Lean cuisine

I hope one of the silver linings of the pandemic will be more empathy for people standing in line at the food bank or signing up for SNAP benefits. Because what we’ve all learned is “there, but for the grace of a couple of paychecks, go I.”

Food insecurity doesn’t seem to be getting any better as winter approaches, and now that this year’s crops are done at Dew Point Farm, I’ve been trying to figure out what else we can do to help. Since Brad and I have been on a strict budget for years, I thought maybe I’d start by sharing a few of the tips that have kept us eating like kings without spending a fortune.

  • Leanne Brown’s cookbook “Good and Cheap” is full of beautiful pictures and healthy recipes you’ll actually want to eat — like whole-wheat jalapeno cheddar scones — all for less than four dollars a day. If, like me, you’ve seen government-issued budget cookbooks full of insulting tips for ramen-noodle based meals, you’ll appreciate her book that much more. It’s available as a free PDF download in both English and Spanish.
  • Groups like Wholesome Wave and Double Up Food Bucks allow farmers markets to provide half-price fruit and vegetables to SNAP recipients. Check out their websites to find the nearest market if you’ve got an EBT card — that goes for Pandemic-EBT benefits as well.
  • If you can scratch together enough for an Instant Pot, buy one. I typically hate gadgets, but this sucker is a game changer, both in time and cash savings. Get the one with a yogurt setting and a stainless steel inner pot that will last forever.
  • One example of IP savings: for the price of a half gallon of organic milk and a couple of tablespoons of leftover Greek yogurt, the push of a button will yield two quarts of delicious yogurt. That, along with some granola, is ten days worth of quick, filling breakfasts for me and Brad. We did the math and figured out the Instant Pot paid for itself in four months just from making, rather than buying, six quarts a month.
  • Filling breakfasts are a necessity in our world because of our physically demanding jobs, so we also buy hearty grains, like oatmeal, in bulk. Once a year, we order 23 pounds of organic rolled oats for $42.72 from Breadbeckers. Rolled oats cook quickly, and you can add soymilk, nuts, shredded coconut, or fresh/frozen/dried fruit for extra calories and flavor. Be sure to check for a nearby co-op location, which will give you a discount on shipping costs.
  • Now that the autumn days are short and cool, tomato canning sessions are a distant memory. But there’s still plenty of local food to buy in bulk and enjoy all winter long.
    • Sweet potatoes will last from now until April in a cool, dark place — we keep ours in the pantry in a plastic bin, with a towel draped lightly over the top. Thirty pounds seems to be the perfect amount for the two of us.
    • Butternut squash can be roasted whole in the oven at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes. Then slice in half, remove the seeds, scrape the goodness into freezer bags, and store in the freezer for later use in lasagna and risotto.
    • Try canning a batch or two of apples — they’re great as a side dish, an addition to oatmeal, breads and cakes, or as a pureed snack.
    • Root vegetables like turnips, beets, and rutabagas will keep for months in your crisper bin. Just be sure to remove their tops.
    • If you can find them, Asian persimmons are a late-autumn fruit treat that will last for a couple of months in the fridge. They’re fantastic as a snack or in oatmeal.
    • Hot peppers are easy to store. Just cut off the stem, toss them in a freezer bag, and keep in the freezer. Such a nice kick in a pot of gumbo or chili.
    • Always ask your farmer for blemished bulk food. It saves you a significant amount of money and takes an unwanted product off their hands.
  • Perennial herb plants like parsley, fennel, thyme, sage and rosemary are low-maintenance but high in flavor and nutrients. They cost a fortune at the store but are cheap to grow at home, putting them at the top of my list, especially for those who don’t think they have a green thumb. Our own plentiful herb garden thrives on neglect, living in partial shade and getting zero water other than occasional rain. And remember, if you’ve got an EBT card, edible plants are an approved purchase — which equals half-price if you can find them at a double-SNAP market.

If you’ve got other suggestions for how to help, we’d love to hear them and pass them along to our community. It’s always a good option to make a donation to your local food bank, which is doing twice the work with a fraction of the volunteers. Or help distribute meals to students during school holidays and virus closures. You can even set up block captains for your neighborhood, so folks have a contact if they’re in dire straits and need medicine or food.

As César Chávez once said, “The people who give you their food give you their heart.” Now, more than ever, it’s time for us to share both with one another.

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