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A Lone Star state of mind



(Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Can you eat well on food stamps?

In the late '80s, due to a Reagan-era recession and my own lack of money management skills, I landed in the food stamp office, where I waited for two hours to see a woman, who in an impatient and disdainful tone, told me that since I had not brought a certain utility bill, she could not process my application. I would have to come back later, she sniffed, with all my paperwork in order.

Ashamed, I never returned. I snagged a minimum-wage job at a Subway sandwich shop, where I could be assured of at least one full meal a day, and lined up at the local Red Cross when it distributed government surplus food: two large bricks of cheese, dyed as orange as a Canna flower , and several pounds of white rice, devoid of fiber and stripped of most of its vitamins.

Being poor often means eating poorly, not only because healthy food is expensive, but also because unhealthy food is cheap. When you have only $300 in food stamps for the month, and you're confronted with spending 79 cents for a loaf of white bread or $1.09 for a loaf of whole wheat, you're inclined to buy mushy paste.

Moreover, because of America's puritanical streak that masquerades as "compassionate conservatism," the poor, and by extension, their diets, are stigmatized: You're poor because you've done something wrong. (Conversely, if you're wealthy, God has blessed your righteousness with riches.) As a sinner, you don't deserve the leanest cuts of meat; your body - and your children's - are unworthy of produce grown without pesticides.

In late August, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the number of Americans living below the poverty level has increased by 1.3 million people to 36 million, 18 percent of them children. In 2003, the Texas Department of Human Services distributed $1.8 billion in food stamp benefits to 720,500 families, a 24 percent increase from 2002.

Not everyone eligible for food stamps applies for them; according to the San Antonio Food Bank, in Bexar County only 125,000 of the 330,000 eligible receive the Lone Star card. Those who use food stamps to feed their families must navigate the grocery aisles and try to stretch their dollars to balance food quality and quantity.

How much food will the Lone Star card buy?
This chart compares prices of foods of differing quality. Opting for organic produce and dairy, whole grains, and frozen foods costs about $14 more than buying processed, heavily salted, and sugary foods. A family of four earning $17,664 a year, paying $500 a month in rent, and not owning a car would qualify for about $304 in food stamp benefits per month.
1 med can Folgers coffee 2.24

1 gal milk 4.86

2 12-packs, Country Time tea 6.58

4 loaves of white bread 3.16

5 lbs ground beef blend 4.76

2 lbs white rice 1.56

2 pkg pudding cups, 12-ct 5.80

5 lbs apples 4.99

2 15 oz cans mixed veggies 1.56

2 3-lb bags prepared salad 5.36

4 cans family size chicken soup 5.56

Total $46.43
1 med can Cafe Dulce 2.99

1 gal organic milk 5.58

1 box Celestial Seasons tea, 20-ct 2.69

4 loaves of whole grain bread 7.96

5 lbs tofu 8.95

2 lbs brown rice 1.80

2 pkgs Stonyfarm yogurt cups, 4ct 5.38

5 lbs organic apples 9.95

2 16 oz bags frozen grren beans 3.00

2 heads of iceburg lettuce 2.98

3 med cans organic minestrone soup 9.16

Total $60.44

Kate Biss, a nutritionist with the San Antonio Food Bank, teaches classes on cooking cheaply, but with healthy ingredients. "Shop the perimeter," Biss says, referring to the fresh produce and dairy sections that ring most grocery stores, "rather than the inside where the food is more processed." For example, fresh tomatoes cost $1.69 a pound versus two medium cans of tomatoes for $1.56. At 39 cents a pound, bananas are a better choice than canned fruit cocktail, which is high in sugar.

Canned foods, especially soups, contain more salt and preservatives that give them a long shelf life; it is often cheaper to buy separate fresh ingredients and make the soup yourself, then freeze leftovers for future meals. If you can't buy or afford fresh produce, choose frozen vegetables instead.

While canned pasta dishes are easy, they are also heavily processed and salty - and not much cheaper. Four large cans of Chef Boy R Dee ravioli cost $10; two pounds of whole wheat pasta runs $3.58. With three cans of pasta sauce ($5.28), you spend less than $10 and the meals are healthier.

Biss also recommends avoiding items on middle shelves and goods that are placed at the ends of aisles. "Stoop and rise," she says. "Bargains are often on the top or bottom shelf. Groceries often put things on end caps and it looks like a good sale, but you can go into an aisle and find the generic brand that's cheaper."

Buy in bulk. Central Market, Whole Foods, and Sun Harvest have bulk sections, where brown rice, a nutritious whole grain, goes for 90 cents a pound, and you can buy as little or as much as you need. In a prepackaged bag, white rice costs 78 cents a pound, but you can only buy in one- or two-pound increments. For the 24-cent difference, brown rice is the much healthier choice, and if you save money on other items through coupons and sales, you can spend the extra quarter.

The most striking price difference is between organic and non-organic foods, although that gap is closing on some items. Apples are twice as expensive, but four pounds of organic dried pinto beans cost $3 at Whole Foods, compared to $2.49 for a non-organic bag at H-E-B. You might go organic for certain items such as milk - to avoid hormones and antibiotics - and root vegetables that can absorb pesticides more readily, while settling for non-organic items when the price disparity is too large. A gallon of organic orange juice is $7.38 (ouch!), but the same amount of non-organic juice is $2.69.

Regardless of income, people deserve to eat healthily, which doesn't mean extravagantly. A diet low in preservatives, salt, sugar, and pesticides shouldn't be reserved solely for the middle-class and the wealthy. •

By Lisa Sorg

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