1. Please advise us on our Lenten plans

The good news: I'm old enough now that not even the Catholic church requires me to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (scroll to Canon 1252).

But I want to do something meaningful for Lent, and I'd like it to be more significant than just giving up something (sugar? wine? whining?) or adding something (daily Mass? optimistic blog posts?).

So here's my idea. I think I'd like to try limiting our food budget to the amount we'd get if we got the maximum amount of food stamps in Illinois. For a family of two, that would be $323 a month, or about $74 a week.

Mr Neff suggests that we be more generous and allow ourselves the amount the USDA thinks is sufficient for a couple aged 51 - 70. The most recent figures (November 2008) suggest $79.80. So say we split the difference and make it $77 a week, or $11 a day.

This would cover home-cooked food only--no other grocery store purchases like detergent, no restaurant meals, no alcoholic beverages. Which is not to say we couldn't buy those things, though it would seem like cheating to say we were getting by on $75 - $80 a week if we were actually eating half of our meals downtown.

So, how hard could this be? Well, that means maybe $1.25 for breakfast, $1.25 for lunch, and $3.00 for dinner for each of us. Lots of dried beans, onions, potatoes. Not a whole lot of goat cheese and arugula.

Do we want to do this? If we do, will our diet be balanced and our meals tasty? Can we invite friends over? Would you consider doing it with us? (Then we could get together for amazing potlucks...)

2. Canned food from Target

Thanks to all of you who have responded to the post about Lenten plans. Several have sent recipes for cheap, tasty, nutritious food, and with your permission I'll post some of these.

Now that I'm thinking about the Lenten Poverty Experiment, grocery shopping is turning into a challenging brain exercise. Monday, while at Target, I decided to pick up some canned goods to take to the People's Resource Center. I spent $19.21--about 25% of the weekly food allotment for two (I had no idea how expensive fruit is!)--and here's what I bought:
  • Progresso chicken gumbo soup (on sale), 2 cans, 8 servings, 28 grams of protein
  • Diced tomatoes, 2 cans, 7 servings, 7 grams of protein
  • Corn, 2 cans, 7 servings, 14 grams of protein
  • Green beans, 2 cans, 7 servings
  • Chili beans, 2 cans, 7 servings, 56 grams of protein
  • Applesauce, 12 lunch-sized portions
  • Sliced peaches, 2 cans, 7 servings
  • Pear halves, 2 cans, 6 servings
  • Pineapple, 2 cans, 9 servings
If I were buying this for myself and my husband, I'd have just bought
  • about a day's worth of protein
  • about a day's worth of grains (corn)
  • enough fruits and veggies for four or five days (but nothing fresh!)
Still to buy for the week, and $57.79 to buy it with:
  • milk, yogurt, cheese
  • breakfast foods, bread
  • meat, beans, eggs
  • more vegetables
Looks like a week like this could be balanced, but not very tasty. Fortunately I'm still in the planning stages. My bag full of canned goods goes to the food pantry this afternoon, and I hope it will supplement someone's food stamps so they can buy fresh vegetables and fruits, meat, and good brown bread. Nobody should have to live on canned vegetables.

3. Cheap food as a spiritual discipline

My friend Jennifer read my January 18 post, "Please advise us on our Lenten plans," and wrote:
I would love to do this, but I confess it would be for material, not spiritual reasons--I need to save money!
I answered:
The whole point of my blog is that the material and the spiritual are inextricably linked--so your reasons are fine.
With unemployment rising and salaries being frozen or reduced, many of us have considerably less to spend on food this year than last. Can we still eat meals that nourish body and soul?

4. The rules

OK, you want to play the game. For a day, a week, a month, six weeks--you decide--you're going to try to eat tasty, healthy food without spending more than suggested in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's thrifty plan, which is the basis for food-stamp allotments.

To calculate how much you can spend, you can click the link in the previous sentence and work out a precise amount based on your household's number, ages, and genders. Or you can go by these fairly generous approximations:

  • For one adult: $6/day, $42/week, $180 month
  • For a two-person household: $12/day, $84/week, $360 month
  • For each additional person in the household: $4/day, $28 week, $120/month
In Illinois, these are the rules:
Food stamp benefits can be used to buy:
  • any food or food product for human consumption,
  • plus seeds and plants for use in home gardens to produce food.
Food stamp benefits cannot be used to buy:
  • Hot foods ready to eat,
  • Food intended to be heated in the store,
  • Lunch counter items or foods to be eaten in the store,
  • Vitamins or medicines,
  • Pet foods,
  • Any nonfood items (except seeds and plants),
  • Alcoholic beverages, or
  • Tobacco.
(Not that there will be enough money left over to buy those things anyway...)

5. Ten reasons to try the $6-a-day food experiment

1. It might help with your blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol, or body-mass index

2. You only have $6/day to spend on food anyway, so you may as well feel righteous about it

3. You'd like to reduce your spending to $6/day so you can buy more books

4. You'd like to reduce your spending to $6/day so you can give an equal amount to your local food pantry

5. You're a misunderstood ascetic in a hedonistic world

6. You like a good stiff challenge you can be obsessive-compulsive about

7. The Easter feast is so much tastier when you're really hungry

8. You would like to show solidarity with the poor (without having to live on less than $2 a day, like nearly half the world's population)

9. You'd like a family project that will make your kids realize how lucky they are

10. You're no good at fasting or dieting, but maybe if you think of this as a game...

6. Lentil soup

Thanks to Jana Riess for this extremely easy, cheap, and tasty recipe. I plan to serve this soup regularly during the Lenten Experiment, along with homemade bread and perhaps a salad. Maybe we'll even be able to afford fresh fruit for dessert...

This recipe makes at least 10 cups of soup. If you need only one or two servings, you can freeze the rest. Or throw a party.

  • one pound of lentils,
picking out the bad. Into a crockpot, place the lentils and
  • 6 cups water, chicken broth, or vegetable stock
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes, undrained
  • 2 tablespoons minced dried parsley
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon marjoram
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
Cover and cook on low for 7 - 8 hours or on high for 4 - 5 hours, until lentils are tender.

Notes from LaVonne: I followed this recipe exactly, and I ended up with a lovely thick lentil stew. Because I wanted soup, however, I added

  • 1 quart (32 oz) low-sodium chicken broth
and heated on low for another four or five hours.

It's OK to substitute other dried beans (though you'll need to presoak them overnight before throwing them in the slow cooker) and other seasonings.

You can also toss in other mild-flavored vegetables for variety: potatoes, spinach, squash, yams... If you want to use up last night's fully cooked leftovers, add them to the pot 1/2 hour before serving--enough time to warm them up and absorb some flavor, but not so long that they turn to mush.

Garnish with celery leaves (or shaved parmesan cheese, yogurt, fresh parsley, or chives).

7. Uh oh

"The best way to gain weight in America is to go on food stamps."

--Dr. Mehmet Oz on Oprah this morning

So, if we do this Lenten Experiment, will we need to get Easter outfits in a larger size?