How well can a family of four eat on just $68.88 a week? For more than 38 million Americans, it's more than a matter of conjecture.
With job growth and the economy still only sputtering along, a record number of Americans have turned to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for federal food stamp program.
At the end of last year, roughly 1 in 8 Americans received food stamps, the highest rate ever, according to Lisa Pino, the program's deputy administrator. During the past two years alone, another nearly 12 million people enrolled in the program.
How much a family gets per month is determined by a number of factors, but typically ranges from less than $100 to more than $500. The national average for a family of four at the end of 2009 was $275.53 a month, or about $68.88 a week.
Despite growing dependence on food stamps, the popular impression is that the meals you can make with them are bleak.
To find out how well you can eat on food stamps, the AP asked two chefs and a magazine food editor to plan out seven days of meals for a family of four using that budget: $68.88.
Food stamp officials note that the program is meant to supplement a household's food budget, not be its only spending. But to best illustrate what's possible — or not — on a very tight budget, we asked the participants to work with the food stamp budget only.
"It was tough. You really have to think outside the box," says Jose Garces, a Food Network Iron Chef and James Beard award-winning chef from Philadelphia. "When you are used to creating food the way we do, it takes you back."
Though not everyone succeeded in staying within budget, the lessons learned were universal. All three said planning and careful shopping were key, as was a willingness to recast leftovers. They also championed chicken as an inexpensive and versatile protein.
Here's how they managed:
Bill Telepan of Telepan restaurant in New York
Telepan approached the food stamp challenge with the same sustainable eating philosophy he uses at his restaurant. He favors high-quality, unprocessed ingredients (organic when possible) and plenty of from-scratch cooking.
"The problem with the way some people spend food stamps is by buying processed foods," he says. "I wanted to buy everything fresh and cook from scratch. You are not going to do it every day. But do it two or three times a week and then make enough so you heat it up."
Processed foods may sometimes seem less expensive, but they are harder to stretch and generally not as healthy. Telepan also looked for more seasonal foods, which generally are cheaper.
But even without buying the organic, grass-fed meats he favors, Telepan still came in nearly $20 over budget. Some aggressive use of coupons, sales and bulk shopping probably could bring his total closer to the goal.
When constructing his menu, Telepan began by selecting the protein and building out from there. This ensured the meals were satisfying.
He also assembled his meal plan backward, starting with each day's dinner, then sorting out how to use the leftovers in other meals. For example, the leftovers from Monday's roasted chicken dinner became a salad for lunch on Tuesday. And ziti that was served with broccoli, toasted garlic and shell beans on Wednesday got a makeover with meatballs two nights later.
Of course, cooking from scratch is more work, which many busy families will find daunting. Telepan advocates involving the whole family in the cooking. "People look at cooking as a chore," he says. "In the end, if people all help out it makes it fun."
Where the money went:
Telepan's menu came to $87.76, nearly $20 over budget. The biggest chunk of that — $31.01 — was spent on produce, with another $22.48 on dry goods such as bread, pasta, rice, beans and oatmeal. Meat — two whole chickens ands 2 pounds of ground beef — accounted for another $18.62. A savvy shopper could use coupons, sales and bulk purchases to get his menu closer to budget.
Anna Last, editor of Everyday Food magazine
Last focused on stretching her ingredients as far as possible and budgeting her time as much as her cash.
When planning out the week, she was careful not to schedule too many time-consuming recipes in a row. When she planned the chili garlic chicken legs one night, she followed it with an easier rice and beans the next.
Like Telepan, she avoided processed foods. Not only are whole foods often more nutritious, they usually are easier to stretch.
"Cooking on a budget and actually cooking means cooking without using packaged foods," she says. "Packaged food can often be not as nutritious for you. You are also paying for the convenience sometimes. Pasta sauce is a convenience. Cooking it yourself, you know what's in it. There is less sodium. There is less fat. It's those sorts of things that you have to think of as well."
How she shopped also was part of her plan for staying on budget. If possible, she says don't shop when hungry or with your children, both of which can prompt unplanned purchases. And always use a list; it makes shopping faster because you only look for what you need.
"It also helps you avoid buying extra things," she says. "To me, writing the list is the most important thing."
When selecting foods, Last started with foods she liked, as well as basic staples. She also made sure to buy foods with multiple uses — such as flour, oil and spices. But she splurged where she could, as with buttermilk and andoiuille sausage. She simply bought those items in smaller amounts or made sure she had uses for leftovers.
"Throw out nothing," she says. "If you want a special ingredient, figure out what else to do with it."
This is where Last turned to a kitchen sink stew, building around extra chicken legs and adding anything that was leftover from the week. "You can use almost any vegetable in it."
Where the money went:
Last spent a total of $68.49, giving her 39 cents to spare. Nearly $22 of that was spent on about 14 pounds of meat, mostly chicken, ground beef and a bit of bacon. About another $22 was spent on produce, with the remaining money split between dry goods and dairy, including milk, eggs and cheese.
Jose Garces of Philadelphia
Garces' signature style is to dress up simple foods with plenty of ethnic flavors. And because seasonings — both dry spices and fresh herbs_ tend to be inexpensive, his is an approach that works well when trying to make the most of a small budget.
Inexpensive basics — such as pasta, beans, greens and potatoes — can get tons of flavor from spices and herbs. The same foods also can taste radically different from one meal to the next — Indian flavors one night, Asian the next and Mexican on the third.
Garces suggests that budget shoppers start in the grocer's ethnic aisle, where the products generally are less expensive.
Budget cooking "traces back to roots in ethnic cooking," he says. "If you look back in history, people had to survive, and using inexpensive products became ways to survive and using those inexpensive products became traditional dishes."
To create his menu, Garces drew on his Mexican roots, as well as his love of Indian food. Beans, spices, herbs and produce are at the heart of both cuisines — and are among the least expensive ingredients at the grocer.
If cooking ethnic dishes intimidates you, head to the library, which should have plenty of books covering plenty of cuisines.
On his menu, an inexpensive chipotle pepper gives a kick to meatloaf. Smokey paprika adds depth to roasted chicken.
"It's all about shopping and buying the right amounts," he says. "Buy products that contain a ton of flavor. Chorizo typically has paprika, black pepper, garlic, cumin and a lot of pork fat."
Where the money went:
Garces spent $69.54, just 66 cents over budget. Nearly $23 went to meat, including high-flavor items such as chorizo and bacon. Another $18 was spent on dry goods and flavorful foods, such as salsa, roasted peppers, chipotles in adobo sauce, paprika and maple syrup. The rest was split mostly between dairy and produce, including garlic, avocado and lemons.