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Eating Organic on a Food Stamp Budget

There's a paradoxical tension between rising public interest in healthy, organic, local food and rising rates of obesity-related illness in the US. To put it simply (and perhaps to oversimplify), there's not a lot of overlap between populations that eat healthy, organic, local food, and those most afflicted by obesity and its consequences, because it's hard to be in the former category when you live on dollars a day.

Nutritional value and cost usually have an inverse relationship, the outcome of which is quite obvious. And although there's a growing number of farmer's markets that accept EBT cards, most food stamp recipients purchase cheap food in big grocery stores. Rebecca Blood has been thinking about this, and she decided to undertake a one-month challenge with her husband, during which they would buy food strictly within the USDA's food stamp budget. But it doesn't stop there -- that challenge was recently completed by the governor of Oregon -- they planned to eat according to the same food standards they normally keep. Their eating habits fairly well match those of the first population mentioned above, so this is where the real challenge lies. They would keep their CSA box coming, continue shopping at the same groceries, and prepare their meals from scratch at home as always.

They're blogging their experience (with beautiful food photos), and so far so good. We asked Rebecca about the experience yesterday, and about how her challenge differs from the governor's. Here's what she had to say:

 "The $21/week figure is pretty arbitrary. Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski ate on that amount for a week because it's the average amount Oregon food stamp recipients receive. Since then, all the other politicians have adopted that figure, but it's pretty meaningless - in reality, benefits range from $38.75/week per person (the maximum benefit), on down."

 "As I understand it, the amount anyone receives is based on their income. Everyone is expected to pay 1/3 of their income toward food costs. Of course, that's not always possible, so people do end up trying to live off their food stamp allotment - and to supplement it with Food Pantries and the like."

 "The number I'm using - $74/week for the two of us - is the amount alloted for 2 people under the USDA's "Thrifty Food Plan" for February (the most recent one available when I started)."

 "It's the government's assumption of the cost for a "Thrifty" healthy diet. It's the number that food stamp allotments are based on - as I understand the system, the Food Stamps are supposed to bring you up to the "Thrifty" amount."

 "I figure it's a bare minimum, a good place to start thinking about 2 things: whether a healthy diet is within reach for a low-income American family; and whether the government is realistic about the costs associated with buying food. [Here are the figures if you'd like to take a look], and here are the allotment tables.]"

 "I wanted to demonstrate that eating a healthy, organic diet doesn't mean you have to go bankrupt - the "Whole Paycheck" myth. I've gotten a great response from people who seem to be pretty well-to-do, but who say that they've gone organic and just resigned themselves to paying out the nose for their food."

 "I've been so successful that I've come under the Thrifty Food Budget ($74/week) and the maximum Food Stamp benefit ($71/week) both weeks. Importantly, I haven't changed the way we eat to do this. I'm using mostly organic food (can salt and baking soda even be organic?) and even allowing us one drink a night (something food stamps won't pay for)."

 "Will I come under that arbitrary $21/week per person figure? No way. I'm cooking the way I usually do, and - though I'm not going to eat out or buy morels this month - the choices I'm making are about the same as the ones I would make in any other month."

 "Could others replicate what I'm doing? With a little planning, I believe they could. (In fact, one reading group has decided to make my blog their "book" for this month, and at the end of it, they're going to have a potluck and cook some of my recipes!)"

 "Could I feed us on $21/week? That would be harder. Based on my experiment this month, it would take some considerable planning. And that's one of those situations where...well, given my resources, if I can't do it, nobody can."

 "There are questions of access that have come up in doing this, and I'll be writing about those issues in the days to come: access to fairly priced organic food, access to a CSA (one of my sources for organic produce), access to the time it takes to shop carefully, access to recipes, and access to time-saving equipment (bread making machines, slow cookers, and the like) for people who work outside the home. On a more basic level, it's access to containers to store those "planned leftovers". Access to a refrigerator that won't be pillaged by other people. Access to a stove."

 "Asking whether we're giving the people we help enough money for a healthy diet is important. That's what I think the congressmen and women are trying to find out. But the questions I'm coming to are just as important. Are the behavioral assumptions the Food Stamp program is based on realistic? One fundamental assumption for the Thrifty Food Plan is that all food will be prepared at home - something that's utterly foreign to many people. Should the government (or others) be doing more to give people the skills they need to actually prepare their own food from scratch? To shop effectively? To preserve and otherwise store the food they buy and prepare?"

 "I don't know the answers. But I do know that people who are searching for "feeding a family on a tight food budget" and "How to live on a food stamp diet" and even "can i make refried beans from my cooked brown beans" are finding my site, and I'm thrilled. If I can help people facing food insecurity find ways to feed themselves cheaply and nutritiously, I've given them a tool they can use for the rest of their lives."

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