MEETING THE FOOD STAMP CHALLENGE WITH LOCAL FOODS
Slow Food for Low and Moderate Income People
In November Sharon Gordon posted a “food stamp challenge” in the Community Food Security listserv (comfood-L): eat for a week on a food stamp budget. We decided to do this using as much food as we could from local farmers so we expanded the challenge to show how the combination of (1) frugal supermarket shopping, (2) preparing meals from basic ingredients, (3) buying local foods, (4) gardening, (5) food storage, and (6) home preservation of food could add up to a healthy, affordable, practical, and environmentally sustainable meal plan, even though the local meats, eggs, and dairy products are typically more expensive than typical supermarket fare. And the food had to be satisfying and taste good too, otherwise, what’s the point? Call this the Slow Food for the Poor Challenge. Frequently asked questions about this food stamp challenge.
I am happy to report that we succeeded on all accounts. Here’s the summary of our results:
|Total spent on food for week:||$60.43|
|Food stamp allowance, 2 people 1 week||$61.87|
|amount under budget||$1.44|
|Food cost average amount per day||$8.63|
|amount bought from farmers||$44.18|
|amount from supermarket||$16.80|
|percent of local foods||73%|
|percent of supermarket foods||28%|
Besides coming in under budget, we have at least 2 more meals of leftovers in the fridge. We have apple pie filling in the freezer for later. The detailed table, showing the meals, ingredients, and prices, is at http://www.bettertimesinfo.org/challengetable.htm .
The meats we ate during the week were buffalo, 100% grass-fed beef, and pork. Yes, we ate a lot of ground meat (sausage, beef, and buffalo) but we also had a great pot roast for a festive weekend meal. The meats ranged in price from $2.95/lb (ground buffalo wrapped in butcher paper) to $4.50/lb for the buffalo round roast.
We ate ground meat nearly every day, and some might ask, “Wasn’t that boring?” No, because we fixed it many different ways. We had Redneck Salisbury Steaks (ground buffalo patties browned in a skillet, and then cooked in gravy in the oven), homemade spaghetti sauce with ground buffalo and pasta, rice pilaf with ground buffalo, and beef stew made with hamburger.
Ground meat can take on many different flavors, depending on the herbs used with it, and we made liberal use of our garden-grown dried herbs this week. If we had tried to eat unseasoned hamburger patties for a week, that would have gotten boring very fast. Instead one day we were south of the border, and the next we were dining in Italy and the day after in southwest Oklahoma. We were liberal with our use of herbs, onions, garlic, hot red peppers, habanero pepper salsa, and chipotle peppers, all from our garden with us-ens doing the processing (smoking for the chipotles, boiling water canning for the habanero pepper salsa, dehydrating for the peppers, curing for the onions and garlic). All of that work was done earlier, in the summer and fall, now we get to eat these items all year thanks to a couple of hours of work in the summer or fall.
Our eggs were from certified organic, free-ranging hens, bought directly from a farmer through the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, costing $3/dozen. As the week went on, I slowly scaled back the number of eggs we ate for two reasons. One was to stay in the budget, the second was we were running out of farmer eggs and the Oklahoma Food Cooperative monthly delivery is not until this coming Thursday. On Sunday, Sean and I were a bit dubious about 1 scrambled egg each, but it turned out fine. The sausage we scrambled with it added to the bulk, and the homemade hashbrowns made with leftover baked potatoes further filled out the meal, and the apple cobbler for breakfast dessert was a true treat.
Every day we had home baked rolls or biscuits made with 100% certified organic stone ground flour, made with Oklahoma wheat. I used the opportunity to try a couple of different recipes and we decided that the most recent version was undoubtedly “our best 100% whole wheat rolls ever”. (Recipe is included below, of course.) We baked biscuits or rolls every day, but I only made dough twice during the week, making enough dough for several bakings, and keeping the unused dough in the refrigerator.
We made intelligent use of leftovers, by design. Sunday’s supper was a delicious hearty winter soup. It had leftover cabbage and the broth from cooking the cabbage, leftover beans and bean soup, some of the rice pilaf, and the gravy from the pot roast, simmered for a couple of hours, and served with fresh baked whole wheat rolls. There’s enough of that soup left for today, and we’re glad about that because it was very good, rich and complex flavors.
We would not have had such nice treats (apple pie and apple cobbler) if we had not preserved apples during the summer that were given to us by a friend who had picked and preserved so many for her family she was out of room in her freezer. So we sliced, dipped, and froze several bags of apples and each month we have apple treats.
We did not cut any corners on quality. We used olive oil and butter, not shortening and margarine. We buy olive oil at a locally owned supermarket for $10/gallon. They don’t have it at that price all the time, so when it is cheap we buy several, and then we don’t have to buy it for quite a while.
Our garden and home preservation skills made a major contribution to our diet. Home grown and/or preserved items we used during the week included spaghetti sauce, corn on the cob (bought from a farmer in the summer and frozen), green beans, peach and plum jam, chipotle peppers, habanero salsa, dried herbs, cured onions and garlic. We had fresh greens (chard) from the garden. Food processing techniques that contributed to our menu this month included jam making, boiling water canning, dehydrating, freezing, smoking peppers, and curing of alliums. .
The meats were bought through the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, pork from the McGehee family of Okemah and buffalo from the Stepp family of Hinton and Dennis Garret of Eufaula. I think it is likely that folks in other areas would have a hard time finding locally produced meats at these prices, but that of course was one of the reasons I started the organizing process to form the Cooperative. Oklahoma needed a way to conveniently buy food from farmers, and voila, the Oklahoma Food Cooperative was born. Our meat and egg prices are higher than supermarket fare, but they are lower than what is generally found in health food stores and natural groceries.
Supermarket items included pasta, white flour (for thickening gravies and sauces and for the pie crust, the cobbler was made with whole wheat flour), sugar, salt, rice, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, celery, dried beans, canned tomato sauce (we used the last of our frozen sauce this week, sigh), butter, and milk. We are hoping to add carrots to our list of “we grow all we eat” items next year but in the meantime we buy them at the supermarket.
Food storage proved its utility, in that I didn’t have to buy anything except cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and celery, everything else was on hand. I did make an extra trip to the grocery store to check some prices, however, as I charged myself for the supermarket items I had on hand based on the price this week at Buy for Less at NW 23rd and Penn in Oklahoma City for the items.
Someone sent me a private email suggesting that I keep track of food preparation time. I did this but was keeping that in a separate document which got corrupted and so I lost the second half of the week. Generally, not including cooking time, these meals averaged 15 minutes preparation time. The pot roast extravaganza was the most involved menu. The dough making took about 20 minutes for each batch, including the kneading time. The pie was 20 minutes prep time, the cobbler was about 10 minutes. The first time I made dough of course it took a lot longer than 20 minutes, but I have been making bread for going on 20 years so unless it is something new I don’t have to read the recipe, figure out what I am going to do, etc. I have everything I need for baking organized in one place, so I don’t have to go find stuff when I am ready to bake. If anything, during this week cooking took a little longer because I was measuring everything with spoons and cups that I usually “measure by sight” so I could fairly account for the price of the ingredients.
It should also be noted that this is not an exceptional menu for us, it is basically the same kind of food we eat every month, so these recipes were not new recipes to me, I have prepared them many times.
One of the real time saving techniques we used was planning leftovers. The most complicated meal was the pot roast, but we ended up with a second meal that evening from the leftovers, and then the rest of the roast and the gravy went into the Sunday night soup. We had more than one meal of burger helper, but the subsequent meals simply required warming it up. My busiest day was Wednesday, I am at church from the morning until late at night, so I prepared all three meals at breakfast, and then packed my lunch and dinner. Remembering the descriptions in Laura’ Kitchen cookbook about how she prepared her husband’s lunches to take to work, I got out a picnic basket and filled it up, the rest of the staff at work thought it was a great touch, and it was. A re-usable picnic basket is much better than a disposable sack.
My conclusion is that depending on the access to local foods, feeding your family a high quality diet using many local ingredients is absolutely do-able. This experiment integrated frugal supermarket shopping, use of many local foods, preparing meals from basic ingredients, food storage, gardening, and home preservation of foods. Each of these six areas was essential to our ability to stay within the food stamp budget.
Based on this experiment, encouraging/helping low and moderate income people in these areas seems to me to be most promising of success. I think people should start with their situation as it is, and over time add the six basic areas of food security until they all work together. People will be better able to take advantage of local foods, for example, if they have already learned to prepare meals from basic ingredients.
+ Skills. Our grandparents knew how to do all this stuff, but there has been a tragic collapse in the transmission of heritage food information across generations in the United States. Classes are needed to help people learn how to plan menus, garden, preserve foods, cook meals from basic ingredients. And people need to talk to elders while they remain with us and conserve as much information as they can. Oral histories are a great way to do this.
+ Equipment. Help people acquire home food preservation equipment, including freezers, canning jars, dehydrators. For about $200 (internet catalog prices), a basic set of new equipment could be bought including a boiling water canner, dehydrator, grain grinder, pressure canner. For about $1500, larger equipment could be bought (including a pasta maker and oat roller) that could be loaned for use by individuals or groups or maintained at (for example) a church kitchen and made available for use by people wanting to do home preservation of foods but who don’t have the equipment.
+ Improving access to local foods. If I did not have access to the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, it would have been much more difficult to meet this challenge. Low income people in cities are not going to have the time or resources to be running around in a hundred mile radius stopping at farms along the way to get their groceries. Structures need to be established to efficiently and conveniently link urban consumers with rural producers. It is my opinion that those structures should be organized and controlled by those who use them – the producers and the customers.
+ Frugal supermarket shopping. The easiest of the five areas to start with is frugal supermarket shopping, preparing meals from basic ingredients, and home food storage. That was where I started. Low and moderate income families should be encouraged to keep some of their household savings in the form of food. It takes a while to build up supplies, of course, but over time this helps low income households manage their food budgets. Supermarket prices often have violent “mood swings”. If meat is cheap, canned goods are expensive. A family with food storage can buy what is cheap, and avoid what is expensive.
+ Gardening. Gardening is another area to “start working on early”, and helping people learn how to garden is essential for food security — also helping them to find the resources they need, including seeds, bare root plants, tools, and land.
The recipes used the week can generally be found at http://www.bettertimesinfo.org/2004index.htm , the 5th edition of the Better Times Almanac.
BOB’S IMPROVED 100% WHOLE WHEAT BREAD DOUGH
This recipe is loosely based on a recipe I found in John’s Bread Book, recently given to me by a friend. It is a “sponge” bread method. The night before you want the bread, you mix all the liquid and make a batter using about half the flour. You let this sit overnight and then finish the recipe in the morning.
About 8 cups whole wheat flour | 2 cups water | 2 cups milk | 3/4 cup olive oil | ½ cup honey | 2 teaspoons salt | 4 tablespoons yeast | 5 tablespoons vinegar
Combine the liquid ingredients, salt, and yeast. Add flour until it is the consistency of a thick pancake batter, about half the flour or a little less. Add the flour one cup at a time so it doesn’t get to thick. Using a mixer, beat this batter for 10 minutes (you can also beat it by hand if you don’t have a mixer.) Cover it, and leave it in a warm place overnight. The next day, add the rest of the flour, knead for ten minutes, make into loaves or rolls and bake as usual in the oven.
In my opinion and experience, you want whole wheat dough to be stickier than is typical with white flour dough. It helps if you oil your hands before kneading, and keep a saucer with a little oil on it to refresh the coating as you knead the bread. Flours vary in their ability to absorb moisture, and the humidity also impacts this, so always add the flour one cup at a time and towards the end maybe only a half cup at a time.
I found the tip about adding vinegar to whole wheat bread dough at the Walton Feed website, and we tried dough with and without it this week and we like it with the vinegar. Lemon juice can be substituted for vinegar (we used homemade vinegar given to us by a friend).
TIP FOR POT ROAST GRAVY
If you make a miripoix to put the pot roast on (and you should), be sure to include all of it in the gravy. The gravy we made with our pot roast this week was unanimously agreed to be my “best gravy ever”. Miripoix details are in the Better Times Almanac page on “Roast Beast”.
A NOTE ABOUT THE AMOUNT OF THE FOOD STAMP CHALLENGE:
The weekly amount of food stamps for 2 persons is based on household’s without any income at all. If the household has some outside income, the amount of food stamps available to them radically drops. For example, we take food each month to a grandmother raising three grandkids. She lives on about $650/month social security income, and she only receives $68/month in food stamps! Such is life in these United States.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS FOOD STAMP CHALLENGE:
1. How much time do you spend shopping for all these local foods?
Actual shopping time each month for local foods is about 20 minutes. All of the local foods, except those we grew ourselves, we purchased from these local farmers through the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, I am the president of that organization. The Oklahoma Food Cooperative operates a monthly order delivery service. In the first week of the month, the price and product list for that month is posted at the cooperative’s website, www.oklahomafood.org . During the 2nd week, members order. On the 3rd Thursday, all of the producers show up to Epiphany Catholic Church where I am director of music and the cooperative divides up the orders among the member orders. Members then come and pick them up at the church or at one of our other pickup sites elsewhere in Oklahoma City, Norman, Tulsa, and the Muskogee-Tahlequah areas. My actual time involvement with the cooperative is considerable, but I am its president, and am thus involved with all aspects of its work. Our most recent order, December 2004, had 114 orders totalling right at $11,000 in gross sales to producers. But if I was not a cooperative officer, the time involved for local foods shopping would have consisted of about 20 minutes ordering food at our website and then about 15 minutes round trip drive time to pick up my order at the central Oklahoma City delivery site which is close to my home.
Supermarket shopping is also a breeze. We get all of our meats and many other food items directly from farmers through the food cooperative. So at the store we only buy basic staples like sugar, olive oil, pasta, etc. (During the winter we also buy potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and occasionally celery.) We buy those in large sizes, so I generally only shop for those items once a month.
2. I don’t see how anybody with a job and kids could have the time to do this kind of cooking.
It is a myth that this kind of cooking takes a huge amount of time. Generally I spent about 15 minutes active preparation time, on average, for these meals. The actual cooking time was often longer, but if something is in the oven, or if dough is rising, I don’t stand around watching it and doing nothing. One of the efficient cooking practices I use is to prepare more than one meal with a cooking session. One of the techniques to do that is to plan for left-over use. When I cook a pot roast, I not only see a pot roast dinner, I also see hot beef sandwiches, deviled roast beef, and beef stew or stock for soup. We had baked rolls or bread sticks every day during this challenge, but I only made dough twice, but at each of those dough making sessions I made enough for several days, keeping the excess in the refrigerator. Hot rolls for breakfast or dinner were a simple matter of rolling out the rolls (maybe 1 or 2 minutes), letting them rise a bit and then popping them in the oven. I understand these are advanced home cooking skills, but they are not impossible to learn, and as with any other skill, the learning curve kicks in and these kind of home management techniques become second nature. The first time you bake a pie from scratch it may take you awhile. By the time you make ten, they will be a lot easier to make. And when you have made 50 pies, well, you will be able to make a pie crust and fill it with something good in very little time. I generally recommend that people start with baking their own bread. It’s the easiest place to start and has perhaps the greatest return for effort invested.
My life is very busy, I have a full time job as director of music at a Catholic Church, I am the president of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, and I am the founder of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House, under whose auspices we deliver food each month to people in need who don’t have transportation to get to a regular food security agency, and we generally do about 200 deliveries every month, also miscellaneous other stuff like handing out coats, gloves, socks, hats, etc to homeless people, and various advocacy activities. So it’s not as if anyone around here has piles of leisure time to cook elaborate meals. Even so, we manage to eat healthy, tasty foods cooked from basic ingredients, and we get a lot of our food from local farmers or grow it ourselves.
3. Poor people don’t eat like this.
Well, maybe some do and maybe some don’t. This project – which begins with the Better Times Almanac of Useful Information, now in its 5th edition – grew out of my own personal experience with poverty. For the 20 year period, 1977-1997, there were only 3 years when my income was higher than $10,000. I learned to bake bread because that was the cheapest way I could get bread. And when I lived in places where my kitchen consisted of a hot plate, a crockpot, and an electric skillet, I learned how to bake biscuits in an electric skillet. The recipes and menus I used were often based on recipes and menus I used during that long period of poverty, and it is still the way our household generally eats today. They are basically peasant foods, typical fare of rural Oklahoma. The main difference with the food challenge week is that I kept track of everything down to the teaspoon ingredient level, and that was tedious but necessary in order to establish the point.
4. Who’s the main audience you want to reach with this?
Ultimately everybody, but right now I think the food security community should be most interested, because it suggests practical ideas to help families and communities become more food secure. One thing I hope is obvious is the contribution that our garden and fruit trees made to the financial success of the challenge. Having your own garden is indeed like growing money in your back yard. And the ease of access to local and regional foods offered by the Oklahoma Food Cooperative suggests other local organizing strategies.
President, Oklahoma Food Cooperative
Founder, Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City