A giant bag of crispy rice, coupons and other lessons learned from day one of the Food Stamp Challenge

One day into this food stamp challenge, and I’ve already learned two things: I’m a culinary genius, but not a coupon genius.

First, a reminder of what I’m talking about: My wife, myself and our two kids, ages 10 and 7, have agreed to take part in the Food Stamp Challenge being put together by the Lawrence food bank Just Food. The idea is that people will try to meet their food needs by spending no more than the amount of money an average family receives in food stamp assistance. I do want to be clear: I’m not portraying this exercise of mine as a simulation of what it would be like to actually be on food stamps. There are a whole host of issues with being poor that this exercise won’t replicate. I’m also not doing this to get caught up in some political debate about the merits of the food stamp program or how it should or shouldn’t be used. But I do think it will be interesting to think about food, how much it costs and how much of it we need to live a healthy life.

And that’s where $63.36 comes in. That’s the amount of money, based on an average food stamp payment for a Kansas family of four, that I will have for the four days that we are participating in the project.

For this exercise, I’ve taken over the shopping duties from my wife, Kristine, although she did provide me a meticulous list. Bottom line: I spent $52.47 of our $63.36 for the week. Hopefully, though, I got most of what we need for the week. We’ll see. (Most interesting discovery while at Checkers: You can save 1 cent by buying “fancy” cut green beans instead of regular cut green beans. If they are fancy, why are they cheaper?)

I’ll write more about what I bought and how we tried to control our costs a bit later. Or actually, my wife may blog about that. Yes, my wife is going to blog. For those of you have read my Town Talk column — where I very occasionally make a good-natured joke about my lovely, lovely wife — you may think I’m nervous about the prospect of her blogging. Well, you couldn’t be more . . . correct. (It may work out though. My nervous stomach may stop me from eating much this week.)

Anyway, keep an eye out for that this week. My 10-year-old son, Colby, also likely will blog. He always has something to say, although there is only about a 10 percent chance it actually will be on topic.

But back to my two lessons. It was while watching the Food Network over lunch today that I realized I was a culinary genius. I had eaten my ham sandwich and a small portion of my Always Save BBQ chips, but I needed a little dessert to top it off. I didn’t spend any money buying candy last night. But I did buy, approximately, three bushels of crispy rice cereal. (You know, the kind that comes in those huge plastic bags instead of a box.) But I didn’t buy any sugar to put on them. Crispy rice without sugar? Yeah, I might as well go graze on the pasture next to my home.

But I did buy Always Save peanut butter. Here’s where the genius struck: I put a tablespoon of peanut butter in the microwave (yes, I used a bowl, I think), and melted it. Then I poured some crispy rice on it, and suddenly I had a very tasty, sweet and cheap dessert. I’m sure it will show up on the Food Network at any moment.

As for my lack of genius in the coupon department, let me say I don’t think that was all my fault. My wife is not an extreme couponer (don’t worry, she’s extreme in other ways), but she does take her couponing pretty seriously. As a result, she sent me to the store with coupons sticking out of places I didn’t even know I had. I’m going through the aisles looking like a man preparing for an IRS audit. I’ve got papers spread everywhere and a calculator in one hand. I had some very strict instructions to buy a specific brand of soup. I knew I had a coupon for the soup. What I didn’t know was that I had two, and that I could have structured my purchase in such a way to use both coupons. When my wife looked at the receipt, I soon found that out.

I cost us 25 cents on that one. Who knows, it may make all the difference this week.