28 February 2013

Eating Organic on a Food Stamp Budget

Hannah Wallace is a writer. She is chronicling her Food Stamp challenge on her blog. Take a look

Every year, my partner Don and I give up something for Lent, even though neither of us is particularly religious. Two years ago, it was plastic. (Try grocery shopping without buying anything shrouded in the stuff—it’s not easy.) This year, I floated an unorthodox idea. Why don’t we take the Food Stamp Challenge, only we’ll limit ourselves to organic ingredients?

I’ll admit that I came up with this challenge in part because I’m annoyed by the common perception that organic food is somehow “elitist.” Most recently,this meme was perpetuated by New York Times contributor Roger Cohen. (If you really want to know what I think of his line of thought, see here.)

The notion that only well-heeled Whole Foods shoppers care about organic food is misguided. As I’ve written about food justice organizations and urban farming projects over the past few years, I’ve met plenty of low-income people who go out of their way to find food that hasn’t been doused in pesticides. (What’s really elitist is the assumption that they wouldn’t want healthy food, too.) Many low-income people find ways to afford it—be it growing veggies in a backyard garden, combing through items at the food bank, shopping at Walmart, or using food stamps at farmers’ markets. If you don’t believe me, hear this: SNAP sales at farmers’ markets increased 42% from 2011 to 2012. (In total, SNAP recipients spent $16,598,255 at farmers’ markets in 2012.)


Hundreds of Clevelanders rely on this community garden for food

That’s not to say that organic food is cheap. In fact, as you probably know, it’s typically more expensive than conventionally grown/raised food—especially when it comes to meat and dairy. (Though that’s changing as demand for organic food increases and economies of scale reduce the cost of production.) So I was really curious: Could my family of three survive on a food stamp budget buying nothing but organic food?

When I moved to Oregon three years ago, I was living alone and making so little as a freelance writer that I qualified for the maximum food stamp allotment: $200 a month. Currently, the maximum allowance for SNAP benefits (the technical term for food stamps) in Oregon for a family of three is $526. That’s $131.50 a week for groceries. That doesn’t sound too bad until you break it down per meal: $6.25 total, or $2 per person. (Though most people who do the SNAP challenge limit themselves to the average food stamp benefit in their state, we chose to limit ourselves to the maximum allotment. I’ll explain why in a later post.)

Don and I are both frugal by nature—and we both know how to cook—but I worry: Does this mean six weeks of organic rice and beans?

Here are our ground rules:

• Because we abhor waste, we’re allowing ourselves to use up whatever was already in our cupboard (or fridge) before this Challenge began—whether it’s organic or not. Fortunately, we typically buy 95% organic food anyway. But this does give us an unfair advantage—we already have olive oil, spices, sour cream, almond butter, and random hunks of cheese. We also have some basic staples like flour, lentils, and rice. That said, we’re doing this Challenge for six weeks, so we’ll need to replace most if not all of these with our lower budget.

• We will always buy USDA certified organic unless the food meets our conditions for “beyond organic.” For example, the raw milk we buy from adairy down in Champoeg is not certified organic because our dairy farmer has only three cows and it wouldn’t be worth it for her to go through the organic certification process. However, we’ve visited the farm on several occasions and know “our” cows graze on organic pasture nine months out of the year, rotating to fresh pasture every 24 hours. (They get organic hay in the winter.)

• Friends and family are welcome to take us out to dinner (or have us over for a meal)—as this might happen in real life—but if they expect us to pay our share at a restaurant, we’ll tell them about our Food Stamp Challenge and invite them over for dinner at our house instead. While this may stretch our budget, it’d still be much cheaper than a night out at a Portland restaurant.

• We don’t have a garden (yet) so we won’t be supplementing our shopping with free veggies. Also, since we’re not actually receiving SNAP benefits, we won’t be eligible for the matching programs at local farmers’ markets that I used three years ago. (Portland’s program, which gives you $7 extra to spend for every $7 of SNAP benefits you spend at the farmers’ market, has been so popular that they’ve had to reduce the matching amount from $10 to $7.)


organic beer will be too expensive for us

Can we do it? The jury is out. Don thinks it’ll be fairly easy since we don’t buy much processed food anyway and we’re mostly vegetarian. But I have a feeling that we’re going to have to sacrifice quite a bit—even considering we have some basic staples and spices already in the pantry. (We can say goodbye to beer, for instance, and we may have to cut back on organic condiments, which are astronomically priced in my opinion.) In the coming weeks, I’ll share our struggles, favorite recipes, and shopping secrets.

Hannah Wallace is a Portland-based journalist who writes about food politics, integrative medicine, and travel. She writes for the New York Times, Portland Monthly, and (until very recently) Whole Living and her articles and book reviews have appeared in Salon, Vogue, O, T:Style, Mother Jones, Travel + Leisure, Monocle, and the Los Angeles Times. She is a contributing writer at CivilEats.com.