Amy Zelenzik: Culinary Artist on Food Stamps

I met Amy Zelenzik a few weeks ago here in Fayetteville, NC. Her food stamp story exemplifies determination, frugality, and health conscientiousness. It was inspiring to hear, and I am grateful that she gave me permission to share it with all of you: 

When Amy was receiving food stamps, she and her 11 year-old son lived in Michigan. In addition to being a mother, Amy was studying become a grade school teacher AND was working in restaurants. The stamps supplemented her low income; she received $238 per month to share with her son. Through savvy shopping and industrious cooking skills, Amy rarely paid out-of-pocket for groceries. Her approach was both systematic and intentional.

 I really don’t like grocery shopping, so I did most of my shopping for the month in one day. I would spend $200 in one trip and save $38 for later in the month for items like milk.

In addition to bulk shopping, Amy also cooked in bulk. This enabled her to save time in the kitchen while still maintaining a healthy, home-cooked diet.

 I would set aside one weekend to cook as much as possible. To save money on energy bills, I would cook multiple dishes at once … I always roasted 2 chickens at the same time.

So what kinds of foods was Amy able to prepare with $200 a month? Amazingly, her healthy diet consisted mostly of protein-dense foods and vegetables. Amy’s cooking knowledge was a major part of her success. As a child, Amy spent countless hours in the kitchen with her mother and grandmothers as they prepared dishes from their homelands – Germany, Ukraine, and Czechoslovakia. Her grandmothers lived through several depressions, including the Great Depression; Amy views their resourceful cooking as a reflection of their hardships.

In addition to cooking with her family, Amy gained a solid foundation in the culinary arts through her restaurant experience. She learned to work quickly under pressure as a line chef for a high-volume restaurant. At another job, she prepared dishes in front of groups of people. One place in particular made a lasting impression on Amy due to the head chef. “He never wasted food. Everything was saved and used to make something else: carrot ends, parsley stems, chicken fat … ” To this day Amy freezes her vegetable scraps for later use in stocks.

Amy possesses another skill that greatly contributed to her healthy diet on food stamps – gardening. She paid the initial cost of her 20 x 30 foot garden out-of-pocket, but she says the return on her investment was abundant. “I spent $26 on seeds and seedlings and ended up with an entire winter’s worth of vegetables.” Amy blanched and froze as much as she could, but even then she had leftovers. “There was so much food … I ended up giving buckets of produce away to neighbors.” After moving to North Carolina, Amy has yet to start a new garden. She misses the fresh-picked produce but not the work during harvest season. This time around, her garden will be much smaller – especially because she is working with North Carolina’s less-than-ideal clay, sandy soil.

Amy no longer qualifies for food stamps, but out of necessity and habit she still maintains a frugal lifestyle. Of course, her healthy diet has not deteriorated. Now she is eager to share her knowledge with others. Her cooking style and teaching spirit is perfect for furthering the Surviving On Stamps mission, and I am excited to incorporate her into my culinary school. To request Amy’s unique teaching services, visit WhiskingApprentice.com.

Happy stamping!

Chef Sarah Bogan

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