"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Monday, August 3, 2015

What you don't know about living on food stamps

Every once in a while, a politician or celebrity tries to go a week spending only the $28 SNAP/EBT average disbursement; they inevitably quit after a few days, saying it's impossible. Yet, people who have to rely on food support do it. I decided to take the challenge for an entire year and I learned some interesting - and paradoxical - things along the way.

It's not $28 and it's not supposed to cover costs

In 2003, the government spent millions of dollars to find the absolute least a person needed to spend to eat a healthy diet and they came up with $31.54, meaning they couldn't find any way to do it on $31.53; the rationale was that they wanted to be absolutely sure they were not squandering resources. Food costs today are much higher, largely due to transportation costs, but the average SNAP benefit currently is about $28. The "S" in SNAP stands for "Supplemental;" it's not supposed to cover all costs. If one has no income whatsoever, the maximum benefit currently is $194 per month, about $6.25 per day, rather than the $4 people have been trying to use (when I started this project, it was $188 per month). That's difficult, but not impossible.

The last days of the first few months are miserable

I recall once Tweeting "I have $6 to spend on food for the next 6 days." It is a monthly stipend and one has to think in terms of a month; it's very easy to overspend in the first weeks, especially when one's not accustomed to eating cheaply. At the end of the month, you'll be shopping to get through a few days; instead of buying a gallon of milk at a cheaper price per ounce, you'll buy a pint at a much higher price - because you don't have the $1 difference to spend.

Thank God for junk food

It's bizarre. You run out of money, but need a lot of calories and you're tired of the same food every day. In my case, a bag of flavored potato chips saved the day. There's been a push to remove junk foods from things that can be purchased with SNAP, but that push is by people who have never tried living on them.

Follow the USDA guidelines and use free nutrition apps

When the government figured out how to eat healthily most cheaply, they also gave away how they did it in a 112 page report. It's a long dull read, but there's some useful charts. To make sure I was getting the nutrients I needed, I used a free web nutrition tracker. When I ran into problems with what I still needed to obtain and what I needed to avoid, I found a useful site. It's incredibly time consuming, especially at first and I doubt many people would do it.

There are some odd things that crop up. The USDA recommends dairy products, green leafy vegetables and red/orange vegetables, but the combination easily leads to way too much Vitamin A. One carrot has all the vitamin one needs for a week, but if you buy a bunch of carrots, they spoil before you could ever use them and two is already too many.

Buy from bulk, not in bulk

You always hear how you can save money on groceries by buying in bulk, but that doesn't work well with SNAP. One month, I found great bargains on blueberries and almonds, so I bought more than I needed, but I had too little left for everything else. You can buy two - at most three - month's worth of something and only at the beginning of a month. Coffee goes on sale in 12 week cycles and that can wreak havoc on a budget.

In the bulk foods section of a supermarket, you can buy just one olive, one dried apricot or one ounce of oatmeal. That can be a lifesaver at the end of the month. Plus, the bulk foods are usually priced lower than elsewhere in the same store (but not always! You have to check).

Dried, frozen, ethnic

Dried and frozen foods are usually much cheaper than their fresh counterparts. Canned and boxed foods tend to be loaded with salt and/or sugar (tomato paste and fish are the only things I bought canned). You can often find the same thing at several different prices in the same store and the cheapest is often in aisles marked "world" or "ethnic." I bought sesame seeds marked as ajonjoli at 40 cents per ounce, when they were six times as expensive in the spice aisle. Fresh produce in season is cheaper, but still more expensive than frozen.

Portioning meals and freezing them for later use is a great idea and, if you're buying for one, you will freeze things you wouldn't expect. Frozen orange juice is the cheapest citrus, but it goes bad in the refrigerator before you finish it, so you make it and then refreeze half.

You will miss what you can't have, then forget it exists

No restaurants. No alcohol. You can't shop the deli at the supermarket, because SNAP doesn't cover the preparation costs; the roasted chicken is especially hard to walk by - which is why it's always where you have to walk by it. You also can't supplement your nutrition with vitamin pills or meal replacement products like Ensure. You can't buy seeds to plant your own garden in a hope to bring down costs. Dried cranberries, for reasons I do not know, are also out - there will be surprises.

You could make your own wine, but it won't be very good. Purchasing a whole chicken and roasting it yourself sounds like a great idea; you can use the bones, with whatever vegetables wilt on you before you eat them, to make stock, and flavor things with chicken fat, but I never got the hang of it.

Farmer's market conundrum

Farmer's markets have great produce, in season, at low cost, but create a new problem. Individual vendors cannot accept food stamps, so one has to buy vouchers which cannot be used elsewhere and which cannot be redeemed if not used. You end up wasting about as much money because of the bureaucracy as you would save, plus it's an extra trip.

Baking gets problematic

Flour, eggs, oil, salt and sugar are all relatively cheap, so baking seems like a no-brainer. The problem comes in when you assemble all the ingredients you need and find the total runs to $20, which means not buying some other foods. Are you going to live on cookies? In order to make something and have it be healthy, I ended up making an all-rye sourdough bread that I used mostly to thicken soups.

Eggs used to be the cheapest source of protein, but avian flu changed that (it's now chicken breasts). This goes to show you that you have to have plans to change what you eat on occasion. Also, if you're buying groceries for one, a dozen eggs is way too many - you end up wasting half, or you accept that you're not going to eat healthily for a few days and down them quickly.

Spice world

Once you figure out what you can buy, your foods become monotonous quickly. Spices can take care of that, but they're very expensive, so you have to buy only what you plan to use a lot. In my case, cinnamon made oatmeal palatable and oregano (or basil) saved tomato sauces that accompanied the eternal pasta meal. Curry powder and red pepper can cover a multitude of sins (but, if you like black pepper, get used to pre-ground, as fresh is expensive and a pepper grinder is not covered by SNAP).


You will never use manufacturer's coupons, so "double coupons" are a thing for others. There's no manufacturer for, say, potatoes. Store coupons, however, are a lifesaver, if one buys only what one would've bought anyway. Buying something "extra" because it's on sale might mean you're on a diet on day 31 of the month.


The SNAP benefit is the same every month. February will be your favorite month, as it's shorter, and you can buy a rare treat or two.

The final word

You can eat healthily and cheap, you can eat with great flavor and cheap, you can eat healthily and with great flavor. You cannot do all three. If you eat healthily and cheap, you can save enough for an occasional splurge on great flavor.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A slight increase in mileage

Recent training:

June 27: 5 miles in 44 minutes.

That night, I fell and broke a rib.

July 5: Walked 7 miles
July 9: 3 in 27
July 11: 12 in 123
July 12: 11 in 117
July 14: 11 in 109
July 15: 7 in 69
July 16: 12 in 117.

What do they say again about increasing mileage 1750% per week?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Two weeks after breaking a rib, I ran 12 miles, my longest run this year (I also ran 12 on Jan. 1). Today I ran 11, increasing my weekly mileage by about 500% with two runs. After falling apart in the heat (it's Minnesota, but the dew point was 70), I saw my friend Barb and we started talking. I mentioned that I was running with a broken rib and she said, "Oh, I've done that. You have to either hold your elbow up really high or hold it against your side." She hasn't missed a day of running in 30 years - the only person who can't be impressed with running with a broken rib.

Choose your friends wisely.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

T-361 days

If you do the prep work, success or failure becomes just a matter of circumstance, but to do the prep work, you have to first be willing to do it. You have to be willing to not just work harder than everyone else, but harder than anyone else believes is possible, to put in superhuman effort repeatedly, continuously, until the goal you've set seems a foregone conclusion, almost an afterthought. Then you have to make sure you're not just working hard to work hard, but toward that goal.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A different kind of break

Last week, I ran my 90,000th mile, lifetime. It came a little later than expected, due to some allergy problems.

Then I had the best run I've had in a couple of years and started thinking, "Hey, I may not be done yet!"

Last night, I fell down a flight of stairs. Broke some ribs, pulled some muscles. I'll be out of commission for a while.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

New Thoughts on 100 Mile Training

Just thought it was time I talked about running again. As time goes by, I find my thoughts on training to be changing from "why doesn't anyone try..." to "this is starting to look sensible." The old dictum: 100 mile training should look like marathon training, but with longer long runs.

I no longer think back-to-back long runs are essential, nor that one needs to ever run faster than marathon pace in training. Here's a plan for those who can run a marathon between 3:00 and 4:30, which is most people who can also finish 100 miles before the cut-off, but isn't looking for medals.

3 week cycle:

Monday 6 miles
Tuesday 6 miles
Wednesday 9 miles hard (marathon pace or hills)
Thursday 6 miles
Friday 6 miles

First week
Saturday 20 miles
Sunday 9 miles

Second week
Saturday 12 miles hard (marathon pace or hills)
Sunday 9 miles

Third week
Saturday 31 miles
Sunday 12 miles

At 11-12 minutes per mile (4:30 marathoners), this is about 12 hours per week.
At  8 minutes per mile (3:00 marathoners), this is 9 hours per week, and one can add two-a-days, running an additional 6 miler on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Then one could also make 14 miles of the 31 miler fast.

I'd schedule a 50K race every 9 weeks, then drop the hard 9 miler before and after the race (run the miles, just not fast). If closer to 4:30 than 3:00 in the marathon, I'd also drop the hard 12 prior to the race - if around a 3:45 marathoner, maybe run 6 of the 12 hard.

That gives an adequate mileage - higher than most do - with an appropriate amount of hard running. Moreover, it looks doable.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Steve's Evil Kitchen Gets in a Pickle

Still nothing to write about on the running front.

I thought I'd try something new and daring in making pickles. The first experiment didn't turn out well:

Sometimes explosions just happen in the Evil Kitchen.

Eventually, I came up with an idea that anyone could follow. Noticing that pickle manufacturers uses calcium lactate to ensure crunchiness, I came up with an idea for making pickles without vinegar and without salt. The procedure is very simple.

First, soak cucumbers (or anything else you want to pickle) in calcium hydroxide. I used 2 Tbsp. in a pint of water, which was more than saturating and I left it in the refrigerator overnight. You can pick up food grade calcium hydroxide as - imagine my surprise - "Pickling Lime." It was a couple of dollars at Menard's. You have to be careful, as it has a pH of 14; it will turn your skin into soap.
 The second step makes them edible. You pull the cukes out of the caustic solution and put them in acid. I used 88% lactic acid, which is available at any homebrew shop. It, too, will cause nasty burns. 15 oz. of water plus 1 oz. of lactic acid (always put acid in water, not water in acid; a lesson from chemistry class I learned the hard way) gives a solution that is 5.5%, about as strong as strong vinegar. When you put the cucumbers in the acid, there's a little bubbling as the base in the cucumbers reacts with the acid, creating calcium lactate. I stored them in the refrigerator for two days, just to make sure the acid had permeated the pickles and I wouldn't have a nasty surprise.

$4 at Northern brewer.

So how were they? There's an immediate hit of acid on the tongue, as these are very tart. Then there's a lingering aftertaste of fresh cucumber. I decided that the acid was a bit much, so I added sugar to the solution and made sweet pickles, which would probably have aided in preservation, but I ate them all pretty quickly.