Some advice from two food stamp participants: careful planning makes a difference

Victor Omelczenko

Some Advice From Two Food Stamp Participants

Careful Planning Makes A Difference

As she walks through the aisles of her favorite supermarket in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Marjorie Chapman closely inspects the prices and labels of the food she is going to purchase. Until recently, Chapman was solely responsible for raising a family of six.

With no formal training in nutrition, she learned, by doing and figuring out what works best, how to budget and prepare meals for six children and herself. Chapman now has two daughters, aged 11 and 16, living at home, and she is looking for a full-time job.

The experience she’s gained in wise food shopping and meal preparation are still serving her well as she meets her family’s food needs on $121 a month in food stamps.

Begins with the newspaper

In a way, Marjorie Chapman approaches her shopping like a soldier. She launches her attack– her monthly shopping trip–with a variety of weapons. “My first weapon is the newspaper,’ she explains. “I get the food ads and study them, particularly for the week when I do my major grocery shopping.’

She obtains her food stamps usually on the ninth or tenth day of each month. “That week, I go to the store and buy about 90 percent of what I need for the entire month,’ she says. Her remaining food stamps are saved for items such as fresh milk, bread, and meat that she expects to go on sale later in the month.

Chapman says her 18-cubic-foot freezer helps a lot. “I made a deliberate effort several years ago to buy a freezer,’ she says. “When something goes on sale, especially meat, I can fill up my freezer and not have to buy it again until there’s another sale.’

She estimates that her freezer saves her $15 to $20 a month in food costs and that the added cost of electricity is only about $2 a month.

“You can sometimes find a good used freezer for $50 and, if you go in with a neighbor on it, it’s even cheaper to operate when it’s full,’ she says.

Even without a freezer, a food stamp household can save on food costs, says Chapman. “There is nothing wrong with filling your shelves full of canned goods, and there are even some canned meats that occasionally are on sale.

“I’m the kind of person who gets uncomfortable when my pantry gets low, so I deliberately look for inexpensive canned items that I can use to make meals in a pinch,’ she says.

For example, Chapman’s family enjoys spaghetti dishes, which can easily be made using a can of mushroom stems and pieces, a jar of spaghetti sauce, a box of spaghetti, and cheese.

Shops monthly for most foods

Chapman makes sure to keep a running inventory of foods used and needed during the month. “Try to keep a record of everything you use during one month, no matter how many times you go to the store,’ she advises.

“You’ll get a better handle on how much food you actually need, and, in the next month when you go shopping again, make sure you buy as much of everything as you need on one trip so you won’t have to go back again.’

Shopping once a month saves on transportation costs. Chapman owns a car and neighbors often join her on her monthly shopping trip. “But if you don’t have a car,’ she says, “it’s not as expensive to pay someone to take you to the store once a month as it is several times a month.’

When Chapman does her monthly shopping, she spends quite a bit of time looking for generic foods. These are foods that are not identified by brand name and that cost less than brand name and that cost less than brand name items because they are packaged less elaborately.

Chapman’s favorite supermarket displays all of its generic products in one long aisle. There she stocks up on canned fruits and vegetables, macaroni products, peanut butter, and other nonbrand items.

She has found that these items are priced from 10 to 50 percent less than brand name items. A 2-pound jar of generic peanut butter, for example, costs Chapman around $1.39, while the same size brand name peanut butter sells for somewhat more, from $1.59 and higher.

Her supermarket also carries fresh generic meats and vegetables, items not usually associated with the term “generic.’

“I was surprised myself when I came across these items,’ she recalls. “They’ve got, for instance, fresh apples marked “generic.’ These apples come in odd sizes, some apearing lopsided. But when you cook them for apple sauce, their size changes anyway and your stomach isn’t going to know the difference, so who cares?’

Shops carefully for bargains

Oh her monthly shopping trip, Chapman does not hesitate to stop by the rack of produce marked “reduced.’ Recently she found 4.13 pounds of bananas for $1.03 or about 25 cents a pound.

“The peels were turning a little brown, but the bananas were just ripe enough to make a great banana cake,’ she says. That day, bananas were regularly priced at 39 cents a pound, so on one item alone, she saved 58 cents.

For the spaghetti and the salad her children like, Chapman found three green peppers for 19 cents on the reduced rack. Usually, three of these sell for $1.00, so on this buy, she saved 81 cents. “After a while, those cents add up to dollars,’ she smiles. “The peppers were only slightly bruised, and for a sauce they were just fine.’

To make her food stamps stretch, Chapman avoids buying convenience foods whose prices are often marked up to reflect processing and advertising costs.

“However,’ she says, “Sometimes it’s worth buying a convenience food just once to see if you like it and also to save the label that lists the ingredients,’ she explains.

“You can invest in the ingredients listed and experiment for yourself by trying to duplicate the food. That’s how I got my recipe for skillet lasagna, which I use over and over again.’

Prepares most foods herself

Teaching her family good eating habits has helped Chapman manage her food budget. “I stated with the children when they were young, having them eat what was prepared but also asking them what foods they liked. They learned to stop rejecting foods when I’d ask them, “How do you know you don’t like that vegetable if you’ve never tasted it before?’

Occasionally, the children complain about the food. “My 16-year-old complained about what I was preparing, so I told her to figure out what we should buy for the month.’

Her daughter, having picked up some of her mother’s techniques, did the shopping but realized how careful she had to be to stay within the budget. “She now has suggestions for low-cost meals, particularly those combining meat with more vegetables.’

Her two daughters also like sandwiches a great deal, particularly peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which provide a good deal of protein. Chapman shops at a surplus baked goods store where, on a Wednesday, she can get four or five loaves of bread for $1.00. She buys a month’s worth of bread for less than $5.00 and stores it in the freezer.

The family’s food budget was helped when USDA surplus cheese and butter became available. “When the kids get a hold of that cheese, there go cheese sandwiches like crazy,’ Chapman laughs. “They love it, and it’s some of the best cheese I’ve ever eaten, except for some I made at home once.’

Chapman prides herself on making many foods from scratch, including cookies, cakes, biscuits, pudding, and even yogurt. She makes yogurt with 36 ounces of warm water, 2 1/2 cups of powdered milk, and 1/2 cup of plain yogurt.

A yogurt processor may seem like a luxury item, but Chapman finds it saves her time over making yogurt at home using other methods, and it’s more economical than buying yogurt at the store.

“I will spend my last money, if necessary, to buy a piece of equipment for the kitchen that can save me money,’ she says. “When somebody wants to give me a present, I ask for this or that for the kitchen.’

A crock pot and a deep fryer were gifts from friends, and a blender was a gift from one of her children. She also has an electric grinder.

“If chuck steak is on sale for less money than hamburger,’ she says, “I buy it and grind it on my own. Sure, you may lay out money buying the appliance, but you save a lot of money in the long run.’

Plans to help other families

With her experience in food buying and preparation, Marjorie Chapman is now planning a workshop for Kalamazoo area residents on living on a tight budget. “If I can do it, maybe I can teach somebody else how to do it,’ she says.

Chapman believes getting nutrition information to low-income people is important, and she prefers the workshop approach. Publications on nutrition help, she says, but she advises against providing too much printed material during a person’s first encounter with a social service office.

“This kind of information is seldom absorbed if it’s given to you all at once,’ she says. “But you still need it in a hurry, so maybe case-workers could provide details about local workshops and resources on shopping wisely and getting good nutrition.’

For her workshop, Chapman is contacting newspapers for extra copies of oods ads, collecting USDA materials and other publications, and arranging for transportation for workshop participants to go on shopping trips together. “If you don’t actually use the information you get, you soon lose it,’ she says.

Besides planning her workshop, Chapman volunteers as secretary of the board of directors of the Douglas Community Association in Kalamazoo and as chairperson of the education committee for the Kalamazoo Northside Association for Community Development, for which she edits the monthly newsletter.

Most of all, she is looking for a job in business. Over the years, she has taken college courses and recently graduated from Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

Once she obtains that job, she doesn’t plan to forget what she learned while raising a family of six on a low income. She even has an idea for another workshop she’d eventually like to give in her spare time. “I call it “Farewell to Welfare,” she smiles.

For more information, write:

Marjorie Chapman

Douglas Community Association

1000 Paterson Street

Kalamazoo, Michigan 49007

Telephone: 616-343-6185

Photo: Armed with her newspaper and keepling an eye out for special buys, Marjorie Chapman shops for food at her favorite supermarket.

Photo: Buying generic products can often result in savings, Chapman finds. Her store displays generic products in one long aisle, making it easy for shoppers to find them.

COPYRIGHT 1984 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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