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How Far Can Your Dollar Stretch?

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Several members of Congress recently made news when they tried to see if they could subsist on $21 per week -- the average amount that food stamp recipients receive to supplement their income.

Representatives Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), co-sponsors of legislation to add $4 billion to the $33 billion food stamp program, challenged their colleagues to join them in trying to eat for just $1 per meal.

McGovern struggled: "No organic foods, no fresh vegetables; we were looking for the cheapest of everything," he told The Washington Post as a food stamp recipient helped him shop. "We got spaghetti and hamburger meat that was high in fat -- the fattiest meat on the shelf. I have high cholesterol and always try to get the leanest, but it's expensive. It's almost impossible to make healthy choices on a food-stamp diet."

No question: That's a tight budget. But with a few cooking skills and a little basic nutrition knowledge, it's doable.

Food stamp benefits, which go to 26 million low-income Americans annually, are given out monthly, not weekly, allowing recipients to buy in bulk. That average $21 per person per week becomes about $90 for the full month. A family of four can receive a maximum of $518 per month -- or about $120 per week, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

When even "value meals" at fast-food restaurants cost several bucks, how much can such a slim food budget buy?

Plenty, according to Tom Wolfe, owner of a natural foods store in Takoma Park. In a recent op-ed piece for The Post, Wolfe noted that most of the people he meets on his travels in the developing world eat a simple diet of grains, beans and vegetables.

Inspired by their example, he began to spend just $25 a week for food. "I have been able, through careful planning, to feed myself well -- with enough left over to prepare lunch four days a week for the five people on the staff of my store," he wrote. "Virtually my entire diet since April has been grains and beans certified-organic and a mix of organic and cheaper non-organic vegetables."

Okay, but cooking from scratch is tough if you're pressed for time. These days, people of all income groups are cooking less and dining out more.

Rick Hindle, executive chef for the Skadden, Arps law firm in Washington, showed recently that you don't have to spend hours in the kitchen to prepare healthful food for $1 or less per meal -- although you do need some basic culinary skills. As part of the launch of a new USDA Web site for food stamp recipients, Hindle cooked colorful quesadillas (60 cents per serving), spinach and meat cakes with brown rice (92 cents) and orange banana frosty (52 cents). All 400 recipes in the database adhere to the latest U.S. Dietary Guidelines. The recipes are available in English and Spanish.

"They were easy to make, with only three to four ingredients," Hindle said. "They're good for you, and they tasted great." So great, in fact, that Hindle, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, plans to add the quesadillas and some of the other recipes to his regular repertoire. (Find photos, recipes and links to menus at http://www.leanplateclub.com.)

Of course, many food stamp recipients live in neighborhoods with limited grocery stores and often don't have access to a car. A few may find help from the growing number of online grocery delivery services, such as Peapod.com. Delivery costs about $7 to $10 per order. But the services often aren't available in poorer neighborhoods.

So to see how far the food stamp benefits stretched, I headed to a local Giant grocery store in Washington, adjacent to public transportation. My budget: $120, the maximum weekly benefit for a family of four on food stamps. (See how much that buys at http://www.leanplateclub.com.)

I spent about an hour and a half shopping for bargains and used a discount card (available free at the store) to save more. Here's a sampling of what I found:

Dried beans. With the discount card, beans cost as little as 55 cents per pound. That makes 16 servings at 4 cents each to put into tacos, bean dip, soups, chili, salads and more. Downside: Cooking dried beans takes time. But a batch can be frozen.

Canned salmon. Just 14 cents per ounce, compared with $7.99 and up (about 50 cents an ounce) for fresh. Great for salmon patties or salmon loaf.

Fruit. A big challenge until I found a large watermelon for $5.99. It could provide about 12 servings.

Eggs and tofu. At $1.89 per dozen, eggs are a low-cost protein source. So is tofu, at $2.99 per container. Both stretched farther than any meat I could find.

Whole grains. It took time, but I found a whole-grain loaf with extra fiber for $2.39. I bought two loaves, for sandwiches, toast and French toast.

Salad dressing. Bottled was too expensive. I stretched my dollars with the discount card to buy a store-brand olive oil ($7.59) -- it can also be used for cooking -- and apple cider vinegar to make a vinaigrette. Tip from Hindle: Turn it into mock-balsamic dressing by adding a tablespoon of sugar, honey or molasses to a cup of vinegar.

Vegetables. Ten bags of frozen veggies for $10 beat both fresh and canned and are nutritionally the same.

In short, eating on a food stamp budget was challenging, but not as difficult as some members of Congress might think.

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