I am an AmeriCorps VISTA on a budget, a serious budget – I am actually on food stamps (or more correctly called SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.) I also happen to be an endurance athlete who puts in anywhere from 10 to 15 and 1/2 hours of running, biking, swimming and strength training in a week, even up to 9 hours on a weekend alone! So people may ask, how do I fuel myself for endurance sports on a limited budget?
*To clarify, an AmeriCorps member is not paid a salary but rather a living stipend which means we technically don’t make an ‘income’ and therefore qualify for government benefits. Since I am part of a government sponsored program, I see the money that I get from SNAP as an additional part of my stipend since as per AmeriCorps guidelines the stipend I receive puts me at exactly 103% of the local poverty line. (To give you an idea of what that looks like, according to the Federal Poverty Guidelines a single person making less than $11,490 a year is in poverty, for a family of four it is making less than $23,550 a year or less than $1,962.50 a month.)
Without getting into politics, I have witnessed a lot of pros and cons to SNAP. Readers who might be against government programs like these might be surprised to learn that less than 10% of SNAP users are also on welfare, meaning that over 90% of users have jobs but are making less than 130% of the poverty level. Yes, you might see some candy, soda and frozen dinners thrown into the shopping cart and paid for by an EBT card (which works the same way a debit card does,) and you might have a few abusers of the system, although there is very little fraud since you have to re-qualify every 3-6 months, but you also can go to some farmers markets where the card can be used to get tokens to pay vendors for farm fresh produce and most people benefiting from the program are in situational poverty (or semi-voluntary poverty like me,) and won’t be dependent on it for longer than 6-12 months! If I didn’t have food benefits, I would have to borrow money from my parents, the banks, or put myself into credit card debt. Instead I am able to purchase fresh produce and extremely healthy foods due to my star spangled EBT card.
But back to my original question, how do I fuel myself? With lots of planning! I try to only go to a physical grocery store once a week or less and to the farmer’s market every weekend if possible. Before I go, I make a list and stick to it! I also eat a lot of staple foods that aren’t terribly expensive:
- Frozen berries/fruit- I almost exclusively buy frozen berries since they won’t go to waste and are picked and frozen while in season so I know they taste good (I’ll buy fresh organic berries if I see them on sale!)
- Frozen broccoli – not expensive and great to have on hand to add to a variety of dishes.
- Sweet potatoes – this nutritional powerhouse gives me the most bang for my buck and you can almost always find a local variety.
- Collard greens, Kale, or Swiss Chard – I can count on one of these to usually be on sale, another superfood.
- Spinach/salad greens – again, I can usually count on some kind of salad mix or bag of spinach to be on sale.
- Apples – I buy them by the bag when possible to get the best deal – I use them in smoothies, to snack on with almond butter, and to use in dishes like wild rice pilaf.
- Carrots – Don’t pay the extra dollar for baby carrots, just get the normal ones and use a knife to scrape off any ‘dirty’ looking spots, again, useful for snacking and in soups/main dishes.
- Squashes – Winter squashes in winter and summer squashes in summer are seasonal, versatile, and reasonably priced.
- Lemons- for lemon water, tea, citrus, etc.
- Onion, garlic and ginger root – for flavor, enough said.
- Avocados – I don’t mind splurging for avocados, but usually if there is a deal I try to stock up, the nutrition, texture and flavor of this fruit cannot be matched by anything else!
- Whatever I see that is in season and has a sale going on – mango, pineapple, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, snap peas, beets, turnips, spring onions, etc. In regards to when to buy organic I try to stick to the Environmental Working Group’s list of the “Dirty Dozen and Clean 15.”
- Nuts and seeds- I have walnuts, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds on hand at all times, and I make them last by storing them in the freezer. Trader Joes has excellent deals on bags of raw almonds and walnuts which I eat the most, but if you eat them less than I do, the bulk section of the grocery store, even Whole Foods, is the best option.
- Dried fruit – raisins, golden raisins, mango, apricots or dates are my usual, make sure they aren’t sweetened, and then added with those nuts and seeds you are all set to make your own healthy trail/snack mix.
- Beans, lentils, oats, wild rice, brown rice- dried beans last for a very long time, so I always have some in my pantry and the only grains I really eat are the ones I listed and they store pretty easily too.
Other Pantry items:
- Olive oil- go for high quality
- Coconut oil – it really isn’t that expensive, when you break it down it is similar to a good olive oil.
- Apple Cider Vinegar, Balsamic vinegar – for marinades and dressings.
- Canned tomatoes* with no added salt
- Canned pumpkin or butternut squash* – post Thanksgiving there are always sales so stock up then!
- Trader Joe’s pepper/salt grinders: I have four of these grinders and they are a relatively cheap and flavorful investment: rainbow pepper, pink sea salt, lemon pepper and garlic salt/pepper.
- Salsa- not just for chips! I put salsa on salads, use them to flavor lentils, pour onto rice and beans for a
- Almond/Coconut milk- again usually deals go on for these, if not Trader Joe’s has the best normal value, and go for unsweetened! (Also try to make your own!)
Splurges (both monetarily and nutritionally!)
- Raw cacao or cacao nibs – for intense chocolate superfood flavor – I order on Amazon for the best deal
- Maca powder- for smoothies, another superfood that helps with everything from muscle recovery to hormone balance, (again I go to Amazon for this.)
- Spirulina- to up the green smoothie factor, adds intense greenness and energy (check out Energybits for more info!)
- Store made hummus/spreads to go with celery/carrots or the occasional pita chip!
- Dark chocolate bars.
- Chia and hemp seeds.
- SunWarrior Warrior Blend Protein Powder (the best plant based protein powder for your wallet and taste buds!)
- Coconut water.
- Snack foods like organic popcorn (to avoid GMO corn), pita chips, seaweed snacks, popchips, etc.
That pretty much is what my pantry, fridge and freezer looks like on any given week. Greatist just published a nice article about shopping for food on different budgets that I thought was pretty comprehensive. Hope this information is helpful to other plant-based athletes or any post-grads on a limited budget!
Do you shop on a fairly limited budget? What are your staple foods?