04/28/2014 05:43 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2014

Dinner for Four on $10 a Day

For some people reading this headline you may think, "$10 dinner for four, oh, that is easy, just buy in bulk, prepare ahead, can and preserve food, grow your own food." Well, it may be doable for those people who are lucky enough to participate in a food co-op, a community garden or have space to actually grow their own vegetables and produce and have the skills to can or ferment food. However, for many low-income urban families their only option is to shop, if they are lucky, at a large local grocery store. For anyone who has grocery shopped in a city, the task of choosing a healthy meal for a family of four on $10 a day is a pretty daunting task. For a family that participates in the SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), that is what is budgeted for a family of four, $10 a day for dinner. Try it yourself sometime, the next time you are grocery shopping.

Last Saturday, when I participated in a Cooking Matters workshop in Austin conducted by the enthusiastic, knowledgeable, patient crew from EverThriveIllinois, my task was to shop keeping nutrition and budget in mind at a Food 4 Less and not go over $10. Austin has been called one of the deadliest neighborhoods in Chicago and associated with the "g-word," but in this case, we are talking about another "g-term," spreading knowledge of what "good food" is to members of the Austin community.

Cooking Matters is one program arm of the No Kid Hungry Campaign of Share Our Strength. No child should grow up hungry in America, but one in five children struggles with hunger. Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign is ending childhood hunger in America by ensuring all children get the healthy food they need, every day. They're ending childhood hunger by connecting kids to effective nutrition programs, like school breakfast and summer meals. This work is accomplished through the No Kid Hungry network, made up of private citizens, government officials, nonprofits, business leaders and others providing innovative hunger solutions in their communities. These partners work together, implementing solutions that break down the barriers that keep kids from healthy food.

16 million kids in American do not have consistent access to adequate food, which works out to be one out of five kids. 22 percent of kids under the age of 18 live in poverty in America. 85 percent of low-income families want to make healthy meals for their kids but only 50 percent are able to do so most nights a week. Three out of five, K-8 public school teachers say they regularly see students coming to school hungry. 47 percent of SNAP participants are children under the age of 18. Children who regularly do not get enough nutritious food to eat tend to have significantly higher levels of behavioral, emotional and academic problems and tend to be more aggressive and anxious (statistics thanks to Share Our Strength).

No Kid Hungry is making impacts with local partners. In Chicago, Cooking Matters has partnered with EverThriveIllinois in carrying out the healthy lifestyles initiative, which aims at providing outreach, education and programming to inspire individuals to be proactive in improving their health. EverThriveIllinois is the lead state agency providing this programming for Cooking Matters. So here on this Saturday morning, at Food 4 Less I was participating in a Cooking Matters for Adults that teaches low-income adults about healthy meal preparation and sensible shopping on a limited budget using the SNAP guidelines, $10 for a meal for a family of four.

Fortunately, I was in good company, present were Jennifer Epstein, the director of the Health Disparities & Healthy Lifestyles Initiative for EverThriveIllinois, Lilah Handler, the coordinator for the Healthy Lifestyles Initiative, Anna Batcke, Midwest Director for Culinary Events Share Our Strength, the incredibly informative Chef Dave, a Chef Instructor from the Washburne Culinary Institute and participants from the local community. We visited each of the main food group sections of the store, produce, meat, bread, grains, dairy and talked about reading labels, health factors like salt in products, how to find a better bargain by reading the label and how to cook these items. For example, when we walked by the meat department one of the best bargains was ham hocks, but the volunteer nutritionist, Catherine, who gave us the tour, read the label to us and it said salt and sodium nitrate, which basically meant salt and salt. So even though the ham hocks looked like a great deal, price-wise, from the label we realized it wasn't a good thing for our health. Another point made: That although braising collard greens and ham hocks was a popular dish, cooking greens that long took all the nutrition out of the vegetable

Well, was I able to buy my meal for $10? Yes I did, but I found it very hard. In this case, I had to really think about a well-balanced meal, the price, and put that extra pepper, sauce or cheese back because it just did not fit into this budget. I bought a bag of brown rice, 2 heads of broccoli(I love broccoli and it is very filling) garlic, ground turkey meat and a red pepper, that per item, was the most expensive thing I bought, and I assumed that pantry items were available, like salt, pepper, butter, oil. For a busy family, cooking a healthy dinner is not easy, it requires knowledge, skills and commitment to good food. In some ways, it is not a surprise that McDonalds becomes an option for some families. Cooking Matters is working to educate families and give them the knowledge and skills so that they realize why food choices matter and how it affects their health.

If you are interested in volunteering in these weekly classes you can contact EverThriveIllinois. If you would like to donate to Share Our Strength, one way is to attend their incredible Taste of the Nation event here in Chicago August 13th.

For me, shopping at this Food 4 Less was eye opening because I realized I took spending money on good food for granted. One thing I learned and Chef Dave brought this up, was to utilize food waste better, to save all those vegetable scraps in a container to make stock, to utilize bones for stock, it makes for a nutritious base for soups and sauces as well as saves money. Fortunately, I love vegetables, but for a family that are not vegetable lovers, and make meat the focus of their meal, meat is expensive. It takes patience, knowledge and thoughtfulness to buy a meal for $10 for a family. Cooking Matters and EverThriveIllinois are striving to educate the local community when it comes to nutritious food choices, so that a community like Austin gets to be known for that other g-term, "good food," and by building a healthier community, attitudes change and children get filling, healthy meals, because good food makes for happy people!