While being on food stamps isn’t ideal, the truth is that life can throw us curveballs. Most of us go through a time or two (or three or 20) when we have trouble making ends meet. These four young women all found themselves needing to ask for assistance from food-stamp programs—and all of them were vegan. Their stories prove that you can eat vegan on a tight budget, such as while receiving food-stamp benefits.
“In my situation, I couldn’t ask for family support, so it was either take the food stamps route or skip meals.”
Overall experience: When I was in my early 20s, I signed up for the CalFresh program in Los Angeles. Even though I was working full-time in retail (while looking for a job more closely related to my field), in addition to going to school part-time, I just didn’t have much money to feed myself. In my situation, I couldn’t ask for family support, so it was either take the food stamps route or skip meals.
The food budget that I received ($200 a month for cold items) was about the same amount that I regularly spend on groceries, even now that I’m off the program—so eating vegan wasn’t difficult at all. I wasn’t eating out every night (and still don’t because that’s so much money), but I ate hearty, nutritious meals, and that’s all that I really needed to live comfortably.
I also relied heavily on PETA’s Vegan College Cookbook. The recipes in it are so easy—even for the most inexperienced chefs—and they’re great if you’re on a tight budget.
As long as you plan ahead for meals instead of relying on options like frozen TV dinners (which are almost always going to be more expensive than a loaf of bread or fresh produce), you’ll be able to eat just fine as a vegan—so don’t stress!
City: Los Angeles
Typical grocery haul: chickpeas, fruit, kimchi, oats, pizza dough, rice, salsa, seaweed, tomato sauce, vegan cheese, Vegenaise, and veggies
Favorite place to shop: Trader Joe’s
Favorite breakfast: smoothies made with frozen bananas, strawberries, and vanilla soymilk
Favorite lunch: Burritos—you can stuff them with everything, and they’re so cheap! I loved ones with rice, salsa, guac, lentils, corn, and lettuce.
Favorite snack: crackers and egg-free salad (made with Vegenaise, relish, and assorted veggies)
Favorite dinner: rice, fish-free kimchi, and steamed vegetables with sesame oil and salt
Favorite dessert: homemade blueberry cobbler
“It takes a little planning and effort, but it’s totally possible to stick to a healthy vegan lifestyle on a tight budget.”
Overall experience: I was living in Berkeley, California. I had just graduated from college and was sharing an apartment with a friend. You’d think I would’ve been in a good position to find work, but the job market was really sh*tty, I didn’t have much work experience under my belt, and quite frankly, I had no idea what to do when it came to “adulting.” In the city—which I’d grown to love as a student—I wound up as a barista at a café making little more than minimum wage. I was glad to have a job (and an endless supply of caffeine), but my low income made it hard for me to afford even basics like groceries. Let’s just say that trips to the local Taco Bell for bean burritos were frequent, as were packages of vegan ramen noodles.
When I found out that my income qualified me for food stamps, I was super-grateful. I had been vegan for several years already, so I was familiar with shopping for vegan food on a budget. My benefits were accepted at all my usual grocery stops (and even small corner-store markets in my neighborhood), so I could shop anywhere I would normally go and use them to buy virtually any food products. Staying vegan was easy.
Shopping for ingredients to make homemade meals is cheaper than buying premade vegan munchies, so while I’d splurge on pricier vegan meat substitutes once in a while, my usual meals consisted mostly of simple things I made myself—like pastas, soups, stir-fries, wraps, and tofu scrambles. Learning to cook a few super-basic meals made being vegan on a budget so much easier, because I could stretch my benefits further and get more out of them.
Something else I discovered while using food stamps is that many farmers markets accept them, too, so you can support local fruit and veggie farmers and bring home super-fresh produce to snack on and cook with. Plants for everyone! It takes a little planning and effort, but it’s totally possible to stick to a healthy vegan lifestyle on a tight budget.
City: Berkeley, California
Favorite place to shop: farmers markets
Favorite breakfast: avocado toast
Favorite lunch: a giant salad
Favorite snack: hummus and sugar snap peas
Favorite dinner: vegan mac ‘n’ cheese
Favorite dessert: banana nice cream or chocolate anything
“I’m so grateful that I was able to accept benefits at a very busy, hectic, and difficult time in my life when I was unable to meet all my needs on my own.”
Overall experience: Shortly after I graduated from college, I found myself struggling to pay bills, even though I never drank or spent money on new clothes, shows, cable TV, vacations, or other “luxury” items. And I was hustlin’—I worked seven days a week. The catch was, I was working a part-time, minimum-wage barista job along with a full-time (60+ hours a week) volunteer job with the Santa Cruz Reading Corps (a program in which I taught children in low-income schools how to read) to expand my job skills. My income was basically peanuts. I couldn’t afford to meet some of my most basic needs, so I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the food-stamps program in my city.
When I went on food stamps, I had already been vegan for seven years. I had become a pretty decent vegan chef (if I do say so myself). To my surprise, being vegan on food stamps was actually super-easy. I was able to buy weeks’ worth of groceries and put everything on my EBT card. I was even able to buy vegan ice cream sometimes!
My secret? I always chose in-season veggies and fruits, and I bought staples like oats, bread, pasta, and popcorn kernels in bulk. Shopping this way made my life a lot easier, as I wasn’t worried about where my next meal was coming from—and staying vegan during this time was no problem.
I’m so grateful that I was able to accept benefits at a very busy, hectic, and difficult time in my life when I was unable to meet all my needs on my own. I’m even more grateful that I was able to do all this while not hurting any animals.
City: Santa Cruz, California
Typical grocery haul: bread, fruit, nutritional yeast, oats, pasta, popcorn kernels, vegan butter, vegan cheese, veggies—and something chocolatey
Favorite place to shop: New Leaf Community Markets
Favorite breakfast: overnight oats
Favorite lunch: vegan Caesar salad with homemade croutons
Favorite snack: popcorn with a ridiculous amount of nutritional yeast
Favorite dinner: veggie stir-fry with tofu
Favorite dessert: Steve’s Ice Cream (Chocolate Salty Caramel flavor)
“The meat industry is cruel to animals, and the way it markets to poor people who don’t realize that they deserve better is criminal.”
Overall experience: I grew up in inner-city Detroit on an extremely meat- and dairy-heavy diet. My family was always on assistance, so as a child, I ate a lot of American cheese, hot dogs, canned tuna, and ground beef—basically, any concoction my mom could make with those ingredients. As a teenager, after watching Meet Your Meat and realizing what animals killed for food endure—and coming to the conclusion that I was a giant hypocrite for caring about some animals but not all—I decided to go vegetarian. Because my family didn’t have much money, I had to stick to the basics, and I used my mom’s Bridge card to do most of my own shopping. At first, I ate mostly tacos. After a year or so of being vegetarian, I decided to go vegan. Around this time, my dad died and my mom and I lost our house. It’s hard to look back on it now, because we were dirt-poor. As my mom and I struggled more and more, sometimes living without running water for weeks at a time in a small trailer, I had to make a decision. Life was so hard—would I give up my ethics to make things a little easier? I couldn’t. We lived in a food desert at the time—the nearest place to get produce or groceries was a liquor store—but I was determined to make it work, because to me, there was no other choice. I survived on bananas, frozen veggies, boxed rice, canned beans, and canned potatoes. After I moved out at 17, I realized that I had to make do with even less on my own.
Major grocery store chains were hard to come by in Detroit, but tons of Middle Eastern and Indian grocery stores were popping up in the surrounding areas—places that had a lot of cheap produce and vegan options. I didn’t have a car, so I bummed a ride with friends or walked to these places after my part-time shifts at Starbucks. At Indian grocery stores, I’d pick up canned tomatoes and beans, fresh produce, and spice packets to make dishes like chana masala and aloo gobi. These are all super-affordable, and the best part was that I could make huge batches that would last a week! Sometimes I’d make it to a chain grocery store or health-food store that accepted the Bridge card and splurge on veggie burgers or tempeh bacon, but most of the time, I ate tofu scrambles, Indian dishes, frozen burritos with salsa, and canned beans and potatoes. When my friends and I ate out, we always got Taco Bell—which was as easy to veganize then as it is now.
The funny thing about this time in my life is that I stayed so positive—and I remember how much my attitude affected others. At work, I’d eat my modest lunch in the breakroom, and coworkers would ask me what it was and how it tasted—in awe that vegan food was real. In fact, after I’d chatted with them for weeks about my veggie burgers or pasta with vegan sauce, several of them started eating vegan themselves!
Going back to eating meat and dairy because I didn’t have a lot of resources wasn’t an option for me. The meat industry is cruel to animals, and the way it markets to poor people who don’t realize that they deserve better is criminal. I never wanted another cent of my hard-earned money—or any of our meager Bridge resources—to fund an industry that I hated so much. Being vegan—and staying vegan—is a social justice issue that became essential to my life. I truly believe that being poor and going through traumatic times should make us more empathetic and compassionate, not less. When you’re poor, you feel alone—like no one is looking out for you, like the world is caving in on you. This is what animals actually experience. Animals’ dignity is stolen from them—they live through nightmares that we can barely imagine. We must fight against all inequality to make the world a kinder place for everyone, regardless of species.
Program: MI Bridges
Typical grocery haul: canned beans, fresh veggies, tofu, spices, pasta, pasta sauce, rice, frozen veggies, and taco shells and seasoning
Favorite place to shop: Indian or Middle Eastern grocery stores
Favorite breakfast: cereal with soy milk
Favorite lunch: pasta
Favorite snack: hummus and pretzels