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Eating organically (and responsibly) on a food-stamp budget

Michelle Gienow
The author's 6-year-old son Jack picks a squash at the CSA the family joined to get sustainable, organic, local and sorta ethical produce.

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 10/7/2009

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Not even my mom wants a blow-by-blow of every meal we ate for the last three weeks of my tracking-every-penny project, but I can tell you that we made it--just barely, but still SOLEfully. Despite buying as carefully as I could, we went into the final week (which was actually nine days long, given the 30-day timeline) with my total budget at $28.42, or $3.15 per day for three hungry humans. I was going to have to purchase another $7 gallon of milk out of that, and despite my attempts to get by on a bare minimum of caffeine, coffee was running dangerously low.

On the plus side, we had two CSA pickups in that time frame, so veggies were taken care of, and the bulk buys I had made early on left us with a decent supply of dried legumes and whole grains like brown rice, couscous, and oats, plus plenty of flour. This week was going to be all about combining things, possibly in unexpected new ways.

They were also going to be largely vegetarian, but that didn't mean a spartan week of rice and beans. In order to keep things interesting, I delved into Asian and Indian cookbooks at the library, drawing on economical cuisines where meat is more of a flavoring than a filling. We dined on fried rice (very popular, and a great way to sneak vegetables into young children), curried eggplant (not so popular), and sopa verde (mixed reviews). The final week also contained a community picnic where we were supposed to bring a dish to feed a dozen, and I panicked--no way could I afford the ingredients for any of my pot luck standbys. After getting a grip, however, I took a look at our fridge contents, raided the garden, and made a giant batch of gazpacho as our contribution--a dish that took advantage of a late-summer overabundance of tomatoes and cucumbers, plus a few staples I had on hand. At the end of our 30 days there were still a few coins jingling in the food-money envelope.

Had my month's food budget been $428 credit on an Independence card instead of cash in an envelope, the scenario would have been admittedly different. There's no doubt that living on the federal SNAP benefits makes shopping SOLEfully harder: Although the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) supplementary nutrition program provides vouchers for use at farmers markets, food stamps do not currently offer that option--using food stamp funds to buy directly from farmers or join a CSA is out. Aside from using part of the allowance to buy seeds or plants for a home garden and growing vegetables, food stamp recipients are basically dependent on retail shopping.

My only moment of serious SOLE-searching doubt came on Day 26, when both the Joe's O's and coffee ran out. O's are their own food group in our house--breakfast standby, all-day snack, and nightly bedtime ritual--and I have long considered them an essential, but if I don't drink coffee I get a headache (yes, I'm a pathetic addict). With my remaining $5.65, I calculated I had enough to buy both O's and conventional coffee, or enough shade-grown beans to see me through.

No Joe's O's would mean a little-guy riot, and I had really wanted to shield them from any big changes due to our grocery cutbacks. But our planet's migratory songbirds are threatened due to habitat destruction caused by industrial-scale coffee farming, with its heavy pesticide use and clear-cutting of rainforests. I've read that each cup of conventional coffee equals the death of a songbird. I'd have a hard time getting the guys to understand this equation, but I decided to proxy-vote for them on behalf of the birdies: I bought the shade-grown, skipped the Joe's O's, put up with the inevitable protests and whining, and extolled the wonders of oatmeal with lots of honey to a skeptical pint-size audience. Everyone survived--especially, it's hoped, a few warblers.

Such a paltry little dilemma--how fortunate am I that the closest the wolf gets to our door is needing to choose between breakfast cereal and ecologically sound java? But it's moments of choice like this where we can each make our small ripple in the pond. Too often, we look at giant problems like loss of the rainforest, climate change, or the monolith of our industrial-food system, and feel like we can't do anything to change such dire and intractable things. But we can make a difference each and every time we buy our food, which we all must do one way or another. If you care at all that your food dollars are supporting morally or ethically objectionable practices--factory farms, environmental destruction--you can withhold your support from those purchases and vote with your food budget for a better alternative. Whether that is via food stamps or on a fat bankroll, the responsibility of choosing a better food system and a healthy ecosystem rests on us all.

With each food dollar spent, we are all casting an essential vote. You can't buy a senator, the way the agribusiness lobbyists can, but you can say yes to locally grown tomatoes.

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