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Good Food for All: Eating Well on a Food Stamp Budget

Nutrition assistance programs are vital to feeding more than 38 million Americans, and no one is a better spokesperson for their importance and transformative healing power than Rachel Bolden-Kramer. A health and parenting coach who has navigated the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly know as food stamps) first hand, she has devoted her career to supporting low-income communities and busy families in nourishing themselves through radical nutrition.

In her Kickstarter-funded My Food Stamps Cookbook, she shares tips and recipes for creating simple, healing, plant-based meals on any food budget. For CalFresh Awareness Month this May (CalFresh is California’s SNAP implementation), we spoke with Rachel about making the most of SNAP benefits at the farmers market, getting kids excited about veggies, and reclaiming one’s health through fresh food.

CUESA: What inspired you to write My Food Stamps Cookbook?

Rachel: In my work as a health coach, people are sometimes hesitant because they think eating well has to cost a lot of money—and it can, depending on where you go and what you eat. While I was still doing my nutrition training, I was very low-income and on food stamps myself, and I discovered some tricks that you can use to stretch out a food-stamp budget. Even if you’re not receiving food stamps, the principles are the same for a healthy and sustainable diet: It’s plant-centric. It’s sustainable for the environment, because we cut out the things that tend to be more expensive like meat and dairy. When we buy what’s in season by going to the farmers markets or doing a CSA [community-supported agriculture box], we’re actually reducing our carbon footprint. It’s good for you and your wallet, and it’s good for our communities and our environment as well.

What common misconceptions about food stamps do you encounter in your work?

One misconception that I faced while doing the research for my book is this specter of someone who receives food assistance as being indigent and living in the worst possible conditions. In actuality, a lot of people are food insecure and eligible for the program. They may be a PhD or MD student, or young working parents. In writing the book and talking about my story, I was trying to dispel some of those myths and take away some of the shame around food stamps.

Another misconception people have is what you can buy with food stamps. You don’t have to buy low-quality foods that are cheap and that last a long time on the shelves. When I first went on food stamps, I tried to find ways to eat high-quality food, staying within the budget. One of the statistics I really wanted to challenge and reverse with my book is that the longer a person receives EBT, the worst their health outcomes become. I want people to consider having EBT like a scholarship for their health. The emphasis in my book became on identifying community programs and resources that lessen the cost of getting higher quality food.

What are some tips you offer for people shopping at the farmers market on a food stamp budget?

Most cities have an incentive program for people who use EBT [electronic benefit transfer] at the farmers market. So in California, there’s Market Match. You go to the info booth to use your CalFresh EBT card to get tokens, and if you take $7 off your card, they’ll match it with another $7, which means you double the value of what you can spend at the farmers market on fruits and veggies. You should shop around to find the farms that fit your budget. If you can’t always buy certified organic, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen to see which conventional produce items have the most or least pesticides.

Do you have any tips for just busy parents on getting kids to eat their fruits and veggies?

I love to make fruit smoothies with kids, and just throw in a handful of raw organic spinach. Then you can’t actually taste that there are vegetables in there, and they get a ton of wonderful nutrients. You can also do that with pasta sauce—just put some leafy greens in there and blend it. I try to pack as much as I can into something that my kid likes to eat, like a pesto sauce using peas in the base, or a green rice using cilantro.

Part of this is about making it fun. We have a plant-based preschool, which is a project I’ve been growing for a couple years. My daughter planted beet starts in the winter, and we harvested them as a project. We tasted the leaves and even tried pieces of the beet before we roasted it. Engaging kids’ imagination and their learning in the process makes them want to eat. As a single mom, I take my daughter shopping with me to the store or farmers market. She’s a huge helper. She helps pick out fruits and vegetables, and she has her favorites. She gets to make those choices, but her choices are within this huge range of options that are all really good for her.

In your book you talk about radical nutrition. Can you tell us a bit about what that means to you?

It’s basically a harm reduction approach to eating, starting with drinking more water and doing certain things that reduce inflammation. It’s really a way of eating that brings the body into its natural state of being and power. Our bodies are wise and strong and they can they can reverse disease with our help.

Visit the CUESA Info Booth to learn about CalFresh and Market Match. Celebrate CalFresh Awareness Month at CUESA farmers market in May, starting Thursday, May 2, at Mission Community Market, and Sunday, May 5, at Jack London Square Farmers Market.

Photographs by Anne Hamersky. This blog post is part of a series inspired by The Food Change, a public art project by CUESA, featuring farmers, advocates, and everyday people who are making positive change in our food system. Learn more.


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