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Stayin' Alive

Is it possible to get by on food stamps?


Published May 8, 2007 at 5:57 p.m.

At the end of April, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski joined a "Food Stamp Challenge." For a full week, he and his wife sustained themselves on just $3 per person per day. Although critics dismissed the move as a publicity stunt, an article in The Oregonian suggests Kulongoski's motive was to "raise awareness about the difficulty of feeding a family on a food-stamp budget." What did the governor eat? Lots of bananas, peanut butter sandwiches, mac 'n' cheese, and Cup o' Noodles soups. While many constituents praised him for bringing attention to the oft-ignored issue of "food insecurity," others were dismayed at some of his food choices.

Here in Vermont, 50,261 people received $4,603,223 worth of food stamps in March. Although most grocers are reluctant to release information about the specific food items all that money bought, Gov. Kulongoski's diet raises some questions: How much of it should go to Kraft and whoever makes those really cheap noodle soups, rather than to farmers or local businesses? Can you eat healthily on food stamps? What happens if you're committed to buying organic or local foods? I attempted to answer those questions when I created - and shopped for - a frugal one-week menu for my two-person family. The budget? $66.05. [Find more info on Vermont's food stamp program]

How did I end up getting more than Oregon's governor? Renée Richardson, food and nutrition program director at the Vermont Agency of Human Services, explains that food-stamp benefits are based on something called the USDA's "thrifty food plan." According to the USDA website, the plan "provides a representative healthful and minimal-cost meal plan that shows how a nutritious diet may be achieved with limited resources."

The TFP is used to determine how little a person or family can spend and still get needed calories, fiber, vitamins and minerals. For one person, that breaks down to around $1.72 per meal, or $155 per month. Each additional family member garners another, slightly smaller allowance.

As a household's income increases, food-stamp benefits decrease. This doesn't mean people should ever spend less on food, Richardson explains; it's because the government expects them to chip in a few bucks. Sixty-six dollars and five cents is the allotment for two people with zero income. The USDA doesn't believe a two-person family in the continental U.S. can live on less. Residents of Alaska and Hawaii get slightly more because of the higher cost of living there.

Planning and Shopping

The smallest head of organic cabbage at City Market weighs more than 2 pounds. The thought occurs to me that I may be able to save a few cents by breaking off the ugly outer leaves - the ones I'd normally compost anyway. Suddenly, I'm looking over my shoulder to see if any employees or customers are watching me. I dismiss the sneaky idea and put the cabbage in my cart as is, realizing the bruised part won't go to waste. The leaves will go into a batch of chicken stock later in the week, along with a few carrot tops and onion scraps. My first crisis is over, but I still have $63.22 left to spend.

After looking carefully at my shopping list for the week, I decide I can live without sunflower seeds and buy fewer lentils than I'd planned. If the chickens weigh more than expected - as they do today - something else needs to go. I've never spent so much time running back and forth between the bulk bins and the scale. Abandoning the shopping cart temporarily has its own risks, such as drawing the ire of impatient patrons.

All in all, I'm able to buy enough food for three square meals a day plus small snacks. Almost everything I purchase is local, all-natural or organic. But planning the menu down to the penny and shopping so meticulously requires more time than I would normally spend on these tasks - hours more. How much dry couscous does it take to make one serving? Who knows? I rely on the Joy of Cooking for all of my culinary research.

To keep things interesting, I make sure that no two meals are the same, and that fresh fruits and vegetables play starring roles. Nonetheless, I can't afford enough produce to meet the Food Pyramid's recommendations, even after foraging a couple of free pounds of fiddlehead ferns from the edge of a pond. Had I opted for conventional and non-local products, with the same amount of planning and the same budget, I could have crafted some really enticing dishes. But what I came up with is basic, healthy and, hopefully, filling enough.


Food Stamp Diet Menu Per Person


Make oatmeal bread* and freeze one loaf

Forage for fiddleheads

Day 1

Breakfast: 1 c. yogurt with one half banana, honey, cinnamon and nutmeg

Lunch: Two peanut-butter-and-apple sandwiches on oatmeal bread

Dinner: Roasted chicken thigh, whole-wheat couscous* with pan drippings, steamed fiddlehead ferns; roast tomorrow's beets with the chicken to save energy.

Snacks: Homemade kettle corn, carrots

Day 2

Breakfast: Cornmeal mush with honey, one half apple and butter

Lunch: Chicken drumsticks, leftover couscous, roasted beets with oil and vinegar

Dinner: One half chicken breast, mashed potatoes, coleslaw* with carrots

Snacks: Orange, raisins

Day 3

Breakfast: Oatmeal with raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg

Lunch: Three hardboiled eggs, leftover coleslaw

Dinner: One half chicken breast, sautéed beet greens, brown rice

Snacks: Buttered popcorn, apple and peanut butter

Prep: Make soup stock from chicken bones and vegetable scraps; store

Day 4

Breakfast: Cornmeal pancakes with raisins and honey*

Lunch: Two grilled cheddar-cheese sandwiches on oatmeal bread, tomato soup

Dinner: Baked beans*, leftover brown rice, chard stems

Snacks: Orange, carrots

Day 5

Breakfast: Brown rice pudding with raisins*

Lunch: Scrambled eggs with pepper jack cheese, hash browns*, shredded carrot and raisin salad*

Dinner: Fresh pasta*, tomato sauce, fiddleheads*

Snacks: Kettle corn, apple and peanut butter

Day 6

Breakfast: Two toasted peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches on oatmeal bread

Lunch: Leftover baked beans, whole-wheat couscous, leftover carrot and raisin salad

Dinner: Pepper jack omelette, braised cabbage

Snacks: Apple, buttered popcorn

Prep: Make potato and cheese soup* for tomorrow using homemade chicken stock

Day 7

Breakfast: Yogurt and fruit smoothies

Lunch: Potato cheese soup*, leftover cabbage

Dinner: Lentil stew with onion, carrots, sautéed chard*

Snacks: Peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich, carrot

Projected leftovers: 2 pounds potatoes, oats, couscous, lentil stew, flour, cornmeal, yeast, baking powder


Food Stamp Menu Shopping List


Apples (L) 5 lbs$4.67

Bananas (F/O)1.91 lbs $1.90

Beets, roots and greens (O) 1 bunch$2.89

Cabbage, Green (O) 2.03 lbs$2.83

Carrots (L/O)2 lbs$2.29

Chard, Red (O)1 bunch$2.69

Onion, Yellow (O) 0.71 lb$1.28

Orange, Juicing (O) 4 pieces$2.00

Potato, Yukon Gold (L) 5 lbs$2.39


Peanut Butter (O) 1 jar$2.99

Tomato Purée (O) 24 oz can$2.49


Butter, Unsalted (L)1 lb$2.89

Cheddar (L)8 oz$1.89

Eggs, Large (L)2 dozen$4.98

Milk, Whole (L)1 gallon$3.29

Monterey Jack, Pepper (L) 8 oz$1.89

Yogurt, Whole Milk (N) 32 oz $2.69


Baking Powder .08 lb$0.24

Beans, Navy (O).95 lb$0.95

Cornmeal (O).75 lb$0.52

Coucous, Whole Wheat (O) 0.81 lb$1.45

Flour, All-Purpose (L/O) 1.26 lbs$1.00

Lentils, Red (O)0.52 lb$0.83

Molasses0.28 lb$0.56

Oats, Rolled (O)0.6 lb$0.54

Popcorn (O)0.69 lb$0.52

Raisins, Thompson 0.5 lb$1.20

Rice, Brown (O)0.91 lb$1.45

Yeast, Baker's Active0.08 lb$0.36


Chicken, Whole Roasting (N)$10.38



Fiddlehead Ferns 1.5 lb$0.00

From my cupboard:

Bay Leaves

Cider Vinegar


Chili Powder








Pizza Seasoning


Soy Sauce

Sunflower Oil

Worcestershire Sauce


F=Fair Trade, L=Local, N=All-Natural, O=Organic

Want to see how Suzanne fares for seven days on the menu she's created? Check out her blog, Omnivore.