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Around a year ago, I posted wondering whether or not I should apply to food stamps.  Beorn has been unable to work since he graduated last spring. Even before that we were barely getting by between my TA salary, Beorn’s part-time work in a student tech support position and our student loan money.

I wasn’t sure if we would qualify or not since we were both students.  It took me a long time to actually get up the courage to apply, but Beorn is now a food stamp recipient. At least here in Purple State, in order to qualify for food stamps as a student you have to be working at least 20 hours a week.  Since officially my TA position is a .40, I don’t qualify. I don’t really know what would happen if I was working more than 20 hours a week, but then my income would “count.” But that means Beorn qualifies because he didn’t have any income. I don’t understand it, but the nice social worker seemed very sure about it.

Since Beorn had no income when we applied he got the full $200 award, which is a big help for our food budget. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food and trying to eat healthy on a budget. Lately we have been eating healthy, but not staying on budget. We spend a lot of our income on food. I’m going to post again soon about some of the changes I have been making in my eating habits, but that’s a long story.

As someone who is now on food stamps, I have to say that I’m a little bit puzzled by all the folks who try the eating on a food stamps budget. Everyone seems to choose the average amount that a family on food stamps receives monthly and then try to stay within that budget. The thing is that the government is assuming that people are going to spend some of the rest of their income on food. It’s true that some families may try to eat just using their food stamps since they have to pay their other bills, but it seems like an arbitrary exercise. I guess I have trouble imagining that so many folks have never had to eat on a small budget.

One thing we have been doing to economize this last year is eating more and more beans. In fact, we bought two huge bags of locally grown organic dried beans for $.75/lb last September. I think they were 25 lbs each (garbanzos and pintos) and we are still working our way through them. This year the local bean farmers had a crop failure, so I guess if we were truly relying on local farms it would be a lucky thing that we had extra stores. Every week I try to cook up a big pot of beans and then come up with creative ways to eat them throughout the week. This week I discovered a easy and tasty way to spice up pinto beans without adding extra sugar or fats (remember, we are trying to eat healthy.)

Cheap and Delicious Pinto Beans

  • 2 cups dried pinto beans
  • salt
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp. onion powder

Wash the beans and carefully check for stones and bits of dirt. (Our beans came to us very dirty.) Cover beans with plenty of clean water and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and let sit for an hour. (This jumpstarts the cooking process.) Heat beans on medium heat until very soft. (Undercooked beans are not fun to digest.) You may have to add more water to keep them covered, but in the end you should end up with not much excess “broth”. Add salt and spices to taste.

Note: Smoky paprika is the tastiest stuff ever! The brand we bought, “La Dalia” from Spain, was pretty expensive at $5 for 70 grams, but it lasts us a long time. I find that regular paprika is pretty tasteless. I would estimate that the amount in this recipe can’t cost more than $.25 and it turns the beans into something fabulous.

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Staycations seem to have become popular these days, but of course I’m just happy to have any time off, whether or not I get to do anything special. When I was a kid we always went camping or to a camping near the beach. (A friend of the family owned the cabin.) I never thought of those times as vacations exactly. I was a kid. Many kids at my school went to Europe or a tropical island for vacations.

My summer school is finally over. Thank the deities! I passed my Spanish class and now have six weeks or so to get some research done and relax a bit before the fall term starts. Living as we have been for the last year, with Beorn not working, makes taking any time off very challenging. Summers have been the worst for us in the last few years because we haven’t gotten financial aid. This year, even with some summer financial aid and two paychecks for summer teaching, not getting money in August will be challenging.

I enjoy having free time to putter around the house and “get things done.” (Ever seen the TV series Dead Like Me? In one episode a character reveals that she records herself doing stuff around the house and broadcasts it on the web. The show is called “Getting Things Done with Delores Herbig.”) There are a number of things I need to catch up on around here. Here is my list of things to do when you have time off, but no money to speak of.

1. Work on your vegetable garden. This week my mom visited and helped me get caught up on weeding me vegetable garden. I have a yardshare garden of about 600 sq ft that has been terribly neglected. When I got the space it was terribly overrun with bindweed.

Isn’t it cute? Any yet it’s evil. I can’t believe how much bindweed I have pulled this year and it is still winning!

2. Do some “spring” cleaning. I’m also spending time going through all the boxes in our closets. I gathered some old clothes to give to Good Will. Later in the week I will probably spend an afternoon at a few thrift stores looking for some clothing for the fall. My sewing machine and serger also haven’t gotten any use this year. The serger I bought for $5 at a garage sale last fall and I’m eager to try out sewing with it. I have a large tub full of various fabrics so I have lots of free material to experiment with.

3. Cook for the freezer or preserve some summer fruits and vegetables. Most likely, I will do some major cooking for the freezer. Having some already prepared food in the freezer makes it easier to avoid being tempted to buy food out when I’m tired or busy. We have also been freezing fresh fruits. While my mom was here we visited a pick-your-own blueberry farm and brought home several pounds of blueberries. I also froze quite a few strawberries and cherries while they were in season and so cheap.

4. Go to the library. When I was a kid we went to the public library a lot. As a grad student I don’t have much time for leisure reading, but I’m taking advantage now.

5. Play on your computer. Lots of people who are truly poor don’t have computers, which is another reason to go to the library, but I need a computer for work, so that’s a lot of recreation available to me. I can even catch up on my blog reading!

6. Go to a park. My mom and I visited the local arboretum and went for a little hike. Beorn’s mom went fishing at the county park while she was here.

7. Go swimming. Beorn and I have been swimming at the pool here at our complex, but there are lots of public pools and even rivers around here. I prefer to swim in natural water. It’s more interesting and there’s less chlorine. If you live near an ocean, even better. Swimming is the best exercise for people with rheumatoid arthritis because there is no stress on the joints.

8. Go to a museum or a concert. Most university towns have some sort of museums and concert series. As a grad student I get free entry into the museum and can get inexpensive concert tickets. Most museums have a free day at least once a month.

Now all of you academics will probably be wondering why I’m not spending all this time working on my research. But I will be spending a significant amount of time on it and I don’t think it’s healthy to drive yourself work once you have reached a certain point of exhaustion. In order to have good ideas I need time to refresh my brain.

Anyone else have ideas about what to do with “time off” when you don’t have a lot of money?

This summer, for the first time since I started grad school, in fact, for the first time ever, I’m “doing” summer school. This has kept me very busy! My department here at Crunchy U. offers summer classes, so for the first time I got the chance to teach my own class. Unfortunately it was the class from hell. I don’t want to tell the entire story, but there were a bunch of students in the class who weren’t ready for that class and my TA was no help. I think I worked 60-80 hours a week for the 4 weeks. On the up side, colleges and universities everywhere need people to teach this particular class and since it’s technology related, there are a limited number of people willing and able to teach it, so it will be good for my CV.

As soon as that was over, I started a Spanish class. I’m required to have two years of a language for my PhD. Unforunately, it’s been more than 10 years since I took any language classes, so those classes don’t count. Because I have limited time (I’m hoping to graduate before I’m 40) I decided to hop right in to second year Spanish. Since I had been teaching during the first four weeks of the summer, I had to start with the second quarter of second year Spanish. Make sense? Needless to say, there are huge gaps in my memory. My pronunciation is terrible now. I think it’s my age. Also, I can’t spell, even in Spanish! My previous college courses in Spanish were focused on speaking, now I’m expected to write, and I’m discovering a little of what it’s like to be illiterate. I have been making progress over the last three week though. Next week is the end of the class, so I will finally have some time off, and a chance to do a little more of my research.

Last week I took a couple of days off and travelled to my research site to do a couple of interviews. I need to get at least 15 or so interviews done by the end of September when school starts, so that I have some priliminary results to work with over the next year. I feel luck about the topic I’m working on and the location. Friends at Crunchy U. know people in the area, so I have been able to find places to stay and make connections locally.

The point of telling you all about my summer is to say that I’m burnt out! I need at least two weeks of lazing around doing nothing before I will be motivated to do anything again. I know many academics seem to be able to work long hours day after day, without a break, but I have become overly grumpy. Overwork is not good.

Now I’m getting off the computer and going to make some gazpacho and pizza. On Saturdays we have friends over for dinner and games.

I know it may sound like I have gone crazy, but the combo of little money and a sick husband has resulted in lots of cooking experiments. Last weekend I tried homemade pasta and crackers. I have a little hand crank pasta roller that I think I must have gotten from a thrift store or a garage sale. The pasta was good, but not amazing. I think next time I have to add the flour more slowly. Too much flour in any kind of recipe is a big problem.

I found this recipe (Olive Oil Crackers Recipe – 101 Cookbooks) which uses semolina flour and a pasta roller to make crackers. I have never made crackers before, they turned out very tasty! They were easy to make too, the only problem was keeping an eye on them in the oven. I burn the first batch and then some batches I took out too early so they didn’t get really crunchy. The under-done ones tasted like flat bread or pita, so that was good too.

Sometime I want to try making granola bars. My granola turned out yummy, so I think granola bars are next.

Monday is Beorn’s next rheumatology appointment. The rheumatologist was amazing. He was friendly, thorough, and quickly concluded that Beorn most likely has rheumatoid arthritis. Hopefully this next appointment will result in some medication. In the meantime he gave Beorn a cortasone shot in his knee. Beorn could barely walk at this point so it’s been an amazing relief just to have a couple of weeks during which he wasn’t struggling just to walk around the house. We know cortasone isn’t a long term solution, but pain relief is important sometimes.

Since Beorn has been feeling so sick we didn’t visit any relatives over the school break. My dad did come here for a couple of days, which was lovely, but mainly I spent my break cooking in preparation for the new quarter. A couple of years ago Beorn’s mom bought us a small chest freezer and I have been busily filling it up. As much as I enjoy cooking and eating fresh food in season, while I’m a grad student I don’t always have time to shop for and cook fresh food. Last quarter I relied too much on pre-packaged food from Trader Joe’s. It’s amazing how easy it is to spend on prepacked food (and cheap wine.)

Since we have been considering applying for food stamps, I wanted to work on being more frugal with my food budget. We already rarely go out to eat or eat fast food, although I do sometimes buy a sandwhich or a burrito at school, but I still felt we were wasting too much money on prepackaged food and since we have our own freezer I can make my own “prepackaged” meals. Freezing my own food is cheaper and healthier for us.

For example, over the break I froze about two dozen homemade burritos. I’m lactose intolerant, so I didn’t include cheese in them. It’s actually difficult to find frozen burritos without a lot of cheese in them, so it works great for me. Earlier in the fall I canned some salsa, so I added a little of that to a big batch of brown rice to make “Mexican” rice. We also found a great deal on organic pinto beans at $.75/lb so I cooked up a huge batch of refried beans. I supplemented that with a little shredded chicken I got on sale for $.49/lb and some onions and peppers (I got those frozen from TJs.) The most expensive ingredient was the tortillas, the cheapest I could find were still $.25 each. In total I think each burrito cost me about $.75. Now when I’m feeling exhausted and need a meal I can stick a couple into the toaster oven, bake for 20-30 minutes and I have dinner. I haven’t tried microwaving them yet, they come out nice and crunchy if you bake them.

Here are a few other things I have been cooking and  freezing:

  • Curry and rice bowls – Beorn likes the little rice bowls you can get at TJs and just microwave. So I have been cooking larger batches of curry and rice and freezing them in bowl shaped plastic containers. (I know the plastic is toxic if microwaved, but you can stick it in a bowl before reheating.)
  • Pizza – I made some to eat and froze some, ready to stick in the oven. It’s still a little expensive with all that cheese and meat, but a nice alternative to ordering delivery. Also, my stomach can tolerate a little goat cheese, so I made myself goat cheese pizzas, which I can’t get at a pizzaria.
  • Mushroom risotto – We bought chanterelles for $5/lb when the rainy season started and stuck some in the freezer.
  • Dal – That’s Indian style split peas with lots of fragrant spices. I always want some when I cook Indian food, but we never eat a whole batch. This is very cheap and easy to reheat from the freezer.
  • Naan – Again, my obsession with TJs. They have great naan (India flat bread) in their freezer section that you can just reheat in the toaster oven, but it costs around $.50 a piece. My homemade version cost me around $.09 a piece.
  • Bread – We never eat enough before it starts to mold and several frugal cooking sites suggested keeping bread in the freezer to solve this problem.  I made a few loaves one day, ate one fresh, and then sliced on froze the others. I like my bread toasted anyway. Tip – the most expensive part of homemade bread is the yeast. If you buy yeast in those little brown jars or packets it costs something like $.50 a loaf. I buy yeast in bulk from my local natural foods store for something like $1.50/lb, that works out to around $.03 a loaf. Total cost per loaf is around $.30 if you use cheap flour and $.75 if you use the fancy organic stuff.
  • Broccoli – I found broccoli on sale last week for $.65/lb so I bought a few pounds. I blanched it, had some for dinner that night and stuck the rest on a tray in the freezer. In the morning I used a spatula to scoop the frozen pieces of broccoli into plastic bags.
  • Soup – We love soup and so always make large batches and freeze the leftovers.
  • Pie crust – I made a bunch of pie crust at once and froze it. So far it has been making decent pie, not quite as good as fresh, but still better than store bought pie.
  • Pumpkin – I bought a bunch of baking pumpkins cheap around Halloween, baked them up and froze.

Earlier in the fall we bought around 30 pounds of apples from a pick your own orchard we dried some and canned the rest as apple butter and apple chutney. We also bought a 1/4 of a grass fed cow! We are becoming real foodies. The grass fed beef came frozen and packaged from a local butcher shop for something like $2.85/lb. Considering that you can’t even get supermarket ground beef for that price it was a great deal. We don’t eat beef that much, so it will last us a while! But there is a lot more I want to do to improve our eating and reduce our costs. I’m attempting to strike a balance between local, seasonal eating ala Alice Waters and those frugal moms that buy everything so cheap and freeze it all. I don’t know where they live, but other than chicken and hot dogs (and I don’t buy hot dogs), I rarely find any meat for $2/lb. Here are some things I’m planning for the next time I get some free time…maybe Presidents Day?

  • Potstickers – I’m addicted to them.
  • Samosas – Filled with potatoes and peas and baked. We already have the chutney!
  • Eating more vegetarian meals. – This is by far the best thing I could do to save us money (and help the environment), but it’s a delicate balance for me. Beorn complains if I cook too many meatless meals, so I tend to add just a little meat to keep him happy.
  • Trying to buy all organic, especially animal products. So far I haven’t felt able to afford it, but I know that if I don’t waste money in other areas we could eat less but better meat and dairy.
  • Alternatives to plastic for freezing or preserving?
  • Cutting out soda and bottled water. What a waste of money.
  • Gardening – I don’t think I have written much about it here, but I’m an avid gardener. Right now all I have for garden space is a patio slab. That area will become my herb, greens, and edible flowers garden. I want a community garden plot as well, but that’s another tricky issue. If I try to garden far from home I have to make a special effort to take time away from work to visit my garden. If I’m not consistant my plot get’s taken over in the spring while I’m busy with papers and finals.

Ok, kitties have entirely taken over my bed space, so that’s all the typing for now. Anyone else have suggestions for cheap, healthy, local, organic food and cooking?

I have been working day and night and sleeping little, so there isn’t much fun to report. Since Jan 1. I have worked out seven times! Woohoo! And I have been taking vitamins! Yay! My big excitement this week has been the successful creation of Elderberry Jello. A few years back I bought this book on how to make your own herbal concoctions. It contains all sorts of recipes, but the most fun is the idea to make your herbal teas into jello. Yum!

I combined Elderberry juice (Beorn and I juiced some elderberries last summer and froze the juice in our chest freezer), much loved for it’s supposed antiviral properties, with sugar-free black cherry jello to create a semi-healthy treat. Tonight I had some with a little cool-whip.