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Former food writer lives on food stamps

6 million Americans survive on food stamps and no other income. Former restaurant critic Ed Murrieta is one of them.

By Karen Datko Jun 2, 2010 5:21PM

Some food writers take the ultimate dining challenge -- eat only the subsistence diet provided by food stamps -- on a lark, or because their cigar-chomping editor tells them to.

 

And then there are the food writers who have to -- namely Ed Murrieta, who left a newspaper restaurant-critic job with a $1,300-a-month expense account to start his own website. ". . . and when my entrepreneurial dream fizzled along with the economy, my food budget -- my total income -- plunged to $200 a month," he wrote in a first-person account for The Seattle Times.

 

Americans are using food stamps like never before -- a record 39.7 million people, including 6 million like Murrieta whose only income is food stamps, or what the government now calls the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The number of those folks is quickly growing, The New York Times says.

Unlike those who struggle in the kitchen, Murrieta brings a professional foodie's imagination to the most modest ingredients.

By shopping wisely and scrimping compulsively, by cooking and savoring each meal as a blessing, I am sustained. Even that mysterious can from the food bank generically stamped "Pork with Juices" promised culinary communion.

Here's how he makes it work, while he continues his job search and provides labor in exchange for a roof over his head:

  • He favors discount and liquidation stores and ethnic markets.
  • He does the math and compares unit pricing. At the supermarket where large navel oranges cost $1.69 a pound, he buys the 8-pound bag of medium oranges on sale for $4.99.
  • He draws on his culinary-school experience and on-the-job training at his parents' restaurants. The can of "Pork with Juices" "became my poor-man's rillettes." Whipping up some hollandaise to dress up eggs is easy for him. He can make his own chorizo.
  • Now that farmers markets are open where he lives, he can use his food stamp card to buy tokens to make purchases at individual stalls.
  • He gives back -- another lesson learned from his parents -- by volunteering at the food bank that supplemented his purchases until "I came to realize there were so many others in greater need than me. I can make it on food stamps alone," he wrote.

You'll find no self-pity in his story, and you'll likely get the sense that Murrieta will prevail over this setback. He writes: "After six months of it, I still feel the occasional memory pang of expense-account indulgences gone by, but I don't cry in my cabernet." Or in a glass of milk five days past the expiration date, no doubt.

 

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