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Can two people eat on $67 a week?

A couple takes the Food Stamp Challenge and discovers it is possible to eat healthfully on a tight budget. Careful planning and a home garden help.

March 11, 2009|Jason Song

I was reading a book about the joys of making your own bacon, preferably with mail-ordered pork belly, when my wife mentioned something about a food stamp challenge.

It sounded ominous.

We were considering buying a house and the economy seemed shaky, so it was a good time to tighten our belts, she said. We would live on $72 worth of food a week, she explained, about the same amount a family of two in California would get in food stamps.

Is that truly necessary? I asked. Sure, the cookbook suggests making bacon from pork that cost $88 for 9 pounds, but I was never actually going to do that. And we're pretty thrifty, I argued. We splurge occasionally but we pack our own lunches most of the time, even grow some of our own vegetables.

But then she showed me our credit card statements and receipts, and I realized we weren't actually that thrifty after all. We'd spent almost $700 the month before on food, including alcohol and going out.

Maybe it was time to cut back, I thought. And $72 sounded like a perfectly reasonable limit.

"Should we try it for a month?" I asked.

"How about two?" she countered.

We weren't the first nor the most severe members of the Food Stamp Challenge -- in 2007, several members of Congress budgeted just $21 a person, the national average a food stamp recipient receives weekly. The focus of our challenge was different. We weren't making a statement about hunger awareness or pretending we were poor; we wanted to change our lifestyle and our budget.

The federal food stamp formula is complicated and depends on income level and number of family members. More than 31 million Americans received food stamps in December, the latest data available, believed to be the highest rate ever.

We decided on some ground rules: We wouldn't count the cost of food we already had in the pantry or freezer, and though we would accept gifts from family, we wouldn't from friends, i.e. our parents could buy us dinner but our friends couldn't pay for drinks.

It wasn't as easy as we thought. For a couple who grow their own tomatoes and have olive oils for different occasions, it was hard to find a balance between eating affordably and healthfully, much less deliciously.

But, by the end, I had found that it was even possible to make your own bacon if you plan it right.

The first step was a trip to Costco. (I later discovered that Costco doesn't accept food stamps, a reminder that although we were trying to live as if we were receiving government assistance, we were enjoying options that the truly impoverished don't have.)

I typically try to shop as quickly as possible, but my wife and I spent five minutes just debating ham versus turkey for our sandwich meat. Both of us preferred turkey, but we decided on ham because it was cheaper and would be good for a couple of months, unlike turkey, which would last for only a week or two.

I briefly wondered how it was possible for lunch meat to last that long.

We had a lengthy discussion about lettuce. A six-pack of romaine heads cost less than $3, about as much as a small bag of mesclun at the farmers market.

We had wanted to be as organic and local as possible. I kept a copy of the book "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which espouses the virtues of eating locally, on my bedside table and spent a weekend expanding our small backyard garden with a pick and shovel to make more room for greens.

Price of produce

But our spinach had died, and the Costco romaine was really, really cheap. Then I recalled reading an article on Salon.com about how shipping 1,000 pieces of produce 1,000 miles could be as environmentally sound as 10 farmers driving 100 pieces of produce 100 miles. We put the romaine in the cart.

Our Costco grocery bill came to $67, so we decided to adopt that as our limit. We planned a menu for the first week and vowed to stick to it: oatmeal or eggs for breakfast, ham pita sandwiches and salad for lunch, ginger-lime chicken thighs for dinner.

It didn't sound so bad.

However, I figured out the secret of the ham's preservative powers the next day when I bit into my sandwich: salt. A lot of it.

It could've been worse, I told myself. A cousin who tried the challenge at the same time but stuck to organic fare was stretched so thin that she nearly burst into tears when she dropped a slice of pizza that was to have been her lunch.

Another cousin, the center on the family basketball team, mistakenly thought that each person got $72 weekly. Then he argued that even though he is single, because he eats more than me and my 5-foot-tall wife put together, he should be entitled to $144. When told he was essentially quadrupling his allowance, he promptly dropped out of the challenge.

One of the first questions my brother asked was whether I was getting enough to eat. I laughed, but by 3 p.m. my stomach was rumbling.

Pantry raid

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