How to Stay a Foodie Family on Food Stamps


When I first lost my job, we applied for emergency food assistance. Then, when I saw how little was provided for our family of five, I went into panic mode and bought the cheapest stuff I could find: a coffin-sized crate of ramen noodle packages, a box of Cheerios as big as an ottoman. No longer did I shop for the “best”—organic, free range, all natural—I was now shopping for the cheapest.

And I was not alone in trying to negotiate this shift from affluent foodie to poverty-level mom just trying to feed her family on next to nothing. Take a look at the numbers and be startled along with me. As you can see, there was an unprecedented jump in participants in the program after the Great Recession in 2008 began. Suddenly, families who were unaccustomed to financial struggle joined the ranks of the truly needy, and we didn’t know how to shop for it! And still, after a few years of this “New Poor” culture, we are looked at with derision when we try to maintain our values as careful consumers and healthy eaters.

Thankfully, however, there are ways to make a mountain (of produce) out of a molehill (of money.)

First of all: in a genius and enlightened move, SNAP allows for the purchase of food-bearing seeds to plant in your garden, if you’re lucky enough to have room for growing (we made space for raised beds by using our defunct driveway, an irony not lost on us.) I love the optimism the government has in my ability to nurture squash seeds to fruition! If you do your homework and learn everything you can about your own climate requirements, you can successfully supplement your family’s needs. We have also had luck with an informal bartering system with our neighbors, trading our little micro-harvests to add to the variety.

Also, keep an eye out for fruit trees in your community, and work up the courage to approach neighbors. We’ve managed to incorporate loquats, Asian pears, and blackberries to supplement our own abundantly-productive fruit trees—and we get to return the generosity. Or if you want to be more official about it, register at neighborhoodfruit.com. Even if you don’t have trees of your own, you can certainly enjoy the excess of someone who may not know what to do with all those plums that ripen at once.

Until recently, we had temporarily shelved our healthy, happy habit of shopping at farmers’ markets. Though it is heartening to see the foot-hold they’re gaining in the mind of the mainstream grocery shopper (see the good news for yourself here,) farmers’ markets were something we couldn’t enjoy as a family, as they were one of the few food outlets that didn’t take SNAP EBT cards. (And still today, only one-one hundredth of a percent of food stamp dollars are spent at farmers’ markets.) In a cheering development, that seems to be changing. Locally, our biggest farmers’ market-cum-swap meet has begun taking SNAP EBT as a form of payment for fresh produce. We are able to buy organic strawberries for half of what we’ve paid in our grocery store, and I can get a chance to interact with our local agricultural producers as well.

The Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) can be another option for adding to your family’s food coffers. They offer vouchers to exchange for simple, healthy foods such as brown rice, fruit, and vegetables, though it’s important to note that the program is limited to pregnant women, nursing mothers, and preschool-age children.

Sometimes I think we are the only family at the grocery store that buys collard greens and kale. We go through the line and, inevitably, the checker has to look up the code on her laminated cheat sheet. I expect it now, and maybe I could do these long-suffering cashiers the favor of memorizing the PLUs myself. Then I top it off by paying with my EBT card. Often this makes the cashier stop making eye contact.

It’s surprising how many people will criticize your desire to buy healthy, unprocessed foods on government assistance, while they think nothing of subsidizing the nation’s dependence on medications for type-two diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other illnesses with a lifestyle component.

Further, the intentions of SNAP have changed since the inception of the program. “Healthy Food Access and Affordability: We Can Pay the Farmer or We Can Pay the Hospital” by Gus Schumacher, Michel Nischan, and Daniel Bowman Simon sheds light on the history and inter-relatedness of the WIC and food stamp (now SNAP) programs. Originally the program sought to provide the nation’s poor to access to surplus agricultural product. This benefited the farmers, and yes, through this symbiotic system, ensured that the program’s dollars would be spent on the types of food that would add to the health of our populace as a whole. Issues of autonomy and choice gained a stronghold. Government decided that the way to influence healthy eating among the nation’s food stamp recipients was best served through allowing recipients to purchase whatever they want, and relying on educational interventions to guide them to better choices, which has yielded minimal success.

Thankfully, it seems that advocates are acknowledging the failings of the past, and have begun to embrace incentives that direct federal dollars toward local agricultural products, such as providing private funds to double the worth of food stamp vouchers when spent at farmers’ markets.

In our home—in spite of our education and our commitment to organic and healthy eating—we still struggle with trying to avoid the cheap-and-easy route, especially when you can get white bread and Doritos for pennies. Sometimes, during especially stressful months—usually when it’s cold and rainy, the fruit trees are bare, and the paycheck comes in as thin and pitiful as ever—it’s tempting to just fill our family with what will satisfy their bellies. Happily, though, that happens less and less as our options for healthful fresh local foods expand. It feels good to feed your children a rainbow of colorful produce every day, and it’s satisfying that with careful purchasing, gardening, bartering, and taking advantage of enlightened new food stamp policies, we don’t have to let go of that.

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  1. Tuesday, August 30th, 2011
    Although I am employed and not in need of assistance, I was offered WIC assistance when I adopted my son as an infant. I could get his formula with it, which was a blessing. I could also buy cereal, so I got Cheerios. I could also get juice, which is not good for babies, so I got V-8 juice for me.

    When he turned 1, I could no longer get formula. The coupons paid for regular milk but not organic milk. I immediately quit the program and told them they weren't doing right by the kids.

    I hope WIC has changed since then (8 years ago).
  2. Tuesday, August 30th, 2011
    Thank you so much for this article! I have been buying organic food on a student's budget for 6 years, and have always felt it was worth the money and effort (I cook everyday). I also almost never get sick and don't have any allergies, go figure!

    Now, I also work for Vital Farms, who supply pasture-raised, organic chicken to Whole Foods coast to coast. (We are the largest producer of pasture-raised, organic eggs in the country). We give many eggs every week to the local food bank (local churches and organizations providing free meals and affordable food boxes to local families have access to the most expensive egg on the shelf at Whole Foods!)

    I grew up lower middle class and even in my 20s, my parents have struggled with unemployment off and on, which really affects their ability to buy the food they want to eat. Thanks for dispelling some myths about healthy eating on a budget and for letting families know what is possible for them. I bet your kids are happy to have such a proactive and hard-working Mom!
  3. Tuesday, August 30th, 2011
    * In the first sentence of the second paragraph, I meant to say that Vital Farms supplies pasture-raised, organic eggs to Whole Foods Coast to Coast.
  4. Elvia
    Tuesday, August 30th, 2011
    Thanks for this post, I was on and off SNAP over the years depending on my job situation. I actually did the opposite and went for the fresh, healthy stuff when I first was on assistance. It helped me to understand how to choose great food including at places like Whole Foods (which at the time only had 1 line you could go to with SNAP so it made you stick out more! Glad they stopped that). It also made me aware that you could eat well on a budget and I have not looked back since.
  5. Dahlia Blair
    Tuesday, August 30th, 2011
    Whole Foods accepts food stamps for plant starts, including herbs.

    I don't know of any other places that do this. I live in San Francisco. If anyone has any info. on this, I would be appreciative.

    BTW I belong to two community gardens and have grown my own food
  6. Micah
    Tuesday, August 30th, 2011
    I really like the article overall and think it's a good thing for people falling down in class during a recession. I get that this isn't exactly the point of the article, I just feel it is necessary to point out that a good number of the people on food stamps never gained the food education required to be a foodie at all. There's also the issue of living in food deserts and combating a lot of issues that form around generation poverty that leave people completely disenfranchised when it comes to healthy eating.
    While it's good to point out that there are good things you can do while on government assistance, it is also very important to note that you were fortunate enough to have lived a life where organic food and farmers markets were a thing. For a lot of people these aren't an option. They won't look for alternatives like to the stuff they eat because it either doesn't exist near them (what with having to rely on public transit to get to any sort of grocery store) or they've grown up in a world where those things simply doesn't exist.
    It's cool living in a house where you can grow stuff and have neighbors to share fruit with, but that whole life is just so far removed from anything I could even dream of when I was on welfare. Grocery shopping while relying on the bus to get you places is a nightmare. Doing that while trying to keep kids in line is even worse. There was no way I was going to be compare shopping and going from one store to the farmers market to buy stuff.
    I hope I don't sound like a big jerk party pooper. I just feel like the more formerly rich people become financially less affluent (new poor really is an awful term) they either forget or ignore the people who have always been poor. Just remember, you're not having to deal with generational poverty and the lack of skills and education that comes with that. You're heading into this financially less viable situation for you with knowledge, skills, privileges, and connections old poor people don't have. Just be careful. Just because you can do it doesn't mean other people can.
  7. Melissa
    Wednesday, August 31st, 2011
    Not only do many farmers markets here in Western Massachusetts accept SNAP, but there are even a few where SNAP recipients can double their dollars, meaning $1 SNAP dollar = $2.00 at the farmers market. Also, farmers markets here are equipped to handle EBT transactions. If you do a little research in your community, I am sure there are similar arrangements.
  8. Wednesday, August 31st, 2011
    You can get free seeds at http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/The-Dinner-Garden/147066371101
  9. Mego!
    Wednesday, August 31st, 2011
    having just recently acquired WIC for the first time ever, i really appreciate your fresh & honest outlook on the programs. While i think they can be improved some (ie: why are most of the cereal options involving corn as the main ingredients vs other truely healthy cereal options??)I have been pleasantly surprised at all that is available to my growing family and really appreciate the assistance they provide us
  10. Jen
    Thursday, September 1st, 2011
    I am in a similar situation, although minus the family. I worked in the luxury goods industry, and I lost my job several years ago. It was before all the unemployment extensions and COBRA subsidies were put in place, and after a bit I decided it was time to finish my college degree as that would give the situation a couple years to improve. Sadly the situation only improved somewhat by the time I graduated, and now I have burned through all my savings and am now living off loans from friends and family. SNAP/EBT has been a lifesaver. Fortunately here in Boston we can also double up to $10 EBT dollars at farmers markets, and that $20 often buys more produce than it would at Stop&Shop or similar for the original $10. The program is called Bounty Bucks, and I have educated several older woman at the markets who have EBT and were unaware. It's fabulous for anyone, no matter their background, to be able to have access to fresh local produce. On top of that, it's coupons, coupons, coupons! Whole Foods will stack their own with manufacturers, as will Target. I am also part of a local Urban garden where a base of volunteers take care of the garden, and anyone is able to come help out a bit or just pick some veggies to take home for free. And no Micah, not all of us who have been knocked down forget there are people who are worse off, who have been there longer, and who may not have the ability to get back to a better place like we eventually will. I have used my free time to volunteer and help others even more now that I am unemployed. And I have seen others do the same. Maybe it's just the environment I live in, but it's out there.
  11. Margaret Bartley
    Sunday, September 4th, 2011
    There's a huge gap between buying organic eggs and greens from a farmers market, and buying cheerios and Doritos. I was really hoping to see some serious discussion about that middle ground.

    If you just need cheap calories to fill a belly, and you have government assistance, brown rice, even organic brown rice, is very cheap on a per person/per meal basis. An organice baked potato is way cheaper than potato chips.

    A good working-mom dinner starts with left-over brown rice (cook up three days' worth at a time). Saute onion and garlic, add whatever greens you got at the food bank or on sale at the store, add spices, some cut-up meat (whatever is on sale) and add a can of soup. Voila. Nutritious, delicious, and quick. And endlessly varying.

    People should learn how to take whatever they can find that's cheap but whole - it doesn't have to be organic, but preferably things like rice, potatoes, strawberries will be organic, because the commercial growers use particularly nasty chemicals on the non-organic products.

    There's a whole science to buying nutritious cheap food, it should not be a choice between Whole Foods and Top Ramen!
  12. Sunday, September 4th, 2011
    I'm running my 2nd Food Stamp Challenge on my blog. We're not foodies, really, but we do eat real food and quite a bit of produce. Check it out if you're interested.
    http://www.milehimama.com/pinching-pennies/food-stamp-challenge/food-stamp-challenge-2011/
  13. Sunday, September 11th, 2011
    Great post or re-post I should say. SNAP-Ed is the education program the USDA funds to target SNAP recipients to help them with these exact issues of how to use their resources as best they can. Unfortunately, hardly anyone knows about SNAP-Ed AND it is not combined with SNAP in a mandatory or concomittant style at all. SNAP-Ed tries to target SNAP participants but cannot have access to the participant listing so they just try to go for "low-income". It is ridiculous that SNAP-Ed and SNAP can't work together more efficiently to teach participants things like growing your garden, buying fresh seasonal produce at farmers markets, and some of these things you have realized since going on SNAP. SNAP-Ed wants to and the SNAP office wants to as well - but - USDA pulled funding, reduced funding mid-year. We are starting to see outreach programs... which should help in theory but required a specialized grant so it isn't sustainable funding. The SNAP office claims most participants that get benefits won't stay for educational classes with tastings etc. It is an issue in my opinion and definitely contributing to the "malnutrition obesity" or "hunger obesity" epidemic we see because a lot of people just don't know what to buy or think that they have to survive on big tubs of cheerios and powdered milk and can buy things like soda and processed cheese product.