Seven Limes

Gwyneth Paltrow's food stamp challenge
This is what Gwyneth Paltrow bought for $29 — to last her a week (one person).


This is what a week’s worth of groceries for one person looks like, if you’re Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps. She’s not on food stamps, but has attempted the one-week Food Stamp Challenge. My longtime readers know I did the June Food Stamp Challenge* in June of 2010 — 30 days of the food stamp budget for my family of 5. That ended up being about $450 for the month, and we made it — barely. The budget averaged to about $25 per person, and half that for our son who was with us only half the time that summer. (Read more here about my JFSC, all 30 days.)

We were hungry throughout, more so by the end, and came up against a number of hardships we didn’t know would trip us up. Questions like, what if one of the family doesn’t play by the rules? What if you burn the dinner? What if you’re invited to an outing with food and you have to bring something? What if you want to have a party? What if someone veers dramatically off the budget by cooking a gourmet meal? What if your pet suddenly needs special food? How do you deal with the sneers of people waiting on you or behind you in line? I am pretty sure Gwyneth doesn’t ever grapple with questions like that. Other celebs and personalities taking the challenge, including Barbara Lee, my congresswoman, and Corey Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ, have done better.

Props to anyone who tries the challenge. Living on a low food budget isn’t easy, and I do commend Gwyneth for trying it. But her choices? Not quite. I suspect she shopped at Whole Foods or whatever chichi grocery store is near her, instead of haunting the sale papers looking for BOGOs at Safeway. Bet she never set foot in the Dollar Store, either. But here — I’ll make seven points about what works and what doesn’t in her grocery bag.

tiny lime The first thing that jumps out for me? Seven limes. How about seven oranges? Seven bananas? Something you can actually eat. Now,  my Mexican friends have said that limes and cilantro are important in their recipes, also in Vietnamese and other cuisines. I don’t question that. But in my tight budget, food stamps or food bank, when we scrimped along, limes or lemons and fresh herbs were luxury items. If someone gave me fresh lemons off a tree (free), yippee! Otherwise, I rarely if ever bought those.

tiny lime

More luxury items on the list? Garlic and green onions. My friend Sang Kim says in Korean cooking, green onions are essential. The only time I’d get green onions was when my bulb onion started to sprout. And avocados? Please. Hard to get them for under $2, or 4 in a bag for $5, without the option of buying them separately. I don’t have $5 in my mythical $29 budget to spare on just one piece of delicious fruit. Avocados are good and good for you, but that’s one meal, maybe. Or a small part of two meals. Seven days means three squares = 21 meals. That’s a lot of meals. A lot.

tiny limeGood items on the list? That bag of beans. I might have gone for white or navy beans, or garbanzos — which are good hot (in curry or soup) or cold (in a salad). If you can get dry beans on sale, for $1 a pound, that’s the best bang for your buck on the FS challenge. Generally I see them for about $2 a pound now. The rice is also a good buy; brown rice is better for you than white rice, although it takes longer to cook. It also works as a hot cereal in the morning, especially if you have some sugar packets or have even splurged on cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice (it’s very cheap in November, $1 a shaker. Buy one then and enjoy all year long).

tiny limeAnother great item? Corn tortillas. Those are whole grain and will do in place of bread in many instances. Quesadillas for any meal; cut, salted and baked for homemade chips if you have a hankering (mash some of those beans up for homemade dip); chilaquiles when they start to get stale for a filling meatless dish. When I was a starving single mother back in the dented-can warehouse days, I lived in the Mission District of San Francisco in a mouse-filled apartment. I used to go to the Mexican open markets and get tortillas, apples, a few tomatoes, eggs, milk and dry beans. My food budget was $10 a week. And we got along, my baby and I.

tiny lime

Eggs are fantastic: a complete protein, easy to cook, boil to take along, mix into other dishes. But the FS recipient isn’t buying free-range, organic-vegan-fed happy eggs. Nope. These are the $1.79 white factory farmed eggs. Because it’s hard to give a crap about the chickens when you are hungry. Caring and being able to afford “happy” meat and eggs and milk are definitely  a luxury, a privilege that not everyone can afford.

tiny lime

A lot of people slagged on Gwyneth for buying one tomato, one pepper, one ear of corn, one sweet potato, but I’m cool with that (remember she was buying for one person, not a family). In summer, when corn is in season and cheap? 20 cents for one ear. No problem there. In winter, when it’s shipped from Chile? $1 an ear or more. Hot peppers are generally so cheap that a few can add a big pop to your meal and not break the bank; however, for me, those go up with the garlic and cilantro and avocado. Didn’t buy them. The tomatoes are delicious, but instead of the on-the-vine organics I buy now, I would buy Roma tomatoes or whatever was cheapest by the pound. Eaten fresh or tossed into soup or eggs, tomatoes are good; even better when in season and cheap. The greens are good, too, though I find that kale has stringy stems, and Swiss chard or bok choy can turn into two vegetables if you use the stems in one meal (stir fry or replacing celery) and the greens in another. Frozen peas? Another frugal pick.

tiny lime

What’s missing for me is a whole chicken or a bag/package of chicken, especially leg quarters or even wings. Some kind of chicken with bones makes two meals. First, the meat, and second, the bones to make broth for soup. A whole chicken, on sale, could be $5-$7, but that could make as many as 4-5 meals for one person. My friend Max Wong even fed two on one chicken for seven days. A chub of frozen ground turkey or chicken is another cheap find that can turn into meatballs, burgers, etc. Less than $5, too. I would have added a bag of bruised bananas, if I could find them, and a bag of carrots (or loose, depending on the price per pound) for snacks and extra vitamins. A chunk of cheddar or jack cheese would be nice, too, if there’s money for it. And a box of tea bags…Iced or hot, tea got me through many broke-ass times.

Poor Gwyneth (irony intended) may never really get it, since she was raised with money and has never had a hungry day in her life. When you have to make every penny scream for mercy, then you can see why she got spanked by the internet. Living a little bit hungry is good for your soul once in a while. But making it easier for families to eat good food would be a far better way to feed our souls.

*Note: My month-long series on the June Food Stamp Challenge won the award for Best Multimedia piece in 2011 from the SF/East Bay Press Club.

Notes from the Poor House

Well, it’s a tough scene, but this is the scoop. Mr Husband is out of work on disability while we wait for back surgery, and a layoff shimmers on the horizon after that. We’re moving very quickly to a smaller, cheaper house (apartment, really) and have been packing, sorting and donating carloads of stuff. Cash flow sucks. I’m both trying to earn more as a freelancer while trying to move us single-handedly. So it looks like all that fun stuff on the June Food Stamp Challenge of a year and a half ago will come in handy…

Just thinking about some of the techniques (if they can be termed as such) that we’ve been using in the past couple of weeks to pinch pennies. Til they scream.

1. Use less dishwasher and laundry soap. Use less shampoo. Shampoo less often.
2. Coupons or sales for everything. Paying full price hurts. Physically. Eat everything out of the freezer. Even the weird sh*t. Grocery budget is about $10 a week at the moment.
3.  Use less milk. Add water to the juice. Powdered drink mixes = juice until further notice.

4. Have a calm discussion with son after finding half a banana tossed into the compost bucket. Refrain from killing him. Pat self on back for not killing anyone.

5. Sell books and DVDs so that we can take the boy out for ice cream for his birthday. Since we can’t afford a party or outing other than that, it was what we decided to do. Buying a quart would have been cheaper, but it was literally the only thing we did for his special day, so bite me. Don’t judge.

6. Eat less. I’m not kidding here. Popcorn makes a nice meal. 

7. Don’t throw out old coffee. Reheat, save in thermos, or keep in fridge. Make fresh coffee every other day (less coffee, more water). Use tea bags more than twice. No more than one teabag a day.

8. Make sure to take a snack and water on the road for errands. Working our way through the stock of granola bar flavors that everyone hates (strawberries and cream — yuck) (crumbles? no problem — just pretend it’s trail mix).

9. Enjoy old Halloween and Christmas candy because there isn;t any fresh coming in. 

10. Collect donation receipts from every place possible when donating, for next year’s taxes.

11. Look at everything with an eye for “how much could I get for that?” Put it on craigslist for sale. Lower price after a week. Lower price again. Put it on Freecycle or donate for receipt.

12. Make people pay what they owe instead of being magnanimous. (Daughters are supposed to pay $25 each toward cell phone bill but have slid a lot in the recent past. No more.)

13. Harvest fruit from neighborhood citrus trees. Make interesting juice combinations.

14. Send in all FSA medical receipts, rebates, refunds, etc. possible.

15. Stop donating cash and stop contributing to son’s 529 and my IRA until cash flow returns to normal.

16. Make a lot of something out of nothing. Example: cooked the tops of the broccoli but saved the stems. Making soup tonight with slightly soured milk and broccoli stems. Sounds disgusting until you whirl it in the blender. Then it’s the same as you’d get out of a can. But better. Because there will be no insects or thumbtacks in it.

17. Bake interesting treats — use shortening instead of butter (crisper texture), lots of walnuts (which we have in abundance for some reason), mixture of chocolate chips of various flavors and sizes. Delicious! Pumpkin pancakes and muffins are next — with walnuts, of course.

18. Buy margarine instead of butter. I know. Kinda gross. Too bad.

19. Think about drinking coffee black. This is where we get a little desperate. Might have to put kids into the poorhouse instead of forego my half and half.

I can’t afford #20, so I’ll stop here. Watch this space for more adventures from the edge of doom!

fresh fruit & veg

One of my favorite weekly outings is to the Alameda Farmers’ Market — we’re lucky enough to have a twice-weekly market about a mile or so from my house. Yes, it’s a bike ride away. I take my own bags, fill up the panniers and pedal home again. Easy peasy. Even better, none of the produce that I buy at the farmers’ market has even one of those stupid fruit labels on it. Plastic! ptooey!

There was a funny Rhymes with Orange comic printed a few years ago that cracked me up: The lady is sitting in front of an x-ray machine and the doctor sees all these fruit labels in the woman’s belly. “I think I know what’s bothering you,” he says, or some such. (Wish I could find that link!) The point is that those little stickers are inedible, indestructible, impossible. Awful. Criminal! I have seen them floating around my yard after they’ve decomposed off the fruit rind or skin in the compost, then blow away. I’ve read that these fruit stickers gum up the works in plumbing and sewage treatment plants. Can’t the grocery stores teach their checkers a few numbers or have a master list without poisoning our produce with these egregious little fiends?

The farmers’ market doesn’t use the fruit-label stickers. There’s no middle (wo)man. You get your veggies directly from the farmer (more likely his employees or family). They will happily put your fruit and veggies in a plastic bag, yes — but they’re also delighted to let you use your own bags. Yay for no plastic!

I also find that the produce prices are drop-dead affordable at our farmers’ market, though I’ve been to some markets where this isn’t the case. There is ongoing debate about affordable organic produce — how it’s an elitist luxury because it’s so expensive. But I do very well with my budget at the farmers’ market, getting heads of lettuce for $1, pounds of fruit for just a dollar or two per pound, and the vendors are generous with the lagniappe — the baker’s dozen of plums or tomatoes. One extra, no charge. They’re great about cleaning house at the end of the market, willing to bargain for crates of bruised fruit for jam or less than perfect veggies for a song. Our market accepts food stamps (EBT) as well, and in my opinion, there’s no better place to get the freshest produce. Knowing that I can avoid plastic is just one more reason to love the farmers’ market.

Another option for some people is the CSA (community supported agriculture) box which is delivered weekly, semi-weekly or monthly to your door or a central pick-up location. We get a CSA box in winter months; in summer, we don’t need it because of our own prolific vegetable garden. Here’s the link to our vendor, but there are many in the Bay Area and elsewhere. One thing I like about CSAs, or at least this one, is that you can tell them what you like and dislike (please, no garlic or mustard in my box!).

I forgot I was expecting a delivery of veggies last week and opened the door one morning to see my box of fresh produce — woo hoo! There were a couple of items wrapped in plastic in the box — endive was shrink-wrapped in Styrofoam, plus there were one or two large plastic bags surrounding the other veggies. It’s much less plastic than I would have faced at a regular grocery store or at the egregious produce-wrapper, Trader Joe’s (infamous for its clamshell packaging of four sterile apples or tomatoes and anything else that once grew on a tree). However, I plan to write an e-note to the CSA main office and request no more plastic or Styrofoam in future boxes. If that means I miss out on endive, oh well, too bad for me. I’ll also miss out on the Styrofoam and plastic.

Garbage can tally as of today, Day 9, on the night before trash pickup: just three items in the can, including the chewed gum, plus a granola bar wrapper (Mylar) and a weird piece of plasticky stuff that came on a food package. I went through our adult daughter’s trash can and it was pretty gnarly, but I wore gloves and stood next to the recycling and green waste cans to do it. I rescued 2 glass jars (gonna wash), a perfectly good orange (gonna eat it), a couple of bruised leftover lunch fruits (gave to the chickens), a bag full of fabric and doll parts (gonna give to an artsy friend), a ton of cigarette butts/ashes (argh! green waste), a bunch of plastic (moved to the plastic recycling bag that I return to the grocery store), a couple of items of clothing (washed and will give to Goodwill), a handful of new unwrapped Bandaids (put them in my pocket for later use) and a whole bunch of paper and foil from various sources (recycled). This was a disgusting job, but part of the routine now, if I plan to keep our actual waste output low. But do it in gloves. Seriously — ick.

With three small items in our new 20-gallon gray can, I have no reason to put this on the curb, thereby saving everyone a little energy. I’d call this a win over plastics for the week, wouldn’t you?

Sunday musing

One of the pleasures of a Sunday morning (besides a tasty bowl of cereal) is the newspaper, that fat bundle lying like a gift on the front step. I (heart) the Sunday paper. The nice delivery person, a mystery visitor to our home once a week, leaves the paper on the front step, so close to the door that I could fetch it bare nekkid and still be OK. So why does s/he feel the need to wrap it in plastic? Not just on rainy days, but every week?
Note to self: contact San Francisco Chronicle and have the plastic bags stopped. The worst thing that could happen without the bag is that my paper gets wet, and guess what? It will dry. I know sometimes they put little samples of Tide or gum or something in the bag. Guess what? I don’t want that stuff, either. Which reminds me: I should also call my local newspapers that deliver once a week and ask for no plastic bags.

I know some people use these slender bags for dog poop pick-up (yay for using them a second time!). I vastly appreciate the picking up of dog poop by the owner and do not like having to clean up after irresponsible folks who let their dogs roam free to poop, willy-nilly, on my lawn. However, wrapping dog poo in plastic only makes it easy on you. It’s not actually good for the planet. Consider taking a few sheets of newspaper instead, so that the little package you pick up has a chance of decomposing a little more easily. It’s just a suggestion; don’t hate me.
Another much more annoying item on the front walk is the plastic-sheathed Kohl’s circular, delivered with annoying frequency — two or three times a week, it seems? Come on — how much stuff do you have to sell, and how many times do you think I will read about it? Word: I never read it, and have always, previously, just thrown it in the garbage, being too annoyed even to strip the plastic and recycle the paper. Note to self: Contact Kohl’s, track down who is making these local deliveries, and demand that they stop dropping this on my walk. If I have any success, I promise to post it here, for your benefit. (There, now you don’t hate me as much.)
Also today: Mr. Husband came home with fast food from Taco Bell, and made sure to avoid anything (like the nachos or enchirito) with a plastic tray. His paper food wraps are all compostable, but he was given a lid and straw with his drink. The hot sauce packets are foil, but he said no to those and a spork (plastic, also wrapped in plastic), since we already have taco sauce packets at home and regular silverware. I’m not recommending fast food, but if you do eat it, there are ways to reduce the plastic. I’d call the score even on this one — avoided some plastic, punked by some plastic.

I’m going to have to sit and look over our budget for the month of June, because money-wise, buying food without plastics has already proven to be more expensive. It’s also proving more time-consuming, re cooking and snacking from scratch, as well as much healthier. But money is money. Our food budget for 5 people is usually less than $500 per month. It tops out at about $800, with more mouths and fancier food during the holidays (Dungenness crab, hello!), but usually we do pretty well. If buying better food in order to avoid plastic is a new direction for us, I will have to seriously consider other budget items: gasoline, cable TV, entertainment, pocket money, and other semi-flexible expenses.

On the other hand, forays to Taco Bell notwithstanding, we are eating like kings. Delicious cantaloupe and berries, fresh salami on whole grain baguettes, local dairy butter, olive oil, wonderful turnips, carrots, kale and bok choy, and the occasional gourmet potato chip or mint Milano. No complaints as to quality, while a year ago, on the Food Stamp Challenge, we were eating hot dogs, cheap cuts of chicken, and lots of starch.

If eating well and helping to keep some plastic from the waste stream is the end result of this Challenge, then “no plastic” may well become a lifelong change.

I called the San Francisco Chronicle (800-310-2455) and they put a note to my distributor to ditch the plastic bag. Julia 5, plastics 2.

Just one more screed before bedtime

When I was a wee single mom some 6-ish years ago, with three daughters in three different schools in two different towns (part of the fun of a divorce), I applied to get my daughters in the free breakfast and lunch program. I filled out the USDA paperwork and then descended into the 9th Circle of Hell at one Alameda school as we tried to make good on the program.

My daughter (12) went to the lunch line, they told her to “go fill out the papers” and sent her away hungry. I called the school and complained. The next day — repeat. The third day they sent her away hungry again and I blew a gasket. I called everyone at the school district office and gave them a very long and articulate piece of my very pissed off mind — about how this is a hungry 12 y.o. child who is at the mercy of the system, and the people who are there to help her and to make sure she receives the benefit to which she is federally entitled have failed her; and that as custodians of our children, you are obligated to take care of these kids, and don’t your employees know how the program works, and if they don’t, couldn’t you send around a flyer or hold a training so kids don’t go hungry? and if I were not there to advocate for her, she would still be sent away hungry every day, even though…etc. No one called me back, needless to say.

I marched into the school with my daughter the fourth day (it took that long to get the facts straight). By then the school office was in a twist because they had all gotten in trouble from the main office. There actually was a system in place for getting lunch tickets and getting them punched, etc, but it was never explained to my daughter. No handout, no orientation, no instructions from anyone in the entire school. They just kept telling her, You have to fill out the papers even when she said (in tears) that we had done so. (What 12-year-old can “fill out papers” about gross annual household income?!)

They continued to send her away hungry until I raised the roof. In a grumpy way. Luckily for my daughters, and quite unluckily for the school, I am a highly educated, middle-class-sounding woman with a vocabulary that blew their socks off. That’s what made me maddest — that they scampered and scurried when I made a fuss and used big words and name-dropped the newspaper as a sort of afterthought, but if I hadn’t made a fuss — my child could have continued hungry and rejected from a service she was entitled to.

What if I were a non-English speaker with no literacy or fluency? “Looked poor”? Fewer words in my arsenal? Lived in my car? I would have had the same rights for my child but no way to access them because the system is the problem — the very delivery system of the help is where the problem is.

Further, the issues with school lunch programs or food stamps (both federal programs under the USDA, not social welfare programs) are not that participants are “taking advantage of the system,” pulling one over on hard-working Americans, or sucking the life out of America. The issues are that poverty begets poverty, hunger itself sucks the life out of you, and that most people live in fear that it could happen to them. We are but a wet piece of Kleenex from living in our cars, losing our homes or getting in the unemployment line. Fear builds walls, and says, “Keep away from me, poverty is contagious, and I don’t want to get any nearer the edge.” And we all need someone to blame, don’t we?

I could go on, bleeding heart-commie-flower child-of the-ecosystem that I am. You know I could. But I will end the JFSC by accounting that of our $454.50, I spent all but $8.50 to feed my family for the month of June, with some food left over. When I do a little bit of financial juggling of our own precarious budget, I will follow that with a donation to our local food bank and a great thank you to the Universe for the lessons that came to rest at my feet this past month. Things that make me say “Ow!” and then, “Wow!” are good things to learn. Big breath of freedom. Big sigh of gratitude.

And the menu today? Lots of good stuff, including but not limited to ciabatta bread and butter, hot coffee with CREAM, chocolate, grapes, local apple juice, whole milk, an egg McMuffin, and more.

Thanks for reading — and please let me know if you also make a donation of money, food or time to your food bank. It makes a big difference.