Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Challenging Meal: Vegan Tuesday Takes The Food Stamp Challenge... And Loses.

Those of us who enjoy writing and reading about food do so for reasons as varied and as numerous as the edible items on our grocery stores' shelves. But I think it's safe to assume that we've all pulled our chairs up to this particular table because we enjoy having others seated here with us. When we share a meal with family or friends we're nourishing a need to connect with others that is as primitive as it is civilized. As Joan Kohn of HGTV's Kitchen Design show once told me "We're all still sitting around a campfire at the end of the day. It's just that now that campfire churns out 50,000 B.T.U.s!" And at the end of that day we want to share our experiences as much as our food. 

But what happens to that experience when we have less food to share? I found out, on a very small scale, when I took the Food Stamp Challenge and tried to feed my house for $12 a day. 

Some quick background info: Various food banks and services that assist families and individuals in need encourage their donors to undertake this challenge at different times of the year. November and May are two months with several hunger awareness activities, for instance, in various parts of the country. Even though we live in San Francisco, I followed the guidelines set by the United Way of King County in Washington. I did so in part because I've done some work with Seattle's Rotary First Harvest in the past but also because this information was readily available. 

The size of your family dictates how much money you receive, per diem, in the form of food stamp assistance: This meant that Lon and I would both have to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner for $12 per day. 

If you know your way around your kitchen, you're probably thinking "Pfft, I can do that, no problem." I know I did. But the rules of this challenge state that you can not use any pantry items that were previously purchased. I was reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich's excellent and eye-opening book "Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America," in which she took several minimum wage jobs and did not rely on her credit cards or savings account. Still, I thought, "Easy." I specifically chose my Vegan Tuesday meal to blog about because I thought without having to purchase meat or animal products, my money - six of the allotted twelve dollars for the largest meal of the day - would go even further. For six bucks? Well, I could produce a veritable feast! Instead? I cooked something that (I thought) was not as good as the dish I usually prepare with more funds, that wasn't completely satisfying and which went 32 cents over budget. 

I know I could have stayed within, if not under, my budget by opting for the "value" menu at any one of the fast food joints. I also know I could have purchased packaged, prepared food from the grocery store. But the access and affordability of foods that are harmful are responsible for the health issues in this country today. Besides, I was trying to prove that I could stay as true to my regular diet as possible. 

I had decided to make vegan chili since it's an easy, one-pot budget stretcher that's filling and healthy. I figured I would shop the bulk bins at my local Whole Foods and my neighborhood grocer, Good Life. Between the two stores I thought I could buy just enough of what I needed. I even thought I'd have change to spare. 

I realized quickly that I'd have to adapt my usual recipe. Since I couldn't use my pantry staples of dried guajillo, ancho and chipotle peppers that I ordinarily grind up and put in my chili, I had to rely on other seasonings. I found an organic chili powder in the bulk aisle at Whole Foods and bought the equivalent of two tablespoons for about 20 cents. That, along with some lime, would provide enough flavor. The lime, also 20 cents, came from Good Life. I bought a can of black beans for 88 cents and a large can of whole tomatoes for $1.49. I was at $2.77 and over half way through my recipe yet still had over half of my budget. I was feeling a little smug. 

And then came the process of choosing additional vegetables. I always put yellow squash and zucchini in my vegan chili, along with carrot and onion and garlic. I also thicken it with toasted, pureed pumpkin seeds but I knew the pepitas were too expensive unless I could find them in bulk, which I couldn't. 

A large, organic carrot that cost a quarter pushed me over the halfway mark. I found two sizable zucchinis and one bowling pin of a yellow squash, all organic, for a total of $1.25. My tally was now $4.25 and all I needed was an onion. Here's where I will say that the ordinarily good-natured patrons of my local grocer became a little impatient with me as I weighed each vegetable, trying to stay within my means. I was going to offer an explanation for why I was taking such care, but decided not to bother. 

But it wasn't the attitudes of the other shoppers that took me most by surprise. It was my own. I caught myself blushing with embarrassment when I noticed that my frugality was not only being watched, it was being judged. Here's where I need to interject that I know what it's like to be poor: I write for a living. Enough said. But as two persons huffed and tsked behind me as they waited for the scale I felt more compelled than ever to turn around and apologize. Maybe if I explained why I was being so cautious, that every ounce translated into cents, that surely they'd understand and possibly even offer a story of their own. I kept my mouth shut. 

In the end, it was an onion that broke my budget. At $0.36 it pushed me over my limit by $0.32. I'd already purchased tortilla wraps with the intent to toast them into chips, and at $1.69 for six, they seemed like a good option to stretch the meal even further. I justified the thirty-plus cent overage by thinking I could use four of the wraps for dinner and use the remaining two for breakfast or lunch. 

I walked home with my bags of nutritious foods, three quarters of which were organic. Not bad, I thought. I won't say I felt triumphant because it was more effort than I'd anticipated. And then there was the humbling incident at the scale. But I no longer felt embarrassed and I certainly didn't feel defeated by the challenge. Until, that is, I got home. Looking at the foods on my kitchen counter I felt slightly bewildered. These ten ingredients were more than enough to make a meal, but in realizing that I couldn't use anything else in my cupboards I thought "This isn't cooking, this is assembling." Since I couldn't use any oil to saute the onions and carrot, I relied on the juice from the canned tomatoes. I seasoned them with the chili powder - which was desperately in need of some oregano, salt and pepper, all of which were on my shelf but none of which I could use btw - and then added the zucchinis, the squash and then the beans to the pot. I allowed them to simmer and then stirred in the juice of the lime. The tortillas were actually the best part of the meal. I dusted them with the remaining chili powder and zested the lime over top them as well. I toasted them in the oven at 350 F for about 15 minutes. 

Lon was at dinner with business associates so I sat down to the meal alone. It was one of the few times that I was happy to be dining by myself. The resulting chili was not bad... but it wasn't good. What could have made it better? More ingredients, certainly, but I had already broken my dinner's budget - adding additional seasonings from my own cupboards would've broken the rules.

At the end of a long day I couldn't call this dinner a satisfying eating experience. This was only one meal, and one I'd made entirely by choice. Yet I couldn't stop thinking about what I could've created if I'd only had a dollar or two more. 

NOTE: To my friend, and fellow Leonard Cohen fan, Meredith - I know I keep promising to explain Vegan Tuesday so until I blog about it here, this link's for you! 


KarlaK said...

I enjoyed reading your blog, and like all your other readers I am curious if I could feed my family on $12.00 a day?
We have a local farmer who I could buy produce at a fair price but I am limited to what is available and when. Winter in WI... well, nothing is available.
Wondering if you have another choice of grocery stores? Whole Foods is price.

Steven said...

Karla, Thanks for the feedback. It was difficult, especially since the rules state you can't use what's already in your home. That's why I relied on the bulk bins of Whole Foods for certain items. I knew I could get a tiny amount of foods that were not going to be as processed as something I might buy elsewhere. Had it been Saturday I could've bought a week's worth of produce for four bucks from my Farmer's Market, but again, I had to start from scratch. No pun intended. Then again I could've gone to Carl's Jr and bought two enormous burgers for dinner, but that's not how I eat ordinarily. But after this challenge, I understand why people resort to those food choices. Thanks so much again for the valuable feedback! Hope Spring is finding its way to WI!