With the entire nation girding for a gustatory blowout, we would do well to remember that not everyone has the means to put on their own feast for Thanksgiving. One D.C. blogger has been doing exactly that, chronicling for the past month a challenge she set for herself: survive at least 30 days on a food stamp budget of $200.
Caryn Sweeney, a writer for an international non-profit agency, has been posting about her food stamp adventure under the title “A Mile in Another’s Shoes.” The short answer is, Yes, you can cook and live on a food stamp budget and even eat well. Caryn had $20 worth of food ingredients left over at the end of the month, enough for several more meals.
But it wasn’t always easy, she writes. And most notably she informs readers that most people on food stamps don’t live in a comfortable apartment near Dupont Circle, across the street from a Safeway grocery. Some don’t have apartments, and if they do, they may not have more than a hotplate to cook on, or more than the most rudimentary kitchen tools.
Living on a marginal food budget brought back memories of Caryn’s own childhood growing up poor, when meals frequently consisted of her mother’s version of macaroni and cheese, lots of chips, sodas and other convenience foods. She got tagged early as being “fat,” even though she wasn’t terribly overweight. She joined her college’s figure skating team, but never dared to wear those revealing skater outfits.
Caryn says she suffered from “body image” issues. After her parents died, she developed an eating disorder and ballooned to 200 pounds. She was spending $650 month on groceries and eating out. Finally she had her gallbladder removed as a result of gall stones, then discovered she was intolerant to wheat. She started reading authors such as Michael Pollan and Nina Planck and Gary Taubes, and changed her food habits from easy takeout and restaurant food to cooking with natural ingredients. She started buying fruits and vegetables at the farmers market and joined a club that shares grassfed meat from an Amish farmer.
Over the 30 days of her food stamp challenge, Caryn learned to plan her food purchases carefully. She would buy one pound of hamburger meat, make five burgers and freeze four. She learned to make her own French fries, and created multiple meals–and soup–out of one roast chicken. At times she missed takeout from Firehook bakery and ice cream for dessert. But she had bacon and eggs for breakfast, quiche, banana bread, French onion soup and chili she made herself.
“I might go wild and have a cup of hot choloate before bed,” she tells herself one day.
She also found herself enjoying her time with friends more, and not just joining them for meals because she wanted to eat. In a month’s time, she lost eight pounds. “Everything tastes better when you’re hungry,” she writes. She discovered she didn’t really like to cook that much, and really didn’t care for pork chops or sausage.
Living on a shoestring is a challenge that too many of us have to bear. But a month in Caryn’s shoes reminds us on this holiday occasion that you can eat simply and still eat well. “I don’t have to eat like it’s Thanksgiving every day,” she says.
Thanks for the reminder, Caryn.
A profile of Caryn Sweeney is scheduled to air tomorrow, Nov. 25, on National Public Radio’s Morning Addition show, 88.5 FM locally.