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Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010 11:11 pm

An exercise in empathy

Getting ready to take the Food Stamp Challenge

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In Illinois a family of four can receive up to $668 per month in food stamps.
PHOTO BY SCOTT STRAZZANTE/MCT

Hello, Ms. Glatz: I recently got a letter from the Central Illinois Foodbank, inviting us to participate in a statewide hunger challenge to simulate the assistance food stamp users receive. The challenge is to eat on $4.50 a day for one week starting Sept. 19. I thought you might have some insights on how to make this challenge easier. There’s even a section to submit recipes that cost no more than $1.50. I plan to participate in and blog about the challenge each day, and I would welcome your advice. (If nothing else, at least I’ll save some money!) Patrick Yeagle

Hi, Patrick –Yes, I do have ideas, and I would REALLY like to talk to you about this. BTW – please call me Julianne.

Some of the ideas Yeagle, IT staff reporter, and I talked about were mine. Others came from a book I’d coincidentally just read, and a 1970s cookbook a friend had recently left me.

On A Dollar A Day was written by Christopher Greenslate and Kerri Leonard. The California high school teachers decided to embark on a month-long experiment: spending no more than one dollar apiece on food per day, which is all that “a large portion of the world” has to spend.

Next they challenged themselves to a month of spending only the average amount someone on food stamps has to spend on food and beverages. For Greenslate and Leonard, that was $4.13 – a huge step up from a dollar a day, but as they found, still far from adequate. Food stamp programs are now known as SNAP, Supplemental Nurition Assistance Programs. As the name indicates, the program assumes that participants will have some of their own money to spend on food, which is included in the $4.13 and $4.50 figures. But many of America’s poorest citizens lack any additional money to spend towards food beyond food stamps.

Using the insights they gained from those two months, the couple formulated an eating plan. They’d be mindful of their spending, but not have a strict dollar amount. They’d eat as healthfully as possible, and buy as much food as possible that was fair trade and organic. They’d also strive to eat reasonable-sized portions.

On A Dollar A Day is both a journal, with alternating chapters written by Greenslate and Leonard, and a primer on hunger and related food issues in the world, and especially in America. Outright starvation is relatively rare here, although certainly not unknown. Far greater is “food insecurity” – the uncertainty that some days and for some meals, there won’t be adequate food.

During their month on the food stamp budget, Greenslate and Leonard also decided to follow the USDA Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) as closely as possible. The Thrifty Food Plan’s goal is admirable: to help low-income households to get the most nutrition from, and most effective use of, food stamp benefits. It’s intended as a guideline, and includes two weeks of menus, 40 recipes and a shopping list.

Frankly, if I were Greenslate and Leonard, I wouldn’t have gone the TFP route; not least because they’re vegans – vegetarians who also eschew dairy and any other animal products, such as honey. None of the 20 TFP entrées were vegan, and only one was vegetarian – a baked potato with cottage cheese. No allowance was made for utilizing leftovers, which the couple routinely had, since the recipes were for a family of four. And if a recipe contained something either particularly disliked, they made it anyway. Many were relatively time-consuming, presenting difficulties for people with jobs that extend beyond normal working hours: grading papers and coaching debate teams. Lunchtime menus often required a degree of cooking impractical for anyone working outside the home.

Still, their experiences and insights are fascinating and their information important. Eating on a dollar a day left them hungry and often irritable. Fresh fruits and vegetables were out of reach. But even the SNAP budget was difficult to maintain, requiring careful planning, calculation and constant scrutinizing, especially when buying only healthy ingredients.

The More-With-Less Cookbook was first published in 1976. The recipes and other information, compiled by Doris Janzen Longacre, are “suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited food resources.”

Mennonites are often confused with the Amish, who split from the Mennonites in the 17th century because they believed they’d become too worldly. According to the website, www.thirdway.com, “Mennonites believe in simple living, but express that simplicity in a spirit of stewardship and awareness of the needs of others rather than completely separating from society as the Amish continue to do.”

The MWL cookbook reflects that spirit. The many recipes include ethnic contributions from missionaries (some “Americanized” and, consequently, dated), as well as practical tips and information combined with Mennonites’ belief in living frugally, yet joyfully. And it’s also interesting to see how much of the book’s concerns about hunger and sustainability in the 1970s is relevant today. “There is not just one way to respond, nor is there a single answer to the world’s food problem,” writes Longacre. “It may not be within our capacity to effect and answer. But it is within our capacity to search for a faithful response.”

Here are some suggestions to help lower food costs. Many are relevant for the Food Stamp Challenge week; all are useful for “frugal yet joyful” eating:

From Greenslate and Leonard:

  • Plan menus ahead of time
  • Make a list and stick to it
  • Start a pantry
  • Buy in bulk
  • Only buy the produce you’ll use in a week
  • Waste nothing
  • Don’t get stuck shopping at one store
  • Eat at home most of the time


My addendums to the above:

Make sure that everything you use contributes flavor – especially calorie-dense items, such as fats. If you like Asian food, sesame oil costs more per ounce than other oils. But 1/2 tsp. makes a simple stir-fry come alive. The same is true with soy sauce. Boring, unpalatable food makes it hard to stick to any plan, budget, or diet. If you’re not vegetarian, a single piece of smoky bacon can add depth of flavor to something that feeds four – or makes four meals for a single person.

Wasting nothing means just that – in ways our throwaway culture even has trouble conceiving, but was a fact of life earlier. One example is using not only the meat from a chicken, then bones/trimmings for stock, but also to skim off the fat (less saturated than butter, and equally flavorful) to cook with. The amount varies, but at least 1/4 c./chicken is typical. Used wisely, that could provide a week’s worth of cooking fat.

Check out Asian stores. They’re a great source for inexpensive produce and bulk items. Little World Market on Wabash brings in fresh produce every Friday. It’s not refrigerated, and by the middle of the next week some things are limp, but savvy shoppers can find extraordinary buys.

Explore CSAs – Community Supported Agriculture. They’re the most cost- effective ways to get fresh locally grown produce in season. Alternatively, vendors at farmers markets will sometimes offer reduced prices at the market’s end – but you’ll have to ask.

Buying in bulk doesn’t necessarily imply buying in quantity. It can also mean buying just what’s needed. Food Fantasies has flours, grains and lentils, nuts, spices and much more. The price-per-pound may seem expensive compared to supermarket jars/bags, but a cost-per-ounce comparison tells the true tale – the price differential is often radically lower.

There’s so much about hunger issues and implications I wish I had room for here. To learn more about, or participate in the 2010 Food Stamp Challenge, a part of Hunger Action Month, visit www.feedingillinois.org/challenge/.

The MWL cookbook is still in print; it can be ordered online or in bookstores. A recipe for home-made Grape Nuts adapted from this classic Mennonite cookbook can be found online at www.illinoistimes.com.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.



RealCuisine Recipe
Home Made Grape Nuts


  • 3 c. whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 c. wheat germ
  • 2 – 4T. soy flour, optional
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 - 1 tsp. salt
  • 3/4 c. light molasses OR cane syrup OR maple syrup OR honey
  • 2 c. buttermilk or sour milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, mix the flour, wheat germ, baking soda, and salt until thoroughly combined. In a separate bowl, stir the honey or other syrup into the buttermilk and and whisk until combined. This is more quickly done if the syrup is slightly warmed first.

Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the buttermilk mixture, and stir until a smooth dough is formed.

Spread evenly onto two greased baking sheets, and bake for 25 – 30 minutes.

Remove from the oven and while still warm, break into smallish chunks. Cool completely before continuing.

Reduce the oven temperature to 250 degrees.

Create the “nuts” by spreading them in a single layer and crushing them with a rolling pin or by pulsing in a food processor, a handful or two at a time.

Spread the “nuts” evenly over the baking sheets and return to the oven for 20-30 minutes. Cool thoroughly, then store in an airtight container.

Makes approximately 2 1/2 lbs.

Adapted from a recipe in The More-With-Less Cookbook, by Doris Janzen Longacre


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