Sunday, February 9, 2014

Super Foods Are Poverty Foods

by Sena Brothers ,  Guest Blogger

These are listed as “super foods”: oats, eggs, potatoes, cabbage, tuna, beans, rice, bananas, olive oil, lemons, tomatoes.

They add fiber, nutrients, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, protein, and essential fats as well as being cheap.

Except for the potatoes and eggs, they can be purchased in a readily edible state – beans, tomatoes, and tuna come canned; bananas, cabbage, lemons, and tomatoes can be eaten raw; oats (old fashioned rolled oats, not instant oats!) and rice simply require hot water to pour over (and then cover and let soak for 10 [oats] - 40 minutes [rice]). Eggs and potatoes do require some cooking, which means access to a heat source and a container in which to cook them.

This means that these "super foods" are accessible and affordable for the poor and/or homeless.

It's not the best diet, but it's certainly a diet that will keep you alive and relatively healthy.

I think it needs the addition of a sweetener – honey, cane sugar, and a few herbs and spices to make it palatable:  cinnamon, salt, pepper, onions, garlic, parsley, and some greens like turnip or mustard or spinach.

I keep tuna, canned beans, rice, and oats at work and in my car as emergency foods in case of getting iced in. I also have rice noodles (they only need hot water poured over them, like the oats and rice, to be edible). If I have access to hot water (boiling temp hot), I can eat well, if somewhat boringly, for very little money.

Sometimes, you have to get a little creative with these, and there are equally inexpensive alternatives:  canned chicken costs almost the same now as canned tuna, so they can be alternated for variety. While bananas are good, apples are equally as good. Lemons can be traded for oranges or grapefruit. Sometimes, other seasonal fruits and vegetables can be cheap. I like keeping celery and carrots on hand because they add flavor, color and more nutrition to change things up.

A complete super foods/poverty foods shopping list would then look like this:

  • Old fashioned rolled oats
  • Eggs
  • Potatoes
  • Cabbage
  • Tuna (or canned chicken or ham)
  • Beans (red kidneys, pintos, turtle or black beans, black eyed peas, split peas...)
  • Rice (long grain jasmati, texmati, basmati are tastiest and still inexpensive)
  • Bananas, apples, seasonal fruit
  • Olive oil, butter, canola oil
  • Lemons, oranges, limes, grapefruit
  • Tomatoes
  • Greens (mustard, turnip, spinach, bok choy...)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Parsley
  • Garlic (fresh or spice jar)
  • Onions (fresh or spice jar)
  • Cinnamon
  • Optional:  a brick of cheddar cheese.

There are tricks to make these foods palatable when this is all you have to eat. One trick I like using is toasting the oats. Toasted, they can be used as a crisp topping, like croutons on a salad or a soup, or to add depth of flavor to other dishes, and as a “breading” for tuna patties. The oats can be toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat or on a baking sheet in the oven at 425 degrees F. It takes 3 – 8 minutes to get them toasty brown, and they need to be stirred often to prevent scorching.

Potatoes can also be used like croutons for salads and soups.  Simply dice the potatoes into small pieces, brown them in the oven or a skillet over medium heat with a little bit of olive oil until they are crispy and richly brown.

The oats can be cooked very simply and practically fool proof by adding a pinch of salt and pouring boiling water over them - ½ cup of oats and ¾ cup boiling water, covering it and waiting about 5 minutes.  You can use less or more water, depending on how thick you want the oats to be.  Once the water is absorbed, mash half a banana in to sweeten it, and maybe a ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon – cheap, healthy, tasty, and fast, with no dirty pans to wash – you can make this right in the serving bowl.

A simple “cookie” can be made of the cooked oats mashed with banana and seasoned with a bit of cinnamon – simply drop the cooked oats by the teaspoonful onto a lightly oiled baking sheet, flatten slightly, and bake at 375 degrees F for 8 – 10 minutes, until browned and crisp on the edges. They'll still be slightly chewy.

Or, instead of using cooked oats, use 1 cup toasted oats, mash with one banana, ¼ teaspoon cinnamon, a pinch of salt.  Mix until crumbly and spread out in crumbles across a lightly oiled baking sheet.  Bake at 425 degrees F for 8 – 10 minutes, until dried and crispy and browned.  Let cool, and you have a simple crumb topping to eat as is for a snack, or to sprinkle onto hot applesauce or fried apples, or scatter over a tomato soup or a salad.

Using just the toasted oats (no banana!), you can mix in a can of tuna and an egg to make tuna patties.  One can of tuna, mixed with ½ cup toasted oats and 1 whole egg will give you 6 patties.  Fry them in a lightly oiled hot skillet, and serve with rice and greens for a super food, delicious, and cheap meal. You can also mix the tuna with cooked rice to make patties – or mix rice and canned chicken for chicken patties.  The patties can also be used as a filling for sandwiches.

Rice can be cooked the traditional way, but I find I have really good results cooking rice the same way I do oats – pour boiling water over the rice with a pinch of salt, cover and let it sit for about 20 minutes or until the water is absorbed.  For ½ cup of raw rice, use about 1 to 1 ¼ cups boiling water. The rice doesn't burn, doesn't develop that crisp bottom layer (which I adore, as it makes for a lovely bowl of Singing Rice Soup...), and usually comes out fluffy and soft.

Cooked rice forms the foundation of many meals, and can then be stir fried with greens, carrots, onions, garlic, and a drained can of chicken for a meal suitable for 4 people – densely nutritious, filled with fiber, and cheap.

Beans are equally as versatile. They can be cooked tender, drained, and mashed to make bean sammies:  spread on bread, top with some optional shredded cheese, run under a broiler just long enough to melt the cheese, or with diced tomatoes and spinach, and you have a super nutritious, cheap meal.

Beans can be added to nearly anything – they make great spreads, soups, dips, “meatloafs” and desserts. Chili is a great favorite with beans – they can stretch a pound of ground turkey or beef from 4 servings to 8 or even 10 servings without sacrificing flavor or nutrition.

Potatoes have entire cookbooks devoted to them. My favorite is to shred a potato, mix in an egg and some salt, pepper, and ground celery seed, then fry it in a bit of butter and top it with cold applesauce. Potato soup, chowders, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, there are so many ways to eat potatoes.

A filling breakfast is to shred a couple of potatoes, press them into a lightly oiled 6 portion muffin pan, tear or chiffonade some spinach and press that on, then crack an egg into each one, sprinkle on some chili powder, salt, pepper, and put it in the oven at 350 degrees F for 3 minutes or until the egg is set to your preference.  Sprinkle on some diced tomato and cheese to serve.

And one last recipe:


1 egg yolk
juice of half a lemon
1 cup cooking oil (olive, corn, canola, safflower...)

Reserve the egg white for another recipe. Whisk the yolk and add 1 or 2 drops of lemon juice.  Continue whisking.  Add a drop of oil and whisk some more.  Now, while whisking madly, slowly add the oil a few drops at a time.  As the mixture begins to come together, add the oil in a slow trickle.  Keep whisking! Whisk until all the oil has been added. It should now look like mayonnaise. Whisk in a few drops of lemon juice to brighten it up. This is enough mayonnaise for a potato or egg or tuna salad or a couple of sandwiches.  It will keep in the refrigerator 2 or 3 days. It takes about 10 – 15 minutes of mad whisking to make this and it's so cheap!

It's good to know that being homeless or poor doesn't mean eating badly or starving.


  1. Actually, I think this is a better diet in many ways than the standard American diet of today. I do more fresh vegetables and fruits myself, which are not possible for homeless people or people on tight budgets, but if you have a refrigerator and live near a farmer's market, you can actually get a lot of veggies on the cheap. In Southern California there are so many farmer's markets, so in our area it is possible to do this year around. I think it might be more difficult in other parts of the country.

  2. The title of the article comes from noticing that foods presented as super foods - foods rich in nutrients, fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants also just happen to be foods that are inexpensive and therefore could be used as the foundation of a low budget diet.

    My goal was to craft a nutritious and inexpensive diet in a food desert area (I happen to live in a major food desert, the nearest grocery store to my house is in the next city over - my town has no grocery stores at all!) for people who have limited access to common household appliances such as refrigerators, stove ops, or ovens.

    Using these"super foods", you can eat healthy and well for about $20 - $25 a week. I bought everything in the first photo in the article (a week's worth of food, plus some that will last much longer, such as the olive oil and the seasonings) for $23.14 this past week. The potatoes represent a 10 pound bag - on sale, and the carrots are part of a 2 pound bag and the eggs are from an 18 count package. The tomato was one of 2, and the citrus fruit is in season and cheap, so I have a dozen limes, 4 lemons, 8 ranges. The bananas are expensive, so I only bought 3. Apples are still cheap, their season just passed. I bought a 3 pound bag of apples. The greens are collards (which takes a lot of cooking, but tastes similar to cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts) and spinach - both are still growing in my garden and are cheap at the store. A double handful of collards is $1 - enough collards for 5 meals. The spinach was also cheap - $1.50 for a bunch that is large enough to provide greens in up to 10 dishes.

    The most expensive things I bought were the olive oil, cinnamon, and oats. All of those will last at least 2 weeks, so the expense is justified.

    I should have pointed this out in the article, and didn't think of it.

    I wasn't going just for nutrition, I was going for cheap nutrition.

  3. I am sorry people did not get my meaning. I happen to have only pointed out that nutrition actually is found in foods that tend to be on the cheaper side, and often not found in foods that are pre-packaged and more expensive. Sorry I had to explain myself her, but felt I needed to. My comment lent well to the discussion here, in my humble opinion.

  4. Hi, Julia and Sena. I enjoyed reading both your comments, and I am glad we are having this discussion.

    Julia, you make a very good point that nutritionally, many Americans who are not constrained by budgetary concerns are actually eating worse than the nutrition that Sena's low budget diet provides. I am also glad, Sena, that you added the dollar price on items, so people can realize that the constraints in your suggested grocery list include budget, nutrition and readily available and portable foods for those without storage amenities.

    This article generated a lot of discussion on social media sites, so it was a very big success also beyond the comments section here.

  5. I wish more people could take the time to comment on the actual article rather than Facebook. I know I have had friends tell me on my articles posted on my wall they read the first three sentences and see no reason to click through because they get the gist of what I am talking about, which is not supportive of my blogs, but that is besides the point. What I find bewildering is people actually read the guest post here, but did not post the comments where more people could have been engaged in the conversation. I know it is an extra step to log into the google account to post a comment, but it is really not that much more effort than commenting on Facebook.

    1. Julia, I wish more people would post their comments here as well, but I guess it is a little more involved signing in here than posting on FB. I am glad that there were many more people viewing the blog post than actually commented, which means that we are reaching a broader audience. A lot of people shared my tweet about this yesterday, too.

  6. I consider these neither "poverty" foods nor "palatable" foods. Actually, all of the food items here are quite delicious in and of themselves without additives and are quite healthy, too, especially if you can afford fresh caught tuna as opposed to canned.

  7. "Palatable" means "pleasant to taste".

    You seem to have grasped the point of this article (these foods are delicious and healthy), but also seem to be arguing against them being poverty foods. What I am hearing you say is that these foods can't be poverty foods because they are delicious and healthy.

    Most people think of "poverty" foods as being macaroni and cheese, spam, hot dogs, spaghetti, ramen noodles, the dollar menu at McDonald's, fake cheese, and margarines.

    This article was written to dispel that image. Poverty foods don't have to be crap foods, they can be affordable, accessible, delicious, and nutritious.