Eating on $3 a Day

A couple months ago DeKalb observed Food Stamp Challenge Days as proclaimed by Mayor Van Buer at a Council meeting. (I’ve been working on this post occasionally since then, and finally finished it today. Whew.)

The challenge is to subsist for a few days as a person wholly dependent on food stamps, by spending no more than $3 per day to feed oneself. The question is whether people in the U.S. can eat healthy on that sort of allowance, which was part of the recent battle of the Farm Bill, you see. With a projected 28 million people needing help this year due to the economic downturn, so many of them children, we’d better hope we’ve gotten the answer right.

Critics of such challenges note that most people on food stamps usually have a few bucks of their own to put toward groceries. Nevertheless, the $3-a-day experience is one my husband and I had as a newlywed homeless couple in the 80s.

We got married in January, made a risky business decision in May, and became homeless by the end of November. I remember very clearly telling my husband, as we discussed the risk, that I wanted to have a few stories to tell by the time we were rocking our chairs on the porch. Well boy do we ever. We were left with nothing but our car and some clothing. However, we were fortunate in that we had family to fall back on so when we got past the embarrassment (which does not take very long in this part of the country in December) we shuffled from parent to sibling to parent for shelter as we looked for jobs. By March of the following year we had paid the back rent and got our stuff back, which we packed into a 12-by-60 foot trailer we dubbed “The Submarine” because of the shape and how limbs from the oak tree next to it sounded when they fell onto the top during storms. Astonishingly, The Submarine had two bedrooms, one at each end, though they were both so tiny that only a twin bed would fit in either one. Good thing we were newlyweds–and skinny.

We never used food stamps, although if we’d had children and no family to fall back on, it might have been a different story. One thing that really disgusts me are conversations like this about food stamp recipients, which leave the impression that those who use them are somehow not strong enough or clever enough, or that there is rampant abuse. Having lived poor and among the poor, I can tell you that our neighbors who received aid were physically and/or intellectually disabled and/or elderly and living on fixed incomes. I suspect that the judges are subconsciouly battling the realization that many of us live only one layoff or catastrophic illness away from needing this kind of help; however, generally speaking, nobody enjoys being on the dole and it’s unsporting to kick folks when they’re down.

So anyway, we were still catching up on bills when we moved out of my parents’ house for the last time and some weeks we only had $20-25 for food and household items. By this time my husband had already moved beyond the “french fryer flambe’ incident” at McDonald’s and was detailing cars, an extremely physically demanding job that required a lot of fuel. I sought the “no frills” places where I bagged my own, bought a lot of potatoes and eggs, discovered the joys and savings of cooking almost everything from scratch, and grew a few tomatoes in a bucket on the stoop. With a little practice, we ate well.

At this point I’d like to think I’m something of a credit to my grandmother, who not only married, almost literally, on the eve of the Great Depression but was widowed just after the war with the last of her six children still in diapers. Gran was immensely frugal, had a huge garden and the largest cookie repertoire known to humankind; she canned and pickled and froze, and could almost randomly choose containers of leftovers from the fridge to whip up something delightful and unique for supper. That, and the story about her shooting the rattlesnake off the outhouse door as it prepared to strike one of my then-tiny uncles, made her my hero from the time I’ve had the sense to understand what it really means.

Anyway, among other things I make my own soap and soup, know how to turn milk nearing its expiration date into cheese, and have adopted the mantra, “Less lawn, more food.” Wherever I can’t make a buck, I try to save a buck instead. Sometimes there’s an investment in time but not always.

Simplest Stew

1 cup lentils
1 cup rice
2 to 2-1/2 cups water
pinch o’ salt

Rinse the lentils (you do not have to soak them like you do beans). Then bring all ingredients to a simmer and cook for about 40 minutes, adding more water if necessary.

OK, here’s the fun part. The variations are only limited by your imagination. Use brown lentils or red, sushi rice or long grain brown. Or omit the rice and throw in some whole-wheat pasta or diced potatoes during the last 10 minutes. Or omit the lentils and use beans instead.

Add chopped vegetables during the last few minutes. (This is one place to hide some of the extra zucchini this summer.) Personally I wouldn’t be caught dead without a sweated onion or two in there. Throw in a can of tomatoes, maybe.

One variation that I made often last summer was black-eyed peas and short grain brown or brown basmati with lots of onion, some garlic and celery, chopped beet tops or chard, black pepper and a touch of cumin. Of course, this combo screams for cornbread, which is what Jiffy Baking Mix is all about.

Those of you who know me in person understand and tolerate my longstanding love affair with TJ, but the fact is I do most of my grocery shopping at ALDI and Duck Soup Coop. ALDI is not only a great source for fresh produce but also has some weird relationship with TJ’s in that the same products often show up in both places, just with different labels. The Coop–which I hope everyone here knows is no longer, if it ever was, a bastion for elitist granola heads–has bulk. I love that I can buy 3 macadamia nuts or .25 worth of corn starch or 10 lbs. of spaghetti if I want. That’s where you will find every type of lentil, rice and bean known to humankind and can try them out in your own version of the above recipe.

If you have enjoyed our little foray into food and frugality, drop a line either here or at my e-mail. I have a chole and a baba ganoush to die for, and only need a little encouragement to share them.