Side Streets: Tough choices in the grocery store on a food-stamp budget

September 18, 2013 Updated: September 18, 2013 at 5:37 am
photo - Side Streets columnist Bill Vogrin shops for a groceries Sept. 15, 2013, with just $22.50 to spend for five days' worth of food. Vogrin is participating in Care and Share's Food Assistance Challenge and spending just $4.50 a day for food as part of Hunger Action Month. Photo by Cary Vogrin / The Gazette
Side Streets columnist Bill Vogrin shops for a groceries Sept. 15, 2013, with just $22.50 to spend for five days' worth of food. Vogrin is participating in Care and Share's Food Assistance Challenge and spending just $4.50 a day for food as part of Hunger Action Month. Photo by Cary Vogrin / The Gazette 

Seeds Community Cafe, with its motto "Order What You Want, Pay What You Want," had its grand opening this week, just in time to save me from day after dreary day of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and spaghetti as I live on a food stamp budget of $4.50 a day.

I'm eating frugally as part of the Care and Share Food Assistance Challenge, which asks folks to experience for one week life as the working poor do year round.

As part of Hunger Action Month, the food bank of southern Colorado is trying to raise awareness of hunger in the region and how hard it is for the poor to survive on government benefit programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

I accepted the challenge knowing I wouldn't have much trouble surviving, thanks to lessons learned growing up in a working class family. (I didn't know I'd stumble into Seeds to make my week even easier. More on Seeds in a bit.)

But I must admit that shopping Sunday was more of a struggle than I expected. Rather than take the advice of my wife, Cary, and study the ads and hunt bargains, I opted to simply hit my neighborhood Safeway and see how far my $22.50 would go buying five days of groceries.

I was determined to eat healthy despite my small budget and scored on fruit. I grabbed bananas, 59 cents a pound, and Gala apples for 99 cents a pound. I also chose grapes, an onion, a bag of potatoes and baby carrots. But they would not remain in my cart for long as my produce total hit $6.

I selected ground turkey and beef, thinking I'd have spaghetti and maybe tacos or meatloaf. Then I chose a couple jars of spaghetti sauce, bypassing my normal brand for a bargain, two for $1.77, off-brand. House-brand pasta was $1.

How bad could it be, I told myself.

Next I scored when I found fat-free milk on sale for $1.99 a gallon.

But bread was a problem. Instead of my preferred whole grain designer breads offered for $3.50 or more, I defaulted to the 98 cent loaf of white bread. Cough, cough.

Same thing happened in the peanut butter aisle. So long, low-fat Jif, hello Safeway Kitchens Creamy! Smuckers strawberry jelly stayed on the shelf as I chose a house brand on sale for $1.99. For breakfasts, I grabbed a box of Cheerios on sale for $2.50.

I was feeling pretty cocky, thinking I'd stayed well within my budget. So I grabbed a two-liter bottle of Coke Zero. It would be my one extravagance. That and a couple frozen dinners for $1 apiece and an 87 cent frozen pot pie. I remember eating a lot of them as a kid along with frozen fish sticks. (The memory alone triggered my gag reflex.)

Anyway, off we went to check out and after hearing "ca-CHING, ca-CHING" a few times, I realized I was way over budget.

Cary hauled away my grapes, onion, potatoes and carrots. Same for the ground turkey and frozen dinners.

I told her I was trying to shop as I know I would in real life.

I made some dubious choices. But I knew I could easily get breakfast all week on cereal and lunches out of the PBJ. Dinner would be spaghetti and maybe tacos and Coke Zero!

Unfortunately, my meals would be bland and repetitive and not particularly healthy.

Reader Cindy Sheltz, who took up the challenge with me, had a similar experience.

"I spent $21.70 on groceries for the week," Cindy said. "You can not eat healthy on a limited income. It is hard not to drive thru Sonic for a Coke. I did buy peanut butter and bread to have half a sandwich when I am hungry between meals. I have five apples for the week and enough grapes for breakfast, every morning. It is tough."

Readers predicted as much in response to my column Sunday explaining the challenge.

Several called or wrote to ask how I was doing and offer suggestions. Some encouraged me to explore farmers markets for good, inexpensive produce.

Judith Rice-Jones wrote to recommend the film "Food Stamped" about a young couple living on food stamps for a week and the tricks they used to stretch their money. She also urged me to visit the Flying Carrot booth at the Wednesday Ivywild Farm & Art Market where college students studying nutrition offer recipes using garden foods in season.

Reader Susan Meyer scolded me for being "a cheerleader for where to get your piece of the pie" and not challenging the poor to educate themselves on how to stretch their food dollars. She suggested that many answers are available at the public library including recipes for bread and cheap meals. She also recommended everyone read "Cooked" by Michael Pollan, who argues the merits of making meals from scratch.

Cathy Dillon was particularly helpful, offering me insight from her decades of living on SNAP and assorted government programs.

Cathy, 51, has had to cope with severe disabilities suffered in serious car wrecks. The injuries have left her homebound and unable to work as a cake designer. She is dependent on volunteers who do her shopping and other chores. She was not surprised I found it hard to make healthy choices.

"Trying to eat healthy on SNAP is not easy to do," Cathy said. "A lot of people have no concept how difficult it can be."

When she can afford the Internet, she peruses for coupons and valuable information on cheap groceries. And she gets coupons from The Gazette in her Sunday paper.

She also deals with guilt from sending volunteers out to do her shopping only to have them confronted and criticized for using SNAP benefits. They see the volunteers in nice clothes or driving nice cars and assume they are scamming the system.

"I feel bad for the people who shop for me," Cathy said. "They get yelled at a lot. And they are just helping me."

There was no ugly confrontation or guilt when I approached the new Seeds Community Caf?at 109 E. Pikes Peak Ave. behind Josh and John's Ice Cream downtown.

Seeds is an organic, gluten-free restaurant and catering business founded by Lyn Harwell, a skilled chef who also has worked in the world of nonprofits and helping the homeless.

It opened Monday offering its pay-what-you-can concept. From 7 a.m. until 10:30 a.m., Seeds is a coffee bar and pastry shop. Then it converts to a lunch menu until 2:30 p.m.

I walked in with $2 in my budget for lunch.

"No problem," said Beth Alexander, who greeted me and explained the concept. "Pay what you can and what your heart tells you to pay."

She explained how 34 similar community cafes operate nationwide. Harwell's twist on the concept is to offer for-profit event catering to subsidize the cafe.

The operation relies heavily on volunteers, including those like me on a tight budget who agree to wash dishes or do other work for an hour in exchange for a meal.

I ordered a grilled pullman sandwich and stone soup and was served a wonderful sandwich with Black Forest ham and Swiss cheese complemented by apple butter and dijon mustard. The soup was a combination of pork and chicken, quinoa and vegetables. I was pleasantly full and felt guilty for my meager payment.

But Harwell swept away my guilt.

"That's why we're here," he said. "That's what we're all about."

He's committed to feeding the hungry in a restaurant setting and convinced the rest of us will pay our way and more to help others.

"We are not a soup kitchen," he said, handing me a couple cookies.

A feature of the operation I'm really looking forward to is the cooking classes they will offer beginning in January.

"You can cook really great food for a family on a budget," said Amy LaFaver of the Seeds staff. Seeds certainly rescued me on Tuesday and I suspect will rescue many far more deserving.

As for area soup kitchens, I intend to explore them later this week and I'll report back my experiences on Sunday. Until then, it will be PBJs and pasta. Yum!


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