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Chef-worthy meals on a food-stamp budget

How well can a family of four eat on just $62.50 per week? The question's hardly hypothetical for approximately one out of every five people in Jackson and Josephine counties.

Mirroring a nationwide trend, more Oregonians depend on the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Food assistance peaked last month with 696,306 people statewide — 66,223 of them in Jackson and Josephine counties — enrolled at a cost of more than $88 million, Oregon Department of Human Services reported.

Nationwide, 38 million people are using the federal food-assistance program at its highest rate ever, according to The Associated Press. At the end of last year, roughly one in eight Americans received the average monthly grocery allotment of $68.88.

A number of factors determine a family's monthly benefit, usually between $100 to more than $500. The national average of $275.53 for a family of four drops to about $250 per month in Oregon, or $62.50 per week.

And while the government has compiled dietitian-approved recipes that cost just pennies per serving, the popular expectation is food stamps make for bleak meals. Reinforcing that impression, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski purchased Cup-O-Noodles, canned beans and macaroni and cheese with food stamps for a 2007 hunger-awareness campaign.

To find out how well Americans could be eating on food stamps, the AP asked two chefs and a magazine food editor to plan out seven days of meals for a family of four at a cost of $68.88.

Although chefs Bill Telepan and Jose Garces went over budget, the group proved that healthful, tasty meals are within reach for food-assistance recipients who literally think outside the box and avoid processed foods.

"Cooking on a budget and actually cooking means cooking without using packaged foods," says Anna Last, editor of Everyday Food magazine.

Coming in 39 cents under budget, Last focused on stretching her ingredients as far as possible and budgeting her time as much as her cash. It's a strategy local culinary educator Mary Shaw implements every week when she cooks a pot of whole grains and pot of beans to combine over many meals.

"Invest your own time, and that will keep you out of the center of the grocery store," Shaw says.

Shaw proved her point in 2007 when she compared the governor's choices to her pot of vegetarian chili, prepared with organic ingredients from Ashland Food Co-op and stretched over three meals. Spices, she notes, were all-important, echoed in Garces' Latin-inspired menu for the AP that ran just 66 cents over budget.

In the presence of spices, inexpensive basics — such as pasta, beans, greens and potatoes — are more appealing. The same foods also can taste radically different from one meal to the next — Indian flavors one night, Asian the next and Mexican on the third.

Garces, of Food Network fame, encourages budget shoppers to start in the grocer's ethnic aisle, where products generally are less expensive. Shaw advocates buying only what you need from a store's bulk bins.

"It's all about shopping and buying the right amounts," Garces says.

While "bulking up the governor," Shaw spent almost an entire meal's budget on enough chili powder for two recipes eaten on five occasions. Garces spent one-quarter of his budget on dry goods and flavorful foods, such as salsa, roasted peppers, chipotles in adobo sauce, paprika and maple syrup.

"Buy products that contain a ton of flavor," Garces says. "Chorizo typically has paprika, black pepper, garlic, cumin and a lot of pork fat."

"He's right on," Shaw says. "I love it."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Vegetarian chili is packed with spices. See the recipe accompanying this story. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe) - AP