Have you ever wondered where your next meal was coming from? Ever gone to the grocery store with a few dollars in your pocket, days looming long between here and payday, with no idea how to make the money stretch to cover it? I have. And while I’m very lucky not to have to deal with that reality anymore, it’s still the reality for 48.8 million Americans — including 16.2 million children — who live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis.
If you’re not familiar with what it’s like, you should take a gander at A Place At The Table, which follows three families struggling with “food insecurity.” Food insecurity is a pretty name for an ugly feeling — not knowing where your next meal, or worse, your child’s next meal is coming from. You can view it on iTunes or Amazon, or find a screening near you to view it in a theater.
If anyone is interested, the first four people to email me and say “I want to take my place at the table” will receive either a companion book to “A Place At The Table” or this fork lapel pin, courtesy of Participant Media:
As someone who has relied on food stamps in the past and found it difficult to make good choices because of the high cost of healthy, fresh foods and the wide availability of inexpensive junk food, I would like to ask you all to send a letter to your congressperson urging them to protect funding for federal nutrition programs, including SNAP, WIC, and school meals.
The average monthly SNAP benefit is $134, which means less than $5 a day. Picture your own grocery bill each week, and try to imagine trying to feed yourself — let alone your children — good, nutritious food on just $35 a week. Many farmers markets accept SNAP benefits and even WIC now, and that’s great, because it means increased availability of fresh, healthy ingredients to those on assistance programs, but the fact remains that it costs more (financially, at least) to maintain a nutritious diet than it does to eat junk food, and it’s our bodies and our health that pay the price.
For those of you who are struggling with food insecurity, here are a few tips I have learned, from personal experience and from watching my mother when I was growing up, for stretching your SNAP benefits — or just your grocery dollars — to cover more nutritionally-sound products. They may seem like common sense, but let’s face it — when you’re under the stress of requiring financial assistance to feed your family, you’re not always capable of looking at the big picture.
- Shop the sales and stock up. Locate several grocery stores within a reasonable distance from your home, and scope out their flyers for the best prices on typically expensive items like meat, seafood and produce. If you have a freezer, buy these items on sale even if you don’t need them at the moment, and freeze them for later. Every time I’m in the grocery store, even if it’s just to pick up a prescription, I cruise the seafood and meat departments, keeping an eye out for store coupons and manager’s specials.
- Canned fruits and vegetables are not as nutritious as fresh produce, but they are still much healthier for you than processed foods, so don’t be afraid to use them to stretch a meal. Frozen fruits and veggies are at least as good as fresh if not better, a friend has taught me, because they are preserved at their peak. Canned chicken or tuna is a great source of protein during lean times when fresh meat or fish is out of your price range.
- Buy staples in bulk. Staples include things like pasta, beans, rice and other grains, flour, and sugar. Pay attention to the unit pricing, and don’t be afraid to shop for some of these items in natural food stores — many of their prices for items on the shelves are exorbitant, but bulk grains and spices are often a bargain. Opt for whole grains whenever possible.
- Locate any grocery “liquidation centers” near you — these are rare, but if you’re lucky to find one, like the one I grew up shopping at with my mother, Caswells in Waterville Maine, you will find it easier to purchase more and better foods for less money. They consistently carry dry goods and frozen foods, and occasionally even get in fresh produce like potatoes and squash. The packages may not be pretty, and sometimes you have to watch the dates to be sure they’re not too far past, but it can make a noticeable difference in your grocery bill. I still like to go there once a month or so, to pad my pantry with inexpensive dry goods. It’s a much further trek now than it was when I lived with my mom, but it’s worth the hour drive for the savings.
- Don’t be ashamed to take advantage of local food banks. These community resources are there to help you supplement your SNAP, WIC and other similar benefits. They provide a variety of groceries, mostly donated by local businesses and farmers, at no cost to you. Let them help you keep your families healthy.
Here are a few recipes I’ve made in the past that are fairly inexpensive to make (especially if you shop your meat department for deals) and that incorporate at least one fruit or vegetable with a meat and a starch:
- Lemon Fettuccine with Chicken and Avocado
- Baked Tortellini Alfredo
- Chinese Chicken (This one just has onions but would be great with carrots or broccoli in it as well.)
- Lamb Curry (Lamb can be pricey, but I always stock up when it’s on deep discount.)
- Cheesy Shepherd’s Pie
- Campanelle with Tonno in Tomato Cream Sauce (make this with whatever pasta and canned tuna you have on hand)
- Baked Beans (These aren’t sweet like most baked beans, and you can add sausage to make it meatier and add more protein.)
- Spicy Basil Primavera