Eating healthy on a food stamp budget

jholleman@thestate.comApril 9, 2013 

What do you think? Can you eat healthy on $34 a week? Take our survey at the bottom of this story.

As the state considers seeking a waiver to limit what foods can be purchased with food stamps, one of the most common arguments against the idea is that healthful foods are more expensive.

“I feed them the cheap stuff because that’s what I can buy,” Susan Singleton, a Columbia mother of three who relies on food stamps, said at a public meeting on the issue last month. “You go to the store, you cannot buy healthy, you buy cheap.”

Dietitians and nutritionists insist the healthy-means-more-expensive contention isn’t always true. Laura Stepp, a registered dietitian at Lexington Medical Center, said she could feast on healthy food for the $135 maximum weekly food stamp benefit for a family of four, which amounts to about $34 per person. 

She made that point during a trip to a Lexington-area Publix, when she selected items totaling $117.59 that could be turned into a week’s worth of meals.

The price you pay? It takes more time.

“The reality is people don’t want to cook,” Stepp said. “If you want to eat on this budget, you have to cook your own meals.”

For the working poor, however, finding time to cook several meals a day isn’t realistic, said Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

“You have to have transportation to the store and the availability (of healthy food choices), and you have to have time,” Berkowitz said. “For people who are struggling at all three of those things, it’s difficult.”

There’s not always time to cook when “you get home from work, help the kids get their homework done and try to get them to bed at a reasonable hour,” she said.

Stepp agreed people who live in rural areas can find it difficult to get by on a food stamp budget because they have few grocery shopping options. That situation — referred to as a food desert — usually means higher prices, fewer healthy choices and fewer sales items. Food deserts are a factor to consider when debating Gov. Nikki Haley’s suggestion to limit food stamp usage to healthy foods.

Haley wants the state Department of Social Services, which administers the federal program here, to request a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to put restrictions on what can be bought with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program money, also known as food stamps. At the first of four public meetings on the waiver idea last month, comments were overwhelmingly against the idea, and the added cost of buying healthy food came up in nearly every comment.

At The State’s request, Stepp strolled through the Publix with a reporter, pointing out the choices that were both healthy and inexpensive. She makes similar educational trips with the hospital’s cardiac patients every few months.

Some meals arising from that shopping trip might substitute beans for meat as the major protein. Sweets consist of various fruits but no candy or cookies. Drinks would be milk or water, no soft drinks. Portion sizes suggested by Stepp might be smaller than usual for many people. All of those changes would be good for a family’s health.

Children of families in the SNAP program also qualify for low-price or free lunches and/or breakfasts at their schools, which can stretch the food budget even further.

The key is cooking for yourself and being resourceful to stretch what you have. A whole chicken – not the already cut up kind – can be more than a dinner entre.

“Leftover chicken could be used to make soup with the frozen veggies with the addition of canned tomatoes,” Stepp said. “Or the remaining chicken could be used to make chicken salad.”


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