Day 7 of the SNAP Hunger Challenge!

Monday, September 26, 2011

By Chef Terri

(Said with my best Strongbad impression) It's over!!!

This has been one heck of a long week. Today's menu was a little dull, consisting only of my PBJ breakfast and leftover mango, chicken, and black bean stew over rice.

Dinner...well, I made the mistake I always make when I tried to make fried rice. Allow my failures to be a lesson to you! When using leftover or frozen veggies to make fried rice, it is good to sautee them before you add the precooked rice (this is a great way to use up rice from leftover Chinese takeout, if you have it on hand). The part I always mess up is the part where you need to scramble the eggs on the side and THEN chop them up and add them to the rice. If you don't, and instead just dump the eggs on top of your delicious sauteed vegetables and rice, you end up with...gloppy, sad, mushy rice. I ate a little bit of it for dinner, but couldnt stomach more than I absolutely needed to in order to stop the hunger pangs.

I've been keeping detailled nutrition information for each day that I've been on the Hunger Challenge. Instead of boring you with every day's total, I've averaged the food consumed in the last 7 days and tried to give you a snapshot of what I've been eating vs what I "should" be eating. All of my numbers have come from, where they have a great recipe calculator and lots of relevant nutrition and fitness information (plus, it's free!). My goal numbers are listed in parentheses.
Calories:1568.8 (1730-2080)
Total Fat: 60.2g (44-70g)

Saturated Fat: 16.11g
Cholesterol: 343.1mg (less than 300mg)

Sodium: 2714.9mg (less than 2300mg)

Potassium: 2439.9mg
Total Carbohydrates: 192.8g (223-322g)

Fiber: 31.4g (20-30g)
Sugars: 28.7g
Protein: 77.9g

I fell short on my caloric goals, overshot my cholesterol and my sodium levels, but managed to get enough fiber and protein to help keep me going. My carbohydrates were also below where they should be, and I should be aiming to the lower end of the fat spectrum. However, the only reason I KNOW any of this information is because I have reliable access to a computer, knowledge of a website where I can gain this information, and education to understand what the numbers actually mean. Most Americans, whether or not they are on SNAP, don't have these sorts of luxuries. To compare, here is the caloric information for 2 McDoubles, 2 small french fries, and a large Coca-Cola from McDonalds. All of this information was located on their website. Again, my goals are in parentheses alongside.

Calories: 1560
Total Fat: 61g (44-70g)
Saturated Fat: 20g
Cholesterol: 130mg
(less than 300mg)
Sodium: 2180mg (less than 2300mg)
Total Carbohydrates: 209g (223-322g)
Sugars: 99g
Protein: 50g

It is pretty devastating to compare what I could have bought for approximately $5 a day to what I worked really hard on to feed myself for $5 a day. It is true that SNAP money does not work as currency at fast food restaurants, however, it does work at most convenience stores and dollar store sorts of establishments. This means that it is far easier to access cheap, minimally time consuming calories for my shopping dollar than it is to work so hard to get my needs met through a lengthy process in the kitchen. I cannot express how frustrating it is to know that, and to know that most people in this country don't know enough about basic nutrition to understand why the brown rice and beans keeps me feeling fuller for longer, even if it has the same calories as the large french fry.

At the end of all of this, I wonder what the purpose was. I know several friends of mine have been amazing and have given me tons of support, encouraging me to succeed when I could have easily cheated or fallen off of my task. But what else are we doing? Are we talking to the people we know and love about what they're eating? Are we doing so in a kind and compassionate manner?

How can you make a difference in someones life? I took this challenge to help broaden my understanding of the struggles people on SNAP face, and I never expected I would learn so much...but it isn't enough. I'm talking to people more about the food they're eating. I'm donating higher quality food to my local food pantry. I'm continuing to work with an organization that thinks it is of vital importance not just to provide food to the hungry, but to provide HEALTHY food to the hungry while we strive to end hunger in our community.

Go do something today. And tomorrow. And the next day. I'll be right there cheering you on.

Day 6 of the SNAP Hunger Challenge!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

By Chef Terri

Oh man, oh man...only 24 hours left. I can do this. I totally got this.

This morning was pretty exciting, as it was the only day this week I was able to have something OTHER than PB&J for breakfast. I also managed to feed my partner off of this meal, so that was really awesome! I scrambled up 5 eggs, a quarter cup of cheddar cheese, and 2 cups of spinach with a little bit of salt and pepper and served it with toast and jam on the side. The thing that saved the cheese from being "not enough" was adding it just at the end, right before the eggs were done. That way, I could still SEE pieces of it in the eggs, which helped me perceive its taste better. It really is the little things, like choosing extra sharp cheddar cheese for its extra flavor, that have made it easier to get through the challenge.

Since breakfast was really more of brunch, I only ate a handful of tortilla chips and PB&J for lunch, which wasn't too bad. It held me over until dinner, and inspired me to come up with YET ANOTHER way to use my black beans to fill my belly. This time, I used my lime to pep up the flavor a bit.

1/4 C of onions, finely diced
1 t of vegetable oil
1 1/2 C of black beans, cooked
1/4 C of water
1 Roma tomato, diced
Juice of half a lime
1/2 t salt
1/4 t black pepper

Sautee onions in vegetable oil for 3-5 minutes or until tender. Add black beans and water, and using a fork, mash approximately half the beans in to the water to cook. Allow to boil, thickening the water slightly, and add tomato, lime juice, salt and pepper. Serve with a fork, or tortilla chips!

By eating mine with a few tortilla chips, I got extra crunch and flavor, but I was otherwise happy wolfing this down with a fork.

It was odd tonight, going to a party where my friends were serving delicious cheeses and taco dip (one of my favorite things) and all sorts of other edibles, and having to turn them down in favor of a glass of water. It definitely limited my time at the party, as I knew that in the battle of wills with the cheese platter, I would eventually lose. On one hand, I am thrilled and delighted that tomorrow marks the last day of my hunger challenge. On the other, I feel more sad and frustrated than ever for the people for whom this isn't just a week, or who don't have a choice to stop doing this at any time. I'm debating trying to raise money as well as awareness after this week is over, something tangible I can give to my food bank and feel like other people shared in too. You've all been so helpful to me through this, do you think we could reach out and help a few other people in need too?

Day 5 of the SNAP Hunger Challenge!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

By Chef Terri

Today was...not at all easy.

As I said, I had my wonderful friends ben and Nadja in from Champaign last night, and I woke up fairly late in the morning. They had a craving for Ethiopian food, so we headed out right away to Demera, my favorite place in the city. I had been really set on sticking to the challenge though, so off we headed with my partner and my roommate...and my PB&J. It was really not fun (for most of us, I assume) to sit there and not eat while they all scooped up delicious bites and my stomach rumbled. But the conversation was great, the people were better, and at least I got some free smells out of the deal!

Lunch was kind of a hastilly cobbled together affair. Half a cup of salsa, 3 oz of tortilla chips, a tomato, and a one ounce hunk of cheddar cheese was enough to fill my belly up this time. It was actually kind of nice to be able to munch idly on the tortilla chips while I read my book, lazing on the couch with my partner. It struck me then how many activities I engage in on a regular basis that center around, or at least involve, food. I go out to eat with friends a lot, sharing many plates of different foods, passing them around and telling stories. When I go to the movies, there is ALWAYS popcorn. If I'm spending a lazy afternoon reading, I love to have some animal crackers and a cup of tea. When I was reading, I realized I hadn't had my daily cup, and that had contributed greatly to my headache and overall sense of annoyance. One large cup of tea later, I was feeling much better than when I initially embarked on this blog post.

During the hunger challenge, I've had to change the way I socialize a lot. It would feel really isolating to me after a long period if I had to keep turning people down for meals out, or couldn't invite people over for a home cooked meal. In some communities/groups, SNAP is already a somewhat stigmatized label, something that people take to mean that you are lazy, or somehow couldn't manage to make ends meet through the good old American concept of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." I cannot stress enough that the people I have met through my work who are on SNAP, the friends and family I have had that have spent time on SNAP, are NOT lazy. They are not reaching for a handout. This is a supplemental program designed to help people that are in serious need. I'm so grateful that it exists, because without it, some people I love very much would be faced with some (even more) frightening choices. There have been brief periods in my life that I could be defined as "food insecure" (something one in six people in Cook County share), and without the safety net of SNAP, I could have gone without food.

My roommate and my partner went out to the local pub for dinner, thankfully sparing me the unpleasantness of having to watch them eat and sip my water. I used a little bit of culinary know how to make myself something rib sticking and filling for dinner, even though I wasn't particularly hungry. I knew that since I was going out to spend time with friends later, I'd want the food in me now. By caramelizing the onions, I was able to change their flavor a bit, make them very sweet, which was a complement to the nutty brown rice and the bright spinach.

1 T of oil
1/2 C of thinly sliced onions
3 T of water
1 1/2 C of precooked brown rice
1 C of spinach

Over low heat, cook the onions until golden brown and sticky (approximately 20-30 minutes). Splash 3 the water in to the skillet to scrape up any of the tasty brown bits from the bottom of the pan and add the rice until just heated through. Pile the spinach on top and stir to incorporate. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

By not continuing to cook the spinach after adding it to the hot rice, I allowed it to retain some of its crispness and all its bright green color. The caramelized onions were a different shade of brown than the rice, which added some variety to my bowl as well. Eating on a very limited budget is challenging, but this dish provided a lot of color and texture and flavor for very little money or time spent in the kitchen.

Day 4 of the SNAP Hunger Challenge!

Friday, September 23, 2011

by Chef Terri
I am out of exciting things to write about PB&J. Just know that I had it for breakfast, again, like I do every weekday even when I’m not on the challenge, and it was still kind of weird because of the high fructose corn syrup jelly. It’s tough to pass up the stuff I know I love in the door of the fridge every morning.

Lunch, on the other hand, was AWESOME! Even though it was just leftover beans and rice with some shredded cheddar on top, I can’t even explain the way I felt after getting to eat enough food that I felt like I didn’t want to eat more food. Americans tend to have a problem paying attention to their bodies and noticing when they feel satisfied vs when they feel stuffed to the gills. By ignoring those crucial signals, we tend to overeat. Here are a few tricks I’ve had to start using over the last few years in order to eat slowly and listen to what my stomach is telling my brain. (Hey, after 7 years in professional kitchens, you learn to eat whatever you can, whenever you can, as fast as you can!) These are also generally good tips to actually learn to enjoy the food you DO get to eat, as opposed to wolfing it down and still feeling dissatisfied.
1.) Turn. Off. The TV. By playing music, working on the internet, eating through your lunch break every day at the office, watching a movie, AND trying to check our cell phones, we take all of the focus off of the food itself. Remove distractions that are not related to other human beings actually sharing the meal with you.
2.) Eat off of a plate, at a table, with silverware. Even on nights when I order Chinese takeout, I pour it on to an actual plate and eat it with my own chopsticks, at my table. By pouring your food on to a flat surface, instead of eating it out of a carton, your eyes have a better ability to gauge portion. When your eyes say, “Wow, that’s a lot of food!” you’re already on the path to your belly signaling your brain to slow down or stop eating. Even snacks, like potato chips, need to be poured out in to a real dish, at least.
3.) Be hungry for a bit. Not starving, not terribly hungry, just enough. Note what your body feels like in that state. Then give it something very small, like a banana or an apple. Wait 20 minutes. Notice the difference. Eat something again, a piece of cheese or a little bit of chicken. Wait 20 minutes. See how you feel. Eating in small stages, and noting the differences in physical sensation in between each stage is a great way to get acquainted with the sensation of being satisfied.
4.) Go to the bathroom. In the middle of your meal, get up, go to the bathroom, and come back. Breaking up your meal even by a few minutes gives your stomach crucial time to get word to your brain that maybe an extra sandwich isn’t the best idea.
5.) This last trick might sound a little silly, but it’s worked for me. When eating food, even if it’s a grilled cheese sandwich I’ve made a million times, I try to think of a new word to describe it. By forcing my brain to think about something other than “Put the food in your mouth RIGHT NOW,” I have to play a game in between bites, really savoring each taste and texture so that I could describe it. My goal is to be able to describe what I’ve eaten in so many rich, colorful words that even someone that has no sense of taste can understand what I had.
Dinner was a fun experiment in how to make beans and rice a little bit more exciting. I still have a large part of my onion remaining (let’s hear it for supermarkets that price produce by piece, not by weight, because otherwise that onion would have cost me a pretty penny), and a mango, so I combined those, some beans, water, canned fire roasted tomatoes, and my last chicken breast in a pot and made a tasty stew. By ladling it over a bit of rice, I made it even more filling, and this actually meant that my partner and I BOTH managed to eat this for dinner and feel satisfied! Pretty sweet deal. I wish I had made the beans and rice earlier in the week, as I now have a bit of food I can nibble on that isn’t part of my plan.

I had forgotten until yesterday that I had two really awesome friends coming in to town this weekend. I panicked for a little bit, wondering how I was supposed to feed them and take care of them on this plan. Now, I think Im just out of luck with it comes to providing dinner for them on Saturday unless a miracle happens and the Food Fairy deposits something in my fridge, but I’ve got some creative plans for brunches for two days. Stay tuned and see if I can manage to create a total of 29 meals on a $35 budget!

Day 3 of the SNAP Hunger Challenge!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

by Chef Terri
Today has been a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, I woke up with a nasty headache from low blood sugar. This meant I got kind of irritated because I couldn’t adequately explain my calculation methods of costing to people. For example, while some people believe that they can calculate their food cost just by saying that a sprinkle of dried oregano would only cost a cent or two, I think that the initial cost for a container of spices or herbs ($3-$6 per jar) would be too cost prohibitive on a SNAP budget. I don’t believe that most people in Chicago on SNAP, or most of Cook County have the ability, time, or space to raise an indoor herb or vegetable garden. I don’t think that most people in Chicago on SNAP have the access to grocery stores teeming with “free samples” that so many people are encouraging me to take. I don’t think most people in Chicago on SNAP have the ability to comparison shop, coupon clip, or afford the initial cost of bulk purchasing. I don’t think most people in Chicago on SNAP are able to purchase a week or more worth of groceries at a time, as carrying them home on public transit is such a challenge.
Even more frustratingly, I don’t believe most people in Chicago have the education or access to be able to make healthy food choices, prepare food in ways that retain or enhance inherent nutrition, or try things they have never have before.
For example, I know that if I put peanut butter in a skillet with a little bit of water, salt, pepper, and onions, it will make a palatable sauce. Most people look at peanut butter only as a sandwich condiment or a dessert item. Salsa can be a flavor adding agent to salads, or scrambled in to eggs. It doesn’t just go on chips. The list goes on and on. There are even tricky ways to cut food so that it makes your eye think there is more than there is on the plate. But do most people on SNAP know these sorts of things? Do they have the time or access to learn them? Probably not.
On the more cheerful side of things, people have been really supportive. My coworkers are really nice and feel guilty that they’re all going to go out for lunch today and have a root beer float as a snack and I can’t. My partner has encouraged me over and over again, reminding me that the whole point of this challenge is to gain more than just sympathy for people in need, but to have a chance to gain even a tiny bit of empathy for their suffering. My family has reminded me to use MY history, MY inherent privileges (such as having a car with which I can access many grocery stores, living in a neighborhood that HAS many grocery stores, being educated as a chef, and being brought up in a middle class household that could afford to expose me to different foods as a child, to name a few) to help educate and reach out to people that don’t have what I do. The text messages throughout the day from friends and loved ones just saying that they’re excited reading these updates, and proud of me, also really help. It makes me sad that a lot of people on SNAP probably aren’t as lucky as I am, specifically when it comes to how great my support system is.
Today’s menu worked out pretty well for some reason. Maybe it was just out of desperation, but my PBJ sandwich seemed to last longer in to the day today than it had yesterday, so I didn’t start feeling too hungry for lunch until about 10:30, which was snack time. I had an apple and a one ounce piece of cheddar cheese, that made me able to stay full until lunch rolled around. In order to stay as true to the challenge as I could, I made my lunch last night threw it in the microwave. The trick I used to keep the chicken breast juicy was twofold. First, when I cooked the chicken, I cooked it in a little bit of vegetable oil on one side to get some color, and then when I flipped it over, I added water to the pan about halfway up the chicken breast. Then, I put the chicken in a 350 degree oven for about 7 minutes, until my thermometer (ESSENTIAL to not overcooking things like a thick piece of chicken) told me it was 160 degrees. I took it out of the oven and let it sit on the stove, resting in the juices, for 5 more minutes. By letting it rest, the muscle fibers in the chicken had a chance to retain their natural juices instead of slicing it right away and letting all the flavor run all over the board. Then I sautéed my frozen veggies in the same pan so that they could pick up some chicken-y flavor. To reheat the chicken, I set the microwave to its lowest power setting (I just want to warm my food up, not cook it much more) and added about a teaspoon of water to the Tupperware before zapping it for a minute. By keeping the lid loosely closed, it retained steam, which heats all the food very quickly. It still dries out a little from being in the microwave, but by using low power and shorter times in the microwave, it was still pretty tasty.
Dinner was downright exciting. I had intended to have beans and rice yesterday but didn’t remember to soak my beans in advance, so I thought I was out of luck and had to change my plans. Upon further research, I found that I could have cooked the beans without soaking them, but that is neither here nor there. I cooked them in water with onion, salt and pepper for about 60 minutes, boiling and then reducing to a simmer. Alongside, I cooked the brown rice in water as well, but added about a half cup of salsa. Sadly, the beans were done about 30 minutes after the rice, but my patience didn't last that I mixed the beans and rice together, and got a complete meal with lots of fiber, protein, and carbohydrates, and...vaguely chewy beans. The squirt of lime juice over my bowl at the very end was delicious. I wish I’d had a spicy pepper to add to the mix, or even some cumin or vinegar to add to it, but next time.

Now my roommate is trying to tempt me with canned cinnamon rolls he made. I can't justify it. I can't justify it. I'll just enjoy the smell. Or something...

Day 2 of the SNAP Hunger Challenge!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

By Chef Terri

Spinach and Chicken Salad with Hardboiled Egg, Onion, & Lime

Approximate breakdown of my lunch cost today:
$0.60 for the 2 oz of chicken I reserved from the breast I sautéed last night
$0.12 for the egg I hardboiled

$0.67 for the 3 oz or so of spinach
$0.10 for the sliced onions
$0.14 for the third of the lime juice and zest I used
Approximately $1.63 total meal cost
Approximately 154 calories in the meal
Approximately $.01 per calorie consumed
In an average 1 oz bag of potato chips, there are 160 calories. Those potato chips require no time to boil the eggs, no preparation of product, no saving chicken from the night before. The average 1 oz bag of potato chips costs $0.33 at Jewel, meaning it would cost even less than the $.01 per calorie that my salad cost me to consume. Now, of course the potato chips don’t provide much of any of the nutrients I’ve eaten here. Spinach is high in iron and vitamin C, I gained lots of tasty protein from the chicken and egg, and lots of flavor from my lime and my onion. In total, I was able to eat almost 4 cups of total food volume, which is far more than the heaping cup of chips would have taken up in my stomach. However…I’m still really, really hungry.
Last night was really rough for me, sleep wise, and I decided to have an extra bag of hot tea this morning. Since I usually only use one tea bag (and get two cups of tea worth out of each bag), I had a total of 4 cups of tea today on a very empty stomach. My snack of a banana, while super tasty, was less filling than my baby carrots were yesterday, and didn’t do anything to slow the absorption of caffeine in to my system. I think that by increasing my caffeine consumption while not increasing my food consumption (instead, decreasing it sharply from yesterday), I’ve also increased my sense of jitteriness and overall irritability. I am wide awake, but none too pleased about it.
Dinner was easy to prepare, and very flavorful, but not particularly filling. Two eggs scrambled with salsa, and a piece of toast with an ounce of shredded cheddar cheese.
I upped my overall consumption of vegetables for the day by using the salsa, but I’ve already exceeded my total recommended consumption of egg yolks for the week, boosting my cholesterol consumption significantly. We know that there is an overall connection between poverty and ill health, and poverty and obesity, which I’ve certainly begun to understand more personally in the last 2 days. I’ve lost three pounds in the last 48 hours, but I know that if I keep up this intensely calorie restricted method of eating, my body will attempt to store everything I eat as fat, increasing my likelihood to suffer from obesity related illness. While I’m struggling to eat healthily this week, I’m already hearing the sirens call of just eating the whole bag of tortilla chips for dinner. I could have purchased a significantly greater volume of food, things like potato chips and ramen and soda for the same amount of money as I spent on the fruits and vegetables and lean protein I bought this week.
Just thinking about the food I can’t eat today is making me grumpier, but simultaneously more grateful for the luxuries I do enjoy. I can’t imagine being this hungry and not having my laptop or a good book to distract me. If I had to be this hungry in between working two or more jobs (as lots of people on SNAP do) or while raising children (again, a large percentage of SNAP participants have children), I don’t think I could manage it.

Day 1 of the SNAP Hunger Challenge

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

By Chef Terri

Day 1 started bright and early as I fumbled through my kitchen to make my PB&J. I skipped past my Skippy Natural peanut butter and jumped right in to the peanut butter I could afford this week, loaded with partially hydrogenated fat. The jelly was...of an upsetting consistency. While it's first ingredient was, in fact, strawberry, it was followed up with high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and pectin. I have become much more accustomed to 100% fruit spreads, and stuff with high fructose corn syrup just moves differently. But, I measured out my portions, spread them on my bread and ate it gratefully because I knew I wouldn't have any food til much later in the morning if I didn't.

Off to work, where at every turn, there was food offered to me. Today, it wasn't too hard to turn it down, although when it came time for my midmorning snack, I certainly had a craving for something more substantial than baby carrots. However, it was exciting to taste how great, how crisp and fresh the carrots were because I was genuinely hungry. It also made me happy to think of the fact that I'd only spent 49 cents on the whole bag that might get me through most of the week.

Lunch was a bit of an adventure. I realize that I have options available to me in preparing my lunch that most people wouldn't, given that I work in a professional kitchen, but everything I did could have been done in advance and still tasted alright. I toasted my whole wheat bread and shredded my cheddar cheese, melting it on to one piece of toast. Then I sliced up my tomato (handy trick for tomatoes on sandwiches, always make sure to put the tomatoes on the bread AFTER a protective element like cheese or lettuce. If you put it right on the bread, it gets mushy) and added two fried eggs. A little bit of salt, and the sandwich was good to go! The significant problem was the fact that I had put my tortilla chips in the same ziploc bag as my bread. This meant that the moisture from the bread went in to my chips, making them chewy and soggy. My go to trick for reviving them was popping them in a 300 degree oven for about 10 minutes, restoring most of their crunchiness. Paired with salsa, it made a great meal.

Dinner was a new recipe adventure! I'm a big fan of big flavors, but without any spices to work with, I had to get pretty crazy inventive. It turned out alright, if not very attractive.

1 chicken breast, chopped in to bite sized pieces
1 t vegetable oil
1/2 C diced yellow onion
2 T diced tomatoes and their liquid
1 T peanut butter
1/2 t salt
Pinch of black pepper
1/2 t lime zest

Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat with vegetable oil. Once heated, add diced onion and sautee for 2 minutes, until beginning to turn translucent. Add chicken and tomatoes, sautee for 3 minutes further. Spoon in peanut butter, salt, pepper, and lime zest, and stir to incorporate. If the sauce is too thick, add a tablespoon of water at a time until it reaches your desired consistency. If too thin, allow to cook for 1-2 more minutes until it thickens up. Serve immediately.

There was a LOT of flavor in this bowl, although if I had my way I would have added a bit of fresh parsley at the end and some lime juice to brighten the sauce, but it was awfully tasty. And being able to turn out in under 20 minutes after a day of work? Not too shabby if I do say so myself. I'll have to add nutritional facts of my days menu tomorrow (I forgot the tally at work), but it wasn't too bad. By drinking plenty of water, I was able to keep a lot of hunger pangs at bay. We'll see how tomorrow goes!

Shopping Is Hard (Or: Why Nobody Looks Happy At The Grocery Store)

Monday, September 19, 2011

By Chef Terri

So, after a long weekend spent out of town, I hit the ground ready to do this Hunger Challenge. I was frazzled, low on energy, and felt like this would be a great time to do my shopping for the week, really was the only time I had. Armed with my previous weeks research on comparing food costs (which I realize that most people on SNAP would not have the time to do, and only served to frustrate me further), I headed to Aldi with $35 in my pocket. I had made a grocery list that corresponded with my menu for the week (again, something most folks on SNAP don't find themselves with time to make) and resolved to do the best I could to get everything on it, even the stuff in the "Optional" column.

At Aldi, I purchased:
1 paper bag: $.06
2.42 lbs of boneless, skinless chicken breasts: $5.35
1 jar of creamy peanut butter: $1.69
1 can fire roasted tomatoes: $.89
1 jar of strawberry jam: $2.19
1 bag of white tortilla chips: $1.19
1 dozen eggs: $1.49
2 large mangoes: $.98
1 large container of vegetable oil: $2.69
1 loaf of whole grain white bread: $1.29
1 8oz block of sharp cheddar cheese: $1.99
1 bag of baby carrots: $.49 (my best bargain of the whole bunch!)

Grand Total (after tax): $20.77

Then it was on to Target, where I knew there were a few things I could buy at a cheaper price. Interestingly enough, although ALDI and Target are immediately adjacent to each other, the shopping experience is wildly different between the two. While both were brightly lit and well labeled, it was very clear that Target had more money to invest in a "pleasant" shopping experience with wide lanes and spacious product layouts, whereas Aldi seemed focused on getting you the most variety and the greatest number of items in the smallest amount of space. Both have their advantages, but it was interesting to jump so quickly between the two spaces.

At Target, I purchased:
1 9oz bag of spinach: $1.99
1 bag of 4 red tomatoes: $1.49
1 gigantic yellow onion: $.79
1 lb dried black beans: $1.24
1 jar medium salsa: $1.89
1 bag of brown rice: $.79
1 box of 24 black tea bags: $1.22 (nobody would have loved me this week if I didnt have any caffeine, promise)
2 Braeburn apples: $1.28
3 bananas: $.72
1 lime: $.42
1 bag of mixed frozen vegetables: $1.04

Grand Total (after tax): $13.16

Total From Both Trips: $33.93

We'll see how far this stretches, especially as I have to rustle through my car to dig up the loaf of bread that somehow escaped on my trip home. If I had actually lost that loaf of bread and been on SNAP benefits, that would have ruined my meal plan for a whole week. Its pretty scary to know that a loaf of bread can really be the thing that makes or breaks a weeks worth of food, but when every calorie counts, that bread would be sorely missed.

SNAP Hunger Challenge 2011 Kickoff Post!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

(Hi! I'm Terri, and Michelle has been kind enough to let me hijack blog space for the next week and a half or so as I get geared up for the Feeding Illinois SNAP Hunger Challenge 2011. Read on!)
I am a person that gets angry and choked up when I don’t have any change in my pocket or room in my paycheck to donate to people less fortunate than me.
I am a person that gets angry and choked up when I hear statistics such as 1 in 8 people in Cook County, Illinois are “food insecure.”
I am a person that gets angry and choked up when I am told by a child that their lunch today was a bag of potato chips, and they don’t know what they will have for dinner, if anything.
I was the kind of person that let my anger and frustration stop me from doing something about these sorts of problems, before I took my current job at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Working at the food bank for Cook County has not only given me a steady paycheck in an unsteady economy, benefits in a country full of more sick people than healthy, and amazing coworkers who are also motivated by these issues, it gave me a cause. I know that when I get up at 5:30 in the morning, stumbling bleary eyed and grumpy to my shower, that I *have* to get up. There is more than just my “job” to get done today. My job is making sure that every person that shows up to a soup kitchen, a food pantry, an after school program, a shelter, a church, or a community center affiliated with the GCFD gets enough food to fill their bellies. My job is teaching people job skills so that they can find work in this challenging economy. My job is ending hunger.
Enough with the lofty ramblings, let me get to the nuts and bolts of who I am, what I do, and why you should care about what I’m doing here. My name is Terri, and I’m a chef instructor at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. My program is called Chicago’s Community Kitchens, and it is a job training program that teaches unemployed and underemployed adults how to get (and keep) an entry level job in the foodservice industry. The food that we, along with an amazing production team that I couldn’t live without, make every day goes to serve after school meals at hundreds of sites around Chicagoland. If it weren’t for us, teachers, chefs, and students, children wouldn’t have a hot meal for dinner.
The GCFD is part of a group of food banks in Illinois called Feeding Illinois, which is part of a larger organization of food banks called Feeding America. In September, Feeding Illinois organizes a SNAP Hunger Challenge. All of the details of this challenge can be found on their website at , but I’ll break it down for you here. The official challenge runs from September 18th-24th, but I’ll be participating from the 20th-26th for personal reasons. For 7 days, I will be endeavoring to live on an average individual’s amount of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps) budget. This is a grand whopping total of $5 per person, per day. The only pantry staples I am allowed to utilize in this challenge are salt, pepper, and water. I can’t accept food from coworkers, friends, family members. I have to try and get food that is of adequate nutritional value to keep me healthy and sane throughout the week.
I have my doubts. I’m fairly certain that even with my culinary degree and 7 years of kitchen experience under my belt, I’m going to be pretty limited on what I can produce that will satisfy me either physically or mentally. I love to experiment with new ingredients, and I rely heavily on my well stocked pantry to liven up kitchen staples. I predict long moments spent staring at a skillet, whimpering, “What do you *mean,* I don’t have an onion to put in my dinner?” Living above a grocery store, and working in a professional kitchen will also present plenty of opportunity for cheating and mindless eating. However, I’m promising you (the faceless hoards of the internet) that I’m going to stick to this. I am going to try and create recipes that are affordable, accessible, and simple for people who do not have the option to order a pizza after a long day of work. I am going to try writing about it, talking about it, explaining what I’m doing to anyone who will listen even if I’m hungry and tired.
I’m going to do this because I can. I’m going to do this because too many other people don’t have any other choice.
Here are a few statistics about hunger in Cook County, summarized from research done by the GCFD and published in May 2010. The entire fact sheet can be found at:
- Each week, the Food Depository and its member agencies serve 142,400 men, women and children.
- 47 percent of households say they have to choose between paying for food and utilities

- 60 percent of food pantries are completely volunteer-run and have no paid staff

Neighborhood Outreach

Monday, September 12, 2011

After reading yet another heartbreaking story of an autistic child wandering off and dying, I realized it was time to do something about Bear's recently increased attempts to break out.

(Q: How do you know you have an autistic eloper?
A: You seriously start wondering if a retina scan door lock might be enough to keep 'em in the house.)

We had another close call a few day ago, when he slipped out the (so tricky to open we hadn't worried about it much) garage service door.  Thankfully, in the minute or two it took me to notice he wasn't in the room any more he got distracted by his Big Wheel and a crisis was averted.

And then there was a couple of weeks ago, when he decided he was going to the park wearing nothing but a charming pair of Thomas underpants.  Luckily I was right there to intervene (read: throw him over my shoulder and carry him back in screaming) because it was one of his deeper neurological "nobody's home" spells, and he was completely unresponsive to my voice.

I read a post several months ago by an autism mom whose young son had eloped, and she realized as she frantically searched the neighborhood that she didn't really know any of her neighbors and when she asked them to help her look, they didn't fully grasp the seriousness of the situation. (Kicking myself for not being able to find the post to backlink.)

Thankfully that story had a happy ending, and even though we didn't have an autism diagnosis yet I understood I was in a similar situation and took two lessons from this mom who is clearly more experienced than I:

1) Teach Bear to respond to "Say "here I am!"" because he doesn't always respond to his name (it works surprisingly well and has stopped several 'omg where did he go' heart attacks in progress)

2) Talk to my neighbors

I realized that Trick or Treating next month is the perfect opportunity to chat with a number of neighbors all at once.  But I also realized that just talking about it wasn't enough, I needed to give them something concrete.  Something that answers the sincere question "what can I do to help?"

Which brings me to this...

I used one of the free postcard templates at the online printing resource to create it.  It's fast, easy and quite affordable.  (Try for more savings, I got an enormous discount that way).

The plan is to hand deliver these to specific neighbors when I take Bear Trick or Treating.  We are being quite selective about who gets them because, obviously, they're full of our private contact information.

I think this will be an effective strategy for us because we happen to be blessed with a good number of friendly neighbors (most of whom are either police officers, parents of young children or both) that we feel we can trust.

I'm very interested in hearing what you think about this plan, and if any of the more experienced moms have other ideas for me to try?  We've already taken to heart the suggestion to information the local police department that he's an elopement risk and will be doing that soon.


The cards were a huge hit!  The neighbors were warm and receptive, and several expressed gratitude at having concrete direction on what to do in case they did see something that concerned them. 

I should note it is important to practice your 10 second spiel before you go out trick or treating with the cards.  The world being what it is, people were very guarded when they saw me with something in my hand, the obvious assumption being I was selling something. I learned not to pull the card out of my pocket until the last second, because then instead of it being the thing that made them defensive it became the answer to the question they were about to ask.

Yes, it's a serious topic, but I kept it light and friendly and quick.  Some of them asked questions and that was great, but I didn't want to be a buzzkill so it was also perfect to have a 3 year old tugging at my arm to go ring the next doorbell. 

Here's more or less how it went:

"Hi! I'm Michelle and this is Bear, we live right over there (*point*).  Bear has autism, and you might know that a lot of kids on the spectrum wander off and get lost.  We wanted to let our neighbors know if they see him out alone to please call us right away - here's a card with our contact info.  Happy Halloween KThxBye..."

If you have an eloper, I think the potentially huge benefits of making these cards is definitely worth the small cost and moderate effort.


Now there's a step by step tutorial with links to free templates:
Neighborhood Outreach Part 2: Wandering Awareness Cards Tutorial


This is my pin of this post on my Autism Visual Aids & Resources Pinterest board.

Sensory Activity: Pit Ball Wading Pool

Saturday, September 10, 2011

This is one of Bear's absolute favorite sensory diet activities. I only get it out every couple of weeks months because, well, that's about how long it takes to find all the balls under the furniture.

I wanted to share this one for several reasons:
- it's cheap
- it's easy
- it's versatile
- it's fun

Blow up wading pool (we got this one for $5 on clearance)
Pit balls. Lots and lots of pit balls (about $10 for bag of 100 - he got 4 bags for his birthday)
Pile of random blankets (to soften the landing zone)
Bike pump (optional, but highly recommended)

Pumping the air to blow up the pool offers great resistance, and he thinks it's fun. Plus, it seems to be organizing and I think it helps keep him from getting overstimmed in the balls.  (Note the layer of blankets lining the floor under the pool.)


I couldn't get a picture of the next step because my hands were full with the task - he lies down in the empty pool and I pour the entire bin of balls over him.

The next bit is self-explanatory...


Note: This really is 400 pit balls. They don't go nearly as far as you'd think!

Once he's gotten the first round of jumping out of his system and is heading towards overstimulation, he starts throwing balls.  We decided to channel this impulse into something constructive.  He's got some motor planning issues that are pretty noticeable in the ball throwing area, so we set up the bin for target practice.


Once he gets ball throwing out of his system, he likes to experiment with the bin itself. I've got video of him scooting down the hall like a turtle with it : )



After he exhausts all the play options for one session, he's calm and organized enough to sit still and smile for a photo!