Archives for the month of: June, 2012

It probably goes without saying that it’s harder to work when you are hungry. I have done pretty well planning a week of filling foods and bringing my meals/snacks to work, so I haven’t been hungry to the point of discomfort like last year, but I have also had few distractions to prevent me from that necessary food prep daily to make sure I have enough fuel for the work day. I can’t imagine how people get their kids ready for school and make it to work on time on a good day, but this week I imagine if they had to do it with no breakfast.

I had an early morning meeting this week, so I put my lunch together the night before. It helped because I was running late and packing a morning lunch was out of the question. I wasn’t counting on breakfast at the meeting, so I threw some peanut butter on a tortilla and ran out the door. I was glad for my healthier breakfast because at the meeting, there was a mountain of donuts that would take me for a serious sugar ride and crash shortly after. I remembered to bring my lunch, but if I hadn’t, that would mean the peanut butter wrap was my only food until quitting time and the donuts would have had more appeal.

My performance at work has been lacking, but I have the luxury of being able to commiserate with a group of colleagues also taking the Hunger Challenge, who are also forgetting what project they were working on. If hunger were a real part of my life, I probably wouldn’t tell anyone at work, but people would surely notice my underperformance which would add a new stress to the existing lack of food problem.

Many people on CalFresh work, but we can all agree that living in California is expensive. A person working on minimum wage could easily end up in the situation of needing food assistance. All it would take for some people is a small rent increase, car trouble or a medical emergency to prevent them from having money left over to buy groceries. The Food Bank can be a help to them, but our resources can only go so far. Programs like SNAP/CalFresh and CalWORKs help get them on their feet to continue being the productive members of society that most [1] are.

[1] http://www.fns.usda.gov/ORA/menu/Published/SNAP/FILES/Other/BuildingHealthyAmerica.pdf

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The New Deal was a response to the Great Depression with the goal of helping the poor get back on their feet and working toward economic recovery, so that another depression wouldn’t occur. One of the results of the New Deal was the Food Stamp program, “which had immediate benefits to the urban poor, food producers, grocers and wholesalers, as well as farmers, thereby winning support from both liberal and conservative Congressmen” [1]. The Food Stamp program is now called SNAP (CalFresh in California), but has the same goal of getting people back on their feet while putting money directly back into the economy as people use their benefits in grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

SNAP is not intended to be a lifetime solution and participants don’t treat it that way; in fact 75 percent of the people receive benefits for a year or less. When the economy improves, SNAP participation will decline. The Census Bureau indicates that SNAP would lift 3.9 million Americans—including 1.7 million children— out of poverty in 2010 if its benefits were included in the official measures of income and poverty [2].

For every one allegation of fraud, there are hundreds of stories of heartbreaking need. Nearly half of SNAP participants are children, who have no political affiliations, just growing brains and bodies in need of food. You rarely hear the stories of the dad struggling to feed his kids after his hours were cut, the mom who is trying to make it on her own after leaving an abusive husband or the grandparents trying to raise their grandchildren on a fixed income, but this is the real face of SNAP/CalFresh.

As we take the Hunger Challenge, we keep in mind the children and individuals who are the most vulnerable among us. Please Take Action against proposed deep cuts to healthcare and human services, including cutting $1.2 billion from Medi-Cal, $880 million from CalWORKs, $453 million from child care, and $225 million from In-Home Supportive Services.

Call leaders in Sacramento and ask them to protect safety net programs from devastating cuts.

  • Speaker of the Assembly John Pérez: (916) 319-2046
  • Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg: (916) 651-4006
  • Governor Jerry Brown: (916) 445-2841, press 1 for English and 6 to speak to staff

Tell leaders about the hardship you see in your community and explain how safety net assistance like CalFresh, CalWORKs and child care is critical for keeping struggling families from facing hunger and homelessness.

If you would like to learn more about the Hunger Challenge and the issue of Hunger in America, please visit the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano website or stop by the Food Bank Facebook page to tell us your thoughts on the Challenge.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Deal

[2] http://www.fns.usda.gov/ORA/menu/Published/SNAP/FILES/Other/BuildingHealthyAmerica.pdf

On day one of the Hunger Challenge I set the alarm a little early because I had some thoughtful food prep to do to make sure I had enough fuel to keep me going through the work day. No stopping by the numerous delis and lunch spots near work today, I don’t have the funds.

I spent some time yesterday cooking off my garbanzo beans, pintos and about 2/3 of my brown rice then squirreled them away in Gladware in the crisper drawer. I cook often and bring my lunch and snacks pretty much every day, but today I am especially grateful for my fully functioning kitchen and endless supply of reusable containers, although I think of the low-income person who might not have the space to cook, or maybe they rent a room and don’t even have a kitchen.
Last year at the beginning of the Challenge we rationed our food on the first couple of days, but found that we had a lot more than we thought in eggs, lentils, etc, so this year I was a little more generous with my portions. Because of my meal planning before I shopped, I was able to make some fairly satisfying meals today.

Here’s what I made to last the work day (based on ingredients from my shopping list):
Breakfast: I scrambled up two eggs with a scoop of pinto beans and two cubes of my cheddar cheese (I don’t know why it came in cubes, but it was cheap and they’re handy for portion control).
Morning Snack: One small apple with peanut butter
Lunch: Curried chickpea and brown rice wrap with a little avocado and salad.
I tossed the chickpeas with a little curry powder, salt, lemon juice, oil, and garden basil.

Afternoon Snack: About ½ c baby carrots and 5 cubes of cheese (told you, convenient)

When I got home around 4:45 I was definitely ready to start cooking dinner. I peeled and cut off a few sweet potato rounds from the LARGE sweet potato I bought at Grocery Outlet and tossed it on my grill pan for 5+/- minutes on each side next to some slices of onion and a couple of my thin pork slices. I chopped up the grilled veggies and tossed them with some lemon juice, oil, salt, pepper, garden basil and brown rice.

So far the hardest thing about today was the caffeine withdrawals. The Challenge gets more difficult as the week goes on, the ingredients dwindle and my creativity wanes. At the end of the five days, I can buy more groceries, but for millions of people who need food assistance, it’s not that simple.

If you would like to learn more about the Hunger Challenge and the issue of Hunger in America, please visit the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano website or stop by the Food Bank Facebook page to tell us your thoughts on the Challenge.

World’s best budget tip: cook at home. I know you’re busy, but as Micahel Pollan says, shouldn’t the thing that nourishes our bodies and families be a bigger part of our day? According to a recent study by Share Our Strength, 8 out of 10 low income families cook at least five meals a week at home and aspire to do it healthfully.

Not only can you control all the ingredients, but you’ll be saving a ton of money over fast “food” and eating out. I also love that home cooking gives me leftovers for lunches. Fast food, by the way, is not available to people who use SNAP/CalFresh benefits from their EBT card. If you have seen “EBT Accepted” at a fast food place, that is for homeless or seniors only who may not have kitchens to prepare rice etc. That being said, let’s talk about budget cooking!

I am the recipe queen. I love to Google recipes based on stuff I have in the house and come up with and shop for a variety of meals for my household in a week. We eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and often have vegetarian meals, so cooking with budget beans is not new to me. On a CalFresh budget, variety in meals is pretty much out the window. You can count on using the same ingredients in, maybe a variety of ways if you are crafty, but it always depends on what you can afford and if you have the time to throw some ingredients together. The other challenge is that cooking from scratch takes planning (there’s that word again!). For example, my Challenge shopping list includes dry beans and brown rice. Both have long cook times. You can’t just come home from work hungry and have beans and rice in 20 minutes, so cooking ahead of time will be your friend and so will Gladware (they have lots of coupons on their Facebook page btw).

Here is a photo of my $20.64 haul from this Challenge shopping list. I’m pretty pleased with it for nutrition, although I’d like more veggies, but do you see any fancy recipes that can be made from this mix exclusively without buying a few extra ingredients?

Instead of coming up with recipes and then shopping like I would normally do, I made a list of affordable, filling ingredients I can use in different combinations. I am also going to use some of my basic oils and spices, because let’s face it, there’s often a few spices lying around like oregano, chili powder etc. I am also using canola oil  because that’s usually in most pantries even though I would prefer my extra virgin olive. If I were out of canola oil, that’d be $4 out of my budget for the week/month.

Here are some of my budget cooking ideas and tips mostly based from my shopping list (More tips to follow this week):

Many people will need dry-bean cooking instructions. Here is a good source for cooking beans from dried from 5 Dollar Dinners.

Rice and beans are a great budget protein. Here are some variations on the theme that you can play around with depending on what you have in house from No Meat Athlete.

I can also take my rice and beans dinner, toss it in my whole wheat tortilla with some of my cheese (that was a splurge) and lettuce for a budget burrito.

I may smash up the beans with some oil, lemon and seasoning to make a hummus-like wrap as well.

How about a grilled sweet potato and chickpea salad? I can make that work.

Fritata with red bell pepper and some herbs from the garden will be nice (oh if only I had goat cheese) and can also go into a tortilla for lunch. I am starting to think I will be sick of wraps…

I have peanut butter, but no jelly, so that will be interesting. I love it as a snack with my apples and baby carrots, so I am planning on it for fuel during the work day.

My thin pork slices cook up very quickly. I will use them as a protein addition to meals throughout the week.

I realize not everyone has the time, or kitchen tools for that matter, to cook from scratch as I am doing this week, and frankly I don’t think it’s sustainable for me to shop and cook this way either, but I still advocate scratch cooking whenever possible for budget and for health and the idea is that living on CalFresh is not easy!

If you would like to learn more about the Hunger Challenge and the issue of Hunger in America, please visit the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano website or stop by the Food Bank Facebook page to tell us your thoughts on the Challenge.

Everyone loves a bargain, but when you only have $22 a week for your food budget, the deals become that much sweeter.

I stopped by my favorite store for bulk items today, Harvest House. Bulk shopping is usually a better deal than pre-packaged stuff, but another nice part
is that you can also buy teeeny portions and get some variety. Perfect for lil ol me on a CalFresh budget. Maybe you only have $0.75 left for the month on your EBT card; Instead of thinking you don’t have enough to buy a whole bag, you could scoop out 12oz of brown lentils and take home a healthy protein source that cooks up fast. I added a little variety and wiggle room to my Challenge week budget with a half pound of garbanzos, a half pound of oatmeal and just under a pound of pinto beans for a grand total of $2.17.

Yesterday I mentioned that the weekly grocery ads come out on Sundays, but the Just for U coupons at Safeway update on Tuesdays (just go with it). I know I keep bringing up Just for U, but sometimes the deals are excellent. I took a look online today and found 2 big deals on items from my Challenge shopping list – eggs for $0.99 and baby carrots for $0.99. Watch me do a little happy dance because the best consistent price on eggs I have found is $1.79 for a dozen at TJs and baby carrots run around $1.49. For those of you better at math than me, you’ve already come up with $1.30 in savings. “Pfft, big deal” you say?! Well with that $1.30 I could buy:

5 ears of corn (cheap right now because it’s in season)
another dozen eggs
a pound of dry beans
2 avocados (also on sale for the season, how great is summer?)
2lbs of bananas
1.5lbs of broccoli
1.3 lbs of lentils

Shall I go on?

Think of that $1.30 as the difference between your child eating breakfast or not. Some people on SNAP benefits have to.

Here is my revised Challenge shopping list with more variety, revised sale prices and money leftover. I realize this kind of shopping burns gas and takes time, but I haven’t factored that into my cost this year.

Join me next time for Cooking with CalFresh.

If you would like to take the Hunger Challenge with Food Bank of Contra Costa staff and supporters, sign up on the Hunger Challenge page of the Food Bank website.

For the sake of clarity: I am using the terms SNAP (the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and CalFresh (what we call SNAP in California) interchangeably. Both were formerly known as Food Stamps.

Groceries are expensive. It’s something I passively think when I turn down olives for $9 a pound or goat cheese at Safeway (because it’s half the price at Trader Joe’s). Hardly in line with the Hunger Challenge of $4 a day I am embarking on next week, but I do make an effort to be a budget foodie.

If I learned anything from taking the Challenge last year it’s that shopping on a SNAP budget takes planning to max out $22 without going over, you’re going to have to cook, and you’re going to be eating a lot of the same meals in the week. SNAP is meant to be a supplement to an existing grocery budget, but sometimes it’s the only money left for food in a month, so that is the idea during the Challenge. A smart Challenge shop includes enough protein to keep your blood sugar even, fiber so you feel full and satisfied, then try to throw a variety of veggies in the mix all while spending as little as possible. Let’s face it, that is going to take some work, but I’ve got a few tips to make the most of your Challenge funds.

Rachel’s Savvy Shopper Tips

Make a list and stick to it.
Base your shopping list on key ingredients that can be used in a variety of ways, while keeping in mind your need for protein, fiber and vitamins.

Find the blank Hunger Challenge Shopping Log here.

Buy versatile items.
Beans – at 7g protein and more than 7g fiber per half cup, it’s no wonder beans are a staple food all over the world. They can be put on salads, mashed into a paste on a sandwich, put into soups, mixed in a frittata or rolled into a burrito. Do your budget a favor and buy bulk, dry beans. Canned beans may only be $0.89 a can, but 2 pounds of dry beans is only a dollar and makes way more than the 1.3/4c in that can.
Rice – also a protein stunner, brown rice has 5g of protein in a 1 cup serving. Mix it with your beans for a budget classic that’ll fill you up.
Eggs – 6 grams of protein, Vitamin A, B12, Selenium and 100 ways to cook em.
Canned Tuna
Frozen Veggies
Long Lasting Veggies – like onions, sweet potatoes, cabbage and greens.

Check the unit price.
That smaller size may be cheaper dollar for dollar, but if you have the funds to buy larger quantities you will actually be saving money and able to use the ingredient over several meals. Find the unit price by dividing the price by the total weight or quantity.

Be careful of each vs. per pound and BOGO vs. 2 for $5
There is a big difference between $1 each and $1 per pound. If produce is being sold at an “each” price and it’s a good deal, buy the biggest one. A bogo (buy one get one) might seem tempting, but be sure to check the sale price against the unit price to make sure you’re actually getting a deal (Pistachios for example, were BOGO, but still almost $1/oz, so not a good deal!).

Buy the store brand.

Shop around.
Check the weekly ads and shop the store with the best deals. If someone is having a huge sale on protein, it’s a good item to buy for the freezer. It will take time to know what the best deals are, but you’ll learn your basics like the best deal on peanut butter or chicken breasts. I thought $1.50 was a good price for brown rice until I saw it at Grocery Outlet for $0.69. Shopping around takes effort, but when you get used to it, you can plan your list around the stores with items you like at prices you can afford. Grocery Ads come out every Sunday, but you can often find them online.

Clip coupons.
I am terrible at remembering my coupons, especially if they are for small amounts like $0.40, but if you only have $22 for groceries in a week, get clipping, honey! Safeway also has a Just for U coupon site that lets you add specials to your card that are even below the club card yellow tag you see in store. I buy the super sale items and then leave because they are just hoping you buy the expensive non-sale stuff while you are there.

Avoid prepared foods.
Not just the high-sodium, high calorie, processed junk, but items like bagged lettuce and precooked rice. You can get a head of romaine for $0.79-$0.99 depending on the place, so paying $3.49 for fewer ounces of pre-chopped lettuce is just plain silly ($1.99 at TJs if you’ve been a good student). Scratch cooking is going to save you the most money and it’s a whole lot healthier.

Here is the shopping list I came up with for this year’s Challenge. I added way more veggies than last year, but still far fewer than one should eat in a week.

Leave you favorite budget shopping tips in the comments.

Other great budget shopping resources:
5 Dollar Dinners has a wealth of budget tips from shopping to cooking as well as food allergies on a budget.
http://www.5dollardinners.com/category/meal-planning

10 great tips and insights on budget grocery shopping:
http://www.wisebread.com/10-things-ive-learned-from-grocery-shopping-on-a-budget

More savings tips on popular grocery store items: http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/family/budget/grocery-shopping-on-budget

If you would like to take the Hunger Challenge with Food Bank of Contra Costa staff and supporters, sign up on the Hunger Challenge page of the Food Bank website.

Do I really have to do this? I am already sympathetic to people who, for whatever reason do not have enough to eat. Come on, I took the Challenge last year and learned a lot. I mean I work for the Food Bank (of Contra Costa and Solano), do I need to try and live on a CalFresh (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) budget for a week to understand that there is a real need for food assistance, or that cuts to hunger relief programs are the wrong move for California?

Of course no one is making me take the Hunger Challenge again this year, but to walk in someone else’s shoes has value and we can all use a little perspective sometimes. So here I am on the week before the Challenge begins calling on my training from 8th grade Home Ec (which should be a requirement) and too many episodes of Extreme Couponing to mentally prepare myself for the Monday 6/11 start.

Last year I took the Challenge with my mom, so we pooled our funds which allowed for bulk purchases of grains, plus more vegetables and coffee. This year it will be just me as a single woman on a SNAP(Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps) national average allotment of $4/day for 5 days (June 11-15). I will also have the added twist of caring for an international student who arrives on June 9th, who I am required to at least cook dinner for each night. Before I complain that I have to cook meals I can’t eat, I think of the various food-service workers who might need to use CalFresh benefits. That person who made a $10 lunch at Chipotle could very well be on CalFresh or the waitress whose income depends on tips may need help buying groceries for her family even while working full time. It may seem like a complicated issue, but to me, taking care of each other is the only way to go.

Back tomorrow with some budget menu, shopping and recipe planning tips.

If you would like to take the Hunger Challenge with Food Bank of Contra Costa staff and supporters, sign up on the Hunger Challenge page of the Food Bank website.