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Did you know that in many states, Food Stamp recipients can use their EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards at participating restaurants? An EBT card works like a debit card, with the state government reimbursing the restaurant for the purchase. The Food Stamp Restaurant Meals Program was started in 1974 for disabled and elderly people who couldn’t prepare food for themselves. It was expanded in 1992 to include homeless people without access to cooking facilities. Although the original plan was to allow only those specific groups into the Restaurant Meals Program, most states now offer this expanded option to anyone on Food Stamps. California has recently approved several fast food outlets (I can’t bring myself to use the word restaurant and Jack-in-the-Box in the same sentence) for the program.

Okay, I’m not going to launch into a political rant about this, but in light of our growing health care crisis and skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes, does subsidizing places like Hong Kong Express and Jack-in-the-Box sound like a good idea to you?

Currently, more than 36 million Americans take part in the Food Stamp Program and with the current recession, an additional 20,000 people join the ranks each day. On February 24th, the White House Blog posted a video of First Lady Michelle Obama taking on food deserts as part of her campaign to end childhood obesity (see video below). Food deserts are nutritional wastelands in both urban and rural areas. They’re regions with a predominance of convenience stores and fast food and no easy or affordable access to fresh, healthy food choices. As I watched this video and listened to the First Lady’s appeal to bring nutritious options to these communities, I wondered why, at the same time, we’re setting people up for potential health problems by promoting government supported fast food. There’s also a bit of irony in the fact that the government is subsidizing some of the unhealthy ingredients found in fast food and in processed food found on the convenient store shelves. Does that mean that the government is supporting food deserts and trying to eliminate them at the same time? I don’t follow the logic, but as promised I won’t launch off on my food politics rant. Just know that I’m rolling my eyes big time.

Nonetheless, I applaud Mrs. Obama’s passion and am very thankful we have someone in the White House who is on a mission to promote organic food, nutrition education and healthy food choices. We have to start somewhere. Hopefully she’s on a roll with this and if we support her good intentions, maybe we’ll get somewhere.

Please bear with me. I did a great deal of research on this and conducted my own little experiment. Here’s the breakdown. But first, my disclaimer. Obviously I can’t consider all the frustrations and difficulties people in need must endure to find, buy and prepare healthy meals. My heart goes out to them. I’m fortunate, blessed and grateful beyond measure not to have to figure out how to make a decent meal for my family with such limited resources. Having said that, I’m going to compare an organic, healthy, relatively “fast” meal I come up with to a meal from Jack-in-the-Box and see how they stack up. Can you feed a family healthy, organic food on a limited budget? (Gluten-free, no less.) Rather than spend EBT money on fast food?

Healthy, quick spaghetti with meat sauce and a side salad
1/2 medium sized onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
3/4 lb organic, 100% grass-fed ground beef
2 jars Muir Glen organic Garden Vegetable Pasta Sauce (25.5 oz each)
1 and 1/2 packages Tinkyada gluten-free, spaghetti style, organic brown rice pasta
1 head organic leafy green lettuce
1 organic orange
1/4 cup raw toasted sunflower seeds
oil (I used olive oil)

Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil in a large stock pot. Add onions and garlic and sauté for 3 to 5 minutes. Add ground beef and cook thoroughly. Pour in pasta sauce and reduce heat, stirring often. Boil pasta according to package directions, drain well. Serve sauce over pasta. Wash and prepare lettuce. Peel and chop orange into bite sized pieces, toss into salad greens. Sprinkle with toasted sunflower seeds. No dressing needed.
* Makes 6 hearty and healthy servings

I got all the ingredients except the meat at my local Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocer (see photo above). All their produce is organic. They have a “day old” bin with select veggies and fruit for $1 per bag. I often opt for whatever is in the sale bin. I have a professional food scale and weighed the produce and calculated the price of each item I used. You’ll have to trust me on this. (Thanks for your help, Ryan – he’s the produce manager at VCNG). The meat is from Arapaho Ranch in Wyoming. The Northern Arapaho Indian Tribe raise the 100% organic and grass-fed Angus beef on the Wind River Indian Reservation in west central Wyoming. No hormones or antibiotics are used and the animals are well cared for and humanely treated. The cattle coexist with natural predators, a diverse mix of wildlife and eat the natural grasses and forbs they’re suppose to eat. The Indians sell their products to markets in the Rocky Mountain region. It’s an interesting story, please check here for details.

* When it’s CSA season, all my organic produce comes from Grant Farms.

Cost break-down for healthy, quick spaghetti with meat sauce and a side salad
organic onion – .21 (on sale for .69 per pound)
organic garlic
.19 for 4 cloves (6.19 per pound)
100% organic, grass-fed beef – 3.08 (on sale for 3.99 per pound, I used the 85% lean beef)
organic pasta sauce – 7.00 (on sale for 3.99 per jar, with $1 off if you bought 2 jars)
organic Tinkyada pasta, 12 oz package – 5.53 (3.69 per package)
organic, green leafy lettuce, 1 head – .50 (2 heads of lettuce for 1.00 in the bargain bin)
organic Navel orange – .60 (1.09 per pound)
raw sunflower seeds – .22 (2.48 per pound)
TOTAL: $17.33 (6 hearty gluten-free servings)

Jack-in-the-Box
I’ve never been to a Jack-in-the-Box and had to visit to get prices and see what the options were. I didn’t buy anything, I just took notes and chose a variety of items, like a family of 6 might do. If you’re interested, click here for nutrition information. It took me a few minutes to realize how misleading this information was. In general, this isn’t very healthy stuff.
Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger Combo – 5.59
Southwest Chicken Salad with corn sticks (?) and dressing – 4.99
Jack’s Spicy Chicken small combo – 5.39
Deli-trio Grilled Sandwich – 5.69
Fajita Pita small combo – 5.39
Kid’s meal Chicken Strips (comes with a toy) – 3.49
TOTAL: $30.54 (6 servings)

For almost half as much, six people can eat a highly nutritious, all organic, homemade meal. One that is lower in calories (and icky stuff) and much higher in nutrition.

Here’s wishing the First Lady good energy and lots of luck in her endeavor. (Psst! Get your husband and his buddies to support small farmers, organic farming, and EBTs for CSAs and farmer’s markets. Thanks!)
In good health,
Melissa

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24 Responses to “healthy eating food stamp challenge”

  1. Peter says:

    I’m with you and do hope that small local farms get the support they need. It’s a shame when raw milk farmers in Ohio are treated like criminals. ok you didn’t get on a soap box so I’ll jump off now. I really appreciate the time you put into this and the example of how to cook an organic meal. it’s not as hard as it seems to cook something healthy and quick. My wife and I both work and we spend a few weekends preparing meals for the freezer so we have lunches and dinners ready for the work week. Just my 2 cents but I could see a Melissa book and program teaching folks how to stretch govt subsidies to provide healthy meals for families. Not that you are already busy enough :-) but the kids really really need to eat better than chips and salsa and fast food.

  2. Melissa says:

    Peter,

    Thanks so much for your comments. You always add such good words to the conversation. Did you see the TED video of Jamie Oliver’s plea to help end childhood obesity? It’s a good one. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up post on that in the next day or so. You’ve inspired me to take this a step further.

    And good for you for planning ahead and preparing healthy meals for later. That’s often our downfall — not being prepared and opting for something quick, easy and unhealthy. It’s pretty easy to grab something on the run, hence the word “fast” food. Sadly, most of the time “fast” and “unhealthy” are synonymous. Being prepared (as you and your wife do) makes it easy to have nutritious “fast” food. Good for you!

    Thanks, Peter. As always, I appreciate your comments.

  3. Alta says:

    Great post. I love showing that eating relatively easy-to-cook dishes at home can ALWAYS be cheaper than eating out! And if you’re not a family of six, you can still get ahead, either by making this dish as written and freezing portions for later, halving this recipe, or even making other healthy, simple, nutritious dishes for cheap. I can saute some organic spinach, poach a free range egg, and top it with parmesan for just a few dollars – what I would spend at a fast-food restaurant. I’d MUCH rather have the spinach!

  4. Peter says:

    Alta-

    sounds yummy you just gave me a new breakfast or even lunch idea! Thanks!

    Peter

  5. Coco-Emily says:

    Lovely post Melissa and great research on your part! This stuff gets my blood boiling and I could rant for an hour. I am in total agreement with you. The sad thing is, you look at your Jack in the Box list and I bet all those meals have a serving of less than 1 vegetable each. It’s all food “stuff” and annoying marketing makes it appear to be cheaper, when in reality, it’s not!!
    People always pity me because I spend big bucks on organic, grass-fed beef or produce but I always tell them if you add up my grocery bill each week, yes it’s not going to be the cheapest way to do it, but- if you add up someone who goes out to dinner a few nights, buys a sandwich or two for lunches, and gets some coffee drinks (aka liquid calories) or meets friends for beers after work, I bet without a doubt I am still spending less (a good bit less). And I always say, I am spending more now so my Dr bills aren’t more later :-)

  6. Coco-Emily says:

    P.S. I’d love to know what corn sticks are…. I’m googling those!

  7. Coco-Emily says:

    Ok one more thing and I’ll stop, I promise. Have you done any research on what (if anything) they are doing to teach kids about real food in school? I was taught NOTHING about nutrition or fake foods, only that I didn’t want to be overweight. It makes me sad to think about what my poor little body grew and developed on during the most important part of my life to build the ground work for a healthy immune system. If I knew about processed foods and trans fats, I definitely wouldn’t have eaten them but I had no idea! I literally lived off anything drowned in cheese, twix bars and frappucinos with extra extra whip and high fructose corn syrup on top! Eccck!

  8. The desert project and the food stamp allowances looks like one of many Catch-22s in govt funding. Maybe someone will clue Michelle in (hint, hint! wouldn’t you like a trip to the White House?) and she’ll get on it! The thought of using limited funds on Jack-in-the-box is so sad. I don’t have access to all the organic foods and products here locally (those prices you got are impressive!), but just making dishes at home is less expensive and far healthier. Never hesitate to get on your soapbox, dear, BUT I think you have the gift of being able to convey the key points without doing so. Your posts are very,very much appreciated, Melissa.

    Shirley

  9. Sean-Michael says:

    This was a great blog entry! As a person on disability who uses an EBT card, part of my fears surrounding this new (to me) way of eating was how am I possibly going to afford this. I was NOT aware that EBT cards could be used in those places, although I did indeed find out recently that I can use my EBT card at a local organic farm, the local food store down the street, and some local CSAs which made me very happy. I am new to even finding out about celiac disease and am in the process of even getting tested, but regardless of the test results I know I will be changing my way of eating very soon, probably to gluten-free, definitely to more whole, local, organic foods. Thank you for the heads up, I will keep my eyes open to see if there are any healthy restaurants around here who take EBT cards.

  10. Melissa, I am so impressed. You are obviously passionate about this, and for good reason.

    Fortunately it seems like my community is stepping up. In the fall I did a story on how the local farmer’s market will be accepting food stamps and on a local class on eating healthy on a budget.

    Thank you for letting us know about the EBT/fast food issue. I had no idea that’s the way it works.

  11. Melissa says:

    Here I am again — a week later and a bunch of comments behind!

    Alta,

    Great point about freezing small containers of food for later. And I also love eggs on greens! I even did a post on poached eggs on kale. We’re on the same path with this!

  12. Lynn Arola says:

    OK, I agree that Jack-in-the-Box is really bad. However, some people really can not cook and just are not able bodied (mentally and otherwise). They may drain the budget due to their health problems but regardless of their limitations, they have to eat to survive.

  13. Melissa says:

    CocoEm,

    Thank you sooo much for your thoughtful comments. I have been preoccupied lately and haven’t been very good at replying. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the effort you (all of you) make in leaving comments. Great points, Em!

    It’s a drag that most kids these days don’t grow up being exposed to really healthy foods. Some don’t even know what a tomato is. Have you seen the Jamie Oliver TED video? I’ll include that in my next blog post, which will be a follow-up to this one.

    You’re so right on about how to selectively spend money on quality food! You know you need to pursue this line of work, Emily! You are destined to make a difference for others who have suffered as you have.

    You go, girl!

    xo

  14. Melissa says:

    Shirley,

    Thanks for chiming in. I do appreciate it. I like to keep one foot on the soapbox and one foot firmly on the ground. It’s a balancing act as there is no easy answer. The more we all get involved promoting the benefits of healthy food, the better off everyone is. From the farmers to the people trapped in food deserts.

    xo

  15. Melissa says:

    Sean-Michael,

    Welcome! What great insight you have on this subject. Thank you for sharing that.

    It depends on what each state decides to do with appropriating funds. I was referring to CA and some of the restaurants available for EBT cards. It’s much more difficult in Colorado to even apply for assistance. I looked at the form and it was overwhelming. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to buy and make healthy food with limited opportunity. We do need to make good choices easier to access.

    Keep up the good work on your new blog! What you’re doing is important.

    Thanks!

  16. Cid says:

    Melissa,

    Interesting post and appropriate for the UK as well. You just have to take a good look at the supermarket shelves to see where people are spending their money…. in my county cheap usually wins out regardless. We’re an agricultural part of the UK which produces plenty of excellent fruit, veg, meat and eggs… all the more depressing when you think half the locals haven’t a clue how to cook them or indeed what they are in some cases!

    We live in a world where one salary or wage might not be enough to feed and pay for the average family. Both parents working, tired out at the end of a long day…. they reach for convenience and keep the kids quiet by giving them the calorie laden stuff.

    Today is Mothers Day over here and I was reminded that getting up on a Sunday in order to put on a nice roast for my mother meant that as a mother myself, there would be very little rest for me. It takes time to prepare veg and meat and a dessert and no one else in the house really wants to take it on. It’s a type of mind set I think…. I’m the opposite, I like to know where my food comes from and how it’s made, cleanliness etc. There is certainly no shortage of tv shows detailing how to cook with quality produce. I’m a bit cynical but the people around here (not everyone of course but far too many) are more likely to be spending their low wages on expensive beer and cigarettes then wholesome homemade meals.

    Bring on the vouchers for beets and spinach!

    Cid

  17. Melissa says:

    Lynn Arola,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree and that’s why I added that information in my blog post. There are some folks who have very few options, I’d just like to make it easier for them to have some healthier choices.

  18. Melissa says:

    Liz (thegoodeatah),

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I always like your take on things and would love to read your article. Is it on your blog?

    In the meantime, I’ll stop by and check out my favorite dog star!

  19. Melissa says:

    Cid,

    First off, happy Mother’s Day, although a couple of days late. I can only imagine how good your house smelled with that roast in your oven. Yes, it is a bit of a dilemma as to how to celebrate Mother’s Day without wearing yourself out. But we’re also lucky to be moms and still have our moms around. Mine always provides a dash of entertainment when we have a special dinner (she’s a bit much at times, though — a la Shirley MacLaine or Lucille Ball). Isn’t life grand?!

    I couldn’t agree with you more on wanting to know where your food comes from! And beet vouchers? Sounds perfect!

    Melissa

  20. Jennifer L. says:

    As a kindergarten teacher, I see much more to the food desert problem than obesity and sky-rocketing health care costs for children. When kid’s bodies are filled up with junk, they can’t focus or think well and they often end up in trouble or doing poorly in school. It explains why areas with food deserts also have failing schools. When all the pressure is put on the teachers to raise test scores and teach only language arts and math, things like nutrition education get tossed aside (along with music, art and P.E., but that’s another rant). Anyhow, when people start pointing fingers at teachers to raise test scores, it’s hard for the teachers to take those folks seriously when they’re looking out at an audience that’s practically vibrating on the carpet from the Fruity Pebbles they ate for breakfast.

    It’s a great challenge you’re doing and I often note that I am spending a lot of money on some foods, but we never will buy things like soda, packaged desserts and highly processed foods. A box of cereal these days is going for $5-$6–how much oatmeal, teff, brown rice cereal, eggs, or other healthier food stuffs can you buy for that amount! I know that a whole dozen of farm raised eggs here are about $6–shall we compare the nutrition content in farm raised eggs with Cocoa Crispies?!

    I really enjoy reading your blog!

  21. Melissa says:

    Jennifer,

    Wow, what a great comment! Thank you for taking the time to add to the conversation. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to try to help kids learn when they’ve been sent off to school with either no breakfast or a bowl of sugar-laden cereal and some soda pop. I loved your description of kids “vibrating on the carpet.”

    My heart goes out the teachers like you who really care about kids and what they’re eating. I agree — I wish you had the time in your day (and kids who are well-nourished and ready to learn) to teach subjects other than “taking a test.” If you didn’t have to spend so much time dealing with the problem behavior caused by poor nutrition, you might have time for the arts, music and PE (I’m guessing I agree with your potential “rant” on that).

    Thanks for your kind comments and insight into this topic.

    By the way, here are a few kid-friendly educational links you might find interesting.

    http://www.edibleschoolyard.org/lessons-recipes

    http://spoonsacrossamerica.org/pg/6

    http://www.nyaged.org/aitc/

    http://www.sustainabilityed.org/

  22. Kat Dilan says:

    Seriously?!

    I and my children are on food stamps and I have a very hard time not ranting to anyone who will listen about the ridiculous yays and nays of food stamps!

    Soda & Candy? Yes
    multi-vitamins? No
    Fast Food? Yes
    Hot Prepared Chicken from the grocery store? No
    In grocery store Starbucks Venti Java Chip Frap? You betcha!
    CSA’s or Farmers Market? Almost Never!

    Aaaargh! And the list goes on!

    • Melissa says:

      Kat — wow, that’s amazing. Aargh is right! I hope the more people know this, the more they’ll help advocate for better choices with food stamp vouchers. Geez, a hot chicken and some farmer’s market veggies can go a long way in a soup or stew.

  23. Paul says:

    I think that we should allow food stamps to be used at fast food restaurants like Subway or Togos or even McDonalds, but only if it is healthy food. That means that you shouldn’t be able to go into McDonalds and buy a Big Mac with your food stamps, but you should be able to get a healthy salad if you want. After all you can get hot dogs at the grocery store with stamps. As for only being allowed to buy organic food, that’s a whole other issue that the government needs to work on so that all of our food is grown organically.

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