About this Blog

Welcome! Thanks for checking out On Food Stamps.

I created this blog in 2009 when I began working at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. My work at this organization opened my eyes to food justice issues in America, and I had a strong desire to better understand the difficulties many people face when trying to access healthy food on a limited budget. So, I embarked on my own Food Stamp Challenge, living on $31/week as a vegan. I used this blog to chronicle my experience.

While my Food Stamp Challenge project has come to an end, you can see what I learned from it by reading the Greatest Hits posts linked to the right side of the page. Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.

Stay Hungry,


Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hollywood Farmer's Market

Just got back from the Hollywood Farmer's Market.

I have to say, compared to the markets in Watts and South Central, the Hollywood Farmer's Market is insane. The markets in Watts and South Central have two rows with maybe 8-10 vendors on each side of the row. Watts looks like this:

It was actually hilarious for me to upload the above photo now that I have been to the market in Hollywood. I'm not sure how I can make a comparison. Note above: few people, few booths, very small and not crowded at all. The Hollywood Farmer's Market is gigantic, it has 4 rows arranged in an X shape. I would estimate that there are hundreds of vendors. There are certainly a billion options, and it is totally mobbed. It is the kind of thing where you have to stay on the right side of the aisle and just accept that the flow of people shuffling their feet along (no way you could walk full stride) is just going to completely control your movement down the row. This picture doesn't really do it justice, but here you go:

I noticed right away that the Hollywood market seems expensive. This market had a ton of specialty prepared items to offer the higher income clientele. Think jars of mozzarella cheese floating in fresh herbs and gourmet olive oil, and $10 bags of pesto made from organic basil. You didn't see any of that stuff in Watts and South Central. Everything in the Hollywood market seemed to be organic though, and most vendors even had signs on the bins of produce saying "no sprays" or "pesticide free". I assume this is in response to a high demand for pesticide free food. In Watts and South Central I had to ask each farmer about their methods. There were no signs advertising "spray free" food. Is that because Farmer's Markets shoppers in Watts and South Central don't ask for that? Maybe.

Here is what I bought:
  • 2 navel oranges at $1/lb = $2 * they were $3 for 5 lbs. in South Central
  • 1 sweet onion at $1.50/lb = $1 * $1/lb in South Central
  • a $1 bag of tomatoes (4) = $1
  • a $1 bag of zucchini = $1
  • 1 bunch of kale (seems smaller than the one I bought in Watts) = $1.50 *same price as Watts but I swear the bunch is smaller
  • 1 generous head of cabbage = $1
  • big bag of pesticide free carrots at $1/lb = $2
Every item was locally grown and Organic if not pesticide/spray free.

Total: $9.50
Remaining this week: $14.36

There were so many things at this market, but I stopped buying at $9.50. I was afraid that many produce items were simply too expensive. The things I bought were the only cheap options: carrots, cabbage, and some $1 discount bags which I was lucky to find. Other things just didn't seem worth it. For example, I could have bought a bunch of bok choy for $1 ($2 at some vendors' stalls), but the bunch was so small I was afraid it would only make one meal's worth of food. That would mean no left overs for lunch of dinner the following day. Such a meal would not be worth the time it took to cook it, let alone the price.

The value at this Farmer's Market was pretty weak. No bang for the buck it seemed. Most produce was over $1 per pound, sometimes as much as $3 per pound, and that is just really out of my price range. So, I went to this market and bought some of the foods I have read should be prioritized in Organic buying, such as zucchini and tomatoes. That is all well and good, but now I am going to have to take another shopping trip during the week because I could not afford to do all of my shopping at this market.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Grand Central Market: nothing but a big tease

Today I went to the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles. It is reasonably accessible by public transportation, and it is notorious for low prices. I had to go to Grand Central Market instead of the Farmer's Markets I was hoping to hit today because I slept in too late. It is really a pain that the Farmer's Markets in Watts and South Central are only open for a few hours on weekend mornings. I just didn't have it in me to get up in time this morning. Limited shopping hours are certainly an access issue with Farmers Markets. In order to go to these markets, you have to really plan and exert some extra effort.

The Grand Central Market has a lot of potential, though, so I was optimistic. It has the makings of a very exciting shopping experience: it is in a restored historic building and has been around since 1917, the sights and sounds are intriguing, there is a healthy mix of prepared food and grocery items, and the prices are very low. It is really a bustling scene.

While I did enjoy myself there, I would say that in the end I found it frustrating and in some ways disappointing. First of all, not all of the vendors accept food stamps, so I found that I would often get all excited about a stall and then realize that I couldn't shop there. The prices were low, but there was really nothing Organic at all, and no one could tell me where the produce was grown. The farmers themselves are not at this market, and the retail vendors at the stalls don't seem to have much information about the growing methods of the food. Since I want to focus on Organic and local this week, I only purchased a few things. I tried to only purchase foods that are less likely to have pesticide residue.

I bought:
  • 2 avocados at 5 for $2
  • 2 ears of corn at 2 for $1
  • 1 huge sweet potato, also 2 for $1
  • 1 banana: 3lb for $2
  • 1 large jicama: 2 lb for $1
  • 1 large head of cauliflower: $0.99/lb
  • 5 apricots: $0.99/lb
Total: $7.14
Remaining this week: $23.86 (Remember, I am still going on $31 per week now thanks to that grilled cheese sandwich a few weeks back...)

The Grand Central Market had some cheap produce, fine. But, for me it was really nothing but a big tease. In addition to grocery items, this market has tons of exotic ethnic food stalls selling everything from samosas to won ton soup. The food smelled great, I could see the chefs cooking it, and the prices weren't even that bad. Of course, they were not cheap enough that I could buy any prepared food to eat, so I had to just pass on by. There are amazing looking stalls full of dried fruits and every type of nut you can imagine. I am a huge dried fruit fan normally, so I was really frustrated that I couldn't afford any of those colorful dried mangoes or apricots.

When my friend bought a small fruit tart, I took a bite and realized it had custard and was of course not vegan. When he offered me a nut from the bag he bought I also took that, and then realized it was one of those sweet toffee covered nuts and was likely cooked in butter somewhere along the line. Once again, not vegan fare. In a way, I didn't even feel guilty this time. I was feeling so deprived after walking those stalls full of things I couldn't buy that my motivation to stick to my rules was really low. If it had been higher I probably would have resisted those two items, but my mood got the better of me.

As this month drags on, I am finding that it is at times harder to stay motivated. No one else around me is doing this crazy cheap vegan diet, everyone else seems to be enjoying their casual relationship with food. I feel ostracized and therefore sometimes lash out and do something rash - like take a bite of a dessert someone offers me. I think this is because I am just so sick of saying NO to myself every single day. I am surrounded by temptations, and I get tired of having good will power. Sometimes I feel like I don't care anymore, I just want a break.

Imagine if I was trying to do this for my entire life instead of just 1 month. Would it get easier? Or, would I eventually ware down and wind up in a McDonald's drive through?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Dieting Sucks

Please. Check this out.

On my way home from the gym I drive down 2nd St/Glendale Blvd. in downtown LA. I pass billboards along the way, and I have noticed a billboard war going on. The billboards pictured below are right next to each other, and it really speaks to where America might be at as far as healthy eating goes. They both have very different messages about what the solution might be to a passerby's weight or health problems.


(roughly translated to: Our community. Our rules.
Rule #3: We raise our voice for a healthy change)

Going down Glendale towards home I pass one Campeones de Cambio billboard, then the BAND billboard, then another from Campeones de Cambio. I am glad that Campeones have the last word on this one.

I had to post these billboards because they really tie into some of the psychological issues surrounding food culture that I have been discussing. In a previous post I called for some sort of PSA campaign that might work towards establishing a culture where we supported and encouraged each other's healthy behaviors instead of enabling each other to make bad food choices day in and day out. Seems like Campeones de Cambio is already on it, and I am loving their outreach. At least they are getting the message out there, and hopefully their billboards will start some discussion in the kitchens and dining rooms of LA residents.

The problem is, you can never make anyone do something they do not want to do. And, it is true. Everyone knows it. Dieting sucks. America has blissfully consumed everything in excess for at least the last decade, food included, and paring down our consumption (thanks, Recession) hasn't been easy on anyone.

Billboards that strive to empower and educate people about eating more fruits and vegetables are a great step, but I think the "Dieting Sucks" billboard likely speaks more to where our collective head is at. The tones of the billboards are really intriguing. I can almost see the conversation between the protagonist of each Ad: the woman from the Campeones billboard says "Eat your vegetables. Really, its not so bad. If you try them, I'm sure you'll like them, and you honestly need to get healthier soon or you are going to get sick. Its time to start working on a healthier lifestyle." And then the BAND guy looks at her, looks at the loaded hot dog or cupcake or whatever that thing is in front of him, and just stuffs his face. Through a mouthful of food he says, "Forget it. That's too hard, too foreign for me, too much of a pain. I'm not dieting. Dieting sucks."

And this really brings me to one of my major realizations thus far. Eating as a vegan on $35, even $31 per week is possible. I can probably even get a high percentage of local and pesticide free food for that price. (As you will see, I am going to aim for that this coming week, since I have neglected to prioritize organic/local eating thus far.)
Yes, it can be done. I'm doing it.

But lets be honest, it is a hell of a lot of work.

I barely see my friends, I haven't found time to call my parents on the east coast in what seems like weeks, and I really don't do anything but go to work, cook, shop for food, and blog. I'm finding it quite difficult to have the time and energy to make these healthy but cheap meals happen for myself, and I don't have a second job or 3 kids that need love and attention.

The only thing that keeps me going is that I am supremely committed to this goal. I have made a promise to myself that I am going to do this $35/week thing in a healthy way, and I am not quitting. But, fuck. Its not fun. Its hard. It sucks. So, unless you prioritize your health above everything else in your life - social time, sleep, television, relaxation, relationships with family or friends, money - and put all of that stuff on hold like I've been doing this month, you might be temped to call up that BAND guy and see what he has to offer in terms of a quick fix.

One final point: I have a lot of advantages which are making it possible for me to even prioritize my health above all else this month in the first place. For example:
  • I have a car.
  • I don't know many people in LA, so I don't have a lot of family or social commitments.
  • I know that my life will go back to normal in 1 month, that this is a temporary and finite experience. That knowledge makes it easier for me to exert extra effort since it will only be for a little while.
  • I have cooking skills and some decent kitchen tools to work with.
  • I didn't have to teach myself anything new about nutrition, I am eating in a way that is already familiar to me, albeit a bit stricter than my normal diet.
  • I am young, single, and unattached.
  • I have no dependents at all - not even a pet fish.
I wouldn't for a second say that what I've learned is it is possible to eat in a very healthy way for $31 per week, you just have to try, to want it enough. That would be totally naive. For many low-income Americans, exerting the sort of effort that this budget and diet combination requires is simply not possible. At all.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chill out guys, its just food

This is weird. I would say that for 3 out of the last 5 meals I have been over eating.

The other day at lunch I brought too much of my left over lentil dish with me to work. I should have saved part of that container of lentils for dinner - maybe 1/3 of it. But instead I ate the whole thing. For the first time in weeks I was uncomfortably full. It was really unpleasant.

I did it again this morning. I made too much oatmeal by mistake (added too much water and had to compensate by adding more oats), and I knew I shouldn't eat it all but I ate about 5/6 of it anyway. I even added a banana. I saved a small amount and brought that to work for a mid morning snack, but I barely even needed that because I'd really over done it at breakfast.

Why is this?

I have a few ideas. First of all, I am finally starting to enjoy my food this week since I've had time to cook. (See "Kitchen Goddess" post.) The fact that my food has gotten better probably has something to do with it.

But, I think the major reason I am eating too much at meals is because I have become slightly obsessed with rationing my food. I think about portions constantly, calculating every cup of rice and bowl of veggies to insure that I have enough to last me through the entire week. This week I have too much food in my fridge but am still applying the same rules. I know what quantity of food I have to "get through" by my next shopping trip, so I am reverse rationing. I am eating too much to insure that I clean out that fridge before the produce spoils. If I don't eat everything by the weekend I will be forced to replenish my food supply during the week, and that is very inconvenient. I don't have time to shop during the week. So, eating the entire contents of my fridge by Saturday has become some sort of sick to-do list. When I realized an hour ago that the eggplant I bought last weekend was starting to spoil I got pretty stressed out. I had to cook it all tonight, and now I probably have enough left over eggplant alone to make it to Saturday. Yet, two large heads of broccili and a generous bunch of asparagus are still there waiting for me, threatening to go bad before I am ready to eat them.

It seems that in weeks past I have been in famine mode, and now I am in feast mode. On $31/week I am experiecing what is called food insecurity. Food insecurity is different from hunger or starvation. It is defined as the limited or uncertain availibitliy of nutritionally adequate and safe foods. I'm not experiencing physical pangs from hunger, or the distended belly of outright starvation. I am just experiencing a lot of uncertainty and chaos around my food source. I never know if I am going to have enough or too much, and this has caused me to obsess a little bit.

After a bit of research, I found that this situation is actually a pretty common experience for food stamp recipients. Food insecurity often results in disordered and obsessive eating. It makes sense when you think about it: if you aren't sure where you next meal is coming from, you are going to really gorge when you have food in front of you. Who knows, your belly could be empty tomorrow.

Gorging and starving, gorging and starving, and gorging and starving is no way to eat. This pattern messes with your metabolism and can even contribute to obesity. I have seen many studies that suggest the correlation I am feeling here for myself; here is one from Colorado State Univeristy titled Food Isecurity is Associated with Increased Risk of Obesity in California Women.

Ok, this California woman is going to stop over eating despite her temporary food insecurity.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Feeling like a goddess in the kitchen

Today, things are good. Finally.

I will be honest, it was a rough weekend. I got stranded several times without food and wound up incredibly hungry and grumpy. On Saturday, for example, I ate my oatmeal for breakfast and headed out to Ikea with a friend to try to start getting some stuff into my apartment without breaking the bank. It was the first time I'd bought anything new for my place (been shopping at Goodwill and Out of the Closet thrift stores so far) and I went in with a lot of energy. I didn't notice that I was getting hungry, that it was time to quit and go home, until it was too late. Three hours later my blood sugar had plummeted - just in time to load heavy, unwieldy flat-packed furniture into a small car. I hadn't brought any food with me, not even some almonds to tide me over. I also knew that I was low on groceries. When I got home there would be nothing waiting for me but rice, 1 onion, and a raw potato. Needless to say, I was not in a happy mood. My friend was also hungry but did not want to go eat if I was just going to sit there, starve, and not order anything. This was considerate of him, but it actually stressed me out because it made me feel guilty that my dietary restrictions were impacting him in a negative way. (Again, guilt about sticking to my diet is coming in to play.) It was a truly exhausting afternoon. I really felt like I wanted to quit this vegan thing and go buy a $10 salad somewhere on my way home. Couldn't afford it, of course, and I felt really low. That afternoon I could really understand how someone in that position might cave and grab something on the go that was within their budget. For me that would have been a $1 Quarter Pounder at Burger King. Great.

Lesson #6: If you are trying to eat well on a tight budget, getting stranded without food is suicide. Never leave home without some pre-peeled carrots, a piece of fruit, or some nuts to snack on.

The problem with this rule is that it requires planning. Honestly, it really sucks to have to plan out everything you eat. On Saturday morning I even knew I might run into trouble with food before I left. Frankly, I didn't feel like preparing a snack. Once again I was going to have to put time and effort into what I was going to eat, and I really wanted a break from all that. I chose to relax and not prepare, and I certainly paid for it. That was a tough afternoon.

Today is different.

I must tell you, after that trip to Super King on Sunday morning I have been really rockin' out in the kitchen. I've had more time to cook and have thus felt less tortured by my restrictive diet.

Do you see the picture at the top of this post? Those are my Persian cucumbers. On the suggestion a friend whose mom knows these cucumbers well, I peeled and sliced them and then drizzled on a bit of lemon juice and olive oil. I cracked some of my favorite Trader Joe's Lemon Pepper on top and had a fantastic simple salad. Had I not been following a vegan diet, I would have added some low-fat plain yogurt with the last of the mint I had from the Farmer's Market.

Having only a few dollars and a few ingredients to work with each night has forced (helped?) me to get more creative. The other night I looked in my fridge to see that tub of miso I'd invested in and half a bag of key limes. The key limes weren't going to last much longer, so I squeezed the rest of them and came up with this recipe:

Key Lime and Miso Veggies

Note: I used green beans, but this combination will work with any type of vegetable that is suited to steaming. I also tried this with Tofu last week and was very happy with the result. Don't be afraid to experiment!


Key limes
Miso paste
a brown onion
olive oil
black pepper (optional)
a vegetable of your choice, or Tofu - I used green beans. This is the main ingredient of this dish.

Cut your key limes in half and squeeze their juice into a bowl. Strain out the seeds and set the juice aside.
Roughly chop the onion.
Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan. Before it gets overly hot, add 1 tsp of miso paste and stir it into the oil so that it begins to dissolve. Add a few tablespoons of water.
Once the miso is well dissolved (takes about 30 seconds) toss in the onions. Make sure the onion is well coated in the oil/water/miso mixture. Stir onions often to insure they do not overcook. Once they are nearly translucent (about 3 minutes), add your vegetable or tofu. Toss your main ingredient around in the pan, making sure it too is well coated in the miso/water/oil mix.
After about 2 minutes drizzle 1/3 of your key lime juice over the vegetables. Stir/toss to coat the vegetable with the citrus juice, and cover the pan with a lid for about 1 minute.
Continue adding key lime juice and a bit of water and covering the pan with the lid to steam the veggies. Every few minutes the covered vegetable will absorb the water and lime juice, so just keep checking, stirring, and adding more liquid.
When your vegetables are cooked to your liking, remove from the heat and enjoy.
I recommend not over cooking your veggies until they are limp (and devoid of nutrients). See how you like them al dente.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What would it actually take to get food stamps?

I want to back up a little bit.

From the beginning of this Blog, I have been living on a food budget that is a little lower than the maximum SNAP benefits allowed for an individual in Los Angeles County. I have titled my Blog On Food Stamps, because it explores the challenges one faces in the pursuit of a healthful diet within strict budget limits like those food stamp recipients would likely contend with.

As far as food is concerned, I'm hypothetically "living on food stamps". But, what would it actually take for me to get food stamps if I met the eligibility requirements (which I don't)?

I realize that many people reading this Blog might not be aware of just how difficult it is to actually access food stamp benefits, so I want to explore this topic a little bit.

I will start by asking you to try something. Figure out how to get food stamps in your city or county. Start with Google (lucky you, you probably have a personal computer). I'm not giving you any clues. Find the number, and call the office. Tell them you want to see if you can get food stamps and see what they say. Report back to me in the comments section, I'd love to hear your findings.

Back in February I did the same experiment. This is how it went:
  • I called the number I found online while at work, and I was on hold for 15 minutes. That next-agent-will-be-with-you-shortly music is maddening.
  • When someone finally picked up, I told them I wanted to get information about accessing food stamp benefits. They tried to get me to do the eligibility quiz online, but I said that I had no access to the Internet. (Sort of true. It wasn't set up in my apartment yet.)
  • The agent said "Ok, well then you can come in in person to fill out the paperwork."
  • I asked, "When can I come?"
  • He said, "Monday through Friday 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM."
  • "But that is when I have to be at work," I said, "Is there any other time I can come in to the office?"
  • No, there wasn't.
  • "Ok," I said, "When can I make an appointment?"
  • "There are no appointments," he told me, "you just have to come in."
  • "Hm. I'm taking off of work to come in for this appointment, so can you at least give me an idea of how long it will take?"
  • He said he couldn't guarantee anything or quote me any type of time frame. I would just have to come and get in line with everyone else. Sounds a lot like a visit to the DMV... not so great.
The appointment I was talking to this agent about would be the first of three appointments required to get everything squared away. I would have to fill out a 7 page application (used to be 21 pages), and get my finger prints taken during one of these visits. (This is to prevent fraud.) I am an hourly employee with no vacation time yet, so I would have to hope that my boss is nice enough to let me off of work on 3 separate days for an indefinite amount of time to complete the application process. All of this work and inconvenience for a maximum of $44/week. Mind you, $44 is the benefit for an unemployed person, so I would likely be getting much less than that for my troubles.

I think you will agree with me that this process is incredibly intimidating and a quite a pain in the ass. What if English is your second language? What if you cannot read very well? What if your children are citizens, but your own immigration status is questionable? How would you feel about that whole "finger imaging" part in that case? What if you are 87 years old? What if you don't have a car? Or, an understanding employer?

It is no surprise that the food stamp participation rate in America is abysmal. According to a study by the Food Research and Action Center in October of 2008, only 68% of eligible people in the US cities and urban counties surveyed participated in the program. Cities with the lowest participation rates were: Denver County, Colorado (42%), Clark County/Las Vegas, Nevada (44%), San Diego County, California (29%) (You've got to be kidding me!) and Los Angeles, California (50%). You can download and read this study at this web page.

Such a low participation rate in the Food Stamp/SNAP program is really bad news, and not only because individuals are missing out on aid benefits. This study suggests that the following groups are also missing out:
  • Businesses in low-income communities - if residents are not accessing or redeeming the food stamp benefits they qualify for, local economies are missing out on an opportunity to have federal dollars circulating in the economy. The FRAC study estimates that in total nearly $1.5 billion in federally-funded benefits were left unclaimed by the 24 cities studied. That $1.5 billion could have provided a real boost for low-income neighborhoods if the benefits were redeemed. That money would have been the equivalent of the U.S. government pumping cash into the hands of local grocery stores, which would in turn have hired people and created some jobs. The USDA estimates that "under certain conditions each dollar of food stamp benefits generates $1.84 in economic activity." (FRAC study quoting"Effects of Changes in Food Stamp Expenditures across the U.S. Economy" - a USDA study conducted in 2002)
  • Local Governments - when people "spend" their food stamp benefits, they purchase taxable goods. Those tax revenues go back to local governments. The FRAC study estimates that my county, Los Angeles, missed out on $353 million dollars in benefits due to lack of participation in the food stamp program.
By sharing my own experience with you, I have provided some reasons why people might not be accessing the benefits they are eligible for. I mentioned language barriers, low benefits making the whole ordeal "not worth the trouble", difficulty getting to the office during the hours it is open, and all the red tape and administrative hoops to jump through, which serve as a deterrent.
The FRAC study suggests that lack of awareness about the program and perceptions of stigma might also play a role. After trying to access the benefits yourself, what do you think might deter people?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Super King Market

Before I went to that diner and ate an illegal pancake yesterday, I went to Super King Market. A colleague from work had suggested it to me, so I decided to try it out. Super King has 3 locations in Los Angeles, and one was quite close to me. Still, it required a 10 minute drive on the 2 freeway and was therefore only a convenient location because I had a car. Taking a bus there would have been quite a pain, I am sure.

With a car, though, it was really worth the trip. I would classify Super King as a cross between a neighborhood ethnic market and a chain grocery store. Certainly not in the realm of Farmer's Market, as there was not a single Organic item in sight. The prices were insanely low, and the produce selection really too wasn't bad. Many fruits and vegetables were priced at or below $0.99. I felt like I was in the 99-Cent-Only store, except that there were tons of options. For the most part the cheap produce was of medium to high quality. There was a huge box of mangoes which were essentially all putrid and soft - I could feel that the fruit had turned to liquid inside of the skin - but even in that case I was able to root around to eventually find two decent mangoes. Mind you, I had to eat one right away this morning to keep it from going bad, but I wasn't complaining. What a great and exotic fruit. Haven't been able to afford one since I started this project!

Below is a list of what I bought at Super King with some price comparisons. Note the generally low prices, and also note that I was able to afford some fantastic things such as asparagus and blackberries:
  • 1 Italian eggplant: 1.38 lb at $0.99/lb = $1.37
  • Lemons: 5 for $0.99 = $0.99 * Got 1 lemon for $0.19 at Save-a-Lot, almost the same
  • 1 lb bag of Carrots at 3 bags for $0.99 = $0.33
  • Navel oranges: 2.58 lb at $0.39/lb = $1.01 * Same oranges were $0.33/lb at Save-a-Lot, and pesticide-free oranges at the Farmer's Market cost me $0.60/lb
  • Mangoes: 2 for $0.99 = $0.99
  • Green beans: 1.3 lb at $0.99/lb = $1.29
  • Broccoli crowns: 2.08 lb at $0.99/2 lb = $1.03 * $0.79/lb at A Grocery Warehouse
  • Cluster tomatoes: 0.99 lb at $0.79/lb = $0.78
  • Avocados: 2 at $0.99/each = $1.98 *Same price as Save-a-Lot
  • Persian Cucumbers: 1.34 at $0.39/lb = $0.52 * The picture above shows the mob of people crowded around this bin on Persian Cucumbers. I have never eaten a Persian Cucumber before, and I am not sure what makes it different or special. But, when I saw that everyone was going insane for these things I jumped in. I guess I just wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Will report back on that one. This site gave me a few ideas for how to cook them.
  • Asparagus: 1 bunch for $0.99 = $0.99
  • Granny smith apples: 0.68 lb at $0.69/lb = $0.47 * I eat an apple every day, and they are on the Dirty Dozen list, so I really want to start buying them Organic. At Trader Joe's, I can get 1 fantastic Organic apple for $0.69. Here, I got 2 non-organic Granny Smiths for $0.47. I could also get the same apples at Save-a-Lot for $0.89/lb.
  • Brown onions: 1.72 lb (or 2 onions) at $0.99/5 lb = $0.34 * The bin of onions was pretty gross. Some of them were very dirty and even looked like they had fungus. I had to search out a few good ones and fight other shoppers to get to them *$1/lb at the Farmer's Market, but those were pesticide free. 1 Onion at A Grocery Warehouse was $0.19
  • 3 Grapefruit: 3 for $0.99 = $0.99 * Only got 2 for $0.99 at Save-a-Lot
  • Two "yellow" bananas that probably won't be ripe until next week: 0.73 lb at $0.99/3lb = $0.24 * Bananas at A Grocery Warehouse were more expensive- $0.73/1 lb
  • Carton of grape tomatoes (can't believe I was able to have these. They are going to be fantastic as part of a quicker lunch this week. Hell yes!): $0.99
  • Produce (not sure what this is... just listed as "Produce" on my receipt): $0.99
  • Small bag of pinto beans (32 ounces): $1.99 * Super King price calculates to bet about $0.062 per ounce, and the same beans bought from the dry bulk bin at Save-a-Lot cost only slightly less - $0.055 per ounce
  • 24 ounce bottle of Perrier Sparkling Water: 1 at "Special Offer" = $0.99 (That was awesome. I felt like a princess drinking that and taking it out of my food budget.) There was also another charge that I am confused about right below the $0.99 charge for the bottle: CVR Beverage $0.10. ???
  • 24 ounce bag of Zergut whole wheat: $1.89 I am not sure what to do with this, but it seems like a good grain. I will check it out and report back.
  • 16 ounce bag of Yellow Split Peas: $0.69 * A 16 ounce bag of lentils at the 99-Cents-Only store costs... $0.99
  • Apple Cider Vinegar (total luxury to buy a new "spice" but I could afford it so I jumped at the chance) : $2.99
  • Zaitoon blackberries: $1.59 * totally enhanced my oatmeal this morning, and will again tomorrow I am sure
  • Value pack of frozen peas (64 ounce bag) : $3.99 *16 ounces of frozen peas at Trader Joe's cost me $0.69, so these were actually more expensive. If you do the division, 16 ounces from this "Value" bag still costs me $0.99. When I bought this bag, I couldn't wait to race home and see how much I'd saved by buying frozen peas in bulk. Turns out it actually cost me more than a small package would have. Lesson #5: Value/Bulk packaging certainly makes you think you're getting a sweet deal, but check the price per ounce. It might not always be cheaper.
Total: $29.63
Remaining this week: $1.37

I am finding it is really important to have a little bit of money left over after the week's big shopping trip in case I need to balance out a meal later in the week. I am a little worried I only have $1.37 left this week. What if I get to Friday and only have 1 potato and 1 onion left or something? I suppose I still have $3 left from last week after the breakfast yesterday, so at least that helps.

Overall, my experience in Super King Market was great. I got lots of produce for very cheap. However, there are some major drawbacks to this store that must be mentioned. To begin with, it was absolutely mobbed. Everyone had huge shopping carts and the produce section was worse than a traffic jam on the 405 freeway at 5pm on a Friday. No one seemed aware of other people around them. A few times I politely asked someone to move their cart over and over again and they didn't seem to even notice me. I got really frustrated and parked my cart far away from the craziness, but that meant I had to keep going back to it each time I found something I wanted to buy.

I also mentioned that some of the produce bins contained overly ripe or nearly rotted fruits and vegetables. For the most part the selection was fine, but I felt the need to carefully inspect each piece of fruit before I bought it. Think about this for a second. When I shop at Whole Foods, I barely even look at the produce before I put it in my bin because 99.9% of the time it is spotless and perfect. I'd be hard pressed to find a bruised apple on display at Whole Foods. Not the case at Super King. As I described with the onions and the mangoes, I really had to take the time to inspect everything and had to compete with fellow shoppers to get to the good stuff in the produce bins. Most bins were lined with people inspecting and discarding fruit, and I usually had to elbow my way in to get any.

There were also no Organic options at all, and very little labeling about where the food came from. Nothing told me if the tomatoes I bought were grown in California or Mexico or Argentina, so it was nearly impossible to focus on local purchasing. This market was all about cheap produce, which I appreciate. But, it was by no means perfect, and it was actually downright stressful at some points.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

1 pancake

I had a friend from college in town this weekend, and I was very happy that I had an extra $9 or so left this week to spend while meeting with her. When we got to the diner, which was charming and cheap, I ordered a coffee for the first time since starting this project. Even the cheapest entrees were really all out of my price range, so I looked to the section of the menu with "sides". Sure enough, there were several items under $2. Side of bacon. Side of fruit. One egg. One pancake.

In the midst of my excitement about being out in a restaurant, having a bit of money to spend, and seeing an old friend, I quickly ordered 1 pancake when the waitress came over and returned to my conversation, trying not to notice how weird I felt ordering so little food. When the plate arrived and the single fluffy pancake was placed before me, I realized that I had completely broken the vegan rule by ordering that pancake. Not only was there a huge pad of butter melting quickly atop the pancake, but pancakes are also made with milk AND eggs. Nice one, Julie. Some vegan you are.

I was actually quite embarrassed. How could I have ordered a pancake when I completely know that it isn't vegan fare?

I think it was because I ordered it on auto pilot. I didn't think about it. I was excited, it was great to be out, and I was distracted. With my mind somewhere else I had reverted right back to my typical diet, which does allow pancakes. When I am not doing the On Food Stamps challenge I am a vegetarian. I have been a vegetarian since I was about ten years old, and I have become very used to my normal restaurant ordering habits. When I look at a menu in a restaurant, I automatically rule out many of the items on the menu. I zero in on those that are vegetarian, look at the prices, and I order whichever suits my taste and budget the most. I don't even think about it any more, I just do it. So, as soon as I got into an exciting and distracting situation, I went right back to my usual diet. Once the food came, I realized it wasn't within my diet, but by then it was too late. I didn't want to waste food, I was hungry, and I ate it. I felt guilty and stupid the entire time I was eating it.

I find it interesting how easy it was for me to slip back into an old eating habit by mistake, and I think this is a valuable lesson. My auto-pilot error really illustrated to me how hard eating habits can be to break. I am sure that everyone has certain go-to foods and certain always-avoid foods according to their tastes and dietary restrictions. Just as it is a challenge for me to remember that eggs, butter, and dairy are now in the always-avoid category, so is it very difficult for someone who is used to eating high fat, salt, or sugar foods to start consistently avoiding their old favorites. Adjusting my diet means remembering new rules and finding new foods that I can make peace with in lieu of my normal favorites. It also means eating according to strict rules when no one else around me is. Besides my friend and I, there were 6 people at the table, and all of them ordered entrees. I felt strange ordering just 1 pancake, and even that turned out to be illegal on my new diet.

I placed my order quickly and without thinking too much, but there was certainly a subtle spotlight on me. In the pause after I ordered, I almost felt the need to explain to everyone at the table why I was only ordering 1 pancake. In my case, that would mean explaining about this Blog, and I would likely get lots of congratulations and positive feedback from my peers.

In the case of someone trying only to get healthy and lose weight, the feedback would be different. In fact, if the table mates are family members or friends who also have some weight to lose, the feedback could be downright negative. When you know you have to make a change in your life but are finding it very difficult to admit or act on, it can be threatening, unnerving, and unpleasant to see friends or family members make the same change in their own life. For example, if you and your husband have always overeaten or indulged in unhealthy foods together, your mutual indulgence has always served as validation. "I know my doctor says I have high cholesterol, and I shouldn't be eating these eggs and bacon. But, its ok, my husband's doctor says the same thing and look at him. He's chowing down. If he can, I can." When we eat food that we know we should be ashamed of eating, we make it easier for the people around us to eat food they are ashamed of eating as well. While the severity of the act is different, I think the psychology of unhealthy eating is similar to that of crime committed by a group. It is always easier to engage in bad behavior when the other people around you are doing it too.

Now, blow that up. If it is easier for us to indulge bad eating habits when our friends and family members do, it is even easier for us to indulge them when we perceive that huge tracts of our communities do. I would argue that one of the strongest influences in that regard is food advertisement. Food producers and manufacturers can send powerful social messages to us about what is and is not ok to eat, simply by showing us images of other people eating. Those hot models popping Pepsis at a pool party offer the same kind of validation as a spouse who orders a bacon cheese burger despite their high cholesterol, making you feel it is ok for you to do that too.

What would happen if we really amped up Public Service Announcements in our cities to support healthy eating choices? What if we created a culture where there was actually social pressure not to eat bad food? Where it was publicly frowned upon to consume unhealthy things? I wonder how much easier it would be to make healthy lifestyle changes.

I can think of one example right away where our social priorities have shifted on an issue in this way. When my mother was my age, it was completely socially acceptable, totally encouraged, to work on getting very very tan in the summer. In my own generation, we all know that getting sunburned is bad for us. When I get a sunburn, my friends don't praise me. They look at me admonishing and say, "Hey, you should really be careful. Its not good to get so burned. You'll get skin cancer that way." What if we got to a point where we encouraged each other to eat well instead of enabling each other to make bad food choices?

The social dynamics of eating are powerful. In a situation where unhealthy eating is a group activity -within a family, a neighborhood, or a nation- it can be very difficult for individuals to step up to the plate and make a positive diet changes, since doing so would affect everyone involved. I have devoted some time to this topic, because I consider social pressures and norms surrounding eating to be a major barrier in the quest for a healthy, affordable, and sustainable diet.

Luckily, I did not have to battle a food environment that wrought with emotion or consequences today, but it is something to consider. This time around, my downfall was due to my own error, not social pressure. I am new to being a vegan, and I slipped up. When the food arrived I was not excited; I felt defeated. I was upset at my failure and barely able to enjoy my food because of it. I had been trying to follow one new and difficult set of rules - those of a tight money budget - and I forgot all about the other set - no butter, eggs, or milk. I really understand now how frustrating and discouraging drastic diet changes can be.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

It is time to give my huge red tube of Rollin' Oats a little credit.

I bought this bad boy on Friday May 15th. Over 1 week later I am barely 1/3 of the way through the container. If I run out of Rollin' Oats before the month is over, I will be shocked. Since the 15th I have eaten Rollin' Oats oatmeal pretty much every morning. Sometimes I add fruit if I have it. When I don't, a dash of cinnamon is also great.

As a sweetener, I would ideally be using Agave Nectar because it is a low calorie sweetener with a low glycemic index (meaning it will not spike your blood sugar). Most nutritionists I have spoken to seem to say that if you are going to use a sweetener, Agave is the best one out there. Unfortunately, that little bottle of Agave pictured above goes for around $7, and there is no way I can afford that now. I might also recommend honey as a cheaper and (big suprise) less healthy subsitute. Since I'm doing this as a Vegan, I resign myself to cinnamon only for now.

The morning oatmeal, even sans sweeter, is really quite good. Oatmeal is also very good for you. Studies claim that it can reduce cholesterol, and it certainly keeps me full throughout the morning.

What makes it better though, is the price. Let us just compare for a moment. I bought that oatmeal for $1.89 on 5/15. I got 42 ounces - essentially 3 weeks worth - of a very healthy breakfast food for $1.89. I will estimate that I am getting 30 breakfasts here for $1.89. Increidble. On the same shopping trip, I also bought 1 box of Total cereal. Now, as far as cereals go, Total is not too bad. The sugar is relatively low, and I actually understand what most of the 7 ingredients on the label mean. However, the box of Total contained 10.6 ounces of cereal and cost me $3.29.

Rollin Oats Quick Cooking Oats: $0.045 per ounce
Total cereal: $0.310 per ounce
Total cereal is 6.8 times more expensive per ounce.

The value of oatmeal is undeniable. I am really glad that I bought it.

Still, I cannot complete this Ode to Oatmeal without acknowledging that making oatmeal is a huge pain in the ass. I'm sorry. Its true. I would say that total prep, eating, and cleanup of my oatmeal takes 15 of the 45 minutes I have to get ready for work in the morning.

With cereal, I have the option of taking my breakfast to work with me, or even eating it in the car if I am cutting it close on time in the morning. (That's horrible, I know.) Oatmeal demands both time and fully focused, seated eating. Once it is in a bowl it is still very hot, and it takes several minutes to cool down. While it cooks quickly, oatmeal does require that I check on it several times and return to the pot to stir it. No matter what I do, a layer of oatmeal gets stuck to the bottom of the pot each morning, and I always have to leave the pot to soak while I am at work. This attracts cockroaches, even if I fill the pot with hot soapy water. I found one dead in my sink the other day, presumably after he tried to feast on my soaking pot.

While oatmeal is a fantastically healthy and cheap breakfast food, it is also annoying to prepare and clean up after. There have been many days in the last week when I really just wished I could grab something to eat quickly and get out of the door.

Oatmeal doesn't cost too much money, but it certainly costs me time.

Regardless, I love this billboard:

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bulk Spices

Now that I have posted several recipes, I think it is time to talk about spices a little bit. In most cases, I have used a few, simple spices because it can be very expensive to fill one's cabinet with lots of little jars of herbs de Provence and gourmet fish rubs.

For the most part thus far, I have relied on a few spices already in my cabinet. I have found that the key to getting spices at a reasonable price is to buy in large quantities. Most chain grocery stores only sell small jars of spices. These jars are typically in the ballpark of 2-3 ounces and generally cost anywhere from $2-$5 and sometimes more. Buying spices this way is very ineffective and wastes money.

I have found that you can find a fantastic array of spices in much larger containers, even bags, if you go to a local ethnic supermarket (such as A Grocery Warehouse). The curry pictured above is from one such market, and it was priced at $5. The jar hold 16 ounces of curry powder, enough to last you quite awhile. In cases where the spices come in bags, like the photo below:

I recommend putting the spices into mason jars. You shouldn't run into any problems with spoilage of spices unless you leave them unsealed. In that case bugs might find them, but as long as you store your spices in tightly sealed containers, buying in bulk is the best way to go. You can find empty mason jars at any hardware store. I consider it a worthy investment for storage.

Even with these frugal, bulk purchase tactics, building a good spice collection can be expensive up front. I have experienced this first hand. I brought very little with me to California, and the spices I'd collected while in college definitely didn't make the cut. I'm still trying to buy furniture and finding that hard enough to set money aside for. As much as I love to cook, I have not been financially able to invest in a lot of spices. My cabinet is pretty bare.

I have, however, found that a few good spices bought in bulk aren't too pricey and really go a long way. I live on the following:

  • Curry - You can create a good Indian dish with just curry, garlic, onion, and maybe some ginger root. Recipes often call for everything from cumin to mustard seeds, but I've found these spices are less versatile and are usually expensive. Curry is a great investment. I use my jar all the time, and I still have 15.5 ounces left it seems.
  • Miso Paste - This can be purchased an most Asian super markets, and even some mainstream chain grocers. I bought my 26.4 oz. container of Miso paste for $4.99. This stuff is really great. The only problem is the high sodium content, but I find that you don't need to use too much. Miso is made from soybeans. I typically dissolve a little bit in water and then seam veggies in that broth. Spinach, broccoli, or bell peppers are really fantastically flavorful with just a little water and Miso. You can also dissolve the paste in water to make your own Miso broth for Miso Soup. Its way cheaper than buying instant Miso Soup packets. I add frozen peas (which are cheap) to the broth and it is an awesome, light soup.
  • Ground Black Pepper - the cheapest way I have found to use this spice is to invest in a pepper grinder (around $5 at Target) and buy the peppercorns whole. This is much healthier than salt and adds a great, once again, versatile spiciness that can be added to all sorts of dishes. I love more specialty peppers too, but they are often too specific in flavor and their specialization makes them less economical because they are not useful on a daily basis.
  • Trader Joe's Lemon Pepper Grinder - Ok, I rarely point out a single, name-brand product as my salvation, but this is an exception. The lemon pepper, alas, comes in a 2.2 oz. grinder and costs $2.99 if I remember correctly. (I bought mine awhile ago.) It is one of the few spices I would buy in a small quantity. The grinder contains a bit of sea salt, black peppercorns, and dried lemon rind, and it really enhances everything from potatoes to avocado and apple burritos. I think I might try to make my own in the future. With three simple ingredients, it wouldn't be that hard. Again, that $2.99 is certainly accounting for convenience.
  • Fresh fruit juice - I find that lemons, limes, key limes, and even oranges can be pretty cheap, especially here in California. When these citrus fruits are cheap and in season, I recommend using their juice to flavor things - including tap water! I have combined orange juice with curry powder, key lime juice with Miso, and made great mint and lemon tap water pitchers with fresh fruit juice.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

It's Complicated...

I found a really great study today titled "Barriers to a Healthy Lifestyle: From Individuals to Public Policy - An Ecological Perspective" by Nurgul Fitzgerald and Kim Spaccarotella. It is not too long (8 pages), and I think its worth reading.

The study really highlights what I have been finding over the last two weeks. Mainly, that access to healthy food is more complicated than just money. It is also wrapped up social environments, cultural norms, and time constraints. The article reviews barriers to a healthy lifestyle by placing them into several categories, which I thought made a lot of sense. It looks like this:

1. Intrapersonal Barriers (within control of the individual)
  • taste preferences
  • lack of nutritional knowledge or skills
  • inadequate cooking skills (particularly problematic for vegetable consumption)
Luckily, this hasn't been a major barrier for me. I have had to be very open to cooking in new ways, however, and I realize that not everyone is in the mood to get that creative in the kitchen. I've come up with some weird combinations, such as mint and curry, out of necessity.

2. Interpersonal Barriers (involve social relationships surrounding the individual)

  • associations with fast food and pleasure/socializing
  • anticipation of negative reactions from peers about eating healthy, overall lack of social support
  • socioeconomic factors - noted that availability of healthier food options at home and having family meals are related to eating healthful diets, but that these things were less likely in households where both parents worked long hours (possibly at two jobs)
  • time poverty - lack of time necessary to produce quality meals
  • television viewing or computer use - This part was very interesting. Besides the obvious consequences of this sedentary activity, the study noted that more "screen time" was also associated with children's requests for advertised foods, which we all know tend to be highly processed products (not even going to call that stuff food, in the spirit of Michael Pollan). Interesting, no?
I really saw the social pressure element of this barrier category in my grilled cheese downfall.

3. Community/Institution Barriers (relates to neighborhoods, work sites, schools)
  • limited availability of healthy food options and high concentrations of fast food restaurants (food deserts)
  • limited access to private transportation
  • lack of safe recreational space for physical activities and sports
I am interested in this category in particular as schools across the country are challenged with the task of providing healthier food in cafeterias and vending machines. I linked an article earlier noting that LAUSD was just busted for violating junk food bans. This article suggests that cost is often a major issue in the quest to improve food quality in public schools.

4. Macro/Policy Barriers (the impact of state, local, federal policies on healthy lifestyles)
  • federal food programs such as SNAP/food stamps or WIC can help, but they have a host of access barriers of their own (more to come on that later)
  • cyclical eating patterns where individuals overeat upon receipt of benefits, do not eat enough at all once benefits dry up, and then overeat again the next time they are available
  • higher cost of healthful foods
  • cultural norms such as overly large portion sizes
  • advertisement trends in the food industry
I found myself experiencing these cyclical eating patterns this week. Right after that massive weekend grocery run, I felt like I had a ton of food. Since most of it was produce, I also felt that I had to eat it quickly. While I likely won't run out this week, I did find myself eating too much too fast in the beginning of the week and eating in a much more controlled manner as the food dwindled. My eating pattern is certainly influenced by the fact that I know I must ration what I have and strictly control my portions. I can see where this might lead to an unhealthy pre-occupation or even obsession with food.

Man Down

Well, I was right. I bought too much produce. I had been sort of afraid this might happen, and it did. This morning I found that one of my pesticide-free oranges from the farmer's market has gone bad.

I probably could have prevented this if I had put them in the fridge, but I really just forgot to. Luckily, I am not overly concerned about running out of food this week. Even so, it is a waste of money that I let one of my oranges spoil, and I am sad about that. Maybe those cents could have gone towards something else.

I also want to quickly share something I found yesterday. The Sierra Club website has a great section where they talk about buying organic "where it counts." I love this because as you have seen so far, buying organic is very difficult for me given where I am shopping. The farmer's markets seemed to have some good, pesticide free options, but no one else does unless I want to pay a fortune.

This page has a section suggesting where to buy organic. They recommend focusing your organic dollars on foods that are usually laden with pesticides, and not worrying so much about those with impermeable skins or those that are less prone to pest problems. The page recommends ponying up for organic on the Dirty Dozen. Check it out:

THE DIRTY DOZEN: Peaches, Apples, Bell peppers, Celery, Nectarines, Strawberries, Cherries, Kale, Lettuce, Grapes (imported), Carrots, Pears

DON'T WORRY: Onions, Avocados, Sweet corn (frozen), Pineapples, Mangoes, Asparagus, Sweet peas (frozen), Kiwis, Cabbage , Eggplant, Papayas, Watermelons

When I look at their list, I actually haven't been focusing my priorities correctly. I bought non-organic lettuce, carrots, frozen sweet peas (never even thought about organic with frozen food), celery, bell peppers and strawberries so far.

I did buy pesticide free kale and apples, so that is good. But I wasted money buying organic/pesticide free onions and avocados.

Thanks for the great list, Sierra Club.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Zucchini with Mint and Curry


1 onion
3 zucchini
curry powder
olive oil

Roughly cut the onion and saute in no more than 2 tablespoons of olive oil. While onions are cooking, wash and chop the mint and zucchini. Once the onions are translucent, add 2 tsp of curry powder and mix around. Toss in the zucchini, and make sure the veggies all get a bit of curry and oil on them. Then add the mint pieces and toss again. Continue to cook until zucchini are done but crunch.

I added left over sweet potato and paprika beans to this mixture at the end. It would really work with any veggie. The olive oil, curry, mint, and onion are the important base.

Racing the Clock

I went back to my new favorite grocery store today - the sweet spot between a farmers market and a discount store. I still had some food left at home, but it was really just potatoes and tofu, so I needed to round it out with a few more items. I went into good old A Grocery Warehouse and bought :
  • 4 vine tomatoes: 1.29 lb at $0.69/lb = $0.89
  • Green onion (scallion) = $0.25
  • 2 bananas: 0.73lb at $0.49/lb = $0.36
  • 3 large heads of broccoli: 1.82 lb at $0.79/lb = $1.44
  • A large bunch of fresh spinach = $0.69
  • One big bag of key limes = 1.5 lb at $0.59/lb = $0.89
  • 2 yellow bell peppers in the $0.99 box = $0.99
Total at A Grocery Warehouse: $4.62
Remaining $: $14.49 - $4.62 = $9.87

Let me just say, I have PLENTY of food to last me through this weekend. I am really not worried about having enough food at all any more. Farmer's markets, neighborhood ethnic grocers, and even discount chain grocery stores really do have low enough prices to make $35, even $31 (gotta get used to that now), stretch for a whole week.

What I am worried about is the time.

Let me be honest with you - this experiment is completely, 100% consuming my life. It is really difficult to find time even to Blog or remember to take pictures with all of the cooking, prepping, and shopping I have to do. Apparently, I am not alone. A study by Adam Drewnowski and Petra Eichelsdoerfer from the University of Washington Center for Public Health suggests that "time poverty" and economic poverty are very related. Drewnowski and Eichelsdoerfer note that it may often be impossible for individuals to prepare low-cost nutritious meals AND hold down full time jobs. I am certainly finding it to be a challenge.

Here is what today looked like, for example:

Got out of work at 5pm.
I went to work out at the gym. The gym I go to is incredibly conveniently located right between work and home , so I don't even have to take out any time for commuting.
I left the gym around 7:30.
By the time I got through A Grocery Warehouse, drove home, found a damn parking spot, got everything in the door, and took my shoes off to start cooking it was 8:45. Mind you there wasn't any line at A and the store is again, perfectly located on my route home.
At this point I am absolutely starving.
I just worked out for 2 1/2 hours and haven't eaten since lunch.
Again, I am caught flat footed without any food ready to go in a moment of starvation. You may remember in one of my first posts that I talked about the perils of letting yourself get very hungry when there is nothing quick to grab. It was very unpleasant. There was plenty of food in my house, but none of it was ready to eat, all of it was raw.
I was actually light headed from hunger.
Since I couldn't wait to eat what I was going to cook in bulk, I had to make a separate quick dinner. That took about 1/2 an hour. My only option was another avocado and apple quesadilla, so I made that. It was quite tasty, but not really what I wanted to eat. That is my third burrito/quesadilla concoction in 3 days, and I would have really preferred something else. Sadly, I had to eat immediately. There goes another 1/2 hour.
It was then 9:15.
Time to start cooking for the rest of the week.
I am very tired because I have gotten very little sleep for the last two nights. While I am cooking, I feel like I am racing the clock to make sure I finish in time to get a decent night's sleep tonight. I really just want to relax, write, go to bed. But if I do that, I will have no food tomorrow.
So, I set to work.
I cut the tofu, dice the scallions, roughly chop the broccoli.
I set to work squeezing the key limes. I have to tell you, I bought those key limes because they were $0.10 cheaper than normal limes. I am actually really happy with how their flavors worked out in the dishes I cooked tonight (recipes to come), but they were a real bitch to squeeze. Not worth the savings. These are key limes:
As you can see, they are quite tiny. It took me forever to squeeze them, and then forever to clean up all the rinds and seeds:

I got tons of seeds into the food, but I was feeling pressed for time so I kind of got sloppy and didn't care. We'll see if I mind tomorrow when I am eating broccoli with key lime seeds.
Now it is 10:30.
I am trying to compose a good post, and I really just want 8 hours sleep for ONE night this week. Is that so much to ask?
Apparently, if you are trying to live on $35/week it is.

I have two options: either suck it up and spend the time preparing and cooking the food, or have nothing to eat tomorrow.

Now, imagine if tonight I'd said "Fuck it. I'm not cooking tonight. I've been cooking all week, going non-stop all day, and I am tired. Fuck it."

That would have been really great. I'd have gotten to relax. Maybe watch a movie, unwind a bit for two measly hours (remember, I got home at 8:45 and want to get 8 hours sleep), maybe call a friend...

When I got to work tomorrow- where I am paid hourly and must clock in/out for my 30 minute lunch break- I would have nothing to eat at noon. I would still only have $35 to spend for the entire week. That wouldn't change. I would also only have 30 minutes to get to a place that sells food, buy the food, eat the food, and get back to work in time to clock back in.

Where do you think I would go?

I'm putting my money (even if isn't much) on a place with a drive-thru and a dollar menu. How about you?

Social Ritual

I have been thinking more about that grilled cheese on Monday night and examining further why, exactly, I ate it.

Some of the reason was that I wanted the physical pleasure of eating it. Grilled cheese is a fantastic comfort food, and I hadn't had anything like it in a week. But, I think my decision to eat it was much more complicated than that.

First of all, I really wasn't even that hungry. I was in that late night state of benign neutral hunger. If you put food in front of me, sure, I would eat it because I hadn't eaten since dinner. No rumble in my stomach though, no physical drive for food at all. Simply a willingness to eat it if it were easily available.

The truth is, a large part of me actually did not want the food. I knew I was doing this blog, and I didn't want to have to pay the price for an expensive indulgence later on. I had a deep emotional conflict about weather or not to eat, and I was really leaning towards not wanting to. When my friend suggested we go eat something, I told her I would join her but that I wouldn't order anything. I insisted on this while we rode the elevator down to the restaurant all the way down the escalator, through the lobby, until we arrived at a seat with menus in front of us.

At that point something changed. I realized how awkward it would feel to sit at a table with her while she ate, and I drank water. I realized how my decision to abstain from food would likely affect her enjoyment of her own meal the entire time she was eating it. The act of eating, indulging, together while we talked about the evening was part of the ritual. As we sat there she quickly picked up on the fact that I was leaning towards getting food after all, and tried to help me rationalize the decision to eat. I think from her perspective, she imaged that I genuinely wanted the food, but that I felt guilty eating it (in this case because of the Blog). She did a fantastic job helping me convince myself to do something she thought that I wanted to do.

The curious part to me is that I really didn't want to eat the grilled cheese. I really only ate it because I felt guilty and uncomfortable about not taking part in a social food ritual. I didn't want to leave my friend to eat alone, it felt vaguely mean and overly stoic. My friend provided me with plenty of persuasive rationalizations to make me feel ok about eating something we both knew I shouldn't be eating, and I took the bate. "I'll have a grilled cheese with tomatoe, please."

I would say that this social dynamic accounts for at least 85% of my decision to eat that grilled cheese sandwich. This really made me think deeply about how the eating habits of our family, friends, and co-workers truly affect our own eating habits.

Imagine going to a public high school in a low income neighborhood in Los Angeles, where everyone goes to McDonalds or Jack In the Box after school to chow down. Everyone. All your friends. Every day. Imagine one afternoon suddenly trying to tell them that you couldn't eat anything. That you were trying to lose weight or get healthy (which can be embarrassing to admit publicly since it acknowledges out loud that you are, frankly, overweight) - that you brought your own food. Celery sticks. Right.

LAUSD just got in trouble for being much to lax about the food their students have access to in and around LA public schools. The fact that the school system got busted for poor enforcement of this junk food ban shows that at least someone is aware how much the social food environment impacts food choices.

Or, imagine that you go home after a 10 hour work day to a great home cooked meal that your wife has cooked. She prepares you this meal out of love, you eat it with gratitude and relief after a long day, but the beans were cooked in lard, the rice in lots of oil, and the salad is slathered in store bought, bottled blue cheese dressing. How would it be to tell the people you love who have prepared your food the same way for years, that they have to change their methods of preparation so that you can be healthier. Would that mean they would have to get healthier, too? What if they are resistant to that change?

Changing a diet or making better food choices is not easy.
It is awkward. It is often very, very difficult.
Food is a social ritual, and I now understand much better that breaking the cycle of unhealthy eating habits is not just about the individual, and it is not just about the price of healthy food. If an individual's social network is not 100% supportive of their change in diet, the social pressures to lapse back into old, unhealthy habits can be enormous. So large in fact, that social pressures to eat in a certain way may in some cases overshadow other food access barriers such as cost and availability.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Grilled Cheese

It is 2:30 AM, and I just ate a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich at the Standard Hotel in Downtown LA. It cost me $12, and I will have to pay pretty dearly for that late-night, post-dancing indulgence. It felt pretty good to eat cheese and bread, though, I must say.

Was it worth it?
I wouldn't go that far.
(Sorry, Standard, I've had better.)

SNAP benefits are awarded to recipients monthly, so the entire cost of the sandwich does not have to come out of this week alone. I am simply going to have to make up for it for the rest of this month. I am taking $4 off the weekly limit of $35 from here on out.

That means I have $14.49 left for this week.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Big Mistake


I made a huge error just now.

I wanted to cook one of those yams I bought last week for dinner. I popped it in my toaster oven and left it to cook. When I came back 30 minutes later, I realized that I had left 2 precious granny smith apples on top of the toaster and they were now roasting from the bottom up. If I cut the "cooked" part off of the apples, they would have quickly browned and not been too good to eat any longer. I essentially ruined two perfectly good apples that would have been in my lunch tomorrow and Wednesday.

The only option was to cut off the cooked part and eat them right away. So, I made a new type of vegan burrito with the apples. It turned out to be really delicious, but I ate more than I should have (just for the sake of using them up) and really wasted food. This reminds me of a post I read from the Congressional Food Stamp Challenge where on Congresswoman spilled several days ration of milk - she wrote that the phrase "No use crying over spilled milk" didn't really apply to someone on a strict food budget.

Well put. I agree.

I have now experienced first hand just how catastrophic a small kitchen mishap can be when one must carefully ration food. All of a sudden dropping something on the floor, or breaking a jar is a huge problem.

Vegan Burritos with Green Apple:

1 whole wheat tortilla
1 avocado
1 green apple
pinto beans with paprika and lemon water (see earlier recipe)
cracked pepper and salt

Heat up the pinto beans.
Spread the avocado on the tortilla and crack pepper and salt over it. Add a layer of thinly sliced, tart green apple (granny smith is best). Finally, layer on warm pinto beans and roll up.