When I took on the San Francisco Food Bank’s Hunger Challenge to create meals and menus for $1 a meal a person I didn’t realize the tool I would use most when I was cooking would be my calculator.
Since families on food stamps only get $21 a week per person, I couldn’t spend any more. Out went the beef for stew when it turned out to be twice as expensive as chicken. Figuring out portion sizes, costs per ounce, cup and even teaspoon kept me going back and punching in numbers, somehow hoping that I could work in a little more of this or that and still get the totals I needed. Frankly, having to plan and shop and cook so precisely (if I was wrong my mythical family of four would be left hungry) took a lot of work, compromise, time and ingenuity. It almost seemed like a full time job and figuring how to make it all work was mentally exhausting.
Thankfully, clients of the San Francisco Food Bank have a little cushion to help them stretch their food dollars, but I didn’t take into account that they might have gotten some carrots, cabbage, onions, tomato sauce and pasta in their food bags. If they did have some of these popular items on hand, they would have a little more money to spend on fruit, whole grains and other foods.
I mention fruit and whole grains because that was the biggest disappointment of my menu making experience. It was incredibly difficult to shop in “regular” food stores that most people have access to and be able to afford these foods. A five pound bag of apples, for example, one of the best “fruit values” in the market costs about $7 and has about 14 or so apples in it. That means each apple costs about 50 cents, or half of a meal budget.
Try working in five servings a day of fruits and vegetables with that kind of restraint.
Whole grains were also elusively expensive in supermarkets. Why would brown rice (with less processing) be more expensive than white rice, for example? Regular pasta was on sale for 88 cents a pound, a real bargain. Whole grain pasta was $1.99 a pound on sale, a huge difference when every penny can make the difference.
Shopping in regular supermarkets did have some upsides. There were incredible bargains in store brands, two for one specials and sale items. The boneless, skinless chicken thighs for my stew were on sale for $1.99 a pound ($2 off), store brand bread with 3g of fiber and extra calcium was just $1.50 a loaf for 22 slices, low sodium, fat-free chicken broth was just $1.67 a quart.
Some guidelines I set myself
- I tried to work in fiber, vegetables and unprocessed foods as much as possible. I wanted to avoid processed foods for several reasons. First, they contain a lot of salt and sugar. Second, often you are paying significantly more for the packaging and convenience.
- I tried to make “double” portions of items when I cooked or have leftovers be the basis for another meal to reduce cooking time and make “scratch cooking” more convenient and also to help keep down energy costs.
- I assumed that some people would only have a small stove top and a microwave oven and might not have access to an oven. I also assumed that some people would have very limited freezer space.
- I tried to stay flexible. I wanted to have turkey meatballs with pasta. At the store, there were no deals on fresh or frozen ground turkey, but a great sale (two pounds for $5) on pre-made meatballs. While I would prefer fresh made, I changed my menu to include the frozen meatballs.
I recognize that I’m no expert and I don’t have to eat this way; for me it was a food blogging challenge, kind of an experiment. I would love to hear from anyone who has had to do this for more than a meal, a day or a week and get their suggestions and learn about their experiences. These people are the experts in this.
I’ve always been aware that my family and I are very fortunate in being able to eat well and have a lot of choice in what we eat. I’ve always tried to help out by donating food, money and time to local food banks. But after this experience the plight of those without enough to eat has been much more real to me and I in turn have become more of an activist. I hope reading a bit about my experience will make you one, too.
For more about how to help in your local food banks, go to Second Harvest.
Still to come: Recipes for a few of meals on my menu, my menu concepts, tips for shopping and cooking on a $1 a meal, how you can help and more. To read past articles on Blog Appetit about volunteering at food banks, click here.