A couple of months ago the Multnomah County Library approved my proposal to teach a nutrition class designed to use local resources for eating healthy on a budget. I was thinking accessibility. Knowing the importance of eating whole foods and fresh fruits and vegetables I also knew how costly they could be. They don’t call it “Whole Paycheck” for nothing. So, I wanted to challenge myself to answer the question, “Is it possible to eat healthy on a limited budget?”

I’ve had SNAP benefits (i.e. food stamps) in the recent past and never stuck to the budget that they gave me, which ranged from $140 to $190 per month. My expenditure for food while working full-time was around $300 per month and since I wasn’t willing to compromise the quality of my eating I just resigned myself to going over my allowance. But, what if being more diligent meant I could stay within that budget? And, if it was possible, how much more effort would that take?

The class was set for August 1st and in the beginning of June I felt that time was of the essence. And then, almost as soon as that thought entered my mind, synchronicity gave me a thread to weave the entire web of this project together: a cookbook. But, not just any cookbook. Good and Cheap: Eating Well on $4/day was designed by Leanne Brown to do exactly what I had set out to do: show whether or not someone with SNAP benefits could eat a healthy diet. She found that the average SNAP recipient gets about $4/day in benefits so she tried sticking to that amount and was successful. Someone had already drawn out a map to my holy grail. I couldn’t wait to try it out.

It’s been a week and my first phase is under way. I haven’t implemented Leanne’s recipes yet because I want to establish my baseline. What do I already spend on food per day? The answer is more than $4. I have ranged from $5-8, not yet breaking the $4 mark, but doing better than the $10/day I was averaging without the food stamps restriction. The additional vigilance for sales and deals clearly helped, but is still unsustainable for the stricter budget. Still, I have found a few golden nuggets in my first week out. One of my cheapest and most satisfying meals was just $1.77. What was it you ask? Good ol’ beans and rice. I added some avocado and salad for variety. It had it all: complete protein, fiber, rainbow color, healthy fats, and flavor. More than once my dad has bragged that he could eat on $.40/day back in his teens and twenties in New York City by subsisting on beans and rice. There’s a reason why it’s a staple around the world. Good and Cheap.

Here’s the recipe:

Organic, short-grain brown rice, 1cup
Water, 2 cups
Organic black beans, one 16oz. can
Carrots, 2 large
Italian Parsley, 1/2 cup or to taste
Cilantro, 1/2 cup or to taste
Organic Onion, one medium
Lime juice, 1 tsp
Olive oil, 2 tbsp
Chili powder, 1 tsp or to taste
Cumin, 1/4 tsp or to taste
Salt and Pepper to taste
1/2 medium Avocado

Combine water and brown rice in a medium saucepan with a dash of salt, bring to a boil and then simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Heat olive oil on medium in a large (preferably cast iron) skillet. Chop onion, cilantro and parsley and add to skillet. Cut carrots lengthwise and chop into half-moons. Add to skillet just as the onions become translucent, and add cumin, beans (drained), and lime juice (the vitamin C in citrus juice helps the body absorb the iron from the beans). Add salt and pepper to taste. Let simmer for another five minutes or until the carrots are cooked but still retain a bit of their crunchiness. You may have to add oil or a bit of water at some point along this timeline if the mixture becomes too dry. When cooked, add the rice to the bean mixture and combine thoroughly. When ready to serve halve the avocado and cut lengthwise into slivers of 1/4 inch thick, arrange in a fan over the beans and rice. Add salad and a light vinaigrette dressing if you wish.

Makes 2-3 servings.

Healthy Eating: Beans and Rice

Stay tuned for more installments of this grand experiment. I’ll be researching additional ways to make the most out of your buck and eat well to boot. Because, if it’s possible to eat well on a food stamp budget, there are few reasons left for any of us not to eat a diet that nourishes our minds, bodies and souls.

And, mark your calendars for the culmination of this project: Healthy Eating: Making Healthy Choices Using Local Resources at Midland Library, August 1st, 10:30-12:30.

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