Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A hypothetical Trader Joe's SNAP challenge – – laying the foundation

A few weeks ago, I criticized a reporter for trying to take the SNAP challenge (living for a week on a food stamp budget) with groceries she bought from Trader Joe's (which I described as a "rich person's idea of a poor person's grocery"). In addition to picking an expensive store, the writer made a long string of bad choices, buying prepared foods and individual servings while passing over cheap, high-protein options. In response to this, I decided to try to construct a good $28 shopping list at the same store.

Here's what I came up with. I want to emphasize from the beginning just how limited the cheap food choices are at Trader Joe's. The following list comes very close to exhausting the options.

Doing a SNAP challenge at TJ’s means rethinking the most basic assumptions about shopping on a tight budget. Most of the staples we would normally use as our foundation – oatmeal, cabbage, rice and, most importantly, dried beans – are either unavailable or have been ‘gentrified,’ reimagined in far more expensive, gourmet form. We can still use some of these staples, but not in the same quantities. We won’t be able to fall back on another plate of rice and beans to stretch the budget.
I normally wouldn’t begin this shopping list in the meat and poultry section, but given our limited options and the importance of maintaining protein levels, I’m going to start with 

Drumsticks 3 lb
    approx. 260 g protein
    9 to 12 servings

Whenever possible, I want to pick versatile foods and chicken scores very high in that respect, both as a stand-alone dish and as an ingredient in a soup, casserole or hash. Even someone with my limited culinary skills can make any number of appealing, inexpensive dishes. 

Whole milk 1/2 gallon
approx. 60 g protein
8 servings

I normally drink skim but I suspect the whole milk will be more filling

I'm going to stop including protein numbers from here on partly because the picture gets a little murky -- there are going to be some choices left open that would affect the totals (type of beans, for example) -- but mainly because we’re in fairly safe territory. Our complete shopping list will certainly meet the 50 g RDA and will probably break 400 g for the week. We should be in good shape.

Beans (four cans)

I’m thinking 3 cans of black beans for soup and one garbanzo for side dishes and possibly as topping for pasta or salad.

Tomatoes (one can 28oz)

Yellow onion

Carrots (1.5 lb bag)

Spinach (1 lb bag frozen)

Sea salt


Normally this choice would come down to either rice or potatoes. Both are versatile. Rice is easier to transport and store. Potatoes are easier to cook. The choice comes down to personal taste and what's on sale.

Unfortunately both rice and potatoes are pricey at Trader Joe's. Pasta, on the other hand, is surprisingly competitive and therefore goes back into the rotation.

(3 lb potatoes and 1 bag of pasta)


(3 lb jasmine rice)

I'm going to go with the potatoes and pasta because I think they go well with the other foods and what I have planned for them.

Let's add three bananas and stop there... just under $20. We've got a pretty good shopping cart's worth of high-value groceries. You could live on this food for a week but it does leave a lot to be desired. That's why I left eight dollars to play with. Having covered the nutritional basics, you can start thinking about trade-offs.

Certain things aren't available in cheap form at Trader Joe's: sugar, coffee, oatmeal, cooking oil, just to name a few. Obviously, you can't have everything you want for eight dollars, so you have to prioritize. How important is fresh-ground coffee compared to instant? Would you rather have three apples or that bottle of hot sauce? Maybe that box of cookies is worth $3.50 or perhaps you'd just like to double down on some of the staples and make sure you'll have plenty of food.

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