Today I’m joining The Giving Table and over 200 other food bloggers to raise awareness about hunger in America and share a recipe for Mexican Lasagna that is budget friendly, easy, healthy and delicious. Finding a recipe that fit all four of those requirements was a lot harder than it sounds.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This post is part personal confession, part story, and part call to action.
You see, in many ways I am close to hunger issues. In my neighborhood, the poverty rate is 49%. I work at a community center where we see many clients who struggle to provide food for their families. They depend on SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), food pantries, and soup kitchens to make it through the month. My neighborhood is actually lucky in that we have a small grocery store that offers fresh produce. In other neighborhoods, the only stores within walking distance are corner stores, which carry mainly packaged and processed foods.
Still, despite the fact that hunger is close, I have found ways to isolate myself from hunger issues. I never have to experience the pain of hunger, at least not without a meal being close at hand. I don’t shop at the grocery store in my neighborhood, choosing instead to travel to a nicer grocery store with more options. I especially avoid our local grocery store during the first of the month, when everyone has just received their SNAP benefits because I want to avoid the crowd. We are able to buy enough food that I can actually experiment in the kitchen. I can afford to fail. Just this week I threw away a batch of cornbread that I had forgotten to add baking powder to. If that’s not privilege, I don’t know what it is.
This issue of raising hunger awareness was as much for me as it is for you. It was about getting out of my own comfort zone, and entering into the daily struggles people face. To do this, I took on two challenges.
1. Make a healthy, easy, and delicious meal that fits in the average daily food budget for a person receiving SNAP ($4/person).
2. Buy all the ingredients at my local discount grocery store.
Those don’t sound that hard, right?
That’s where I was wrong.
Here’s the thing. Healthy food–fruits, vegetables, organic and natural products–it’s all more expensive than processed food. This is part of the reason many folks buy processed food, and part of the reason why many obese people may actually still struggle with hunger. They’re eating primarily foods that are high in calories but low in nutrition because a) it’s cheaper and b) it’s more readily available.
So there’s challenge one. Finding a healthy recipe that’s still affordable AND accessible. The small, local neighborhood stores don’t carry a lot of fancy ingredients. They have one kind of black bean. One variety of tomato. There is no “natural” or “organic” section. There’s no low sodium option for canned chicken broth and they most definitely do not carry quinoa or kale. And many people do not have transportation to go to a store outside their neighborhood. So you buy whatever is available.
Thankfully, I was saved by a great recipe for Mexican Lasagna I found on A Couple Cooks. This blog is full of healthful, colorful, and easy ideas for weeknight meals. This recipe relies primarily on canned goods and pantry staples and is only supplemented by a few fresh items I was able to find at our local store. It’s vegetarian, but has a good source of protein from black beans, and a hit of veggies from tomatoes, corn, and green onions. It’s also cheap. I spent a total of $10.64 on the whole meal (this did not include the spices), and it serves 5 or 6, depending on whether or not you have a teenage boy in your house. So you’re looking at around $2.12 a serving. That’s good, but that would still only leave someone $2 to cover both breakfast and lunch for the day.
Another requirement? This meal needed to be easy. Here’s why. Many of the families I know who are struggling with hunger are single working moms. I know what a challenge it can be for me to come home after a long day of work and cook dinner. I also have the advantage of not having to take care of kids while I’m cooking and having a husband that I can enlist to chop vegetables or scrub dishes. Again, this recipe fit the bill perfectly. It came together in about 20 minutes (plus 20 in the oven), and didn’t dirty up an excessive amount of dishes.
Of course, most important of all, this Mexican Lasagna is fantastically delicious. Because let’s face it, people aren’t going to go to the work of budgeting, grocery shopping, prepping, and cooking whole food if it doesn’t taste a thousand times better than any prepackaged meal you can buy. This lasagna tastes fresh and light, but will fill you up. The omnivorous Mr. was impressed at how full and satisfying the flavor was despite the fact that it didn’t contain meat. It’s the perfect balance of sweet and spicy. Plus, it’s full of cheese. So yeah, of course it’s amazing.
I want to challenge you, just for one minute, to think about all the obstacles facing those who are hungry. Go back over this story and see all that stands in the way–a severely restrictive budget, limited access to healthy foods, lack of time or energy, PLUS (and this is a big one) you have to know what good, healthy food is and know how to cook it in order to pull this thing off.
The craziest part of this experience for me was that this was only ONE recipe. Could I come up with seven recipes like this to feed my family every week? How would I stick to this budget and continue to provide healthy meals for my family? Would we get the nutrition we needed? Would we be hungry, malnourished, obese?
These are not easy questions to answer. We don’t like to be reminded of our privilege–to realize just how lucky we are that someone taught us how to cook, that we have grocery stores where we can buy fresh produce, that we can afford to get organic, low sodium, unprocessed foods for our families. This is a privilege, and it’s one I’m acutely thankful for today.
Instead of judging or condemning, let’s enter in. Let’s hear other’s stories. Let’s join in the struggles. Try living on the $4/person/day budget or go to a soup kitchen and share a meal with others. You could fast for a day or teach a cooking class, or start a garden you can share with your neighbors.
You can educate yourself and others on hunger issues by watching the documentary, A Place at The Table, available to stream on iTunes and Amazon Prime and in select theaters nationwide.
You can also help us end hunger in America by joining us in writing letters to our representatives and asking them to support anti-hunger legislation. You can use this link to get contact information for your representative.
This issue can be overwhelming. Remember, you don’t have to do everything. Just pick one thing you can do today to help end hunger in America.
I always feel it’s helpful to rephrase our cause (anti-hunger) in positive terms. If we’re against hunger, what are we for?
We’re for maintaining SNAP benefits that keep thousands of families out of hunger each year.
We’re for a fair living wage, that allows workers to provide for their families and be lifted out of poverty.
We’re for subsidizing healthy foods, not just cash/commodity crops.
We’re for educating our young people and our families about healthy foods.
We’re for gardening, getting our hands dirty, growing what we eat.
We’re for cooking classes–in your neighborhood, in your community center, around your own kitchen island.
We’re for sharing meals–with our families, with our neighbors, with those in need.
#Takeyourplace at the table with us. Stand up for programs that provide much needed support for families in need. If you have an experience with hunger, please share it in the comments. And if you have more healthy, easy, affordable, and delicious meals you can share, link them up! The more we can share, the healthier we’ll all be.
- 9 lasagna noodles
- 15 oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained
- 1½ cups frozen or fresh corn
- 4 green onions, chopped
- ½ cup chopped cilantro, plus more for topping
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 8 oz. shredded Mexican blend cheese
- 1 28 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
- Smoked Chipotle tabasco sauce (or regular hot sauce if you can’t find Chipotle)
- Sour Cream (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- You’ll need a casserole dish that’s somewhere between 9 x 9 and 9 x 13. I used a rounded dish that was probably around 6 x 11. You can use whatever size dish, just cut your noodles to fit.
- Cook noodles according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop cooking.
- Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine black beans, frozen corn, green onions, cilantro, oregano, cumin, garlic powder, and salt.
- Layer a small amount of tomatoes on the bottom of your baking dish (about a ¼ of the can). Top with noodles. Layer a ⅓ of the bean mixture on top of that. Spread another ¼ of the tomatoes on top, sprinkle with hot cheese, then spread with ⅓ of the cheese. Repeat 2 more times following the same pattern (noodles, bean mixture, tomatoes, hot sauce, cheese).
- Cover with foil. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, then uncover and bake for 5 minutes more or until cheese is nice and melty. Allow to set up for 10 minutes before serving.
- To serve, sprinkle with cilantro and a dollop of sour cream, if desired.
Recipe adapted from A Couple Cooks