Last Friday, April 26th, Bon Appetit published my post, which they entitled "Yes, You Can Feed a Family of 3 All Organic On a Food Stamp Budget." I'm re-publishing it here in its entirety, even though some of it will be old hat to those of you who've been reading my installments here.
It was exciting to write about this for a publication that doesn't often cover food justice issues and thus far, the feedback has been positive. I've gotten a few effusive letters from readers who have been on food stamps and also managed to feed their families a healthy, plant-based diet (if not all organic). They were pleased to see such tips on Bon Appetit's site.
Here's the post:
When I tell people that my fiancé, Don, and I did an all-organic food stamp challenge for Lent this year, they are incredulous.
"That must've been impossible, right?" they say. "Organic food is SO expensive!"
But these doubters were wrong. For six weeks—the entire Lenten period—Don and I shopped frugally, cooked at home, and went without luxuries like beer, ice cream, soda, bottled salad dressing, and (horror of horrors!) Stumptown Coffee. But we ate nourishing, fulfilling meals—some of them more inspired than what we regularly cook—and I'm proud to report that we stayed within our budget of $526 a month for a family of three, with a few dollars to spare.
A word about our budget. Unlike most people who take the food stamp challenge, we chose to limit ourselves to the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, i.e. food stamps) allowance for a family of three: $526. (Don's 8-year-old daughter, Madeleine—who eats a heck of a lot of organic Fuji apples—lives with us half the time.) Though this put us far ahead of most Americans who are on SNAP--nearly 60 percent of participating households receive less than the maximum and are expected to make up the difference with their own income. It also meant that we couldn't use any "extra" money for groceries. (The USDA expects SNAP recipients to spend 30 percent of their own resources on groceries. People who are poor enough to qualify for the maximum benefit spend proportionately less out of their own pockets on groceries.)
I won't go into all the ground rules here (you can read about them in my first blog post) except to say we allowed ourselves to use up whatever was already in our cupboard (or fridge) before the challenge began—organic or not. We already had olive oil, spices, sour cream, almond butter, and basic staples like flour, lentils, and rice. That said, we did the challenge for six weeks (most people, like Cory Booker, do it for a mere week) so we did end up replacing these items during Lent using our lower budget.
How did we manage to stay within our budget? Let me be the first to say that we have many privileges. We live in southeast Portland, OR, within walking distance of three full-service grocery stories (Safeway, Fred Meyer, and a New Seasons), one gourmet grocery (Pastaworks), and a farm stand/fishmonger's. Portland is a veritable food oasis—our micro-neighborhood especially so. Second, Don and I both know our way around the kitchen and love to cook. Third, I work from home, which makes it easy to roast vegetables, whip up a batch of pizza dough, or start a soup as I go about my work day. (Office workers may run errands on their lunch break; I start preparing dinner.)
That said, with some effort and planning, eating an entirely organic diet on this budget was not as difficult as you'd think. A few money-saving tips:
Look for sales. We get a circular in the mail each week from New Seasons that trumpets weekly deals. Organic fuji apples: $1.49 a pound. Organic whole wheat bread: two loaves, $5. Build your meals around the sale items—and what's in season.
Shop at the farmers' market. Okay, so we have some of the country's best farmers' markets in Portland—with competitive prices. Stick to produce, and you'll be surprised by how much booty you'll walk away with for just $25. (Many farmers' markets nationwide accept food stamps; some even have matching programs that give food stamp shoppers up to $20 extra to spend at the market.)
Buy lower-case "o" organic. I don't want to cause a major kerfuffle here, but I'm of the opinion that if you can talk to the farmer and ask her or him whether or not they use herbicides or pesticides and they look you in the eye and say they don't, then their produce is just as good as certified organic. It's often cheaper, too.
Eat meat sparingly. We're a vegetarian household most days, but during the challenge we ate even less meat (including fish and seafood) than usual. Organic meat and poultry are a lot more expensive than conventional (as they should be), but for that reason, we avoided both. One night, Madeleine and I made an exception for New Seasons' grass-fed ground beef (from a ranch that does not use sub-therapeutic antibiotics); it was $6 a pound—how could we resist?
Love your leftovers. Knowing we had no extra money to spare, we made a special effort not to waste anything. Leftover beans went on top of a salad or into a garlicky hummus. Cauliflower macaroni and cheese was re-heated for the next day's lunch. Remnants of last night's salmon went into a hearty mushroom-and-cheese omelette. Multi-grain waffles (made Saturday morning) are frozen and re-heated for breakfast throughout the week. Delicious all!
The most universally popular meal I made during the challenge was also the easiest and the cheapest. (Let that be a lesson to us all.) No, not rice and beans. A baked potato bar! I got the idea from Jenny Rosenstrach and Andy Ward, who write Bon Appetit's The Providers.
Here's the non-recipe recipe:
Baked Potato Bar
1 russet potato for each person
Toppings: grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, an onion, black beans, cooked broccoli, sauteed spinach, and anything else you have in your fridge that might be good on a potato
In a 450-degree oven, bake the potatoes, placing them directly on the oven rack. (No need to wrap them in foil.) Let bake for 50 minutes or until tender. Meanwhile, cut the onion into thin slices and cook slowly in about 1/4 cup olive oil in a large skillet over low heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir occasionally so onions don't burn. It'll take 20-30 minutes, but the results are astonishing: a sweet, golden brown, deliciously goopy mass of onion.
When the potatoes are done, slice each one horizontally and butter both halves. Serve with toppings.
The results surprised me. Don kept saying, "This is so delicious!" And even picky eater Madeleine "mmmed" as she ate her potato (most of it, anyway). I agree with Rosenstrach and Ward: The secret is letting the kids put their own toppings on. Giving them agency makes them more excited to eat the result. I also served a side of frozen edamame from Whole Foods.
Total cost of meal: less than $6: $2.50 for 3 organic potatoes at our local farmstand, $3 worth of toppings, and about 50 cents' worth of edamame.
Vampire Slayer's Soup
From Rebecca Katz's The Longevity Kitchen
Makes 4 servings
4 heads garlic ($3.83)
2 tablespoons + 4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil (about 20 cents)
1 cup diced yellow onion ($1.10)
2 teaspoons minced garlic (included in above price)
1 cup peeled and finely diced Yukon gold potatoes ($1.62)
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme (we went without this)
1/3 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 1/4 cups veggie broth (roughly $2 worth of broth)
Cut the tops off of the heads of garlic and discard. Drizzle each head of garlic with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil, then sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Wrap the garlic in parchment paper in one bundle and then wrap in aluminum foil. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 45-50 minutes; the aroma will tell you when it's ready. The flesh should be soft and golden brown. Remove from the oven to cool.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and sauté until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the minced garlic, potatoes, thyme, pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt and sauté for 5 minutes. Pour in 3/4 cup of the broth to deglaze the skillet, stirring to loosen any bits stuck to the pan. Simmer until potatoes are tender and the liquid has mostly evaporated. Remove from heat.
When the garlic is cool enough to handle, squeeze the flesh into a bowl and mash with the back of a spoon to form a paste.
Pour the remaining 2 1/2 cups of broth into the blender. Add the roasted garlic and the onion-potato mixture and blend until smooth. Transfer to a soup pot over low heat and stir in 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook just until heated through. You may want to add a spritz of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and a drizzle of chive oil.
Lucky for me, everyone--even Don--loved the garlic soup, which cost $8.75 total to make. Don made a big green salad ($2 worth of lettuce) with a variety of raw veggies shaved or sliced on top (50 cents), and we toasted some homemade bread.
Total cost of meal: less than $12
Charred Brussels Sprouts
From Ned Ludd chef Jason French
Makes 6 servings
1 pound Brussels sprouts
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for finishing
Pinch of coarse sea salt
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes
Juice from 1/2 lemon
Preheat broiler to high. Place cast-iron skillet on the middle rack of the oven to preheat.
Remove the loose outer leaves of the sprouts and trim the stems. Cut sprouts in half. In a large bowl, toss the sprouts with olive oil, salt, and chile flakes. When the skillet begins smoking, add the sprouts and broil, stirring once or twice, until charred and soft but not burnt, about 10 to 12 minutes. The amount of time will depend on the sprouts themselves, as they change throughout the season. Toss cooked sprouts in a bowl with lemon juice, more olive oil, and a pinch of sea salt. Serve immediately.
Total cost of meal: roughly $4