Last year, a group of food bloggers were invited to the Capital Area Food Bank for a tour and an education. We learned what types of foods a food bank recipient would actually receive, and we were challenged to shop and prepare meals as if we were recipients ourselves. (My posts from last year are here and here.) It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least.
That group of food bloggers are now part of a non-profit organization, the Austin Food Blogger Alliance; one of the missions is that of philanthropy, and this was the kick-off event. We met at the CAFB on April 20, with presentations from Lisa Goddard, their Online Marketing Director, a discussion of SNAP benefits, a mock nutrition class (more on these in a moment) and a tour of the facility. Some of the things I learned and was reminded of:
-- The face of hunger is everywhere, and can be anyone.
-- One of every two people will have been on food stamps, even if just on an emergency basis, at some point in their lives.
-- Food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is administered via the Lone Star Card here in Texas; it is federal dollars, not city or state funding. (You may hear someone say: "I am on food stamps/SNAP/Lone Star card" -- it's all the same thing.)
-- Only half of the eligible people are actually on SNAP in our area.
-- The food bank encourages people to fill out the application for SNAP (and has trained counselors to educate people about it and assist with the applications; they work the 21 counties that comprise Central Texas). The use of food stamps creates more economic activity, otherwise federal dollars designated for the SNAP programs are left on the table, which could lead to under-funding in future budget cycles.
-- The application process is NOT user friendly. The state of Texas has a 10 page application, that generally has to be re-submitted every 6 months; the average family of four receives $306 per month in SNAP benefits. (SNAP applications for other states were passed around at the meeting; they were all much, much simpler apps. Pathetic that the state of Texas allows this to continue, but clearly they are trying to limit access to the funds. That's a whole different soapbox that we could get into....but I'll just say, I am really disappointed with our state government and legislators. As Lisa so passionately put it: "There are barriers in place to prevent people from applying.")
-- If there is ANYBODY who you know in Texas who you think would be eligible for SNAP benefits, please encourage them to apply. You can start with the Health and Human Services website to see if you/they are eligible. Then complete the application, and then wait for an interview with HHS. If you're eligible, why NOT apply? It's "free" money.
-- You can't buy just anything from the grocery store with SNAP funds; no prepared foods, such as rotisserie chickens, but raw chicken is fine.
We also had a presentation from Angela Henry, who, as a registered dietitian, conducts classes in the community on how to make healthy meals. She goes into the community to teach basic nutrition, meal planning, kids classes and more. And these are all free classes to SNAP recipients. Angela and Lisa challenged us as food enthusiasts to come up with healthy, nutritious meals made from items that a SNAP client would be able to buy. We also need to consider that some clients will only have a stove top available to them, no oven or other equipment beyond the basics. CAFB's goal will be to take our recipes and incorporate them into the classes that Angela teaches.
What I've decided to do is to look at some dishes that regularly cook, and see how they can be stretched with a few basic additions. I started with polenta (or you could use grits; they are practically the same, but there are some technical differences). I like to prepare my polenta with half water, half milk, because they come out creamier, and they can easily be made on the stove top in a saucepan. Follow the instructions on the package; I buy the instant ones, that take about 5 minutes; all you need to add are water (and milk if you wish) and salt. By themselves, they're a great filling dish, and organic ones run about $2/lb, and that makes a lot of polenta.
You can add things like cheese (a nice sharp cheddar, shredded) and herbs (chives, especially) to your polenta to give it more flavor.You can also add protein; this requires an additional skillet or other pan. I've chosen turkey sausage, because it's lower fat than pork sausage. I removed the turkey sausage from it's casing, and browned it in the skillet with about a teaspoon of oil. Frozen (or fresh) shrimp would be a great one too -- shrimp and grits!
Add your protein to your polenta/grits, and you've got a good meal. Or, you can keep going. Do you have tomatoes, either fresh or canned (canned are easier for this)? Once you've browned your sausage, add some chopped tomatoes to the skillet as well, and let them heat through.
But wait! Do you have any kind of leafy green? Whether it's a bunch of kale, or loose leaf greens, you can add them in. If you're at the grocery store and you have the choice between romaine lettuce and spinach, get the spinach! Lots of nutrients in the spinach, not so much in the lettuces. Try spinach, arugula, kale, collards, chard -- all good leafy greens. Chop some up, and add it to the sausage and tomato mix; put the lid on the pan for a few minutes to let the greens wilt down.
When you add this to your polenta, you get a hearty, filling, nutritious meal, with lean protein, vegetables, and grains/carbohydrates. You'll notice I haven't given any measurements for these meal suggestions. Again, follow the package directions for making the polenta/grits, based on the number of people you are feeding. For the protein, a serving is about 4 oz, or the size of a deck of cards. Then add as much tomatoes and greens as you wish. Baking is a science, but cooking is much easier!
Back to the protein for a minute. If you can't find turkey sausage, you could easily use ground chicken or turkey, even ground beef, if you get a leaner one. These meats also freeze well; you can portion them out, wrap in plastic wrap, and put into a freezer bag (label it so you know what it is!)
When shopping, go check out the Bulk section of your grocery store. Stores buy these items in bulk, so you can buy as much or as little of the item as you need. This is a GREAT place to get spices and dried herbs. Say you are using ground chicken, which on it's own is fairly bland; you can get a couple tablespoons of Cajun spice for about 50 cents, and use maybe a teaspoon to season the chicken. Or buy a bottle of Mrs. Dash; there are tons of flavor options, and they don't have sodium. Things like dried beans are usually cheaper in the bulk section than the prepackaged ones, same with rices. Can you plant an herb garden, or pick up some potted ones at the local garden center? This is a great way to get kids involved -- have them care for the plants. Then you've got easy access to great flavor enhancers! Think fresh and think flavor -- those will take you a long way in making a nutritious meal.