How to eat well when your cupboard is bare
by Sarah Gray
In these recession times, as jobs grow scarce and the city slashes its budget, food prices are also on the rise: In 2007 and 2008, the US saw its worst rise in food prices in 17 years.
In Philly’s poorest neighborhoods, the food situation is critical, as the few remaining supermarkets that serve low-income communities begin to close their doors. For growing numbers of people, the only affordable food options come from the corner store. Chips, soda and candy provide lots of calories for little cash, but they’re packed with artificial ingredients, trans fats and high fructose corn syrup. If you want to stay healthy and make sure your family has proper nutrition, you may be fighting an uphill battle—but there are some alternatives that can help you get access to healthy food.
1. Sign up for food stamps.
Cost: Free, if your income qualifies
If you haven’t already, find out whether you qualify for the snap program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). If your income is low or you’re caring for kids, you might be eligible to receive $250 or more per month toward your food bills. Today’s program provides you with a discreet prepaid debit card—and can you use it not only at the supermarket, but it also works at any of the Food Trust’s 30 Philadelphia-area farmers’ markets, where you can get fresh produce, bread, cheese and more.
Learn more: Go to dpw.state.pa.us/ServicesPrograms/FoodStamps/ to find out if you qualify, or visit the Guild SNAP Clinic at 1424 Chestnut St., 2nd Floor. You can also ask for an application at your church or food bank.
2. Buy groceries through a food ministry.
Cost: $30 for a basic box of groceries (retail value about $65)
Angel Food Ministries is a nationwide Christian group that distributes fresh, high-quality groceries at well below retail cost. There is no income qualification—anyone can participate. You’ll get a religious tract with your food, but you’ll also get everything on that month’s menu—a well-rounded selection of meat, produce, dairy and staples like rice and beans. There are also specialty packs available with meats, extra produce or prepared meals for seniors. Call or visit the website to find the nearest distribution center, mail your payment ahead of time and then show up on the monthly distribution day to pick up your groceries. Angel Food Ministries accepts food stamps/EBT.
Learn more: Check out AngelFoodMinistries.com to see this month’s menu. Philly locations include Calvary Baptist Church, 6122 Haverford Ave., 215-747-9979, calvarybaptistchurch1.org
3. Buy or split a share in a CSA.
Cost: Varies; $350-600
Community-supported agriculture, or CSA, is a great way to fill your pantry with locally grown, all-natural produce, meats and dairy products. With a CSA, you purchase a share in a local farm (or farm collective). You pay up front, and then throughout the season (usually spring to fall), you stop by every one or two weeks, depending on the program you select, to pick up a box of groceries. Your box will contain a selection of in-season produce, and depending on your CSA, possibly meat, cheese and/or yogurt and a bakery product. Everything will be locally grown or produced, and the quality is very high. Be prepared to have a lot of whatever’s in season—you may find yourself looking for lots of squash recipes. If you have the resources, consider learning how to can and preserve food—you can use your CSA share to eat beautiful ripe heirloom tomatoes all winter long. The initial cash outlay is high, but you can split it with a friend, and the long-term savings make it especially worthwhile. One advantage of CSA programs is that once you’ve paid, your groceries won’t require any more of your income—so even if you’re totally broke, you’ll be assured of fresh, nutritious food for several months.
Learn more: Call Farm to City, farmtocity.org, at 215-733-9599, or stop by Greensgrow Farms in Fishtown, at 2501 E. Cumberland St., 215-427-2702 greensgrow.org
4. Start a cooking club.
Cost: You decide
Cooking clubs are growing in popularity as a way to save time and money. Here’s how it works: You gather a group of like-minded friends or neighbors. Everyone kicks in money for groceries—you decide what you can afford. One or two designated members go shopping for food in bulk—Asian grocery stores often sell rice, beans and other staples in bulk at very affordable prices. Then, on a Sunday afternoon, everyone brings pots, pans and Tupperware and gathers in one member’s kitchen (or a church kitchen, if yours is too small). For a few hours, everyone cooks together, creating huge pots of stew, casseroles or anything else the group decides on. Once it’s ready, you package the food into serving-size Tupperware containers, and divide it up between everyone. You’ll all go home with enough prepared, freezer-ready meals to feed your family for a week. You save money by buying in bulk, save time by getting the week’s cooking done in one afternoon, and get the joy and creativity of cooking together with friends, sharing recipes and turning a chore into a social event.
Learn more: To buy staples in bulk, try International Foods & Spices, intlfoodsandspices.com, 4203
Walnut St., 215-222-4480. For recipe ideas, browse the OAMC/Freezer/Make Ahead category at Recipezaar, recipezaar.com
5. Sign up for groceries at your local food bank.
The hunger relief group Philabundance works with more than 600 agencies in 10 counties to distribute food to people in need, including just about every neighborhood in Philadelphia. They accept donations from citizens, restaurants and food producers. In addition to pantry and canned items available at local food banks, Philabundance’s Fresh for All program provides fresh fruits and vegetables for free at weekly distribution points throughout the city. You will be asked to fill out a short form providing some information about where you live and your income.
If you’re doing all right, consider donating or volunteering with a food bank near you. Demand at area food banks has risen 23 percent this year, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, while donations have dropped by 26 percent. In these difficult times, your donation can make a real difference to your neighbors.
Learn more: At philabundance.org, you can search for food banks, find their Fresh for All site list or sign up to volunteer. You can also stop by Philabundance’s offices at 3616 S. Galloway St., 215-339-0900 or at 302 West Berks St., 215-739-7394.