With job growth and the economy still only sputtering along, a record number of Americans have turned to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for federal food stamp program.
At the end of last year, roughly 1 in 8 Americans received food stamps, the highest rate ever, according to Lisa Pino, the program's deputy administrator. During the past two years alone, another nearly 12 million people enrolled in the program.
How much a family gets per month is determined by a number of factors, but typically ranges from less than $100 to more than $500. The national average for a family of four at the end of 2009 was $275.53 a month, or about $68.88 a week.
Despite growing dependence on food stamps, the popular impression is that the meals you can make with them are bleak.
To find out how well you can eat on food stamps, the AP asked a chef and a magazine food editor to plan out seven days of meals for a family of four using that budget: $68.88.
Food stamp officials note that the program is meant to supplement a household's food budget, not be its only spending. But to best illustrate what's possible - or not - on a very tight budget, we asked the participants to work with the food stamp budget only.
Bill Telepan of Telepan restaurant in New York: Telepan approached the food stamp challenge with the same sustainable eating philosophy he uses at his restaurant. He favors high-quality, unprocessed ingredients (organic when possible) and plenty of from-scratch cooking.
"The problem with the way some people spend food stamps is by buying processed foods," he says. "I wanted to buy everything fresh and cook from scratch. You are not going to do it every day. But do it two or three times a week and then make enough so you heat it up."
Processed foods may sometimes seem less expensive, but they are harder to stretch and generally not as healthy. Telepan also looked for more seasonal foods, which generally are cheaper.
But even without buying the organic, grass-fed meats he favors, Telepan still came in nearly $20 over budget. Some aggressive use of coupons, sales and bulk shopping probably could bring his total closer to the goal.
When constructing his menu, Telepan began by selecting the protein and building out from there. This ensured the meals were satisfying.
He also assembled his meal plan backward, starting with each day's dinner, then sorting out how to use the leftovers in other meals. For example, the leftovers from Monday's roasted chicken dinner became a salad for lunch on Tuesday. And ziti that was served with broccoli, toasted garlic and shell beans on Wednesday got a makeover with meatballs two nights later.
Of course, cooking from scratch is more work, which many busy families will find daunting. Telepan advocates involving the whole family in the cooking. "People look at cooking as a chore," he says. "In the end, if people all help out it makes it fun."
Where the money went:
Telepan's menu came to $87.76, nearly $20 over budget. The biggest chunk of that - $31.01 - was spent on produce, with another $22.48 on dry goods such as bread, pasta, rice, beans and oatmeal. Meat - two whole chickens ands 2 pounds of ground beef - accounted for another $18.62. A savvy shopper could use coupons, sales and bulk purchases to get his menu closer to budget.
Anna Last, editor of Everyday Food magazine: Last focused on stretching her ingredients as far as possible and budgeting her time as much as her cash.
When planning out the week, she was careful not to schedule too many time-consuming recipes in a row. When she planned the chili garlic chicken legs one night, she followed it with an easier rice and beans the next.
Like Telepan, she avoided processed foods. Not only are whole foods often more nutritious, they usually are easier to stretch.
"Cooking on a budget and actually cooking means cooking without using packaged foods," she says. "Packaged food can often be not as nutritious for you. You are also paying for the convenience sometimes. Pasta sauce is a convenience. Cooking it yourself, you know what's in it. There is less sodium. There is less fat. It's those sorts of things that you have to think of as well."
How she shopped also was part of her plan for staying on budget. If possible, she says don't shop when hungry or with your children, both of which can prompt unplanned purchases. And always use a list; it makes shopping faster because you only look for what you need.
When selecting foods, Last started with foods she liked, as well as basic staples. She also made sure to buy foods with multiple uses - such as flour, oil and spices. But she splurged where she could, as with buttermilk and andoiuille sausage. She simply bought those items in smaller amounts or made sure she had uses for leftovers.
"Throw out nothing," she says. "If you want a special ingredient, figure out what else to do with it."
This is where Last turned to a kitchen sink stew, building around extra chicken legs and adding anything that was leftover from the week. "You can use almost any vegetable in it."
Where the money went:
Last spent a total of $68.49, giving her 39 cents to spare. Nearly $22 of that was spent on about 14 pounds of meat, mostly chicken, ground beef and a bit of bacon. About another $22 was spent on produce, with the remaining money split between dry goods and dairy, including milk, eggs and cheese.
A cross between an omelet and a quiche, this classic Spanish dish is a cheap and easy way to spice up breakfast. The leftovers make a nice lunch served with a salad or cradled between slices of a hearty bread.
Start to finish: 30 minutes
2 potatoes, peeled and finely diced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add the potatoes and blanch for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
In a large non-stick skillet over medium, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the onion and garlic and saute until soft, about 4 minutes. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Fold the onion mixture and potatoes into the eggs, then season with salt and pepper.
Heat the oven to broil.
Return the skillet to medium heat. Add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of oil. Pour the egg mixture into the skillet and cook for 4 minutes. Transfer the skillet to the oven about 10 inches from the broiler. Broil for about 10 minutes, or until lightly browned on the top and the egg is set.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 197 calories; 99 calories from fat; 11 g fat (2 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 180 mg cholesterol; 17 g carbohydrate; 9 g protein; 2 g fiber; 216 mg sodium.
— Recipe adapted from Jose Garces of Amada restaurant in Philadelphia