SOLE food is a SNAP
By Lorelei Kellogg
In February of 2009, after a hard winter without work and grim prospects for the spring, my family went on food stamps. It was a decision I had struggled with; I didn’t like the idea of being on the receiving end of “charity.” However, after a review of the larder drew my attention to the fact that I couldn’t even make tortillas, I decided it was probably time to ask for some help. Pivotal to this decision was the fact that my son had just had his first birthday and was increasingly demanding solid foods.
While mind-numbingly boring, the application process was fairly painless. Once it was made clear our family had no income, we were immediately approved for emergency benefits. Unfortunately, I was applying at the end of the month and the benefits were prorated. This meant we got a whopping $14. In addition, due to the twist of fate which assigned us a distribution date toward the end of the month, we weren’t due another installment of funds until nearly four full weeks after our approval. Regardless of the apparent futility, I made my way to the cheapest grocery store I could find and tried to get as much bang for my buck as I could.
Since my initial spree of $14, we have been receiving the maximum monthly benefits. This allows us to spend more on food than before by several hundred dollars a month. In the beginning I bought mostly organic produce, but the rest of my groceries tended to be the conventional variety. That changed several months later when I discovered I could spend my benefits at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. I was listening to the public radio station and heard the ad informing listeners that the market was accepting SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), also known as EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) or food stamps, and WIC checks. I was ecstatic. This information, combined with a new membership at the local co-op, was all I needed to really adjust my priorities. From this point on I committed to buying as much as possible from local and organic sources.
For many, the ability to buy locally grown, organic foods from a farmers’ market is seen as a privilege. Buying organic is viewed as snobbery by some and the idea of purchasing locally grown, $8-per-pound spinach is deemed as downright ludicrous by others. The fact is, Americans are used to cheap food. Statistically speaking, we spend about 9.5 percent of our average annual income on the stuff. Compare this to our European counterparts, who spend somewhere between 14 percent and 18 percent of their income on food, and you get an idea of how we prioritize. The truth is SOLE food (Sustainable, Organic, Local, Ethical) tends to be more expensive. It costs more to produce ethically raised meat and it requires more work to raise an organic crop. I firmly believe that the end product is worth the additional money.
For nearly a year I’ve been successfully feeding a family of three on locally grown, mostly organic, ethically raised food, utilizing a finite number of food dollars in the form of food stamps. This hasn’t always been easy and it has certainly required some adjustment. But by making a couple of changes in the way you approach food in your household, you can end up with a better product even if you are on an extremely limited budget.
First and foremost, I have to cook. In some ways this has been the best part of the whole experience. I have always enjoyed cooking, but I have recently learned to appreciate the time it takes to prepare a meal, and subsequently, I enjoy the food more. Meals have become something akin to a celebration rather than a momentary refueling. I have also learned some great skills, such as making sourdough bread from scratch. This is something I try to do four or five times a week because, frankly, buying locally made organic bread, while a lovely treat, is cost prohibitive. Most loaves cost between $3 and $5, but I can make one at home for under a buck.
Secondly, I buy things seasonally as much as possible. For one thing, it is hard to get locally grown raspberries in December, but even if you go the non-local organic route, a pint of organic berries is nearly $2 more in winter than when they are in season. The same is true for things like kale and organic salad mixes. I admit to not always following this rule, especially if a craving strikes, but from a budgeting standpoint it is an important thing to keep in the back of your mind.
Lastly, I buy in bulk as much as possible when things are in season and process them at home so as to have them on hand. Making applesauce from orchard “seconds” is a great way to stock your larder with locally grown heirloom fruit without spending a fortune. If you’re interested in getting locally raised, grass-fed beef, most of the suppliers at the local farmers’ market will give you a bulk discount depending on how much you purchase at a time. If you have enough room in your freezer, this can be another money saver.
Additionally, the kinds of meals my family eats have changed since going on food stamps. We rarely have a roast or a grilled chicken, for example. If I buy a whole bird, I tend to make stock out of it and use the meat as an ingredient, rather than highlight it as the centerpiece of a meal. This way a whole chicken can last for three meals, rather than one. Given the preferences of our household, we rarely go for a fully vegetarian meal, but it isn’t unusual for me to take a cup of chicken stock, a half cup of cooked chicken, and some dairy and throw together chicken and biscuits for dinner. The same thing goes for pork or beef. By making something like pork hash with eggs using stew meat, which tends to be a less expensive cut, I can have a meal that contains enough animal protein to satisfy my carnivorous family without using more than a few dollars’ worth of meat. And don’t forget the leftovers! By making larger dinners, like a large pot of chili for example, I can also supply lunch the next day, saving money on things like lunch meat which is, generally speaking, incredibly expensive.
In some ways being on food stamps has liberated me from the belief that I am too poor to eat good food. The money I receive is specifically for food; I cannot use it on anything else. In fact, I can’t even buy prepared food from the grocery store—deli foods, rotisserie chickens and anything classified under the umbrella of “already cooked” is not covered by my food stamp benefits. Ultimately, what began as an unfortunate downward turn became a journey toward a different relationship with food—one in which food holds a special place in our home. And while the circumstances which led to this revelation may have started out as a sour taste in my mouth, the results have been imminently satisfying.
Lorelei Kellogg is a stay-at-home mom with a passion for food, gardening and goats. She writes a food blog which highlights events at what she refers to as her “urban farm,” i.e. her backyard, and provides a place for her to share both recipes and catastrophes. Her blog can be found at realfoodmama.wordpress.com.