Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Food Media & News >
May 24, 2007 11:47 AM

"fine" Dining on Food Stamps................

A recent post about Carlo Petrini and the Ferry Building in SF grew a bit "heated" when the topic turned to whether organics and farmer's markets are for the few or the many. Some people suggested that it was NOT possible--or at least simple--to dine well [aka fresh produce, organic produce] using food stamps. A number of posters pointed out that the various farmer's markets take food stamps ergo more food stamp surviving folks should be taking advantage.....

Today, I came across this post from Pat Morrison in the LA Times.

It got me thinking, especially the part about worrying about food going bad when you don't have money to replace stuff. Honestly, I can't see how I can feed my family organically for just a dollar per person a meal and I'm pretty darned frugal.

But rather than blow smoke debating the possibility, perhaps all of us who think it can't be done and all of us who think its fairly easy to do, ought to try it for ourselves in June. Say for one week, spend just a dollar a meal per person and see how it works out.

I'm willing to try. We are a family of four---two adults and two kids, one a permanently hungry growing boy. Presuming $3 a day per person times 3 meals a day is $84 for the week. The actual USDA guidelines show a maximum allotment for food stamps is a bit more but then they reduce that amount by .3 X net monthly income. I'm willing to go with the $1 a meal, $3 a day calculation.

Basic Ground Rules: all meals eatten in the home and no stock piling stuff the week before. All items consumed that week must be bought that week. Yes, most people have ketchup and salt around [or whatever] but at some point you had to buy it. I think let this be the week--if you want a condiment, buy it or do without.

I pick the week of June 3 through June 9. I'll pull the exact amount of my food allowence out on Sunday and head straight for the market. If I run out of money before the week is up, I'll report in and confess my sins. I'd go hungry for the remaining time but I think I'd get in trouble for starving my kids.

Anybody with me?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. jenn, the only time I've seen this work is when the produce is prepared for a large group and served immediately. For instance, many farms offer free produce and baked goods that they would otherwise have to throw out due to inevitable spoilage and organizations come around to collect the food stuffs to prepare & serve to working poor, shelter residents.

    Good luck with your experiment. My family of five can only eat well and remain on some form of a budget if we meal plan, freeze ahead and buy only what we need.

    1. A few members of congress are about to do the same thing.

      I'll be interested in all the results. When I first started out after college and was paying off student loans to boot, times were very lean. I recall a lot of pasta, rice, and noodles.

      1. This is sort of exactly the opposite of the approach that you'd need to take to really successfully manage a food budget that small. Buying long-storing staples in bulk and spreading out purchases of things like condiments to when they fit in your budget frees up funds to buy fresh produce and such week to week. Trying to simply feed a family on that little money starting on X day with nothing seems pretty doomed.

        We weren't poor by any means growing up, but my mother was the queen of the case lot sale. We always had lots of everything stored away--partly because it was entirely possible for our small town to get cut completely off from the nearest city in the winter, and partly to save money buy buying stuff on sale--and my mother could really stretch our grocery budget that way.

        Not that I think it would be easy even with a stockpile--I spend close to that on my own food budget, and I live alone--but you draw the wrong conclusions if you start with the wrong premises. Far better to fail legitimately and really make the point about the problem.

        14 Replies
        1. re: Jacquilynne

          I'm not familiar with how food stamps work, but is the OP's point that if you are on food stamps, you don't have enough in advance to stock up?

          1. re: MMRuth

            That's where planning comes in--if you're doing this for a week, you can have that attitude, but if you're doing it long term, you'd have to take the position of starting with ultra cheap staples to build a larder. Getting into the position of never being completely out of food gives you more flexibility to grab sales, and such.

            Some of the most interesting reading on stretching budget comes, oddly enough, from Mormon websites. Maintaining a stock of food is pretty much a religious requirement for Mormon wives. If you're looking for advice on how to get by on very little, that's a great place to start.

            1. re: Jacquilynne

              hannaone is correct.

              Look, I was a starving grad student and I can bulk buy and advance plan to knock your socks off. Of course it is easier to do all this by buying large amounts [though the ability to haul tons of stuff from Costco on the bus raises many additional issues.........] but the issue in the Ferry discussion mentioned was FRESH food and organic food.

            2. re: MMRuth

              It looks like the emphasis is on fresh produce/organic produce which is perishable. On an extremely limited budget that is difficult at best.

            3. re: Jacquilynne

              "Far better to fail legitimately and really make the point about the problem."
              Ouch. how you can contend that it would not be a legitimate failure when you say your own personal budget for one person comes close to what is proposed for four?

              "Buying long-storing staples in bulk and spreading out purchases of things like condiments to when they fit in your budget frees up funds to buy fresh produce and such week to week."
              True enough but how exactly do you haul all that home on the bus? I've schleped small bags of groceries on the bus after work and trust me, it isn't easy. I can't imagine how someone should take large amounts. Do you advocate that the shopper make multiple trips to the Costco? Not so easy when relying on public transport or after a full day of work. And where is the Costco, anyway? The ones I know of are quite a haul from my neighborhood.

              "Trying to simply feed a family on that little money starting on X day with nothing seems pretty doomed."

              Maybe, maybe not. But lets take a person just starting on food stamps as an example. Do they have all that stuff stockpiled or do they have to start from scratch?

              I have to say, I'm fascinated that the number of responses to date tell me how it won't work but no one seems willing to try it themselves. Is it too hard a thing to do or too easy? HMMMMMMMMMM.

              1. re: jenn

                I'm not sure anyone is telling you it won't work as much as they are telling you that they don't agree with the premise of it. It's not a lack of willingness, per se. And maybe some folks who have actually lived this experience don't see the appeal in or value of doing it as an experiment.


                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                  I suspect we are defining the premise differently. I can certainly buy lots of staples at the 99 cents store and because I typically only cook from scratch, suspect I can do a pretty decent job on that budget. But I'm not sure if thats true if I try to do organic.

                  Honestly, I can't say I find the idea particularly appealing either---I lived broke [like rice and lentils for weeks broke] for a lot of years and am plenty happy to be beyond my penny pinching days.

                  Perhaps I was unclear in my original post---what was posted on the Petrini/Ferry market/slow post was that it was perfectly possible to eat lots of organic stuff and shop at the farmer's markets even if one were relying on food stamps. I don't agree. I think its hard, if not impossible, but I'm willing to see if I'm wrong.

                  1. re: jenn

                    I think it's likely impossible, too. As others have said, eating cheaply requires transportation and the time to shop and to cook from scratch. (And a kitchen!) I don't have much money because I'm a "starving artist," but I do have plenty of time. For me, it's a choice. For others, it's not.

                    BTW do the shops at the Ferry Building accept food stamps? Recently, I was at my local produce market when a homeless-looking guy came in to buy some fruit and asked if they took food stamps. They didn't. It was another half mile to Safeway and he was on foot. I still hate myself for not offering to buy the stuff for him, but it all happened quickly.

                    1. re: jenn

                      jenn, I do believe its only natural that our point of reference for shopping with limited income/resources/knowledge...which makes the experiment no less valid...just subjective. A real experiment would require we all follow the same parameters....good luck with that (wink).

                  2. re: jenn

                    I just think "Can I incorporate a reasonable amount of fresh and organic produce into my family's regular diet while still subsisting on a food stamp level budget" and "Can I start completely from scratch with an empty kitchen and serve my family nothing but organic and fresh products" are two sufficiently different concepts that failing at the latter doesn't imply failure at the former. My guess is that the latter is completely impossible and the former very, very difficult if not impossible. I just don't think failing at the latter proves you would have failed at the former--even if you probably would have.

                    I wonder if you could afford a cost to 'shopping' your pantry proportional to what you use. Buying a 2lb bag of flour that you use only a small part of might set you back $3 on your budget, but if you use only a quarter of it, that would only be .75 cents.

                    As for me, personally, I could never do it. I can't go to the grocery store and buy milk for less than $50 a trip (poor impulse control? me? never!). I know my limitations! ;)

                  3. re: Jacquilynne

                    I agree. I appreciate the emotion behind this but one week is not close to reality. It is like those people who slept on the street a few days to understand what it was to be homeless. Sure it was a better appreciation but no clue as to the reality.

                    Also, I think placing the focus on organic is wrong. The focus should be on healthy ... not buying crackers and bacon and hot dogs and all the cheap fatty stuff.

                    I wouldn't shop exclusively at Ferry Plaza but I would circle it to see what could be found on the cheap. I'd also go to Almany and Civic Center ... in fact in the lean years I did just that. I supplemented that with keeping an eye out for sales and shopping at Cala foods a lot which doubles coupon value. I drank quite a lot of Don Francisco coffee ... $3 on sale with a $1 off doubled coupon = can of coffee for $1. I hate that coffee to this day.

                    I think with a lack of shopping on a budget experience, like that reporter, a false conclusion will be reached. That reporter focused on what she couldn't have, not what was possible. Sure I can salivate in front of June Taylor jams at Ferry Plaza, but when I'm broke, that's not what I'm buying.

                    Also with the lack of a long-term meal budget it isn't going to prove much. Those cheap 39 cent turkeys at Thanksgiving will take you through the holiday season. No one shops for one week and then throws away what they don't eat in a week.

                    The false assumption is buying EVERYTHING at Ferry Plaza. Take that turkey.

                    That is a healthy meat that can be paired with bargain veggies at Ferry Plaza like a $1 bunch of exquisite organic rainbow Swiss chard and a sweet purple Japanese sweet potato with an heirloom baked apple for dessert. Apple maybe 25 cents. Potato maybe 50 cents. Chard lasts for a few meals ... single serving 25 cents. Turkey maybe 50 cents My breakfast budget of oatmeal is less than 20 cents I'm golden in that price range. With wine ... there's 4 glasses in a bottle of two buck chuck. A $7 on-sale box of Franzia cabernet will last for weeks. We are talking a glass of wine for 50 cents or less with that dinner.

                    Those lean years had a permanent impact. Yes I can now buy $10 jars of jam and $20 olive oil. But I still clip coupons and stock up on sales. It is like anything else ... the more money you have the more you save. So I can buy cases of stuff during a sale and not have to buy for months. When I was poor I couldn't buy as much.

                    Living in a poor nabe currently due to my SO's family, I've discovered the corner Mexican Markets. I find it difficult to spend two to three times the money at Safeway for the same thing I can buy ... and usually better quality ... at these local markets. I've also discovered the inexpensive large Asian mega markets like 99 Ranch where fish and produce and groceries can be had for a song. I can make a fine fish dinner or chowder with lo-cost fish from the Asian market paired with whatever veggies were on bargain at Ferry Plaza that week.

                    The one thing that reporter did right was hit the sample route. Ferry Plaza on Saturday is free brunch with cheese, fruit, olives, jam and baked goods. Trader Joe's can sometimes be lunch. There's the cheese course at the Cheeseboard... sampling and then selecting one small piece to take home and enjoy ... with the 2 buck chuck.

                    1. re: rworange

                      rworange --- you're so right about local markets! I love living in my neighborhood b/c of the little Mexican corner store, the Asian grocery down the street, and the guy who sets up a mobile fruit stand every day.

                      For example, lemons are 59 cents at Shaws, yet I bought four delightfully juicy lemons for $1 at the Asian market. Ten limes for a dollar at the tiendas and the Asian market, much higher at Shaw's or Stop and Shop or the farmers' market, for that matter!

                      I drink lots of coffee with doubled coupons -- I was glad to read your mention of the double-coupon-coffee! I'm trying to make it as a working artist, so I'm very aware of sales/bulk/coupons as well as the astounding amount I spend on produce! I clip coupons constantly so I can get the items I want (Hellman's mayo for $1 with sale and coupon, Grey Poupon, etc) and I cook everything I can from scratch, but any time I want produce I need to go to the Asian or Latino market or I end up broke. I also eat mostly vegetarian and it's shocking how much more expensive it is to prepare a fancy veggie meal than a meat one!

                      1. re: foxy fairy

                        Around here (Toronto) I also find the small greengrocers will often be a reliable source for local produce during our brief season. They seem to have more flexibility than a larger place that just wants to have the same supplier for strawberries year-round.

                        1. re: julesrules

                          "Brief season" -- yes! -- you hit another point that I wanted to throw out there. In New England, we do have some awesome farmers' markets, but there's nowhere near the variety at the CA markets. Plus, we can only enjoy them for a few months each year. I used to adore that Ferry Market -- defiitely a weekly staple, and I always enjoyed the Oakland and Berkeley markets too (especially the hippy vibe in Berkeley!) Plus, as you said, our seasons are so different - our climate is so much harsher for produce! In a way I guess that's a creative challenge - to cook locally all year, maybe can a LOT of fruits and veggies in the summer. I haven't tried that yet but I'm yearning to give it a try this year. They're just starting the produce-in-a-box movement near me, so I'd like to get into that too. I know working at the local coop a few hours a month is a great way to find out about cool ingredients in bulk (alternative grains, new spices) and you also get a discount on everything you buy.

                  4. I wrote a column for the local paper last year about cooking for college students, and I shopped with a very keen eye for price while I was testing recipes. There was no way on earth I could've bought local/organic! These days, it's even worse -- food prices are climbing into the stratosphere. As I posted on another board, I paid $2.32 for ONE onion (non-organic) last week at my local supermarket.

                    1. jenn, I like the challenge, as I'm sure other CHers do. I think an inherent problem is the difference between food-educated CHers and many of the less-educated poor consumers in the US. What has long driven the food choices, unfortunately, of such poor consumers has been the high calorie density of processed junk food--you get the most calories per buck from processed junk food.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        Sam, I think your comment is unfair to poor people in the U.S. Processed food here is full of cheap stuff, like high-fructose corn syrup It's easier to fill up four hungry bellies on crap than on fresh, wholesome foods. I think it's even harder in Europe, believe it or not: Prices there for quality fresh produce and meat are out of sight. I was in Chile last year, and went to a farmers' market, but no supermarkets. The prices seemed to be more reasonable than here. The choices are, I think, less about education than availability. If you could go into a neighborhood grocery and find cheap, quality food, you'd probably buy it. Unfortunately, that possibility doesn't exist for the poor in our inner-cities.

                        1. re: pikawicca

                          and organic produce costs more..which means a family is buying less per portion.
                          organic doesn't always have as long a shelf life in or out of refrigeration

                          It would be far easier for the family to receive free produce and market goods that would otherwise be tossed then try to budget these items using food stamps. Saving the 'stamps' for other budget stretching items.

                          Experimenting with how it would be IF we were in these circumstances; feeding ourselves and our family is hardly an indicator of how we would manage under REAL conditions. Thank goodness that are resources beyond food stamps for families to manage.

                          1. re: pikawicca

                            pikawicca, I agree with you fully. I think we're saying the same thing.

                            1. re: pikawicca

                              Add to this the fact that in many urban neighborhoods, supermarkets are nonexistant. Here in Chicago the Jewels and the Dominicks are located primarily in the more affluent sections of the city. There are a few places like Aldi scattered around, and in the predominantly Hispanic areas you can find supermarcados, which tend to have a decent selection of produce. Otherwise, you choice is to carry groceries on the bus, or shop at highly priced corner stores which stock a lot of processed food and very little fresh food. (they also stock a lot of cheap booze and lottery tickets, but that is a rant for a different board)

                              Also, all of the people mentioning Costco seem to have forgotten that it cost money to buy a Costco membership. The Costco where I shop is located within blocks of the projects, but the parking lot is filled with expensive SUVs and the store is filled with obviously middle-class and upper-middle-class people.