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NEAL CONAN, host:

Ed Murrieta ate out much of his life. Hes worked in nearly every aspect of the food industry, from line cook to restaurant reviewer, most recently for The Tacoma News Tribune, which gave him an expense account so he could try out all the new restaurants. He then branched out and started his own website, but the enterprise did not survive the great recession.

And these days, Ed Murrieta has traded a life on that well-endowed expense account to a life on food stamps. And in a story he wrote about that for The Seattle Times, he says the cuisine is just fine.

If youve ever found yourself on food stamps, what did they buy and what did you cook? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Thats at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ed Murrieta joins us now from the studios of Capital Public Radio, our member station in Sacramento. Nice to have you with us.

Mr. ED MURRIETA (Former Food Critic): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And one of the pictures that accompanies your piece in the newspaper includes a can of something called pork in juice. I have to ask you, what did you make with that?

Mr. MURRIETA: Well, pork with juices, we turned that into tacos. In Mexico, particularly in Mexico City, they make tacos out of everything imaginable. And pork with juices is one of those things that you really dont want to have to imagine.

CONAN: No.

Mr. MURRIETA: And I thought this is going to be a good taco meat. And I fried that up with - spicy green peppers and some potatoes.

CONAN: Spicy green peppers can make up for a lot of mistakes.

Mr. MURRIETA: Oh, absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So was it good?

Mr. MURRIETA: It was delicious. Im a good cook.

CONAN: You are. Youre - you grew up in a restaurant.

Mr. MURRIETA: Yes, I did. My parents have either owned or worked in or managed restaurants my entire life. I - Ive actually been into more restaurants through the back door than I have been in through the front door.

CONAN: But when you went through the front door as a restaurant critic, you had an expense account of $1,300 a month?

Mr. MURRIETA: That is a modest budget by restaurant critic standards. Critics at larger papers have far larger budgets than that.

CONAN: And your monthly food stamp allocation now?

Mr. MURRIETA: Two hundred dollars a month. And that happens to be my entire income, period. Im one of those six million Americans whos - who falls into that category. Theres 40 million Americans who are on food stamps.

CONAN: And you moved from your comfortable middle-class existence, a house at the beach, to a trailer.

Mr. MURRIETA: Yes, I did. That was not by choice. It was by necessity.

CONAN: And on $200 a month of food stamps - and its a long time since they were actually colored pieces of paper, this is now like an ATM card?

Mr. MURRIETA: Yes. Its called an Electronic Benefits Transfer, EBT card, and it works just like an ATM card. And when you purchase something at a supermarket, itll show you the balance at the bottom of your receipt.

CONAN: And I understand not everything at the supermarket is eligible to be purchased by food stamps.

Mr. MURRIETA: Oh, gosh, no. Of course you cant buy alcohol, which is a good thing. And its limited to food. But there are some quirks in the system on what you can buy. For instance, you cannot buy a hot rotisserie chicken, fresh out of the rotisserie. But once they put that rotisserie chicken into the cold display case, its eligible to be purchased on food stamps. The same with, say, a sandwich. You cant go up to the deli counter in the supermarket and order a deli sandwich. But if they made a, you know, a bunch of roast beef sandwiches and wrapped them up and put them in the cold case, you can buy one of those as well.

CONAN: Well, that seems like a pretty peculiar rule.

Mr. MURRIETA: It does, especially with the rotisserie chicken. I went in one night to buy a chicken and I really wanted a chicken for dinner that night. And I had in mind that I could have chicken for dinner that night, maybe lunch tomorrow, and then turn the carcass into stock. So I couldve turned that into four nutritious meals. However, its not allowable, so, you know, maybe they want you to settle for Banquet fried chicken or, you know, T.G.I. Friday-prepared dinner meals, which, you know, have pretty much no nutritional value, and culinarily speaking, are garbage.

CONAN: You also wrote that you can spend these - use this card at farmers' markets.

Mr. MURRIETA: That is a great and unmarked - under-marketed program. There was some grant money made available in the past two or three years, I believe, that put electronic card readers into farmers' markets. So they're satellite-based, you - they work just like an ATM. You can use your EBT card, you can use your debit card, you can use your credit card. And you purchase set amount of tokens, and you take redeem those tokens at various farmers' market booths. And what's really cool about that is I can buy tomato plant starts at a farmers' market where I couldn't buy that at a, you know, even Walmart, because it technically not food.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. MURRIETA: So I can buy starts for fresh herbs, starts for vegetables, starts for even flowers, I guess, and grow my own, as opposed to, you know, overpaying for produce at, say, Whole Foods or buying inferior produce as it makes its way through the food system.

CONAN: And on $200 a month, provided by food stamps, how do you eat?

Mr. MURRIETA: Pretty well. This month I had $35 left over and I didn't deprive myself of anything I wanted to eat: triple cream brie cheese and salami and artisan bread are, you know, fairly regular purchases for me. I think the key to shopping on a $200 budget - as a single person that's what I receive, families receive more.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MURRIETA: It's just a matter of shopping wisely: being smart about what you want to eat, not buying processed, packaged foods, which, you know, have an incredible markup and a huge footprint, you know, in the ecology. And I buy oysters from the farmers' market. I buy artisan cheeses from the farmers' market. I buy rib eye steaks when they're at their wholesale prices at supermarkets. I buy big pieces of pork shoulder to roast and make taco meat or, you know, pork roast dinner or grind into chorizo. I basically have been looking at my food budget and my food living as my own personal private restaurant.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. MURRIETA: How can I - and thinking how can I keep my food cost down.

CONAN: And if you were reviewing your own restaurant, how - what kind - how many stars would you give it?

Mr. MURRIETA: Oh, 16 of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. Our guest is Ed Murrieta, a former restaurant critic in Seattle. Let's start with Siona(ph), Siana(ph), is that right?

SIANA (Caller): Siana.

CONAN: Go ahead, Siana, you're calling from Portland.

SIANA: Yes, hi. I just wanted to kind of echo his statements. I used to be on food stamps. I just got off of them. I had - just got a better job so I can actually afford to feed myself now. But when I have them - before I had them, I was, you know, buying the Banquet dinners, scraping by, didn't eat very well, ate a lot of fast food because it's cheap. Once I actually got the food stamps and I got the $200 a month, I started buying fresh fruit and vegetables, I taught myself how to cook, started staying in every night to cook myself a meal. And I got incredibly healthy. I dropped a whole lot of weight. And it was really a godsend having that. It helped to change my life, actually, and my attitude towards food and cooking. So I just loved the program. I went to farmers' markets. And, you know, even now not having them, I make better choices when I'm out at the grocery store. And...

CONAN: Because you've educated yourself.

SIANA: Yeah, exactly. It was a huge learning opportunity for me.

CONAN: Is there any sense of - and you'll excuse me, but is there any sense of humiliation, this is a government handout?

SIANA: No. You know, after having it a little while, I wish everyone could have it, you know? I really didn't feel humiliated. I did maybe at first, a little bit, but once you actually realize that like, wow, I'm feeding myself better than I ever have in whole life then no, I didn't feel humiliated. I felt actually kind of proud of myself that I was learning so much.

CONAN: Ed Murrieta, you report feeling much the same way.

Mr. MURRIETA: Oh, I agree with Siana 100 percent. Paying with the EBT card at the supermarket, you swipe it through the debit card reader and you got to push a couple of buttons. You know, you choose between debit EBT or ATM whatever. Sometimes when the card doesn't quite work as it should, the cashier will ask you, what are you paying with? And without fail, the cashiers ask me, is that credit or debit?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MURRIETA: And I quickly say EBT. And I have no problem saying that. I have no problem standing in line and pulling out the card. I look at other people paying in line, and there are a lot of EBT cards being swiped through supermarkets, many more than you would think.

CONAN: Siana...

SIANA: I've actually never been asked what I'm paying with when I swipe it.

CONAN: Probably - magnetic stripe was probably in better shape and than it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIANA: Maybe.

CONAN: Congratulations on the new job, Siana.

SIANA: Well, thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: I appreciate the phone call. This email form Carl(ph) in Minnesota: I ever ate so well as the time I was on food stamps. I got more than I normally was spending on food. I loaded up on all the staples and got desserts and prepared meals, which I never would have bought with my own money.

And this from Sherri(ph) in Athens, Ohio. While serving in AmeriCorps, I was on food stamps. I was very grateful for this benefit. However, I did find that I would get more judgmental looks from the grocery store clerk for buying fresh, healthy foods, than for buying unhealthy processed food. It made no sense to me. It's possible to eat very well and for cheap on food stamps.

Let's see if we can go. Next to, this is Chris(ph), Chris with us from Duluth.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Chris.

CHRIS: I was on food stamps couple of years ago, and we're about to go on food stamps again so I'll probably do it the same way. My unemployment is running out. And I do buy Tuna Helper and Hamburger Helper. I try and stretch the budget as far as it can go. I have a family of four now.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS: And you do get a decent amount of money, but I don't recall it being the bonanza that some of your previous callers talked about.

CONAN: How much is the benefit for a family of four?

CHRIS: I'm trying to remember. It's about $400, $500 just in food stamps.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS: And we can eat decently on that. I try to be, I guess, the good food stamp person and buy fresher foods. I try and avoid the chips. You can also buy gum if you want, but I don't do that.

Mr. MURRIETA: Oh, you could - you can buy all kinds of junk food with food stamps. That's...

CHRIS: Yeah, you can buy pop, all kind of stuff like that. But we basically would do the Hamburger Helper, Tuna Helper. If we have enough money left over at the end of the month, I'll splurge and get us some steaks.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS: But I try to stretch it out as much as possible at the beginning of the month.

CONAN: But it does sound, even from what you're saying, Chris, that we hear so much criticism of the government and the government's programs, this one seems to work pretty well.

CHRIS: Yeah. There - the only criticism I would have is you can buy some stuff like gum and pop, and that's - it'd be too hard, I think, to try and limit what you can buy and what not buy.

Mr. MURRIETA: I would really like to see that change and actually see limits on buying junk food and have household staples be made available to purchase with food stamps like...

CHRIS: And...

Mr. MURRIETA: ...bar soap or dishwashing liquid even.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS: Right. I agree with you. There's also another program called WIC, Women and Infant Children, which is much similar - more similar to what you are describing, where you get coupons and it's listed on the coupons what you can buy. And it's - you can't get any meat, but you get milk, dairy, bread.

Mr. MURRIETA: There are...

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. MURRIETA: There are a lot of restrictions with WIC. I've been paying attention to the signs, like say, on - at the milk's aisle or, you know...

CHRIS: Right. Because we...

Mr. MURRIETA: ...any part of the supermarket. And there are only certain...

CHRIS: ...to, you know, what is the most nutritional stuff.

CONAN: Yeah.

CHRIS: And they made a bunch of changes to the WIC program, all of which were good. And it's a lot more complicated, like you'd have to use the coupons, and a lot of times the cashiers are very unfamiliar with WIC coupons. And you do get some of the looks. I know I get some of the looks, but I have no shame.

CONAN: Chris, we're sorry for your circumstances, but - and we wish you the best of luck.

CHRIS: Well, thanks.

CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye. We're talking about cooking on food stamps. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to - this is Alandra(ph), Alandra from Sierra Vista in Arizona.

ALANDRA (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

ALANDRA: Yes, I just wanted to comment that I receive food stamps, but I don't receive $200, and I'm single and disabled.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ALANDRA: I receive 118. And I always been in a healthy diet. I - mostly vegetarian. But no, it's not enough money with the food stamps. I spend, like $300 a month.

CONAN: And do you know why...

ALANDRA: ...on food.

CONAN: ...the discrepancy between somebody like Ed getting $200 a month and you get 118?

ALANDRA: It's one question. It's not big deal, I don't know. But another thing is that I do feel ashamed when I pay with food stamps. I always have.

CONAN: Because it's a handout.

ALANDRA: It's a stigma. I - it's like an energy that if people hear about EBT -before when it was - they gave you a booklet...

CONAN: Right.

ALANDRA: ...with food stamps, it was worst. And I have talked to other people, other single mothers, and they have told me that, yes, they felt very ashamed. It...

Mr. MURRIETA: I wish more people would put that shame factor aside. There is a lot of food stamp money out there available that's going unused. And what's great about food stamps is it helps keep your food dollar local. So I'm getting $200 a month from the federal government in Washington, and I'm spending that money, or had been spending that money, in - locally in Tacoma. And so I'm shopping at local markets. I'm shopping at farmers' markets. And that money is going back into the local economy. And so that really helps - it helps everybody, not only the person receiving the food stamps, but the people working at the supermarkets as well.

CONAN: Alandra, we wish you the best of luck. Thanks very much.

ALANDRA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

James(ph) in Baltimore emailed: Once a month, I treat myself to sushi at the local market. Otherwise, as a former personal chef, I cook fabulous meals on $200 a month.

And this from Jennifer(ph) in Altoona, Iowa, I discovered real butter while receiving food stamps. This was back in the '90s, and it was cheaper at the time than margarine. I was raised on oleo, but as an adult had discovered a deep love for salted, sweet cream butter.

Well, Ed, we may come over to your house for dinner tonight.

Mr. MURRIETA: Please do.

CONAN: Ed Murrieta was a food critic for The Tacoma News Tribune. You can read his recent piece about dining on food stamps at our website. That's at npr.org. This, by the way, is his personal choice for music at the end of the segment.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, Ira Flatow - join him on SCIENCE FRIDAY as the talk turns to food allergies, diagnosing them, treating them, and why they're such a challenge for medicine. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(Soundbite of song, "Low Budget")

THE KINKS (Music Group): (Singing) Low budget, one more time. Low budget.

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