in 15 minutes flat if I’ve made the rice and ground the sesame seeds in advance, and which I always love. An example of a formula would be a sandwich, or a grain salad, or a stir fry – we have a good idea of what goes into the “formula” and what’s supposed to come out, so we can substitute fairly easily: pitas for bread for a sandwich, yogurt for pre-made dressing for salads, lentils for garbanzo beans for a grain salad, etc. Formulas are my favorite way to go – once you’ve made a certain type of dish enough times (hopefully not all last-minute!), finding substitute ingredients becomes second nature.
Here’s how I used the Food on the Fly strategy for my last minute lunch:
- Know what you have: I knew what I had. My fridge and pantry shelves were organized in a way that made sense to me and my ingredients were labeled (as easy as masking tape and a pen).
- Keep your options open: I had quick-cooking grains available, I had beans pre-cooked, and I had my staple ingredients stocked.
- Have favorites and know how to substitute: I like grain salads and knew what the end result should look like. I had an understanding of what ingredients could be substituted and what I could leave out without hurting the dish’s taste and nutrition.
Voila – tabbouleh for lunch in 15 minutes!
I recommend making your meals further in advance than I do, but if you ever find yourself in that hour-or-less crunch, I recommend the Food on the Fly strategy: it’s saved my stomach many a time. As always, if you have any strategies of your own or questions, please share them!
Hi there! I am the Education Coordinator at Common Ground Food Co-op in Urbana, Illinois. This blog is the space where I share useful food education tidbits with you, such as cool food events in the Champaign-Urbana area, how to start gardening, why our local farmers rock, what we can do about high food prices, and more! I’m going to start out posting pretty irregularly -my work offline is important too and takes time- so please bear with me as I get into the blogging habit. If you ever have any questions or comments, please feel free to email me at commonground.outreach -at- gmail.com or comment on the blog. I hope you enjoy this blog and find it useful!