The June Food Stamp Challenge begins

My friend Katy over at the NonConsumer Advocate lit a fire under her followers to take the June Food Stamp Challenge. I won’t go into parameters, so check her out for all the details, but the idea is to live on a food stamp budget — what you would get for your family if you were living on food stamps — and, if you are so moved, donate the difference in what you spend vs what you would have normally spent on food. (We’ll be donating to the Alameda Food Bank.) Katy has a chart on her blog site about how much to spend per family/person, but for the sake of simplicity, we’re going with $101 per family member. So in plain Julia-speak, that means my family grocery budget for the entire month of June is $454.50.  That’s $101 per family member (4) plus half of that for The Boy who lives her half-time.

The Boy, age 12, adds another special element to the mix. I am not including his weekday breakfast or lunch expenses for half of June. We normally give him pocket money for lunches, or he can spend it on something else and make his own lunch for school. Same with his breakfast. Well, when I was a hungrier gal and a food bank client, my daughters all received free school breakfast and lunch. My assumption for the first half of the month is that The Boy is “receiving free lunches.” Therefore, we’re not counting those meals. School is out in 2 weeks, so I will count his breakfasts and lunches with us then.

Today got off to a good start. I read the grocery circular, had my coupons clipped, had a list ready, and collected my shopping bags. Since my store (Lucky) gives a 5 cent per bag refund, I always take my bags. Trusty middle daughter Simone went along and was my sidekick.

Great find at the supermarket: a 10 lb. bag of chicken leg quarters for $5.80.  I had planned to get one bag, but thought it over and bought 2. Other good buys: a 4 lb block of colby-jack cheese for $11; a 5-lb bag of carrots for $3.29; a 10-lb bag of potatoes for $3.99. We got 4 packages of sausages (Italian, bratwurst, etc.) with the coupon for a total of $12, and buy-one-get-one-free (BOGO) California strawberries. I had planned to buy good seasonal fruit at the farmers’ market today anyway, so since these were local (Santa Cruz/Watsonville), it was a good deal. Local corn was 5 for $1. I was going to buy just the 5, but went for 15 for $3. I plan to toss some in the freezer for later, and make some corn chowder and corn salad, too. Good price, local produce, good stuff.

I had a little debate about the milk — my poverty mind said “Buy 2 gallons of no-name brand for $5.” But my local-food advocate won, preferring to support local dairies and California cows. I spent $4.29 — almost double the cost of the cheap milk — for one gallon but I feel better about the purchase. And to be honest, we aren’t really drinking that much milk anymore — so the other gallon might have gone to waste, or some of it. One of the things I want to prove, besides mere survival here, is that you can eat well — even on food stamps — if you stick to basic good food. I want to drink good milk, not pay for bogus “organic” stuff shipped from back East when I can support a local dairy farmer whose cows get to roam the Contra Costa, Sonoma or Marin hills. It just feels better all around.

Total at the grocery store, including the extra purchases of more corn and more chicken, was $68.82. I took $30 with me to the farmers’ market and spent it all. I came away with 20 eggs, 4 heads of lettuce, a bunch of beets with greens, chard, zucchini, 2 lbs of cherries; 4 lbs of apricots, peaches, plums and nectarines ($1.50 per pound, so I just filled  a bag), 3 red and one yellow bell pepper, and 2 lbs of tomatoes. All of this was locally grown (within 100 miles), organic (no pesticides), and direct from the farmers who grew them. I brought my own shopping bags, and my own smaller vegetable bags that I made from muslin a while bag. No plastic for me!

We share in a bread program at a local non-profit, which takes delivery of day-old bread from Panera twice a week. We go and pick up a couple of loaves of artisanal bread for free. I also take broken loaves, heels and odd baked goods from the site, to feed the chickens. We made a stop there, and there was hardly any bread. I took one large loaf of whole wheat bread (unsliced). One loaf of bread: $0.

Back at the house, I grabbed a glass of water and heated up last night’s leftovers while I put food away. All that chicken has to go somewhere — it was not frozen. I put aside 3 leg quarters for tonight’s dinner, then separated the rest into 3 or 4 leg quarters. We had some sauces on hand — a little bit of marinade, a little bit of BBQ sauce, a little bit of teriyaki sauce. I took some ziplock bags from my stash — these were previously used and then washed to be used again — and put chicken into each. I added various sauces to use up what was on hand. One of them got some leftover chopped onion thrown in, and another got the last bit of horseradish from the fridge. I wrote on the bags and froze them. They will marinate as they defrost in the future weeks.

Now here’s a dirty secret you probably share with me. We have a large jar — I might as well call it a keg — that used to hold A LOT of pickles. It now holds all the condiment packages from various fast food places. In keeping with my food stamp budget, I had not purchased any sauces. True that I had some leftover stuff “in stock,” but I also froze some chicken plain, to be cooked and shredded for other meals. The last three bags were assembled thusly: In Bag A, I put all the little BBQ sauce packets from leftover chicken nugget meals. Then I added a bunch of ketchup packets and mustard packets, plus a spoonful of honey and some black pepper. Bag A became BBQ sauce.  Bag B received many soy sauce packets, leftover teriyaki dipping sauce and some garlic for a Japanese-style chicken. Bag C received several packets of gyoza dipping sauce, hot oil, rice vinegar, Chinese mustard and soy sauce, plus leftover sweet and sour sauce from other chicken nuggets. Bag C is Chinese spicy chicken.

I now have 7 other meals pre-prepped for later in the month, at a cost of next to zero for the sauce mixes, and about 50 cents per leg quarter. All of these meals are frozen. I can add pasta, potatoes or rice and have healthful meals for very little money. The cost of the bags, by the way, was also $0.

Tonight’s meal consisted of 3 leg quarters, cut up and rolled in a bit of milk and homemade bread crumbs (more of that day-old bread, reincarnated), baked for “oven-fried” chicken. We also had corn, and I cooked a couple of extra ears to make a corn salad for Mr Husband’s lunch tomorrow. We also had brussels sprouts from the freezer, but they were not good. They had been in the ice too long and tasted B-A-D. We added some fruit and put the sprouts into the chicken bucket. At least someone will eat them. Blech! Drinks were sun-tea (made over the weekend) and water. Mr Husband drinks club soda, a store brand, bought by the liter. I don;t think you can buy that with food stamps — since you can’t buy alcohol or soda. I am counting it in my food budget in any case because he consumes it and I paid for it!

I estimate our dinner to cost us $1.50 for the chicken, $1 for the corn, and $1 worth of fruit. The sprouts had been given to me in the fall from a friend and did not cost anything, but they were a loss. I was looking forward to the nutrition of a green, cruciferous vegetable. Too bad they tasted so sulfuric. The good news is that there are leftovers for lunch tomorrow. So this inexpensive but healthful meal turns out to be two meals. We fed 3 on this food tonight. Total cost per person was about $1.25 for dinner tonight.

My grocery shopping is intended to last the week, and set us back $98.82. That leaves me about $13 to buy more milk or other food we run out of before next week, using a quarter of my month’s budget on this week’s food shopping.

So far so good on the food stamp challenge.

yeah, well, so it’s Monday.

So what has occurred since last time I posted? The Tax Man. We’ll leave it at that.
Meanwhile, we spent the weekend digging up dirt (not on the neighbors, but for the garden). Planted more strawberries (8 new plants), and one new artichoke. Next spring will be crazy with plants. Will we still be here? At the current rate of attrition of children-leaving-the-nest, one wonders. We’ve been thinking about how long to stay in this dreamhouse as the nestlings fly away. A 5-BR house was perfect when we moved in in 2006. Now there is one empty bedroom, an office, and the other two girls make noises like they might go live their lives elsewhere. How many offices and sewing rooms can a family use? Thus, when we get down to one Boychild and two adults, we shall have to reconside the living space. The garden and chickens will come along or stay behind, and we’ll see when that day comes.

The tomatoes are in bloom, and I will not pinch any more blossoms to promote growth. I want some fresh tomatoes, dammit. Celery is lush; so are sage, parsley, oregano and even the straggly basil has perked up. Onions are green and prospering. Beets are popping up, as is the rocket (aka arugula). I planted a plotful of mustard greens, which I found growing rogue at an empty house last week. The mustard will feed the chickens or mix into salad greens, but solo, is too bitter for me, raw or cooked. The corn is doing nothing — not a single sprout yet, and it’s been at least 2 weeks, if not 3. All of the squashes/pumpkins/cukes are sprouting second and third sets of leaves, and I think, barring hailstorms and slug-hordes, they’ll all be fine.

Just now I have pegged out a line of sheets and pajamas to dry. They are flapping in the breeze. Yesterday the cats got fed canned cat food twice (Mr,.Husband and then me, not knowing that anyone else would do the morning job). Today there is no canned food left, so I am cooking up a batch of cat food. They also have kibble, which they eat only as a snack. It isn’t real food to my fussy little stinkers.

Tasty Treat
Cat food = the carcass of a chicken plus an extra scoop of gizzards and hearts (on sale, frozen), stewed with carrot, some salmon oil and kelp (vitamin tablets), and later, a whole egg (shell, too) and a cupful of either oatmeal or brown rice. Cook together till the bones are mushy-soft, then puree in the blender with a scoopful of plain yogurt, cottage cheese or powdered milk. It is more nutritious (organic) than canned, and actually cheaper, with no recycling or trash (I reuse plastic tubs to refrigerate/freeze it). This batch will make the equivalent of about a month’s canned food (1/4 cup per day per cat). I could also add spinach or another mild green. I don’t have any spinach on hand, though. I don’t give them pork or beef as a rule, and I once tried cooking a fish variety but it was too nasty to cook a fish’s head for several hours. The bulging eyeballs made me ill. Plus, boiled fish = stinky house. So chicken is our only flavor.

Note: The kids love the smell of this cat-food soup when they think it is our dinner. When I say it’s cat food, they gross out. It is the same stuff, either way, and just smells like chicken stock cooking — kinda chickeny with a little herb scent. It’s perfectly edible, without the bones or eggshells.

Speaking of chickens, but in a different way altogether — we finished raccoon-proofing the henhouse, and the girls slept in their coop last night for the first time. They got freaked out when night fell and were cheeping and crying for some time. They have never been outside at night. It was sad to listen to them, but I had to do the mommy thing and let them cry it out. Eventually they nestled down and shut up. And this morning, they are all safe. Yesterday Patrick spent most of the day drilling and sawing and screwing in hinges and locks. The new door, made of salvaged plywood and a piece of the Ikea dresser we cannabilized, features 2 locks and 2 hinges, with 2 carrabiner hooks to keep the locks closed. The hinges and hasps required a trip to the hardware store but we had the hooks already. Glad to have that task out of the way, and no longer have to shuttle the chicks back and forth to the garage at night, have 2 cages to clean, etc. I am very grateful for that reduction.

Today’s chorelist also includes ironing a few more shirts out of the mountain of ironing. Bills to pay. Clean off the dining room table, which has become my downstairs desk. Cookies? Maybe snickerdoodles. Dishes, some kind of dinner for 5, same as it ever was.

Feels like as good a time as any to say I am glad to be alive. Not a very exciting life, but a good one. Peace out, y’all.

train to nowhere

When sleepless in Alameda, the only thing to do is read (but I finished my book earlier this evening), watch TV (nuthin on) or blog. Here I yam.

I’m slowly adding to the wonder that is the garden. I planted corn in a very small box — usually I have tried planting a row (one line) of corn, and we get perhaps a dozen ears. But I know it does better when it’s closer to other stalks, in multiple rows. The pollen needs to run into itself, and in one straight line that just doesn’t happen. Our friend Phil says that we have to have sex with our vegetables to make sure they pollinate. I’m lucky — Erin and Jack have a couple of hives just a block away, so we have bees enough. But Phil is right — in one orderly line, corn can’t very well mate itself — so I did take handfuls of pollen and sprinkle it on other stalks the past few years, with limited results. The small box this year equates to intensive planting — in a 6-foot-square space I planted 20 seeds. If they all come up, they’ll be close enough to pollinate each other. I shouldn’t have to interfere. Leave the corn to sex itself. Let’s just call this my last effort to grow corn in a small city plot. If this method (completely unrehearsed and untested) does not work, then hey-dee-ho, we have another trial and error for the books, et on y va, oui?

The above garden photo was taken last September, btw. Not recently. So far most of the garden boxes are barren, still, just soil or no soil at all. And because the Tax Fairy just came, or shall we call it the Tax Ogre, I don’t think I’ll be ordering any loads of organic soil anytime soon. Which means, hunt and peck for loose soil in the neighborhood, or where I can salvage it from elsewhere the yard.

Next on the garden agenda is clearing weeds from the annexed garden outside the fence, and panting the larger vines — pumpkins, other squashes. The city-paid landscapers (mow and blow guys) just ran over and shredded our long garden hose, and though they promised to replace it, I have yet to see one appear. Which means we’ll probably have to make do without one. That means creative watering this summer. What else?

  • Find dirt to fill remaining beds.
  • Continue endeavor to make chicken coop impregnable by raccoons and other night mammals.
  • Water and weed and pick slugs off to feed the chickies.

Meanwhile, indoors, the saga of neverending laundry and ironing continues. Dishes, dinners, cats and kids. There is still frozen fruit from last year to be made into jam, to make room for this year’s goodies in the freezer. I just spent $7 on a groovy loaf of health-store bread that molded over in 2 days. TWO DAYS. So the chickens are enjoying 12-grain, locally made artisanal bread this week (grrrr). And because of that, it’s back to the bread-baking for me. I like baking bread but the fam has shown no interest in eating it (it’s not sliced!!).

Oh, well. Let them eat cake.

Lordy Lu: What’s new

Such days, such busy days. Been reading, working in the garden, taking care of chickies, cats, birds, people, and self. Weather, projects, house, life. Busy days, I tell you. Biggest project has been the raised beds. Here come the photos, my little chickadees.

So here’s the chicken coop with a new green corrugated roof. That took us a weekend day to repair. The coop still needs a solid door, as we discovered last night — either an electric fence or steel spikes dug down at least a foot into the earth. Yes, our raccoony friends were here overnight and dug underneath, into the coop. Luckily, the chickies still sleep in the garage, and now we know the gambit. So that’s on the list.
As for the raised beds, we had 3 from last year that were still good, but the large bed had rotted. It has been merely a pile of worn-out topsoil, seen at the right of the photo.
Another view of the dirtpile, and a large shipping crate (at right) that we got from my dad. We’ve been using it for 3 years as a planter box but it was never much good, since it wasn’t completely sealed. The dirt was pretty worn out, too. We tore that sucker apart and used the boards to build our new raised beds.
Here’s Mr. Husband at work, knocking rusty nails out of salvaged wood, some of which included pieces from a broken park bench, leftover scrap lumber from getting our sliding glass door fixed, random plywood and the salvaged shipping crate. Also used sections from our daughter’s broken Ikea dresser. Note gorgeous weather!
Here’s the power tools in action, along with my favorite construction worker. Note laundry hanging dry in the sun. *Solar power* = love it!
Look at this dynamic duo! He’s drilling/screwing and she’s sitting patiently, holding boards steady, wearing appropriate protective gear, and offering completely unsolicited advice. We used stuff from Mr. Husband’s garage stash, meaning nothing new purchased for the project. That’s my power drill, btw. He loves him a woman with power tools…
Salvaged French doors from Freecycle make a lean-to greenhouse where we will grow our melons and peppers this year, with luck. It’s too chilly where we are, right on the water, so maybe the glass will help. The barrel (salvaged from Napa winery) was my former water garden-fishpond, that became a dead zone because raccoons were always eating anything alive. It became a mosquito-hatching nursery after a while. Now it’s holding soil, compost and beet seeds.
End of a LONG day shows us dripping with sweat, enjoying a well deserved fountain beverage from the local quickie mart. We were good and drank water and sun tea all day. Six new boxes, total of 10 inside the fence, with raised beds outside the fence as well (eminent domain). Still need some dirt to fill them (they are halfway full with dirt and compost). All materials salvaged, found, from stash or collected from Freecycle. Total cost: $0, unless you count the soda drinks.
Here’s a gratuitous chicken shot, because they are so darned cute, enjoying the sunshine, grass and scratching for insects. They are even larger than this now. Will post new pix soon (when it stops being rainy).
Here I am, planting seeds in little six-packs. Have started seeds for leeks, tomatoes, various peppers, cucumbers, zucchini and other squashes, eggplant, canteloupe and watermelon, pumpkins and…must be forgetting something. They have mostly sprouted, even the peppers and eggplant. Leeks are 2 inches tall already. In one of the raised beds I have green beans, yard-long beans and sunflowers, and those are all 1 to 2 inches high. Slugs have already been a concern, but chickies LOVE slugs, so one of my fun daily activities is slug-hunting to hand-feed to the girls. They love their slugs and go nuts when they see me coming. Slug Mama. Yep. My new nickname.Ain’t we cute? What’s not to love? I need a shower…note yoga gear which also works well as garden gear. I also have a dandy base tan.
Next on the chore list:
  • Chicken coop door, moat with crocodiles, and a mounted guard.
  • Dirt. The good kind. In a large load, preferably without plastic on it (bagged).
  • Planting stuff. Corn should be knee-high by the Fourth of July.
  • Mulch. Keeps weeds down between the boxes and keeps the mud out of the house, too.
Loving this simple life.

puttering, or if you’re British, pottering

Black coffee and rain. Sleepy cat, laundry piles, Mr. Husband packing to go away for a business trip (which includes a 24-hour marathon relay through the Arizona desert, and a visit to spring training); the girls are in various states of sleepiness as they arise and go about their day. Raindrops against the window behind me.

Yesterday was sunny-ish, and almost warm, and since it was forecast to rain today, I took advantage of the weather (I know — there I go, taking advantage again. I’m such a user.) and puttered a bit. Puttering turned into a little bit of huffing and grunting when I moved a couple of pots I probably shouldn’t have — one was my new rosebush, Olympia (red), yet to find a proper home. The other was a water-logged vat of mint that needed to move out of my way. So I moved it. All is well. I just won’t do that again soon.

Everything else that I moved was on the scale of the above photo contents — lots of little pots and tomato cages and bamboo stakes. We’re moving stuff from one side of the veggie garden fence to make way for a chicken coop. As yet to be built. For chicks as yet to be hatched and come live with us. However, that day approacheth, so the puttering/decluttering hath commencethed.

I’ve been reading lots of books about sustainable living, city farming, and the like, and recently picked up Judith Moffett’s Homestead Year: Back to the Land in Suburbia. I found it hard going at first, not because of the topic, but because she’s boring. BORING. No dialogue, the characters (her husband and friends) are just walk-ons with names, no personality, and her book reads like a massive to-do list. Here’s what the Library Journal said about it (just so you know I’m not exaggerating): “…her meticulous recording of varieties of seeds started makes for slow reading at the beginning of the book, [but] the pace soon picks up, and Moffett’s account culminates at year’s end with more successes than failures.” The pace picks up because the topic gets interesting, but the pictures (hers and neighbor’s photos) are boring, and how she tells her tale is boring. There is so mch potential here — where’s the pathos?

Nevertheless, she talks on and on about the ducklings she raises for their eggs and meat (I haven’t gotten to the part where she eats them yet), and it sounded so interesting that I began to yearn for a duckling or three to have about the place here. In fact, my dreams last night were all about ducks. I kid you not. This is why I need to be kept in a small padded room with no credit card or Internet access. However, for those of you who’ve read this far, I am not likely to get a duck anytime soon, because chicks and ducklings ought not to be raised together. Ducklings are very wet creatures and chicks need to be kept dry. I don’t rule it out for the future. But for the moment, the duck question has been answered with a firm but gentle no.

I soothed myself from that brief duck fever this morning by purchasing a compost aerator (the one I owned was lost in the divorce). This is a tool much needed because our compost heaps (there are 3 at present) are packed down and as stinky as stinky can be. Part of the puttering yesterday involved my combing through compost with a pitchfork to get rid of vines, sinewy stalks and twists of crabgrass, peas and beans, and weeds. They need to stay out of the compost. Into the green bin (for city pick-up), I said. Begone.

Raining in earnest now. There are some very cute repro-retro napkins yet to be sewn over there on the sewing table. That’s on my list today. I would like to mention that very similar napkins were selling for $5 each at chi-chi Sur la Table in San Francisco as I type these very letters.  I saw them the other night when we went into SF for my birthday, for oysters at Hog Island. The price tag of those napkins was enough to convince me that a couple of hours at the sewing machine was a good way to spend a morning.

So off I go. Photos later.

Project Funway update

1. Ombre socks: one done, the other about 1/4 done.
2. Ring scarf: untouched by human hands since photo was taken.
3. Scrappy sweater: See #2
4. Black, white and red skirt made of strips: finished but for the button and ironing. Waiting for a spot of nice weather to induce me to wear a skirt.
5. Aqua/green/plum quilt: See #2
6. Pink, brown, cream yarns to be made into pillow for living room: Slowly working a panel of basketweave stitch in the salmon pink.
7. Tahoe afghan: A couple more rounds will finish this; ergo, it will sit in the purgatory of a basket in my bedroom til I rediscover it and finish it in a fit of manic inspiration. Until then, see #2.

8. BI Scarf: Unmentioned in previous posts was the 2-stranded stockinette with purled edging scarf I started for myself in September, out of one fat tweedy cream and a gorgeous ombre called “Meadow” that is aqua, cream, brown and army green. Delicous! Together, this was going to be The World’s Most Beautiful Scarf Ever Knit. Ever. However, this came to be known as the (insert inappropriate and politically incorrect words of your choice for bumbling idiot) Scarf, since, with my stress factors, I couldn’t manage a single row without a mistake, and pulled out more rows than I knitted and how easy could I have possibly made this project? Here it is, nearly spring, and the BI Scarf was no more than about 18 inches long, and the tweedy wool just made the whole thing stiff and scratchy. And it curled. The purl edging was supposed to prevent that. I kept knitting my purls and purling my knits, and then it was just no fun anymore. So Sunday, Simone and I frogged the whole stupid thing, and it is no longer on my to-do list. In fact, it’s on its own To-Don’t list.

Very good. Carry on.