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Putting Food on the Table

There are some good things to know and do to feed your family when you are out of work.

When you lose your job you must change the way you spend your money. Some things, such as food, are hard to cut back on. The need for good food does not stop just because there is less money.

You normally spend one-fourth to one-third of your total income for food. But even if you must cut back your food budget a lot, you still can have nutritious meals. You can plan, prepare and serve nutritious food with far less money than you think. It just takes more time and planning.

Food Action Plan

Step 1: Decide How Much You Can Spend on Food

Take the amount you can spend for one month and divide by four to find how much to spend for the week.

Be aware that everything you buy in the grocery store is not food. Some estimates are that as much as one-fourth of your grocery bill is for nonfood items. Many of these items may cost less at a different type of store.

Keep the cash register tapes. You will not know how much money you can save unless you first know how much you are spending.

We will look at various food programs and places to get help with food, some things you can do on your own and how to get the most out of every food dollar.

Step 2: Apply for Food Stamps

The U.S. Department of Agriculture distributes its well-known food stamps to eligible households through state agencies. Food stamps can be used like money to purchase food only, although some states may give cash instead of stamps.

The food stamp program usually is run by the state department of human services, human resources or public assistance. Applications are made in the county where you reside.

Don’t be embarrassed about getting food stamps. You paid for them through your taxes when you were working. You are not getting anything you don’t deserve. They are just another form of emergency public assistance, like the fire department.

The stamps can help feed your family through tough times. Try not to let pride keep you from eating decently. It’s only for a while—most of the folks who draw out their stamps never draw them again.

Step 3: Plan Menus 

Plan your menus for each day. Include snacks, too. If you plan meals for a week ahead, you can see what you need to buy. And, you also will know whether you have enough money to last the week. If you will not have enough, then you need to plan less expensive meals.

Here are some menu planning tips:

Tip 1: Use the Food You Already Have on Hand

Plan your meals around the food you have stored in your kitchen, freezer and pantry as long as you can, or until you have more money coming in. Use these foods as a basis for planning what to buy.

Tip 2: Turn Leftovers Into “Planovers”

You can sometimes get two meals for the price of one. Store cooked foods properly to make them last longer. Freeze them if you have the space.

Tip 3: Prepare Nutritious Snacks at Home

You can save on expensive items by making snacks yourself. A large bag of unpopped popcorn, for example, costs less than a large pack of potato chips, which is a dollar or more. Single-serving snack packages cost more than a large package.

Tip 4: Make Foods From Scratch

Convenience foods and partly prepared foods cost more than home-prepared foods. Make your own mixes, such as for biscuits, cocoa, cakes and meat coatings. Use dry soft-drink mixes instead of buying carbonated beverages.

Step 4: Adjust Your Purchasing Habits

Here are some shopping tips to help you stretch every dollar in a reduced food budget.

Tip 1: Make a Shopping List

It’s easy to buy things you don’t need if you don’t have a list. With a list you won’t forget the things you do need.

  • Check your week’s menus for the foods you need to put on the list.
  • Look at the food sales. If a food is a really good buy, you can substitute it for one on your list or buy it to save for later.
  • Keep note paper in your kitchen to write down items as you run out.
Tip 2: Collect and Use Coupons

Saving and using coupons can greatly reduce the cost of food and other retail items (soap, cleaners, paper products, pet food).

Be careful—don’t use coupons for items you don’t need.

Tip 3: Go Shopping as Little as Possible

Frequent trips can add to your monthly bill, because it’s easy to buy extra items each time.

Tip 4: Shop Alone

It’s hard to say no to your children’s favorite foods when they are along.

Tip 5: Never Shop When You Are Hungry or Hurried

Everything will look good, and it will be hard to stick to your list. And shopping in a hurry may cause you to overlook the best buys.

Tip 6: Compare Prices and Brands

Check the prices of items you buy and compare prices at different stores. Then you will know if a sale is really a sale. Watch the grocery checker ring up your purchases.

Compare brands using the unit pricing tags on the grocery shelves to find the cost per unit, such as cost per ounce. This helps you compare differently sized packages and different brands.

Store brands and generic brands usually cost less than name brands and often are made by the same companies. Try the less expensive brand to see if your family likes it.

Step 5: Consider Other “Shopping” Options

Here are some low-cost alternatives to your local supermarket:

Plant a Vegetable Garden. A small yard can produce a lot of food. It’s fun and educational, too.

Use Food Cooperatives. Families can go in together and buy large amounts of food at wholesale prices, then meet and divide the food. For example, the large institutional-size containers of vegetables, grain, soap powder and other household commodities can be purchased by several families who pool their money together.

This type of purchasing usually results in lower costs.

Go to the Farm and Pick Your Own. Sometimes farmers get around the cost of harvesting their crops by letting people pick their own potatoes, tomatoes or strawberries, and then charging for the amount picked. The price usually is much lower than store prices.

The same principle is used on commercial catfish ponds in the South. You can have a lot of fun and get tasty, nutritious food for a fraction of retail prices.

A variation on “Pick Your Owns” is gleaning. Farmers who have picked their crop often will let people go into the field and pick up the large amounts of crops left behind by harvesting machines.

Gleaning takes a little work, but the food is usually free. And it’s fun and educational for the kids. This is particularly productive for potatoes, greens, beans and other field crops.

Call the agricultural agent in your county for more information.

Visit Farmers’ Markets. You can save money on produce because the farmer is selling direct to you.

Call the agricultural extension agent in your county for the locations of farmers’ markets in your area.

Basic Rules of Thumb to Save Money

Plan Low-Cost, Protein Main Dishes

Protein foods take a large part of your food money. You can save on main dishes by:

Using less costly protein foods. Dry beans, eggs, peanut butter, turkey and chicken all cost less than most red meats. Hamburger and liver are good buys in red meats.

Stretching your meat to use less. This means combining it with other foods so it goes further. Spaghetti and meat sauce, beef stew, chicken and dumplings and soups are some ways to stretch your meat.

Using cheaper cuts of meat. Examples are blade steak, seven-bone roast, chuck and arm roast. Make them tender with moist, slow cooking.

Figuring the cost per serving of meat to save money. For example:

  • Meat with no bones has four servings per pound,
  • Meat with some bones has two to three servings per pound, and
  • Meat with lots of bones has only one serving per pound.

Serving eggs as a main dish. Two eggs provide the same amount of protein as an average serving of meat. Any time a dozen eggs cost less than a pound of meat, the eggs are a better buy.

When buying eggs, a general rule is: if there is less than a seven-cent-per-dozen price difference between sizes, the larger size is a better buy.

Asking someone who fishes or hunts to let you know whether they have any meat or fish available.

Save on Vegetables and Fruits

  • Don’t choose the vegetables and fruits that are the biggest or prettiest if they cost more. Smaller, cheaper items may be a better buy. For example, small oranges may have more juice than larger ones.
  • Buy fresh fruits and vegetables straight from a grower. Foods in season and locally grown produce usually are cheaper. Grow your own produce if you have a garden spot or if you can use someone else’s.
  • Buy the lower grade canned vegetables and fruit whenever possible. Larger pieces—such as whole tomatoes, pear halves and whole beans—usually cost more.

Save on Breads and Cereals

  • Regular rice is a better buy than potatoes or quick-cooking rice.
  • Quick-cooking oatmeal and grits are less expensive and almost as fast as the single-serving instant cereals.
  • Plain breads and cereals are the best buys.
  • Bake your own breads when you can, or buy breads on sale. Many stores or bakeries sell day-old bread. Toast for good eating or freeze it for later use. Most bakeries have thrift shops, where bread products can be very inexpensive.

Save on Milk Foods

  • Nonfat dry milk has the same nutritive value as fresh milk but is 1/3 to 1/2 the cost. Mix dry milk with fresh milk for a richer flavor.
  • Skim milk and 2 percent low-fat milk are cheaper than whole milk.
  • Evaporated milk and ice milk are good buys.


1. USDA Food Stamps  

Applying for Food Stamps
 The qualifications for food stamps are complicated, and they change from time to time. So there is no point in listing all the requirements and guidelines here. Information is available from USDA here, and links to application information within states can be found here.

The only way to be sure whether or not you qualify is to apply!

Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Your income must be below a certain level based on the size of your household. The bigger your family, the more income you can have and still qualify. An elderly (age 62 or over) family member increases the amount of income you can have and still qualify. If you have a large family and low income, chances are you will qualify.
  • You must complete an application and be interviewed by a caseworker. Be sure to fill out all of the application. Ask for help if you need it. When you hand it in, ask the caseworker to check it to make sure you have filled it out correctly and completely.
  • Some of the value of real estate other than that on which you reside is counted as “income,” as are stocks, savings, some of the value of your car (if it’s worth a lot) and other assets.
  • You must provide documents supporting the information on your application.
  • Access to public benefits for immigrants (including food stamps) was restricted greatly by laws passed in 1996. Under current law, only certain categories of immigrants (children under 18, people over 65 and the disabled) who were present in the United States as of Aug. 26, 1996, are eligible to receive food stamps.

You may find applying for food stamps one of the most frustrating, aggravating and confusing messes you ever got involved in. It helps to bear in mind that the food stamp workers didn’t write those regulations or set up the application procedures. A sunny disposition and good sense of humor will be two helpful things to have when visiting a food stamp office. Be patient and have the information you need to apply .

2. Women and Infant Care (WIC) Program

The WIC program provides nutritious food for low-income pregnant women or low-income parents with newborn infants with low body weight. If qualified, you will receive WIC vouchers.

WIC vouchers are forms that can be used at food stores like money for specific foods (juices, milk, formula).

WIC usually is administered by the county board of health, public clinics or hospitals.

3. U.S. Department of Agriculture Surplus Commodities

Commodities are government-surplus foods (peanut butter, cheese, butter, rice and other staples) that are distributed through community action or other nonprofit agencies to low-income households. You must apply and be given an ID card. When distributions are announced in your community, you must present your ID card to receive food.

4. Emergency Food Allotments

In most communities, the Salvation Army, Catholic Social Services or Catholic Charities or other nonprofit agencies, unions or churches will provide a two- to three-day supply of basic groceries to a family in need.

These agency food pantries usually are supplied by food banks that collect and distribute donated foods. Generally, food banks, such as those affiliated with the Second Harvest national network, do not give food directly to consumers.

The Unemployment Lifeline or your local AFL-CIO or United Way can direct you to food agencies near where you live.

5. School Breakfast and Lunch Programs

Contact the principal at school to enroll your children in the federally funded school breakfast and lunch programs.

6. Community Meal-distribution Programs

In many communities, special meal programs are provided for the elderly or handicapped homebound individual. Meals on Wheels or similar programs will deliver meals to the home.

If things get really bad, most communities have feeding programs through agencies and churches where a hot meal can be had daily by those unable to provide for themselves.

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Food Aid

Food assistance programs include:

  • USDA food stamps
  • WIC program
  • USDA surplus commodities
  • Emergency food allotments
  • School breakfast and lunch programs
  • Community meal-distribution programs

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