Michele: Eating Healthfully on a Budget

Tomorrow is the first day of my SNAP challenge and I just returned from Fair Share Market in south Oak Park.  It took me over an hour to purchase $19.80 worth of food.  I am planning 5 days of the SNAP challenge, so had $22.30 to spend.  But I am sharing a pound of coffee with Betsy, so I wanted to save $2.50 for that.  At that price, it was among the most expensive items I purchased. But frankly I wouldn't want to live without coffee--and feel sure no one I work with would want that either. 

This year I focused on seeing if I could find healthful food within this budget.  I managed a pretty healthy menu (see photo) based largely on fruits and veggies and dairy. 

Shopping with such a small budget is incredibly stressful.  I kept adding things to my cart (and to the calculator on my phone) and then realizing I couldn't afford something I already had in my cart, so would have to replace it.  I spent a lot of time leaning over my cart, arranging my meager supply of food into little piles that would represent a meal I could make with those items.  It made me realize how flippant I usually am when shopping.  If I think I MIGHT use something, I grab it.  Or if, say, some shavings of Parmesan cheese would hit just the right flavor note on top of something, I pick up a package.  Do you know how expensive Parmesan cheese is?  WAY too expensive for a SNAP budget.  I ended up with a chuck of medium cheddar that I expect will be rather rubbery, but it was cheaper than the sharp white cheddar by almost 50 cents, so I went with it. 

Now that the shopping is over, I am actually pretty happy with my meal plan.  But it does mean I have to cook every night and I have 2 night meetings during the 5 days of the challenge.  I'm not sure how I will handle that, but I will start by cooking at least 2 meals on Sunday. 

I think it is just possible to eat healthfully on a SNAP budget if the stars all align.  If you (like me) have a budget grocery store nearby.  If you are willing to spend an hour or more at the grocery puzzling over every penny.  If healthy products happen to be on sale that week. If you have time to prepare scratch meals every night.  But there is no room for error, or fatigue, or treats.  As I am every year when I take part in the SNAP challenge, I am humbled by this process.  I have such admiration for the people we serve at the Food Pantry who manage to maintain good spirits in the face of what for them in an ongoing SNAP challenge. 

-Michele Zurakowski, Executive Director