When I read my fellow Indy Star colleague Erika Smith’s August 17 column, “Living Off Food Stamps Leaves Children, Adults Hungry. Trust Me, I Know” I had to take issue with the basic premise of her words.
I took so much of an issue with it that I decided to do a little “grocery shopping” myself, using her model as a basis for my adventure in “food stamp” shopping. I made a few adjustments around the edges, but I did eventually prove my initial theory; you can buy substantive, healthy food provided you know how to do two things: shop smart and cook. Luckily, I can do both and have been able to do so for a long time.
Whereas Erika chose Wal-Mart for her experiment, I used the Meijer at 38th and Moeller Road. It is a major store and on a bus line. I was given grief for using my own car to get to the store instead of public transportation, however, not everyone who uses food stamps takes the bus. I was also given grief for not having children. Newsflash, not everyone on food stamps has kids. I decided to use $160 as monthly budget. I chose $160 because while the average person, as Erika pointed out, may get $132 in benefits, a single person at the poverty level can get up to $200 a month. So my $160 split the difference. To be honest, the $160 figure didn’t really matter because I never got that far because I know how to do two things, shop and cook.
I managed to pick up, for me, the equivalent of at least three weeks worth of food for about $90. How did I do it? Like this. For my meat I got four sirloin steaks (on sale) for $16 and ten chicken breasts (on sale) for $12. That is 16 pieces of meat and chicken for $28. I don’t eat meat everyday so that was enough to get me through the month. I also got lettuce, broccoli, celery, five pounds of potatoes, four ears of corn, and a pound of green beans for a total of $10.65. I got them all fresh, no frozen or canned foods. And for those of you who say it won’t keep, you will be amazed at what you can do when you clean your vegetables and put them in the freezer. I also picked up some ground beef and tomato sauce, $6, which would get me a couple of meals. And I also bought spaghetti, Farfalle, the bow-tie spaghetti and pasta penne, $4.72; add the two jars of Alfredo sauce which I got two for $4 and parmesan cheese, $3.39.
Breakfast was easy, two boxes of Frosted mini-wheats for $5 and two loaves of Brownberry bread for $6. Lunch was a little more difficult, the turkey and roast beef for sandwiches, a half-pound each ran me about $7 and two 2-Liters of Diet Pepsi was $2. I also got popcorn (unpopped and the non-microwave kind) for $3.99 And I did five lean cuisine meals for $10. My total food bill at that point was $90.75. Now because I had a Meijer’s coupon I got five percent off so it was actually closer to $86. Which meant I still had $73 leftover and a another week’s worth of food I could purchase. And please note, I haven’t even broken out my coupons.
Unfortunately, my wife told me I was not allowed to bring any of this stuff back to the house because there was no room in the refrigerator for me to prove a point. But I did. If you don’t know how to shop or cook and all you get are unhealthy processed foods, your “food stamp” budget won’t last long. But if you are a responsible consumer, and are willing to pick up a culinary skill or two, you will be amazed at how far those dollars can go. Maybe that is where we should focus our energy and attention providing folks with more skills as opposed to more dollars on their EBT cards.
*After writing this column my editor at the Star suggested I put my mouth where my words were and actually live off this budget to do a true comparison. After some e-mail exchanges we agreed I would live off $40 of food next week. That experience will run in my next Indy Star column.