We’ve been a little short on Annie lately, so here she is reading her current favorite book, Dragons Love Tacos. But she’s into dinosaurs right now, so we read “dragons” as “dinosaurs.”
Deconstructed tortilla soup, with grated carrot and kale.
Despite appearances,* she really enjoyed this risotto, an old favorite recipe perfect for the spring. We’ve been killing it with the meal planning lately. Weekend planning, a grocery-delivery assist from the gig economy, and then 5 nights of reasonably healthy, reasonably easy-to-cook meals, ready to eat before baby-bedtime at 7. I am patting us on the back.
*She’s upset because she needs a diaper change—the dinner table is her favorite venue for taking a dump.
Since we got the all-clear to let Annie experiment with solid food, we’ve been handing her chunks of whatever we’re eating to gnaw on. (You’ll remember the broccoli, one of her first foods, and perhaps also the green onion.) With supervision, she kind of sucks on it and gums it and, yeah, gags on it a little. It looks to us like good practice. When we described this in general terms to her pediatrician on Monday, she said knowingly, “Ah, you’re doing baby-led weaning,” and we probably made vague noises of assent.
Baby-led weaning, it turns out, is a whole thing. It sounds rather sensible and is clearly the product of parents thinking the way we did. I guess there’s some philosophy with a book for purchase and a brand attached to every choice you could make, but I’m rather proud of us—owners of a small library on how to raise a dog—for not knowing what they are.
(And now, Annie gnaws on a rib bone, video by The Grandparents K.)
I found a new writing mentor. It’s exciting when it happens. I hope one day to be as wise and funny and put it all in writing as well as this random internet advice columnist. Or maybe I could do it right now if someone would give me a column… Okay, world, I invite you to send me a description of your problems, and I will tell you what to think and do. Go.
Despite our playacting this week, we are obviously not the core constituency for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Understanding who the program does serve may be the most important thing to know about it. I grabbed some graphs from an excellent program overview by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which I encourage you to read if you’re interested in knowing more. The USDA, which runs the program, also has an easy-reading recent report.
Eighty percent of SNAP recipients are below the poverty line, and 42% are below HALF of the poverty line. And let’s be clear that the poverty line is not some cushy standard: it means that you make annual wages less than $11,500 if you live alone, or $23,600 among a family of four. (For a sense of how far that goes, consider that average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the Austin area is about a thousand dollars per month.) To qualify for SNAP, you must also have assets less than $2,000 ($3,250 if you’re elderly or disabled), disqualifying those of us who are merely funemployed. Here’s the complete description of eligibility rules and benefits.
Nearly half of those receiving on SNAP are kids. Recent proposed cuts to SNAP have not reduced the amount of benefits—although that will happen automatically this fall when an increase from the 2009 stimulus bill expires—but they do limit eligibility for the program. It’s important to keep in mind just who that will affect.
Well, other exciting political developments have been monopolizing our attention for the last couple of days, but the SNAP challenge does continue! There’s lots I want to share, starting with what exactly we’ve done with that $57 of groceries.
Breakfast everyday is oatmeal with fruit (mostly increasingly mushy bananas), plus a couple cups of store-brand ground coffee.* Snacks are more fruit, that 5-ears-for-$1 fresh corn sautéed with a bunch of herbs from the garden, and little bits of leftovers from previous meals. Lunches and dinners are listed in the following table, usually accompanied by some green vegetable: a handful of baby spinach, roasted broccoli, or brussel sprouts.
One week of SNAP meals:
dishes and number of servings provided for 2 people
On Sunday, the first day of the challenge, we ate oatmeal for breakfast, the Spanish tortilla for lunch (basically a frittata with onion and potatoes), and red beans and rice for dinner. Since every recipe is providing multiple meals, front-loading the cooking has allowed us several options to choose from for subsequent meals. Even the oatmeal is made ahead: the batch I made on Sunday lasted until Wednesday. (Steel-cut oatmeal with its more toothsome texture takes a little longer to cook but holds up better as leftovers; rolled oats turn to mush.)
What is missing, you may notice, is meat. It was a struggle to operate on this very tight budget and feel remotely healthy, and the easiest choice was to eliminate meat in favor of beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Most of these dishes are not completely vegetarian—I think I’ve fried bacon every day this week—but they certainly fit the “meat as seasoning” approach of various cuisines around the world. Several of the dishes have roots in cooking cultures with a genius for making tasty things with limited resources, like the Cajun red beans and rice, Spanish tortilla, and Italian spaghetti carbonara. All these recipes came from my “tried and true” file, but I suspect you could much more intentionally find inspiration within particular ethnic cooking traditions.
The odd result of living on a food-stamp budget is that we are eating significantly healthier this week than we usually do, with unlimited funds for treats and a more casual attitude about meeting our nutritional needs. We like vegetables and will almost always include them prominently in meals we cook at home, but it’s not uncommon for a couple of days to pass when the only green we consume is a little spinach in our breakfast taco and the salad underneath our happy-hour crab cakes. Without for a second minimizing the significant challenges of eating on this budget, it is good to know that it possible to do it in a healthy way. IF you have the time, tools, and know-how to cook, that is.
That said, I have gone to bed hungry twice this week; I’ve developed a raging sweet tooth and nothing to satisfy it but a slice of cantaloupe; and when I neglected to pack a lunch when I went out for meetings and errands on Tuesday, I was ravenous by the time I got home to my leftover tortilla and squash casserole. I don’t think we’re going to run out of food before Saturday night, but I’m not positive. That would put us in the same boat with most families who receive SNAP benefits: almost 80% have used their entire month’s benefits by the end of the second week. Unlike those families, we will not have to resort to a food bank.
*that I am forced to confess don’t taste much different to me than our usual fancy beans from Central Market, thoughtfully selected from dozens of options and ground on-demand in small batches
This week I am participating in the SNAP challenge, during which you limit your spending on food and drink to what can be purchased with the average food stamp budget. (The federal program that governs food stamps is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, hence SNAP.) Many folks have tried this out over the last few years, including a few dozen members of Congress. It’s a way for the relatively privileged to better understand the scope of this social program, empathize with those who rely on its support, and perhaps raise awareness about a service that has been in the spending-cut crosshairs. Last week, the US House Farm bill was voted down, in part due to outcry over its 20-billion-dollar cut and eligibility restrictions for food stamps. (A vocal chorus also argued that cuts weren’t steep enough; go Texas…)
Making sure no one is malnourished has always seemed, on its face, a pretty obvious thing we should accomplish as a society, so it’s easy for me to be appalled by efforts to reduce or dismantle this basic public service. But who knows? Maybe that’s just knee-jerk big-government liberalism from someone who has been a luxury food consumer since she started subscribing to Bon Appetit in college, and thinks access to fancy cheese may be a civil right. Taking the challenge seemed like a good way to get an inkling of the struggles many families face in eating well, and good motivation to learn more details about the program itself. Hunger concentrates the mind wonderfully. So does having no money for booze.
There are also several 100% selfish and personal reasons the challenge appealed to me. Meal-planning and cooking are among my favorite hobbies, so putting together a week of nutritious-and-delicious meals for less than $30/person was genuine good fun. It’s mid-summer, so produce is relatively cheap and abundant, and I’m executing a minor cheat by taking a few items for free out of our garden. And I’ve got one more week before I rejoin the 9-5 working world, so an ambitious project appealed while the busted wrist precludes heavy manual labor.
I prepared for the challenge as I do for most weeks: by flipping through my recipe binder for ideas. I picked out tried-and-true meals we know and enjoy, and kept an eye out for efficiencies like affordable substitution options and overlapping ingredients. My first priority was providing us sufficient calories; second was health and nutrition (basically including as much produce as possible); and third was tastiness and variety.
Here are seven days of groceries for the two of us:
And for anyone interested in getting way down in the weeds, here is an itemized list with the prices I paid at our local grocery store. Highest ticket items were grated parmesan, 12 oz of bacon, and a bag of brussel sprouts; surprising best bargains included $1.57 for more than 2 pounds of organic bananas, $1 for 5 ears of corn, and 36 cents for all the iced tea we could possibly drink.
Over the next few days I’ll share recipes, the inevitable pictures, and some policy fun facts.
I could not be more excited for, and proud of, my friend Matt as he launches into the next, entrepreneurial part of his life. After more than a year of planning and prepping and hustling (the good kind), he, his brother, and another partner have purchased an east-side coffee shop that will become The Brew & Brew. A place where I cannot wait to hang out.
As he said in a moment of facebook reflection, “I’m trying my damnedest to make my/our dream of a simple coffee shop and bar exist so that my son can see me doing things that fundamentally matter to me.”
Way to live the dream, friend.
News to no one who knows me: I took an upholstery class last fall, from a local studio that used to operate the program at Austin Community College before budget cuts forced them to go private. I had a ball and have enjoyed adopting it as a new hobby. But there was also a specific purpose. Probably 40% of the furniture in our new home was generously passed to us by family, including two couches that originally belonged to my grandparents in the 60s. Beautiful bones, ragged gold velour upholstery. I didn’t take a great “before” shot, but this one will serve:
The sunlight makes the old upholstery look prettier and less threadbare than it had actually become.
I have always loved these couches and was thrilled to adopt them, but they were in desperate need of a facelift. Getting them reupholstered was to be our housewarming gift from my parents. After getting a choke-on-my-drink bid of $1500 plus the cost of the new fabric, however, I did a little budgeting and figured that for that price, I could take the class, buy a bunch of tools, cover the cost of my practice chair/materials, and then some. (As long as I valued my labor at $0/hour, of course. Among the lessons of the class was that upholstery is a labor-intensive business; $1500 was a totally reasonable price.) So, that’s exactly what I did.
I began couch reconstruction in February, beginning with what I think of as the “real” upholstery, i.e. that which involves staples. Then I began recovering the cushions, which could happen more gradually since it didn’t disrupt the living room.
We had two-tone couches for about a month.
The back cushions were the final step, made with new “super-soft” foam that also served as a pretty decent toddler bed for Max in the interim. While I patterned and sewed pillow covers, I listened to a Yale course on early-modern England and Bob Solomon’s Existentialism lectures. A couple of weeks ago, the couches and I became our Authentic Selves:
Sous is not allowed on them.