Eco Etiquette: Can You Eat Organic on Food Stamps?

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

In the past two years, I lost my job, ran out of unemployment...long story short, I'm now on food stamps. Any tips for how I can still eat healthy and maybe organic? (I used to buy organic when I had money.) I don't want to live on junk food.


First off, I'm so sorry to hear that you're struggling right now. But you're in good, though probably far from gleeful, company: More than one in seven American households now relies on food stamps. That's up over 58 percent since the start of the recession.

Not surprisingly, with so may people on public assistance, much of the stigma associated with government subsidies has disappeared. Last year, ran a feature about hipsters using food stamps to supplement their diet with roasted rabbit and triple-crème brie. This, however, is not one of those articles.

Eating healthy -- even organic -- shouldn't be viewed as a privilege for the liberal elite. In fact, it should be common sense. Throughout the course of human history, people weathered tough times by planting edible gardens on what little land they had and stretching out their limited meat supply with beans and whole grains. Now they waddle up to (or drive through) the nearest fast food establishment and order a double cheeseburger and fries.

I may sound insensitive, but I'm speaking (or rather, writing) the truth: The less money you have in the United States, the more likely you are to be overweight. Cheap food is crap food, thanks to an agricultural policy that subsidizes commodity crops like corn and soybeans. We have come to blindly accept that a bunch of carrots costs more than a king-size candy bar.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many states permit fast food establishments from KFC to Domino's to accept EBT cards (the modern day debit-card version of food stamps). After all, this is what we expect poor people to eat; being skinny is a luxury for those with macrobiotic food delivery services and regular Pilates sessions.

So when it comes to eating healthy on food stamps, the odds are stacked against you. To maximize your money, I suggest focusing first on unprocessed, locally grown foods rather than organic, per se. But if you're determined to eat organic -- whether to reduce pesticide exposure or do your part for the planet -- I still say it's doable. It will, however, take a bit of effort on your part.

(How do I know what it takes to stretch those food dollars? Disclosure: I have a close family member who is currently on food stamps. I was also raised by a single mom who cooked healthy homemade dinners every night, despite a full-time job and a sometimes below-the-poverty-line income.)

For starters, with the average benefit per person nationwide at just over $33 a week, you're going to have to change your notion of what it means to eat organic. Microgreens, goji berry smoothies, and line-caught salmon may be out of reach, but that doesn't mean you can't eat a well rounded -- even delicious -- diet. Here's what you need to know:

Learn how to cook, if you don't know how to already (unemployed = more time on your hands). Organic packaged/prepared foods waste precious funds; a home-cooked meal is almost always more nutritious, anyway.

Think inexpensive sources of protein like tofu and eggs. Learn how to use dried beans, and a $2.99 bag of organic lentils will serve up soup for several days. If you're a meat-eater, look for a cheap cut on sale and use it more as a condiment than the main event.

Shop in bulk and you'll save even more money on staples like nuts, beans, and grains. My local market sells organic oats in the bulk bin section for 89 cents a pound -- that's an entire week's worth of belly-filling breakfasts.

Remember the clean 15 and you can avoid pesticide exposure without actually buying organic; these conventional fruits and veggies are sprayed the least. Conventional onions top the list, so pinch extra pennies by buying these for your aforementioned lentil soup.

Look to the hundreds of farmers markets around the country that now accept food stamp benefits. Bonus: Get the most bang for your buck by shopping near closing time, when most farmers offer their end-of-day specials.

Don't overlook classic budget meals like a good old-fashioned peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Stick to natural, no-sugar peanut butter on whole wheat bread, throw in an organic apple, and you've got a nutritious, plant-based lunch that will also cut your carbon footprint.

Next column, I'll be heading to the market to take these tips to the test. Stay tuned!