Be Local Eat Healthy Under Poverty Toledo Ohio Simply Jess Blog

Be Local and Eat Healthy Under Poverty

Eating Healthy Within Your Community

Shopping local is expensive, especially if you want organic local food, and people in poverty can’t afford to eat well. I have heard variations of this before; between low availability in food deserts and the cost of fresh food, it’s next to impossible to eat healthy if you use food stamps. I’ve had people remark on how I eat such fancy food because I shop at the farmer’s market, and how it must be nice to have the income to do so. For a long time it has bothered me that I see frozen pizzas on sale for $1 apiece, yet a head of lettuce is $2.99 in the ad for our regional grocery store that is located in a more impoverished neighborhood. Why was lettuce so expensive? It’s lettuce for goodness sake; it carries very little nutritional value, and it comes from the ground, it’s one ingredient. Yet that mostly-chemical, fake-crap pizza is $1?

If you have a poverty level budget, could you still eat healthy? The upper end of government food assistance programs provide a two-adult, no children household with $347.00 per month to spend on food. The average American household spends nearly double that on monthly groceries for two adults. This got us thinking, could we walk in the shoes of others for a week, and eat our “normal” diet of chemical-free, organic, fresh food, while not going hungry?

Be Local Eat Healthy Under Poverty Toledo Ohio Simply Jess Blog

Part 1 The Budget
After doing some research, and the Ohio Food Stamp benefit calculator, I found that a poverty level food budget is about $5.79 per person-per day; or $1.93 per meal not including any snacks. This gave us $57.90 for two people for five days to spend on food. We made the assumption that most people have salt, pepper, and some form of cooking oil in their home pantry, so these we would not have to buy, but everything else in our home was off limits. All spices, beverages, or other items of consumption had to be purchased with our budget, (including coffee).

Part 2 Location
Food deserts greatly contribute to the issue of making healthy food choices. You can’t assume everyone has adequate transportation to the supermarkets. And you can’t buy what isn’t available. Downtown Toledo is one of the city’s well known food deserts. You have to drive 5 miles to the nearest chain grocery store from downtown Toledo. Attempting to make the best effort possible to understand the needs of people in this type of situation, we decided to limit our shopping to walking distance in the downtown area. This left us with about 3 mini-marts, the farmer’s market, and the newly opened Market on the Green; a small grocery store in downtown Toledo to meet the needs of this food desert community funded by our local healthcare system.

Be Local Eat Healthy Under Poverty Toledo Ohio Simply Jess Blog
Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)*

Part 3 Food Banks and Programs
Since we were just starting out with $57.90, salt, pepper, and a bottle of oil, we decided to see what assistance we could get from food banks or food assistance programs. We contacted the people at Food For Thought as they carry both shelf stable and fresh food items in their pantries. The assistance* we received from them provided us with some necessary items to get us started. Another underserved group is low-income senior citizens. Senior Citizens have very fixed incomes with little opportunity to earn extra income. There is also a large population in the food desert area we were focusing on. Therefore, upon contacting the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, we were provided information on the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), a program intended to meet the nutritional needs of the elderly population whose monthly income is below the federal poverty guidelines. This was another resource to utilize* in order to eat as healthy possible when we didn’t have much to work with.

(*We were provided a list of items we could choose from the food pantry, we then purchased the listed items ourselves. We did not accept food items intended for those in true need)
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Food For Thought – Food Pantry Selections*

Part 4 Planning
Planning was the vital step in the entire project. I sat down Friday night and made a grocery list of our “needs”; or at least what I thought our needs were. Then I made a menu. Starting with breakfast Monday through dinner Friday, we discussed what we would eat down to the spices we would use to season our food. We focused on optimizing our purchases so that we would have very little waste and be able to sustain enough food. For example: if I bought a whole chicken to make for dinner Monday evening, I could cook it up for meat Monday, plus have meat left for another meal or two, and have some chicken stock for rice, and soup! If I bought carrots and celery for the chicken stock I can also slice them up to eat with hummus for a snack, and chop the rest for soup. Beans = tacos, rice and beans, and again soup! Versatility and planning. Finally I made my real shopping list of what we actually needed and what I thought we could afford, keeping a few extras marked to the side if we could manage it. I took into account the food we received* from the food assistance programs, and hoped for the best.

Be Local Eat Healthy Under Poverty Toledo Ohio Simply Jess Blog
Lunch – Spinach Sweet Potato, Apple, and Egg

With cash in hand, we went shopping Saturday morning because that is the day the farmers market is open. We started with the mini-marts as they were the most unfamiliar to us, and we had no idea what they would carry. Plus, before December 2015, mini-marts and the farmers market were the only options within walking distance of downtown. First stop, reality check. We would literally starve if this mini-mart was our only option. Not much selection in the way of real food, and the things that were on our list were marked up by three times! As a pretty savvy grocery shopper I knew that an off brand can of corn, not organic, packed with salt, should not cost $2.99, and the expiration date was…. a little past due. We bought a bottle of hot sauce for Andy to use for $1.07. Honestly, we were extremely open minded, but we couldn’t shop there with the aim of our project. It made us sad to think that to some, that is the grocery store; we couldn’t eat like that. Next mini-mart was closed.

We headed over to Market on the Green, calculator and list ready. It was a regular grocery store, but could we afford to shop there? Surprisingly, we could. Prices were very similar to our regular stores, and the selection wasn’t huge, but they had everything on our list. I wouldn’t say that we made sacrifices, but we did make well thought out decisions. Select organic greens were 50% off, so we bought spinach, and skipped kale. Medium eggs were $0.99, so we bought two dozen, which was a dozen more than we expected. I planned to buy an avocado but they were all too ripe, skipped that which was what covered the cost of the second dozen eggs. I typically don’t buy Kraft cheese because, last I checked, they still used rBST hormones in their cows, which is something we avoid, but the Kraft Chipotle Cheddar was 50% off. We intended to buy ham to make soup, and it was on sale, but the ham was full of preservatives, and fillers. The ingredients on the package must have had over a dozen things listed. Like earlier at the mini-mart, we couldn’t eat that. It went against how we feed ourselves, so ham was out, but select packages of hormone free, antibiotic free chicken was 50% off! We felt like we hit the jackpot! We bought double the chicken since we weren’t buying the ham and it was discounted. Our biggest deliberation was butter. Real, unsalted butter was $4.00, and that was nearly 7% of our budget, whereas the good margarine was $1.79 on sale. I probably put the butter back three times, but no, I stuck to my guns, no margarine, only real food.

We left having check off most everything on our list, and we had a great conversation with one of the employees. We spent $43.79. This left us with $13.04 left to spend at the market. My main goal for the market was to buy local raw honey for the many nutritional benefits it offers. I also wanted spray-free local apples, and dried herbs. Forking over $8.00 for honey was tough, but like the regular butter, it was the best choice to make. I also had $1.00 left and bought some radishes to go with my hummus. We went home with $0.04 left, but we did it, we got all we needed.

Be Local Eat Healthy Under Poverty Toledo Ohio Simply Jess Blog
Our Purchased Goods

Monday involved a lot of prep work, and was the only night that involved more than 30 minutes of active cooking. I boiled all of the chicken, and added the veggies and spices needed to make chicken stock. That chicken produced 7 large jars of stock! It felt like a miracle! I took the opportunity to wash all of my fruits and vegetables for the week to make my life easier, and prepared the dry beans while I was at work. The chicken made several meals, the cumin, cinnamon, and dried Italian herbs I picked up at the farmers market seasoned all of our food well. We ate proper serving sizes, which allowed our food to last, but neither of us ever felt hungry. We had plenty of food and as you can see below, we had food left at the end of our week. I tracked all of our meals on MyFitnessPal as we went, so I could later review the nutritional value of our meals. Our meals were well balanced, and we never went over the recommended daily value for fat, or sugar. I maintained my normal athletic lifestyle, the downside being that I was a little under in calories. I could have eaten more to compensate for exercise, but I didn’t want to take away from Andy or short myself later in the week. We did eat boxed muffin/bread mix that we would not normally buy, but since it was offered by the food pantry we ate it, and we were sure thankful for the dessert everyday.

The Menu – What We Actually Ate

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We had a surprisingly large amount of goods left over at the end of our week. These items would then become pantry items, allowing us to buy a different variety the next week. Eventually, there would be a point of maintaining our general stock. This was how it was when we first got married. We couldn’t buy everything we would like in one week, but we would plan out things like spices, and luxury goods like ice cream, alcohol, or other treats for the weeks we had a little extra. Needs over wants, and quality goods over the quantity of items.

Be Local Eat Healthy Under Poverty Toledo Ohio Simply Jess Blog
What Remained

As I said earlier, I wouldn’t say our week was full of sacrifices, but we did make choices, like with the boxed muffin mix. Bread for instance, we chose 100% Whole Wheat bread, it was the best choice we could make, but it was not organic, GMO-free bread, and it had high-fructose corn syrup in it. The eggs were not local, free range farm eggs like we normally buy. We did choose Oasis pita bread and hummus as they are a locally produced product. We typically buy wheat tortillas, and we don’t really like corn tortillas, but the price difference was significant, and they would be sufficient. We chose to use cloth napkins instead of paper, and we put away the paper towels, since they were not purchased this week (note: paper products cannot be purchased with food assistance dollars, but others in this type of situation would have to use this money for such goods). We made sure to eat proper serving sizes, our priority was quality not quantity.

My focus with food has been to try to “Be Local”, with the blog and in our everyday eating habits. I wanted to be sure that we did what we could to buy local, with the focus of our project being to eat as healthy as possible. Late winter/early spring does not provide Ohioans with a lot of local produce for the market or for the food pantry. We bought local where we could. I am truly convinced that if we bought food within our community from local grocers, and local farmers we would see a vast change in many aspects of your community. Did you know that many of the local farms provide food to area food banks or allow food bank employees to come collect produce after the main collections have been made? Also, the Toledo Farmers Market allows those with SNAP/Ohio Direction Cards to buy tokens to be used to purchase locally grown food. They even offer a Double Up Food Bucks program which offers a dollar for dollar match of up to $20 in tokens that you can spend on fresh fruits and vegetables grown locally. The dollars matched can only be used for local produce.  Customers can exchange their EBT funds for tokens at the Customer Service Center at Westgate or Downtown Market. The goal is to get healthier food to local families while supporting local farmers.

Be Local Eat Healthy Under Poverty Toledo Ohio Simply Jess Blog
Chicken Tacos

We tried to get the best picture we could, but we do understand that this was for five days. Just a taste of what many families and individuals have to deal with. This food budget is commonly divided up by necessary medications, toiletries, pet food, and other needs. We were very thankful for the provisions of the food assistance programs, and we do understand that the intention of these is not for weekly shopping, but to provide help when it is needed. They are a great resource for more than just a few food items. The workers and volunteers can help with food education and guidance in many other need-based issues. I know that I will be contributing more often and contributing items I would want for myself, more organic, shelf stable goods, and more fresh vegetables at the Food For Thought contribution table at the Farmers Market.

Our take aways: food deserts are a terrible thing, had it not been for the new grocery store our options would have been far less. Planning, budgeting, and flexibility were crucial. Yes, choices have to be made, but you can eat healthy under poverty.

Be Local.

Our Budget $57.90  Spent $57.86

Market on the Green
Maxwell House Coffee 11oz $4.79
Brown Rice Long Grain Organic $3.49
Cumin Ground Spice $1.49
Cinnamon Ground Spice $1.49
Popcorn Jolly Time 2lb $2.39 (Certified Non-GMO)
Butter 1lb $3.99
Cheese Kraft Natural 8oz $1.74
Corn Tortilla Azteca 10ct $1.09
Hummus Oasis 10oz $2.49 (*Local)
Pita Bread Oasis $1.49  (*Local)
Bread 100% Whole Wheat Nichols $2.79
Medium Eggs 2 dozen $1.98
Carrots 1lb $0.79
Celery 1lb $1.79
Lemon $0.69
Garlic Whole $0.69
Onions 3lb bag $1.29
Bananas $1.65
Sweet Potatoes (2) 1lb $0.49
Baby Spinach Organic $1.89
Chicken Drumsticks $2.40 (No Fillers, Antibiotics or Hormones)
Chicken Leg Quarters $2.89 (No Fillers, Antibiotics or Hormones)
TOTAL $43.79

Hot Sauce $1.07

Farmers Market
Honey Raw Local $8.00
Apples Local $3.00 (Pesticide Free)
Radishes $1.00
Herbs Italian Blend $1.00 (Locally grown organic)

Food For Thought
Dried Cranberries
Canned Peaches
Canned Corn (2)
Egg Noodles
Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup
Apples (2)
Dry Pinto Beans
Chocolate Chip Quick Bread Mix

15oz Diced Tomatoes No Salt Added
65oz Cranberry Juice Unsweetened
3lb Oats Rolled
18oz Peanut Butter Creamy
15oz Unsweetened Applesauce
Dry Great Northern Beans


2 thoughts on “Be Local and Eat Healthy Under Poverty

  1. What a great illustration of what can be done. The pictures really made the story so much clearer and more real!, Thank you! It would be interesting to know how much time it took. I know you said not more than 30 min cooking each day, but menu planning, shopping, prep, etc. must have been key.

    • Hi Lynn! Thanks for reading!! I would say it took about two hours to trim down my shopping list, and write up my menu. Shopping took about two hours because we had never visited those stores before (but we chatted with people and that added at least 30 minutes that I know of). Monday night I did feel like I cooked for a long time: trimming chicken, boiling all of the chicken that we bought, making the stock, canning the stock, cleaning and trimming all of the vegetables. Then I cooked what we ate that night and cleaned up. The biggest time-saver was soaking beans all day while I was at work, so they could cook with the rest of the food; or I would make a big batch and put them in the fridge to use for a few days. It was a lot of work Friday night and Monday night, the rest of the week was very quick and easy. Hope this helps.

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