Mario Batali’s Food Stamp Challenge

By Lindsey Antis

May 15, 2012 4:02pm

For one week, the acclaimed chef Mario Batali is challenging Americans to “walk in someone else’s shoes” by eating only what they would be able to buy with food stamps.

Batali, the star of ABC’s “The Chew,” partnered with the New York City Food Bank to raise awareness about potential cuts to the food stamp program, which helps feed 46 million Americans.

So what does one of America’s top chefs feed his family on $31 per person per week or $1.48 per meal, less than most people spend on a snack?  Instead of filling up on fresh, organic vegetables, he’s been feeding his family more beans and starches like egg and bean tacos and lentils and rice.

Click here to see Batali’s grocery list for the entire week.

It hasn’t been easy to stick to the tight budget, even for someone with culinary training.  “I created a menu that I thought would make it, and then we looked at the coupons and the Dollar Store… And I thought the chicken was [going to be] $6 but it was $14,” he said. So, he had to “roll with it,” he said, and ended up buying the bone in pork shoulder one day and chicken thighs another day.

Batali has cut out those daily luxuries that quickly add up, including $4 lattes, beer, wine, sodas and snacks.  He said he misses coffee, ”wandering through the day sampling different food,” and snacking.

“We are focusing on eating exactly three meals a day,” he said.

His two teenage sons have needed to make sacrifices as well.  “Last night Leo wanted to put honey on his biscuit, but honey is expensive” and not affordable on the food challenge budget.

Food stamps are issued once a month, meaning families have to plan to make them last.  Even with a strict budget and planning, Batali said he would expect to run out of money by the end of the month.  There’s not enough money to feed the family and “you can’t live on a can of beans for five days in a row.”  This week he said he has had to sacrifice some of his standards for food quality and nutrition to ensure that he will have enough food for every meal.

The challenge, which Batali says he plans to do several times a year, is changing the way his family thinks about food. While his kids are still eating what seem like everyday meals, including eggs for breakfast and lentils and corn bread for dinner, it has started a greater philosophical conversation.

“It’s an interesting conversation to think about what food is, what hunger is, what nutrition is in a way that makes us think about it on a much more personal level,” Batali said.

According to the Food Bank of New York, more than 1.8 million New Yorkers rely on SNAP, a supplemental food program included in the current farm bill, to put food on the table.  The $35.8 billion in proposed food stamp cuts would “cripple” this program and others, according to the Food Bank.

Batali sees the proposed cuts as a direct indicator of America’s food philosophy.  “Are we Darwinists — where we live and let live? Or are we nurturing as a society?”

The chef puts himself in the latter category.  Ultimately Batali said he believes that “there has to be a standard of living that we [nationally] decide to support.”

That said, Batali recognizes that “it’s easy for us because next week we’re going back to whatever we [normally] do.”

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