Julia Hicks de Peyster '86 and her family have cut their food budget to $85 a week for Lent. (Maura Wayman)

How would you feed a family of five on $85 a week? Julia Hicks de Peyster ’86 was pondering that question earlier this year. She had looked up the budget for a family on food stamps (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP) and wondered if she could provide a healthy diet with that modest sum. A family project was born.

For the 40 days of Lent, de Peyster, her husband, Nick ’88, and their three sons – ages 12, 9, and 5 – are getting by on less and learning about the challenges that America’s working poor face on a regular basis. The project, de Peyster says, aims to spark conversation about an important topic without “trivializing the very real stress” that SNAP families face.

Even for de Peyster, a self-professed “cheapskate,” trimming to $85 per week in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, Mass., has required significant sacrifices (much less meat) and some creativity (for instance, stretching whole milk with water, instead of buying lowfat milk). But she has noticed perks, too, like meaningful conversations around the dinner table and far less waste in the family’s trash can.

As de Peyster explained in a March 17 blog post:

“… now that I have eliminated most processed foods and all pre-prepared meals, the recycling bins are almost empty ... getting rid of berries (we only eat organic berries, way too expensive on $85/wk) and pre-washed organic lettuce (very few nutrients for the cost), has meant way fewer plastic clam shell containers, and the watered down milk has really cut down on the number of milk jugs.”

De Peyster says that while she is certainly not the first to try a food-budgeting challenge like this one, the experience has taught valuable, lasting lessons for a family that’s lived a relatively sheltered life. (“I’ll never go back to how I used to eat,” she says.) The experience also has inspired at least one more project: Next year, she hopes to try giving up the family car for Lent.

Read more about the family’s food-stamps budget on viridianblues.blogspot.com and look for an essay by de Peyster in the April 27 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly.