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Clean and Healthy Eating on Food Stamps

Following up behind the conversation about food stamps being banned for use in purchasing soft drinks… there’s also the inevitable question of what options are available for those of us who are on food stamps?

And with all this talk of farmer’s markets and fancy schmancy grocery stores that sell $7/lb mushrooms… perhaps its time we talked about the other end of the spectrum.

A few months back, a reader who identified herself as Naturally Single Mom shared with us the following tidbits:

We ARE one of the few (if I understand this correctly) places that allows you to use food stamps at the farmer’s market. Here, they charge your EBT card in increments of $10, and give you tokens that you use as cash at the individual vendors.

Whole Foods – I’m not sure if it is company-wide or not (Erika’s Note: It is company-wide.) – does accept food stamps. I’ve never seen the EBT sticker on the door of any Whole Foods, or our local health food store that was just bought out by Whole Foods (Greenlife Grocery, referenced in the above mentioned article)…I guess they don’t want the rich folks to know that us poor people are shopping there?

I live in an area with enough grocery competition that I can stretch my food stamps – I shop buy one get one free sales, and stock up on stuff like cereal (the healthy stuff DOES go on sale from time to time), salad dressing (because if you have enough salad dressing, you’ll eat salad more often, right?), yogurt, bagged salad stuff (which sometimes makes it cheaper than buying actual lettuce and cutting it up, but is definitely not a “stock up” kind of thing), frozen veggies, stuff like that. (Yogurt freezes well, and I use the frozen stuff for smoothies.)

I also buy fruit when it’s in season and on sale and make my own applesauce and apple butter, or flash freeze berries, peaches, and other fruits for smoothies in the winter.

I use websites like Southern Savers and Hot Coupon World (which has a coupon database, so you can find printable coupons online.) I never knew that you could use TWO coupons when you buy one and get one free, until I found those websites.

I go to the recycling center once a week. (Ours is only open three days a week.) They don’t care if I go digging through the newspaper dumpster and take out the coupons that other people discard. I usually walk away with 30 or 40 full coupon inserts in about 20 minutes of digging. I don’t even buy the newspaper anymore (since all I bought it for was the coupons anyway!)

The best part about food stamps, for me, was being able to buy seeds and plants with it. I have a HUGE strawberry patch ($3 for 10 strawberry plants at Wal-mart, have more than paid for themselves, and they’ll come back year after year), blueberry bushes, even an apple tree, all paid for by food stamps. (The caveat here is that you have to buy them at a store that accepts food stamps. Home Depot and Lowes and any garden place that I’ve ever seen does not.) I have a garden in my front yard growing zucchini, crookneck squash, cucumbers, lettuces of all types, spinach, tomatoes, pumpkin, and watermelon. As long as it is going to grow into a food, any packet of seeds or plant is covered by food stamps.

I try to use natural fertilizers – banana peels provide potassium to the soil, crushed egg shells provide calcium. Both of which can be bought with food stamps.

Like I said, I find it horribly sad that because a rotisserie chicken is hot, it’s a no-go. If it is a cooked rotisserie chicken that has been refrigerated, then it is allowed. Because I guess poor people don’t deserve hot food? I can buy freshly prepared sushi, fancy Perrier water, or pork rinds, but not a hot chicken. It’s very strange.

She asks some pretty interesting questions, if you ask me. She also put me and my bargain hunting skills to shame. Excuse me as I go find a pot so that I can grow a strawberry or something.

But honestly, I’m taking advice from her on how to penny pinch. Y’all know I’m cheap. Cheeeeeeeeeeeap.

I’ve seen suggestions that the value of food stamps should double when it comes to fruits and vegetables… and while that might work, the question will always remain “Are there stores selling viable fruits and veggies nearby the most affected areas?” Any suggested solution that doesn’t address the very real issue of accessibility and information/education will come up sorely short… and while the government tries to duke it out with itself regarding these people’s purchasing abilities, there are people like the above who won’t be affected by it at all. It highlights the idea that says “the more limited your means, the more valuable it is to be resourceful.”

While I’m not quite there on the grow-it-yourself aspect (but I’m trying!), I admire that kind of dedication to clean eating. What other tips are out there to help people make the best use of food stamps possible when it comes to clean eating?

Recommended Reading:

Those that are interested in helping others who are benefiting from food stamps may be interesting in looking at online social work programs.

By | 2017-06-10T11:19:49+00:00 August 20th, 2015|Healthy Eating, The Recessionista|59 Comments

About the Author:

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes health, fitness, nutrition, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss from the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and crtified in sports nutrition by Precision Nutrition. She now lives in New York with her husband and children, and is working on her 6th and 7th certifications because lol why not.


  1. Alovelydai October 12, 2010 at 10:21 AM - Reply

    Way to go Naturally Single Mom!

    • Carol June 6, 2011 at 8:32 AM - Reply

      Hi! A friend of mine went shopping with me at wholefoods a few months back and she definitely did use her “Access” card! It’s like a debit card issued by the state of PA. It took the place of food stamps!

  2. Heli October 12, 2010 at 10:21 AM - Reply

    Great post. I’m not on assistance but I am frugal as all get-out and do not buy anything unless it is on sale, I have a coupon for it, or I know it’s at the cheapest possible price (I memorize price points/targets for the foods I buy most so I know a good price when I see it.) I don’t buy much processed foods and still find coupons for the things I do buy.

    Buy in bulk: rice, beans, pasta, oats, grains, flours, dried fruit & nuts are often a lot cheaper this way (not to mention often less processed.) Use canisters or big jars to store bulk items.

    Your slow cooker is your friend. Not only does the crock pot work wonders with dried beans, it also makes the cheapest cuts of meat tender and delicious. Even if you don’t want to follow recipes, there are tons of “dump and go” recipes you can make. Here’s an easy one: put chicken (I use boneless & it can be still frozen!) in the bottom of crock pot, dump a can of chopped tomatoes & seasoning or jar of salsa on top. By dinnertime, you’ll have chicken perfect for putting in burritos, soft tacos, w/rice and beans, etc. Just shred it up w/2 forks. Adjust seasoning to make it Italian, etc.

    Combine coupons w/store sales, go to stores that double/triple coupons, keep an eye out for 10/$10 or BOGO sales and stock up. As mentioned in the post above, you can get stuff free or nearly free by combining coupons with sales. On Sunday I had a $1 coupon off parmesan cheese and a coupon for free breadcrumbs with purchase of the cheese. My store doubled the $1 coupon to $2, the cheese was already on sale for $3, so for $1 I got parm cheese and free breadcrumbs. (I use them to make easy homemade breaded chicken strips for my kids.)

    Look for a dented can/factory seconds grocery store. Obviously they aren’t everywhere but you can get some great bargains. Ours even has produce overstocks from the local wholesale produce market.

    I live in a very rural area (20mi from a supermarket) in a town that only has a couple of small convenience markets. I think my state recently instituted some new rules about where EBT can be used because in the past few months they’ve added produce coolers and are starting to stock more fresh whole food. We give them feedback by buying it. If you only have access to a small neighborhood store & that’s where you do most of your grocery shopping, maybe talk to the proprietor. *shrug* If you go in there often, it can’t hurt to give feedback. They will stock items if they know their customers will buy.

    Know your prices, and look at unit pricing instead of item pricing. If the 12oz box of frozen green beans is on sale for $1 but the big 3lb bag of frozen green beans is $2.79, the bag is still a better deal. I ignore item pricing altogether, pretty much, and only look at unit pricing.

    I love hearing people say that they’re able to eat healthily on a tight budget (assistance or not.) It’s hard but not impossible.

  3. Queen October 12, 2010 at 11:42 AM - Reply

    A good follow up to yesterday’s debate. Maybe the mayor of NYC can take note…instead of putting restrictions in place, let’s talk about what healthy foods can NYC and all US cities & states take off restriction (make accessible) to food stamp recipients. Allowing food stamps to be used at all farmers markets would be great. Pushing grocery chains to offer equitable selections from one store to another would be beautiful. Education is still key, which I think is the best tip for anyone, food stamps or not. If we want to establish clean eating in our lives, we need to understand what that means. And for the majority of us that are limited by budgets or food stamps or whatever, we also need to be willing to think outside the box to make it happen. Kudos to Naturally Single Mom for making that happen in her household. Kudos to Ericka for sharing all your knowledge with us.

  4. JoAnna October 12, 2010 at 12:19 PM - Reply

    Hi Erika.

    Regarding the gardening, get a 5 gal bucket from Home depot (or free from some restaurant/fast food place). Put in drainage holes, then potting soil if you only have a balcony and weight issues. Good topsoil if you can put it on the ground. Add miracle-gro once per week, or homemade compost tea. You could plant 2 cherry tomato plants per bucket, 2 cucumber plants, 2-3 green bean plants… If you get a flat rectangular planter you could plant lettuce and herbs, and harvest the baby leaves every week. Since you live in Miami, you could have free salad year ’round!

    I’m building a cold frame to grow lettuce and swiss chard thru December. It’s an experiment, so I hope it works… I grew 7 types of tomatoes this past summer , baby watermelons, thai melons, green beans, basil, sage, tomatillos, cucumbers and cilantro, all in containers.

    Here (Michigan) you can purchase fresh produce at the weekly Farmer’s Mkt with food stamps as long as the farmer has the debit card scanner. There’s also a very good fish market (accepting food stamps) that has weekly fresh fish specials for $1.99/pound. It’s one of those places where they scale and gut for free. Filleting costs extra. They will also fry: “You buy, we fry” for an additional fee. I bought fresh sardines for the first in my life there: about 3-4 fish per pound. It’s also fun learning what type of fish is best for which dish. And that yes! you can do more with fish than just dredge it in cornmeal and deep fry it.

    I also like to try a new recipe every 2 weeks or so with seasonal produce. I’ve found out the celery root is good mashed into a soup with cashew milk and granny smith apples… leeks are fabulous grilled… and carrots can be combined with sweet potatoes and curried.

    I’ve told a couple of friends to NEVER EVER purchase meat during the first 2 weeks of the month if you’re on a tight budget. The grocery stores know that the food stamps come out (and all the other govt funds), and mark up their prices accordingly. After the 2nd week, all the meat prices come down thru the end of the month.

    I’ve found organic whole wheat flour at Walmart, as well as a lot of staples (extra virgin olive oil, raw sugar, sea salt, multigrain pasta, brown rice, legumes, spices, etc) that are all eligible to purchase with food stamps. And that old Vitamix commercial is true: if you make your own bread, it costs less than a dollar per loaf. My crock pot is about to be dusted off now that Fall is officially here. Bean soups, and stews will stretch those tough cuts of meat and wilting vegetables. And soup bones are often less than $2/lb. It does take a little planning, but there’s nothing like a bowl of soup or stew the and crusty bread during these brisk nights of Fall/Winter.

  5. Adrianne October 12, 2010 at 1:38 PM - Reply

    The most challenging thing for me when I was on food assistance was simply accessing a place to buy the healthier food that I wanted. We lived in an urban “food desert” where the closest grocery store was almost 30 minutes away and our city’s mass transit is sorely lacking. The small convience stores nearby that accepted EBT did not carry fresh produce, carried milk that was always a day away from or past its expiration date and grossly overinflated their prices because they knew they had us over a barrel.

    Kudos to the farmer’s markets and stores like Whole Foods that accept EBT (that wasn’t the case when I was used those benefits) but the question that remains is even if those benefits are accepted, will those using them be able to access that food?

    • Adrienne June 12, 2012 at 1:58 PM - Reply

      There is a small movement of people who have begun to create community gardens. It’s something I am looking into because in parts of my city Buffalo,NY it’s greatly needed. Access to nutritious food is key!

    • swandiver June 14, 2012 at 4:38 AM - Reply

      Most of my sister’s career has been about solving just this issue. Through her, I’ve have met many people who have offered tons of grassroots solutions. For example:

      Form a shopping club: Times are tight for everyone. Gather a group together, pitch in a few dollars each, and offer someone with a van money to take you shopping once a month.

      Buy in bulk together: One of my sister’s friends joined with about 5 or 6 other families and buy staples in bulk from a local healthfood store. They get affordable food and the local business gets guaranteed monthly income. If you’re buying a lot of stuff, you may be able to negotiate a delivery deal which is another perk of buying local.

      Grow, grow, grow!: Even if you think you don’t have time to grow something, you do. Start off simple. Take the root end of scallions, put a toothpick through them and set roots in water. Take the root of celery, stick it in a coffee can with dirt and let it grow. Youtube is full of comprehensive videos for small space growing.

  6. nettid October 12, 2010 at 2:11 PM - Reply

    I love the ideas that Naturally Single Momm posted. This is good for people who arent on assistance. Pinch the penny till it screams!

  7. Jaci October 12, 2010 at 4:15 PM - Reply

    I once heard a woman talk about buying organic fruits and vegetables while on food stamps. She talked about how other shoppers looked at her as if she should not be allowed to eat such extravagent things and if she did have fresh, it should’ve been from the “wilted lettuce” aisle and the cans from the dented cart.

    Eating clean should be available to anyone. And I think we all should make the move to it. However, we as Americans are incredibly lazy and we are of the mind set that if it isn’t from a dorito bag, it gotta taste nastey.

    Erika- you gotta get yourself some pots as JoAna suggests. Get the lettuce planted and really make those salads even more fabulous.

  8. JoAnna October 12, 2010 at 7:09 PM - Reply

    I have to agree with Jaci’s comment. Some people feel that being poor means being ignorant and low-class. It’s common knowledge that poor people tend to not be as healthy as more well-to-do. But it is a lack of access to what can keep them healthier, not ignorance. If you don’t know that eating an orange is healthier than drinking fortified “Tang”, you give your kids “Tang” ’cause it’s cheaper. If you don’t know how to cook baked chicken with carrots and potatoes and celery and a green salad for $10, you’d probably buy one of those fried chicken meals with a biscuits, side of slaw, mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes for $12.99 to feed your family. If you don’t have good produce in the market where you regularly shop, you buy stuff that not gonna go bad.

    The information is out there, but you have to have a need to find it. If most of the people around you are chowin’ down on fast-food and soul-food, and you’re told that “thick” with a lot of make-up and weave is sought after, and that food isn’t edible if it hasn’t been fried and doused in gravy, that’s your “normal”.

    Another problem is that the information is sometimes not wrapped in an attractive package. Exercising and sweating are not attractive. Cooking brown rice, prepping vegetables, cutting up large cuts of meat are not attractive activities. Trekking across town to an outdoor, crowded noisy farmer’s mkt where you have to carry multiple bags for blocks is not attractive. The results are, but not the process. Understanding the steps to get to the desired outcome can make the process interesting, and then later attractive, but even that takes time. And we are and “instant” “gotta have it now” culture.

    I had to show a visiting relative that fresh basil and oregano mixed with tomatoes from the garden could make a quick delicious marinara sauce in 15mins, not hours of simmering on the stove. And that you don’t mix sauce and pasta in the same pot (a whole ‘nother post!) And that there are more types of apples than red and golden Delicious. And that ripe peaches and strawberries smell like peaches and strawberries, are soft, and are sweet wnough without additional sugar or fruit dip.

  9. JuJuBe October 13, 2010 at 1:48 PM - Reply

    I am on food stamps, and let me tell you, the BEST investment I ever made was a for a chest freezer. It was about $300, I borrowed the money from a family member, and it has helped be stretch my food stamp budget immensely. When meats go on sale, I stock up. When frozen veggies are on sale, I buy 20 bags. When I buy fresh veggies, I buy double or triple the amount, then blanch and freeze the extra.

    Another trick: I am not a big milk drinker, so when I buy a carton, a lot of it ends up going to waste. So, now I buy fat free powdered milk, and make it as I need it. I usually make a cup at a time, and use it primarily for my coffee.

    Costco near me accepts food stamps, which has been a great thing. I am a big believer in bulk foods, even though I live alone.

    And, for nonperishable foods, I do not worry to much about expiration dates. If it is something for baking, then it will not work as well after it expires. But if it is cereal, or rice, or anything like that, you can still eat it past the expiration date, even months past.

    When stocking up pasta and rice, you can get little bugs if your packages are not sealed correctly. So, I buy bags instead of boxes for pasta. If you keep a few dried bay leaves in the cabinet with your flour, cereal, pasta, etc you will not get bugs. I had a huge problem with bugs and now I keep about 5 bay leaves on each shelf on my pantry and have not seen a single bug since.

    Oh, and if you like sweets, get or make a bag of Amish bread starter. Each time you make it, you end up with two loafs of sweet bread and 4 starters. Each of the starters can be frozen up to 4 months. There are all kinds of variations on the basic recipe, and it is so much cheaper than buying entenmanns (sp?) or little debbies.

    Finally, do not be afraid to rely on a local church or food pantry when you have more days in the month than you have food stamps. The food pantry near me gets donations from Trader Joe’s and they have no problem sharing with anyone in the community, even if you are not a member of their church.

    • changinginsideout October 16, 2013 at 9:15 PM - Reply

      Thank you for the tips JUJUBe! oh and those bugs are very hard to get rid of they are the reason why i put all flour and pasta in the fridge. I might try the bay leaves tip. I am so scared to go to the local church, I have to get over myself. I have done so good this year exercising and changing my lifestyle and having to go on assistance is hard but i cant back track my healthy eating habits!!! thanks again!

      and thank you for this website it’s so useful!!!

  10. Greta November 14, 2010 at 4:06 PM - Reply

    The farmers markets taking food stamps thing is becoming more widespread, but I’m not sure that many people are using them at our markets in New Haven. It’s a step in the right direction, but it does seem odd to see so few people of color at them considering there is a large population in the city and even in surrounding neighborhoods to where my FM is.

    Not sure if it’s a publicity issue or if the stuff just isn’t affordable.*

    (an aside: have you seen the website Stuff White People Like? (http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/) Farmers markets!! I always giggle when I think of that.)

    Another tip for readers is that some libraries have coupon tables where you can leave coupons for others and take some for yourself. You don’t have to leave any to take any.

    *I know, poor white people use food stamps too and I work with that population, but they look different than the other white people at the FM. No sisal baskets and Nantucket baseball hats. 🙂 No Keens, different tattoos. 🙂

    • swandiver June 14, 2012 at 4:47 AM - Reply

      In Springfield, MA we have a Farmer’s Market right in the middle of the black neighborhood, The Mason Square Farmer’s Market. It’s the only Saturday market in the city. It’s the only one that accepts EBT. There is also a federal program that gives food stamp recipients 30 cents for every dollar they spend on fresh fruits and vegetables to help stretch their budget.

    • changinginsideout October 16, 2013 at 9:18 PM - Reply

      haaaaaaaaa Greta a white person told me about that website there is one for us blk folks too. I guess we like curtains, which is standard in my place i have them in every room. haaaaaaaaaa.

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