The Whole Foods Food Stamp Challenge

| August 30, 2013 | 0 Comments

I’ve been pondering some guidelines for the Whole Foods Food Stamp Challenge.  There are many ways to go with this, and a lot of confusing gray areas. For example:

  • One method of taking a food challenge is to go “empty cupboard,” as though you’re starting with absolutely nothing, not even a salt shaker.
  • OR, you can pro-rate the costs of things you already have, tracking the cost of everything you use (I would need to find out the Whole Foods price of each item, of course)
  • What if you have a garden or a few plants that provide things like herbs/spices, or the odd tomato or bunch of lettuce? Is that “legal,” and if so, how do you assign a value to it?
  • What about things like foraging, barter, trade, or things given to you?  Is any of that okay?

Argh.  See how messy this can be?  To avoid the risk of getting seized up by the details, and since there’s no One Right Way, so I’ll just do my best with this.  I’ll pull on the persona of someone whose household has lost its income, not currently working but looking for work, and is doing the best she can, including using her head to keep good quality, delicious food on the table while she works her way through this rough patch. Work for you guys?

Photo by Charles Smith (Flickr smith_cl9)So, with that hat on, some thoughts for the coming month:

The budget:

The maximum SNAP benefit for two adults in our state is $367.00/month (update for 2015: now $357.00). That’s our budget. Seems do-able, but we’ll see when we start pushing the cart around…

Why do this?

Aside from the fact that I’m always interested in ways to craft life into what I want?  Well, I want to know how well you can continue to eat even if you’re thrown into economic dire straits. I also am curious about whether you can shop at a high-end store known for higher quality food, and do it within a tight-ish budget by making intelligent choices and teaching myself a few new tricks.  By the end of September, I’d like to answer the questions:

  • Can we pull this off?
  • Is it a recipe for deprivation and disaster? Do we hate it?  Is it too much work, messing with our chi too much?
  • Will there be any health benefits? Sleep better, lose weight, better moods?
  • Will we learn something? For example, do we really NEED to be spending as much as we do on food?
  • Will any new, good habits emerge that may stick with us?
  • Can I document this in a way that will help people eat better on a limited budget? (with examples, recipes, tricks, etc)

What’s on the menu this month

1.   Food products purchased at Whole Foods Market. There are of course other high-end markets, but this is the one most widely criticized, so it seemed like a good guinea pig. Limits:

  • Limited by SNAP rules: no alcohol, paper products, pharmacy, toiletries, pet food, hot/prepared foods, etc.
  • Shooting for 75% organic or sustainably produced
  • All “Dirty Dozen” produce must be purchased organic
  • GOOD food we will actually look forward to eating every day, rather than the bare minimum to get by. If we can make friends envious of the things we’re cooking, so much the better

2.  Food acquired through common trade/barter:  Just about everybody knows someone who has something they want, and is willing to trade it for something they want. We’ll keep our eyes open to this possibility.

3.  Food from the garden:  We’ll limit this to things anyone could grow, even with limited space or windowboxes. I’ll do some calculations of water/soil amendments to get a rough idea of the cost of things like a handful of basil.

4.  Things given to us by friends, preferably friends who do not know we’re doing this challenge. Although most everyone has generous people in their lives somewhere, we’re very blessed this way and so want to be sensitive to keeping this real by not accepting any more charity than anyone else might receive.

5. Things we can get by foraging/gleaning:  There are lots of things to eat if you just go online and teach yourself a little about what to look for. A lot of common weeds are not only edible, but taste delicious. There are also databases like this one, where people can post locations of tree fruits that are just falling all over and are there for the taking: . Many communities have similar resources.

Thoughts up front:

Mr. GH doesn’t eat red meat or poultry, but gives the thumbs-up to seafood — which is, of course, often the most expensive of all. So being a non-meat-eater is hardly a slam-dunk for the budget.

We will undoubtedly end up doing a lot of cooking at home. Some of the most expensive products pound-for-pound are prepared foods, imitation meat products, and other things with a list of ingredients as long as my arm. In my SNAP persona, I won’t be able to make EVERYTHING my household needs, because I’ll still be out there pounding the pavement trying to find work….so homemade mustard and yogurt may or may not be possible. But we’ll be cooking a lot; picture us dancing in the kitchen with very loud music in the background. Picture the neighbors pounding on the door, “Hey you! Poor people!  You’re not supposed to be eating well OR having fun on my dime!!”  (actually we don’t have any neighbors like that, but the image amuses me, so…)

For food prep, we won’t use any sort of kitchen equipment that isn’t readily available for super cheap (think thrift stores) or for free (think Freecycle).  For example, we have a bread machine we obtained through a request on Freecycle. Not just one person, but NINE people responded “I never ever use this thing, please come and take it.”

I recognize the limitations of this kind of experiment.  Rural/inner-city residents will have less access to this sort of store (although public buses in cities will take a lot of folks right to them) So many of our citizens live in food deserts, where the closest thing to a fresh lemon they’ll see is a bottle of Sprite.  So it’s not the answer for everyone, just for a certain population with access to this kind of store.

This is not about deprivation.  This is about using limited resources coupled with a creative brain to continue to eat well and perhaps even better. (“Damn it, Jim, I’m a hedonist not a doctor!”)

I fully realize, before the fingers start wagging, that organic and other healthy foods can be purchased — often, but not always – more cheaply at conventional grocery stores. We can start here, and then branch out to alternate sources after September 30….the real fun may be in the process of finding cheaper sources for all the good stuff we find this month.  So I get it, thanks.

I am not guaranteeing nutritional perfection, just a good balance of nutrients that keep a couple of active, athletic adults feeling good.

And finally:  This is not an endorsement of Whole Foods Market or its management. Everyone can make those kinds of judgment calls for themselves. It’s simply a test of our ability to eat well on a restrictive budget by shopping at a retailer perceived as expensive and high-end.

Now, off to put my brain to work on planning some menus.

Let the games begin!


Category: Cooking, Food, Food Stamp Challenge Recipes, Fun, Money Saving, Organic, Sustainable, Whole Foods Challenge

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