As of April of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that more than 47 million Americans were on food stamps.
That means that roughly 15 percent of all people living in the United States are now receiving food assistance.
But a lean budget should not translate into an unhealthy diet devoid of organic food, insists Rough and Ready mother Nicole Glenn, who receives $280 a month in food stamps for a family of three.
Sound impossible? Glenn insists it’s not, but families on a similar budget must be prepared to roll up their sleeves, make home-cooked meals, pay attention to fluctuating prices, plan ahead and consider planting — if at all possible — a small garden.
After taking a nutrition class at Sierra College, Chelsea Conley, a mother of two, decided she would buy organic foods — especially greens and meat — whenever possible. Now that she’s on food stamps, however, she’s had to get creative.
“Once you learn about food and the junk that’s out there, it’s scary not to have money,” she said. “I have to carefully choose the best way to feed my family because there’s no going back. I know too much about many of the foods that aren’t organic and how it impacts your health.”
As a result, Glenn and Conley have offered some tips to families who are struggling to make ends meet.
Community food banks
For those who are determined to eat organic yet find themselves with no money at the end of the month, Conley suggests the Food Bank of Nevada County or the Interfaith Food Ministry.
While the IFM does get some organic produce donated from BriarPatch Co-op and California Organics, it’s minimal. Most of it comes from Safeway and SPD and is rarely organic, said an IFM spokesperson.
Nonetheless, it’s important to note that health experts say the benefits of eating non-organic produce far outweighs eating none at all.
The Food Bank of Nevada County, on the other hand, distributes roughly 175 pounds of (noncertified) organic produce a week to families who qualify, according to Ellen Persa, the garden coordinator for the food bank. With expanding plots and facilities, that amount will continue to grow in the years to come, she said.
When it comes to monthly shopping, Glenn and Conley both agree that Grocery Outlet on Sutton Way in Grass Valley is their first stop.
The prices of their expanding organic selection are often far lower than other area grocery stores. It always helps to eat produce that is in season, as prices are cheaper.
“There’s been a growing demand for organic items,” said Grocery Outlet Produce Manage Fernando Hernandez. “We try to get whatever we can from General Produce in Sacramento.”
Organic produce, beans and other items can be up to a dollar cheaper at Grocery Outlet, said Conley.
Buy in bulk and learn to cook
“The trick to eating healthy on a very low budget is that I cannot rely on convenience foods,” said Glenn.
“I sometimes shop at BriarPatch, which most people consider to be extremely expensive, but I mostly buy food from the bulk department, which is not very expensive but takes a lot of preparation time at home.”
Make a list — and stick to it
“I make a list of all the food we’ll be eating for the entire month,” said Conley. “I tend to stick to the tried and true meals that I know everyone in my family likes. I bulk shop at the beginning of the month and freeze it. Don’t impulse shop for organic — make a list and stick to it.”
Although it’s more labor intensive, it’s far more economical to buy ingredients and cook homemade foods, such as spaghetti sauce and salsa.
At long last, most of Nevada County’s farmers markets are now accepting food stamps. While some locally grown produce may cost more, there may be some perks, said Kevin Olson, public assistance program manager for Nevada County’s Department of Social Services.
“Often when a farmer learns someone is on food stamps, he’ll give the customer more for their money,” he said. “They’ve been known to fill the bag a little fuller. That speaks well for our local farmers.”
Grow your own or join a community garden
Even a small garden on the patio of an apartment can make a big difference in a food budget. Glenn and Conley both have small gardens. Conley grows cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, cantaloupe, honeydew melons, watermelon and zucchini.
“If you don’t have space, grow vertical gardens with a planter box and lattice,” she said. “Cucumbers, tomatoes and melon will all vine up.”
Glenn pickles, cans and dries some of her surplus food, and Conley was able to buy her seeds and starter plants at BriarPatch using her food stamps.
More ways to save
In addition to listing some of the advice mentioned above, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a few more tips:
— Read the store flier to find out what is on special for the week. Plan your meals around sale items.
— Priorities first. Fill your cart with the basics first — vegetables, fruit, protein and milk.
— Don’t be afraid to buy frozen vegetables.
They are as good for you as fresh and they often cost far less.
— Try to buy the store or generic brand.
— Look for coupons, sales and store specials.
— For added savings, sign up for the store discount card.
— Ask for a rain check. If a specially priced item is sold out, ask for a rain check. It allows you to purchase the item at the sale price at a later date.
— Stop wasting food. A 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council asserts that Americans throw away nearly half their food every year. Wasted food amounts to nearly $165 billion per year.
Reap the benefits
Due to the lack of pesticides, organic foods require more labor to grow, hence the higher cost.
Because of the possibility of pesticide residue, experts suggest putting fresh fruits and vegetables at the top of your organic list.
But, like Conley and Glenn, many families do not want to stop there. They see eating organic as a right, not a privilege.
“So much has changed health-wise since I took that nutrition class and learned how to eat,” said Conley.
“My cholesterol had gone down, and I don’t need medication. I see the behavior in my children improving. You can’t put a price on that.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.