05 March, 2009

$21 down, 7 days to go

The funny thing about only having $21 to spend on groceries for the weak is that even though you can only buy a few things with it, you'll have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to spend it. I think I was in HEB for two hours. I can't be sure; colorful packaging, florescent lights and my endless recalculating made the time blur. It was darker outside when I left, though.

I thought I would breeze through this. I've lived in developing countries, in villages where the only market set up shop once a week. I don't eat out anyway and don't eat packaged stuff.
Great in theory, but meaningless here. I do suspect I would have been able to haul home more fresh produce is I was back in the ME, though.

I walked in the store and, as is my habit, I started with fruits and vegetables. However, once I started weighing things and figuring prices I thought I should go for my main meal items first. That's a huge difference right there: fruits and vegetables essentially became "garnish" for this weeks diet. And, I never really realized how much that stuff weighs.

At first I thought I could nail this by shopping from the bulk foods, but they're still not the norm in stores. I did get some green lentils and some oatmeal. I knew there could be no compromise on a filling breakfast, lest I kill somebody by noon.

Within about ten minutes my head began to hurt. This is not shopping , I thought, this is chess. Pick up a gallon of milk and think you're so smart because this will last you over two weeks and then realize that the $4 it costs means you can't buy rice, so you replace the gallon with a half gallon. You pick up the cheap wheat bread and wonder what the hell to buy to put on the bread that will last the week. Peanut butter is certainly out - my cousin recently had a homeless man turn down the peanut butter crackers she'd offered him: "That stuff'll kill you!" So, I wandered around pondering that for a while before I decided that a $0.99 bag of garbanzo beans would go far if I made another batch of my hummus (sans tahini, sadly). I wavered quite a bit on whether to spend the $4.50 on chicken, but really couldn't quite make it fit with everything. Luckily, I'm not a big meat eater anyway. I kept stopping, using my mobile phone to keep track of my tab, and stealing glances at the baskets of other shoppers and trying to extrapolate meaning from their purchases. One young family with three small, round girls went by with what looked like a side of beef in their cart. Another woman with a toddler in her cart had just eight loaves of cheap, white bread. At this point I was hungry and more than a little annoyed.

Here's what I got for $21:
1/2 gal 1% Milk
32 oz. Plain Yogurt (I blame the Turks for my addiction, but it does wonders mixed with lentils or beans)
1 5oz. block of cheese
1 32oz. bag of brown rice
1 can black beans
1 1lb. bag of garbanzo beans
2 cans of diced tomatoes
1.4 lbs. of organic steel-cut oats
0.81 lbs of green lentils
1 bag frozen, chopped spinach
1 bag frozen chopped broccoli
I loaf whole wheat bread
3 bananas
1 box black tea

I'm trying to be quite literal with this, only eating what I buy...or find or steal. I think I did pretty well, actually. Let's see how I feel next Thursday. Saturday morning I plan to hit the downtown farmer's market, which advertises as accepting food stamps, to see what somebody could actually purchase there. Based on what I've seen, I suspect not much.


Anonymous said...


It seems you must plan ahead to stretch the dollars. Get the most out of every thing you purchase. EG. whole chicken, freeze it, and use the bones for soup. If you purchase each day at a time, you are inefficient and wasting money. No preprocessed foods. Aren't food stamps delivered monthly? You should purchase the base items at the beginning of each month. Cook and freeze perishables. Etc..

The purpose of food stamps is to alleviate hunger and malnutrition. A safety net for basic survival.

Unknown said...

Yeah, well CNN guy took the maximum possible allotment for a month as opposed to the average per person, which those of us in my class have seen listed as $84 or $96. And, obviously, shopping per day - food stamps or not - is a waste of time, energy and resources unless you're living somewhere that is possible. Living in other countries I had no problem getting everything fresh daily on my way home from the vendors in my neighborhood. Thankfully, I know how to cook, not just hit buttons on a microwave.

I'll price a whole chicken when I shop Thursday...The main problem is trying to fit in a relatively well-rounded diet on $21. I may be able to make soup out of those bones, as you mentioned, but then not be able to add anything to the broth. Try it for yourself next time you're at the store.