Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hunger Challenge - Vegan Style

Several months ago, my friend Colleen approached my husband and I and asked if we'd like to be members of a new board she was putting together for Food Outreach. The Board, called, Friends of Food Outreach (AKA: FOFO) was to be made up of just a handful of people who believe in the mission of FO and have a desire to get out there and spread the word by creating events, or a buzz about the organization. Colleen knows about my background and has a firm understanding of how I feel about food as it relates to health, so of course this was an easy and very enthusiastic "YES!" for us both to hop on board.

This year the FOFOs have started to really create a name for ourselves and it has been a lot of fun to meet and interact (read: party) with our fellow board members. However, it was not until recently that we really got a taste of the struggle that lies within the clients of Food Outreach. September is Hunger Action Month and during this month Food Outreach has challenged all those who are willing to participate to spend only $29 per person for all of the food you will eat in a seven day period. The days do not have to be in a row (mine have not been), but you do have to stick to only the foods you purchase with in that allotted dollar figure. Why only $29? Because on average, a Food Outreach client is eligible for a $29/week “food stamp” allotment, certainly not enough to purchase the nutritious foods that can improve their treatment outcomes- which by the way absolutely sucks.

I teach vegan cooking classes and I started down this plant-based way of eating after the big C made two appearance in my family IN ONE YEAR just three years ago. Food Outreach provides nutritional meals to help support for those individuals who have been hit by said 'C' and HIV/AIDS. I am all for prevention, but these folks who have compromised immune systems and really are in need of nutritionally dense fare may not be getting what they need because "healthy food" is too expensive. At least that's what the consensus is.

Being on a plant-based (vegan) diet, I thought this would be an interesting challenge.

September has been a bit of a maddening time, as we have been in and out of town, I am prepping for cooking classes, etc...ya know, just life stuff, but you've got to eat- so I took a half hour last week and just ran to the store to spend our $58 (2 people).
This is our food for seven random days throughout the next couple of weeks. We have completed two days and I am now kicking myself for not putting together a menu and planning a bit more carefully. On the other hand, FO never really knows what will be donated and in what quantity, so perhaps making sense out of my mish mash of food is what they have to deal with on a regular basis, ours is just on a significantly smaller scale. I only have to figure out meals for two people, not 200.

I of course did not purchase any animal products and those can be costly, but I did pick up some veggie burgers, crumbles, organic tofu and that nice roll of basil and garlic polenta. Splurges. It killed me to not grab more fresh produce, but knowing that our challenge days would not be consistent, I didn't want to run the risk of buying and having something go bad. Normally, that would just really irritate me, now the stakes are higher. So, instead I bought a lot of frozen vegs and really saved $$$ with the beans. I have soaked (and sprouted) and cooked them all. I'm happy to have my staple of hummus (sans the tahini) in the fridge, though I am eating it by the spoonful since I could not afford pita and didn't even think about grabbing a cuke.

Here is a picture of one of our first meals and as look at everything I bought I see a theme: red/green/tan. I have a feeling that a lot of my pictures will look similar as I bought a ton of canned tomatoes, an extra large bag of frozen broccoli ($2.99 - holla!) and enough beans to last us through the year - or so I say that now.

I didn't feel like being too creative for the first meal, so I just grabbed what I had the most of and got to work. Sauteed an onion, added a few cloves of minced garlic, threw in the broccoli, and added a can of chopped chili-style tomatoes. Later on I popped a handful of garbanzo beans to round out the protein element, but all in all, not a bad start. Most definitely NOT gourmet and not the most well thought out meal, but it was quick and somewhat nutritious. I say somewhat because fresh and local tomatoes would have been a better choice- but let's not split hairs.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Every Little Thing's Challenge Wrap-Up

I wanted to recap the Hunger Challenge before I moved on with new recipes. It was a rough week but enlightening in its own right.  I am one person that was able to chooseto eat on a food stamp budget and for that I am grateful.  I truly hope this challenge didn’t offend anyone .  The point was not to mock or imitate those in need, but to force people to step outside their comfort zone and spark thoughts about hunger in our country.  With those goals in mind, I certainly succeeded with the challenge.
Some final thoughts:
  • Eating on $29 a week per person is doable.  It’s not fun, nor is it easy.  But doable? Yes.
  • Time is a key component to eating foods that are healthy, natural, and filling on a limited budget.  I spent days researching sale prices and simple yet filling recipes.  I grocery-shopped for two hours.  I cooked full meals almost every night.  This week took time that I’m confident most on food stamps don’t have.
  • There is no room for error when you have no extra food.  Burn your dinner? Eat it anyway.  Goopy cottage cheese?  Sorry, down the hatch.
  • Eating isn’t fun. Sure, our meals were tasty and filling.  But were they fun?  Meh, not really.  I couldn’t get creative.  I couldn’t try a new recipe.  I couldn’t experiment.  There wasn’t that enjoyment in the cooking process that I’ve come to love in the last year.  I cooked because we couldn’t afford not to, and that was that.
  • Forget your social life.  No money, no restaurants.  That’s all there is to it.
My goal was to attempt a natural and healthy diet on a limited budget, and I think I succeeded.  I would never expect a mother working two jobs to pay rent for her two children to cook the way I did last week.  That said, planning ahead just one meal can spark a change and make this kind of budget doable over time.
I also wanted to point out that I went to three stores for this challenge.  I wanted to stay as close to home as possible, so I chose two grocery stores within 3 miles of my house, and the local farmer’s market.  Again, most on food stamps aren’t going to three different stores, but I wanted to show the variety of food I was able to purchase, and what was the cheapest at each store, in this area.
I purposely chose to shop at the farmer’s market because many are now accepting food stamps – in fact, in Detroit and the surrounding area, farmer’s markets are doubling the worth of food stamps!  Obviously not everyone has access to farmer’s markets, especially those living in inner cities and more urban areas, but I wanted to at least showcase the possibility for those with one nearby.
All in all, I thought it was a successful challenge.  Maybe not realistic, but it certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me think about my food and those in our country that go without.  After all, wasn’t that the point?
Check out my blog for my final Hunger Challenge recipe - a basic black bean soup that was pretty tasty, if I do say so myself!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Every Little Thing's Challenge Day 6

It’s officially Day 6 of the Hunger Challenge – can’t believe it’s almost over! If you’re looking to catch up on the other posts…
I’ve noticed a craving for sugar. I haven’t kept track but I know I’m eating less sugar. How did I notice the craving, you ask? Well, a coworker brought in donut holes this morning specifically for me and my partner at work. She literally plopped them down on my desk and told me to eat them. And do you know what I did?

I ate them.

A lot of them.

I’m normally not a donut person and I was shoving these down like my stomach was bottomless – I had this intense need for more sugar! Obviously this doesn’t excuse my cheating on the Challenge but I had to fess up and wanted to describe how I was feeling.

Otherwise, we’ve been doing well, though I notice how empty our designated shelf is getting and it makes me nervous.

On Wednesday night, we had stuffed peppers for dinner, based on my original quinoa-stuffed pepper dinner.

It was affordable and a good mix of leftover bits of food in the fridge. The only problem was that we were still hungry after! We each had a bowl of cereal and called it a night. Our peppers were small, so make yourself two peppers!

I filled our peppers with a mix of quinoa (here’s how to rinse/cook quinoa), leftover pinto beans from the chili, onion, leftover chopped poblano, and topped with pepperjack (I was going to use corn but got lazy).
The quinoa takes about 15-20 minutes to cook, then two small-to-medium peppers stuffed with the quinoa mixture take about 45 minutes to bake in the oven, at 400 degrees.

Top with cheese during the last five minutes and throw under the broiler for supreme meltiness!

Rice would work just as well but quinoa provides a lot of protein! You can also mix in meat if you have it – sausage works well.
I’ll have a wrap-up post on Sunday – have a great weekend!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Every Little Thing's Challenge (almost) Day 5

**Be sure to check out my blog for photos of my delicious dinner from last night!**

Almost day 5! Wow, I can’t believe the Hunger Challenge is over halfway done. It’s going well so far, but I see our dwindling piles of food and worry about days 6 and 7, which I’m sure is a common feeling for those on food stamps.

One thing I’ve noticed is how many people at work offer me food after I explain the Challenge to them. I’m not even sure they’re doing it consciously, but I’ve had more food offered to me this week than ever before! Cookies, pie (on which I relented Day 3), BBQ sandwich, chips, soda, you name it, I’ve been offered. It makes it difficult to turn it down but I feel fortunate that I have these food options, whereas plenty of people have zero free food options, or aren’t willing to take any.

It was yesterday afternoon that I really started to hit my wall with the Hunger Challenge. Last night was my fourth night of cooking in a row and while I cook often, I normally mix in leftovers, take out, or something so easy it doesn’t qualify as cooking (poor man’s nachos, anyone?). I didn’t have that luxury this week. I sat at work just dreading cooking tonight, wanting so badly to order Chinese food or make a box of Annie’s Mac & Cheese. But sesame chicken doesn’t fit into a $60/week budget, so I cooked. Again.

When you’re on such a limited food budget, every piece of food matters and you often have no choice in the matter. I’ve eaten goopy cottage cheese, cereal with nuts in it (I hate them in my cereal), and more popcorn than I care to think about because that was all I had. I couldn’t throw the cottage cheese away because it was goopy. I couldn’t buy a new box of cereal. I ate it. I survived. I moved on.

I’m hoping this will translate into post-challenge menu planning. Basically, I’m hoping to get over myself and eat what I have in the house instead of ordering Chinese because something in my fridge is too “goopy” to eat.

Anyway, here’s our dinner from two nights ago – baked pasta! It was delicious and made excellent leftovers.

I was planning to use cottage cheese but at the last minute found a half-filled container of ricotta in the back of my fridge. Half the container would have cost about the same as the cottage cheese and in the name of not wasting, I used that instead. If that’s cheating, so be it.

I kind of…winged it.

One box of $1 pasta (100% whole wheat, all natural).
One box of $1.39 sauce (100% all natural tomato puree)
Chopped onion, garlic, leftover poblano, and the other 1/4 lb of beef.
Dollops of ricotta or cottage cheese.
Shredded pepperjack.

Boil the pasta. Brown the meat. Mix about 3/4 of the pasta with all the ingredients in a casserole dish. Bake until bubble (15-20 minutes).

It was honestly really tasty and just your basic, hearty, Italian dinner. It filled our bellies, gave us some fiber, protein, and veggies, and made a delicious lunch the next day.

We’re getting low on food. Breakfast for dinner is planned again for tonight, with only one more work lunch to pack tomorrow (thank goodness). I’ll keep you posted – likely making black bean soup for Saturday!

Question: Do the store-brand items at your grocery store stack up to their name brand counterparts?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Every Little Thing's Hunger Challenge Day 3 (already?!)

(Just FYI: meal photos will also be posted on my facebook page!)

It’s the dawn of day three of the Hunger Challenge and things are going well! Our two dinners so far have been outstanding – on the other hand, lunches and snacks have been quite underwhelming. I really miss having snacks throughout the day and a variety of food in my lunchbox. I also miss sparkling water that I drink during the day (I know, cry me a river right?).  That said, it hasn’t been horrible by any means.

I have cheated once. I was offered a small piece of pie at work yesterday and I took it. I felt guilty about it but the craving for sweetness to end my meal was overwhelming. I realize that many people on limited budgets and food stamps don’t have access to these kinds of freebies – it was my own weakness that pushed me to take it.

Breakfast: Small bowl of cereal and a hard-boiled egg.  This does the trick until at least mid-morning - it mimics what I typically have, though the cereal I eat is more filling (more fiber and protein).

Lunch: Yesterday, leftovers (chili and cornbread…and pie). Today, PB&J, slice of cheese, leftover cornbread.

1/2 cup cottage cheese, though I haven’t eaten it yet because it’s on the goopy side. Evening snack has been popcorn with a little salt and butter. I’ve also had a spoonful of peanut butter and peanut butter toast with milk.

Dinner on Sunday night (and Monday’s lunch) was a very basic chili recipe – I say basic but there’s a little twist that hit this chili out of the park. It starts with a P and ends with “oblano.” You can usually get miscellaneous peppers for a decent price at the grocery store or the farmer’s market. My market has jalapeno’s for a quarter! Also, keep the seeds in if you want plenty of spice! Even without the seeds, the chili had quite a bite to it.

I used dry beans so I got to soaking early in the day. I did the “quick soak” method, which involved putting the beans in a large pot with enough water to cover by a couple inches, bringing the pot to boil, then cover, take off heat, and let sit for two hours.

After soaking the beans, rinse with clean water, then add back to the pan with fresh water (3 cups water to every 1 cup beans). Bring the new bean/water mix to a boil then simmer, partially covered, for 60-90 minutes. Mine only took 60! You can also boil in broth with spices for extra tasty beans. There are a lot of fun ways to cook beans and I’m a bean newb so check around for great recipes!

For the full chili recipe, check out my blog! It's excellent, I promise. 

Our dinner last night was a pepper, onion, and pepperjack frittata, potatoes, and toast (photos on my Facebook page!). It was delicious and something we have often, actually. I used 5 eggs for the frittata, meaning we have 7 left for one more “breakfast-for-dinner” night, plus one weekend breakfast (egg sammies!). Tonight I’m making baked pasta, tomorrow quinoa-stuffed peppers. Black bean soup is thrown in there somewhere as well!

Question: Does your local farmer’s market accept food stamps?

(Not all of ours do, but I wanted to show what you could get at the market. Many around the country do!)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rhubarb and Honey's Hunger Challenge Concludes

On Friday, our participation in the Food Outreach Hunger Challenge concluded. I had planned to spend the evening blogging about the final days of challenge, but after some initial attempts at this post, I decided I needed to take a step back and truly think about the lessons I learned over the past five days.

When I agreed to participate in the hunger challenge, I hoped that I would be able to show that a person living on food stamps could eat well-balanced, nutritional meals comprised of good, clean foods ... and be satisfied, both physically (ie, not hungry) and mentally (ie, happy with the variety and content of their diet). Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.

If you've read my previous posts (here and here), you'll know that the first day on the hunger challenge was a huge struggle for both The Chef and I. In one short day, we were both incredibly hungry ... and we became quite anxious about our ability to live on the minimal amount of food we were able to purchase with our allotted budget for the week. It was at this moment we knew just how hard the challenge would be.

The next two days were a bit better on the hunger front, but we were both left unsatisfied. We found ourselves with limited meal choices, which meant we were eating the same things over and over ... and we were only flavoring our food with salt and pepper since we didn't have any money to buy spices. In a word ... boring.

The last two days have been much of the same. Our breakfast choices were the same as those we had the other days of the challenge. Our lunches continued to consist of leftovers. Our dinners were actually a bit bleaker than the two previous days. We made another soup that, although inexpensive, didn't hold a flavor candle to the one we made on Wednesday. While we didn't go hungry, the fun we've always had cooking and eating just wasn't there anymore.

So, what are all the lessons we've learned over the last five days?

1. First and foremost, we will never know exactly what it's like to live on a food stamp budget. Many people living on food stamps don't have cars and rely on public transportation. In addition, many people living on food stamps work at least two jobs, leaving limited time to shop. For them, just getting to a grocery store is difficult. For the clients of Food Outreach, who in addition to living on food stamps are also living with HIV/AIDS or cancer, getting to a grocery store is sometimes impossible.

2. The weekly food stamp budget ($29 here in Missouri) is not enough to have a complete diet comprised of good, clean, organic foods ... and not go hungry. As evidenced by how little food we were able to purchase with our allotted budget, it just isn't possible to "eat well" and not be hungry. I'm certain people living on food stamps want to eat better. I'm certain they want to feed their children better. There just isn't money to do so ... and since being hungry is horrible in so many ways, I can understand why some people living on food stamps choose cheap processed foods (usually with little nutritional value, which is extremely detrimental to persons living with HIV/AIDS or cancer) to make their food dollars go farther.

3. There are ways to stretch a food stamp budget ... but they require significant planning and time. The "to use coupons or not use coupons" on the hunger challenge was debated among many of my food blogger friends. Some chose to use them, some didn't. For those that did, they found that they spent a significant amount of time obtaining the coupons and then closely checking the items they purchased to make sure the coupon would work, which made their shopping trips longer. Coupons can be great and will help stretch a food stamp budget, but unfortunately, time isn't on the side of someone living on food stamps.

4. The pleasure of eating—something so important to the pleasure of life—can easily be lost. As I mentioned above, the fun we've always had cooking and eating wasn't there. I think the fact that we always knew that our next meal would be one we'd just eaten made everything less appealing. One of the great powers food has is to bring people together and bring enjoyment to your day, and it makes me sad that this is so easily lost when one only has limited food to eat.

5. There is no "typical person living on food stamps" ... it could be your friends, your neighbors, or even someone in your family. Some of the more eye-opening revelations that occurred during the hunger challenge came when reading the comments that were elicited from readers of my blog and my fellow food bloggers participating in the hunger challenge. So many people commented on their experiences as current or former food stamp recipients, and not one story was the same. Never assume you know what someone living on food stamps looks like.

6. Never, never, never take food for granted. We all know it's easy to take everyday things, especially good food, for granted, and our experience with the hunger challenge drove that home for both The Chef and I. So, it's simple. If you're lucky enough to be able to eat good, clean food on a regular basis, enjoy it ... and perhaps share some with those around you.

There's an old proverb that says, "An empty belly hears nobody." Normally when I'm hungry, I grab a snack and fill the hole in my belly. But when there isn't anything to snack on, that hole gets bigger and eventually develops a voice of its own ... one that constantly whispers in your ear, "You're hungry" ... over and over until it's all you can think about. It's no surprise it drowns everything else out.

As I mentioned above, I will never know exactly what it's like to be a person living on a food stamp budget ... but I do know though that I've learned a little bit more about their struggles, and because of that, I will never take my ability to make carefree food choices for granted ever again.

Rhubarb and Honey

Every Little Thing's Hunger Challenge Day 1

Today, Sunday September 18, is day one of my Hunger Challenge. All the groceries have been purchased. All the meals have been planned. It’s now up to execution and mind over matter.

For photos of my purchases, check out my blog post here.

My first challenge was truly grocery shopping. I typically love to grocery shop but today I was almost dreading the trip. I’m typically a pretty budget-minded shopper but this time, I had to be extra careful, and it wasn’t as fun as my usual grocery store romps. I added prices up as I went along, careful not to go above the magic number: $60. I sacrificed when I had planned to splurge (if by splurge, you mean spending an extra $.50 for name brand), to ensure we’d have enough food for the week.

My food came from three sources: the local farmer’s market, Schnuck’s, and Dierberg’s. All items purchased are all natural or organic, even store-brand items, with the exception of the Cracker Jacks and Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix. Here’s what I purchased from each store:

Farmer’s Market:
  • Bell peppers (5) - $2
  • Onions (1 lb) - $2
  • Red potatoes (6) - $2
  • Green beans (1/2 lb) - $1
  • Sweet corn (2) - $1
  • Jalapeno and poblano peppers – $1
  • Eggs (2 dozen) - $6
  • 1/2 head garlic – $.50
  • Grass-fed ground beef (not pictured – 1/2 lb) - $2.50
Notes: The ground beef was already in our freezer, purchased at $5/lb. Similar prices could be found for regular beef at the Dierberg’s and Schnuck’s butcher, where you could purchase however much you needed. Eggs were another food option I wasn’t bending on, and I got great deals on the peppers and other misc veggies!

  • Organic diced tomatoes (2) - $2.26
  • Organic tomato sauce (1) – $.68
  • Organic crushed tomatoes (1) - $2.26
  • Nature’s Pride bread (1) plus 1/2 loaf already purchased - $3.09
  • Schnuck’s brand whole wheat pasta (1) - $1.00
  • Schnuck’s brand pasta sauce (1) - $1.39
  • Schnuck’s brand creamy peanut butter (1) - $1.67
  • Organic strawberry jelly (1) - $2.69
  • Organic chicken broth cans (2) – $.86 (grocery distressed!)
  • Schnuck’s brand whipped butter (1) - $1.78
  • Prairie Farms sour cream (1) - $1.18
  • Cracker Jacks (1) - $1.00
Notes: All Schnuck’s brand items are all natural and contain no artificial anything. I wanted to buy all organic dairy but it just wasn’t possible. I would have preferred organic peanut butter and pasta sauce as well but again, not possible on this budget. The Cracker Jacks were on sale and something sweet for after dinner, and the clearance organic broth was a lifesaver!

  • Borden block cheese (2) - $4
  • Daisy cottage cheese (1) - $2
  • Heritage Organic milk (1) - $5.59
  • Jiffy corn muffin mix (1) – $.50
  • Mom’s Best Honey O’s (1) - $1.75
  • Mom’s Best Oats and Honey (1) - $1.75
  • Bananas (4) – $.93
  • Bulk organic black beans (1 lb) - $1.70
  • Bulk organic pinto beans (1/2 lb) - $1.05
  • Bulk organic popcorn (1 lb) – $.92 (cheap snack!)
  • Bulk organic quinoa (1/4 lb) – $.92
Notes: The bulk bin really saved my budget! Also, this Mother’s Best brand of cereal is always a really great price and 100% all natural. I splurged on the milk – found out when I got home that it’s not even a full gallon! More like 3/4 of a gallon. Expensive but something I didn’t want to bend on.

Grand total: $58.97

Under budget (remember, I live in Illinois, where people receive $35/week instead of $29, so I'm compromising!! The $1.03 leftover will be used to cover any emergency bread/PB/pasta purchases towards the end of the week.

I was proud that 98% of my purchases were all natural. I have told people from the beginning – all natural is first and foremost. If you can afford organic, more power to you, but all natural should be a priority! I think I did well keeping that in mind.

Tonight we’re having a basic chili recipe for dinner (posted tomorrow). We’ll see how the rest of the week goes! I do have to admit we have one change of plans for the week – weeks ago, I inadvertently bought St. Louis Cardinals tickets for Friday night, and had planned to visit Taste of St. Louis beforehand for dinner. We are still planning to do so, but will add an extra dinner likely Sunday evening.

I’ll keep you posted!

Question: Do you think this challenge can be misconstrued as offensive? Why or why not?

(See some of my thoughts on this in my last post)