Food for thought: Challenge to survive on $21 a week for food gave Darkenwald a life-changing experience

Editor’s note: To see LaShara Darkenwald’s winning essay and the easy bread recipe she uses, scroll to the bottom of page.

by Bob Grawey
Staff writer
Some people may find it easier than others to pinpoint that particular person, place, event or moment that forever changed their life.

LaShara Darkenwald can point to two things that changed her life path, and they both involve food.

Her first life-changing influence was her grandmother, Renesia (Re-nee-sia) Miller. Grandma Nesie, as she was called, lived near the projects in north Chicago, and spent decades volunteering her cooking expertise at homeless shelters and cooking for folks out of her own kitchen.

“Every time we went there, I saw that she never let anyone leave her house without eating first,” Darkenwald recalls. “I wanted to bring that same thing, with all the memories, into my household.”

Darkenwald worked for 10 years, though, at KQRS as its Internet manager. On stressful days she retreated to her kitchen at home to cook elaborate meals. Creating them was like stress therapy, she says.

Finally asking herself what she would really like to do if money was not an issue, Darkenwald realized cooking was her real passion.

Wasting no time, she quit her high-paying job to enroll at Le Cordon Bleu. That was January 2010.

With a pathway to a career in catering in her sights, Darkenwald says she was thoroughly enjoying learning to cook various foods and sauces, as well as other aspects of the food service industry.

LaShara Darkenwald

The she saw a notice on the bulletin board at school for an essay contest.

The Share Our Strength organization was hosting a conference in Washington, D.C. focusing on how to educate and help low-income families and individuals learn how to eat more healthfully.

Students could enter the essay contest for a chance to win a free trip to the conference. The topic of the essay was to be a chef’s role in the community.

Darkenwald thought she would enter, but forgot until the day of the deadline. Needing a subject for her essay, she thought of her grandmother.

The elder woman’s impact was so great in her Chicago community that the kitchen in the homeless shelter where she had served for decades was named after her.

Darkenwald would write about Grandma Nesie.

With very little time to spare, she submitted her essay. One week later, Darkenwald received word she was one of 15 chosen nationwide to go to Washington, D.C. Her essay had won.

“Little did I know,” Darkenwald says, “this conference would change my life.”

One of the workshops she attended was the “Food Stamp Challenge” in which participants were encouraged to take a three-week challenge to eat all their meals on just $21 per week.

That $21 a week, or $3 a day, equates to the average amount of money people on food stamps in the United States are allotted each week for food.

In the challenge, Darkenwald could not eat previously purchased food, and could not accept food from family, friends or co-workers. Her husband, Tom, also participated in the three-week challenge.

Whenever the couple went to any function, they could not eat any of the food there. Darkenwald says that was one of the hardest things for them, but they did it and learned from the experience.

Eating healthfully on such a small budget proved to be another tough challenge.

Since Darkenwald has cooking experience, she knows how to buy a whole chicken and cut it up to stretch into two or three meals. She also has the know-how to use the cooked chicken carcass for making broths which can be used later as a base for other meals.

But what about those who do not possess that knowledge or skill set?

One congressman who took part in the food stamp challenge for just a week blogged that he ended up making poor, unhealthy food choices because he was always hungry.

Already serving as a Big Sister, that realization spurred Darkenwald to get involved with a Minneapolis-based organization called Cooking Matters, formerly Operation Frontline. It teaches cooking skills to youth and low-income families so they can stretch their food budgets further.

Darkenwald teaches cooking skills to teens at the Plymouth Youth Center. Her group of 15 youth range in age from 15 to 17 years old. After teaching them how to follow and make something from a recipe, students are sent home with groceries.

As for her own food stamp challenge to eat on $21 a week, Darkenwald says she found good meals are possible on a low budget.

Beef stew and pop-overs

“I would take $42 — $21 for each of us — to the store and it was hard,” Darkenwald says. “You have to plan out everything and what things are going to cost. That was the most frustrating part.”

But Darkenwald learned many valuable tips to eating more healthfully on a smaller budget.

Here are some of the things she learned:

•Choose the same day each week to plan meals. For Darkenwald this is Sunday night.

•Clip coupons based on those planned meals.

•Start planning meals according to food groups. Darkenwald begins with the meat group. A whole chicken, for instance, can yield several meals. Build meals around those meat choices.

•Save a chicken carcass, as it can be used to make broth for sauces used in other meals. Chicken broth, Darkenwald says, makes pasta and rice taste better, too.

•Shop at lower cost grocery stores like Aldi and only take enough cash for the week’s budgeted meals. Using a calculator as one shops helps to keep a closer tab on the grocery bill, and never use a credit card to shop for groceries.

•Learn how to make pasta, as it only takes flour and eggs, Darkenwald says, which are relatively cheap to purchase.

•Save pasta broth to use later to enrich sauces.

•Choose more healthful snacks. Stay away from chips and similar junk foods. Instead, snack on vegetables like celery and carrots (stay away from pre-cut vegetables, as they are not as fresh and cost more). Things such as peanut butter sandwiches or a lettuce salad make for a healthful snack, too.

•Save the leafy ends of celery, carrot ends, carrot peels and other vegetable pieces normally thrown out. They make a good stock for soups.

•Buy day-old bread or make bread at home. Darkenwald says bread can be made from a very simple recipe she has that she found on YouTube. (see recipe on this page)

•If one cannot buy fresh vegetables, purchase frozen vegetables since canned vegetables lose so many important nutrients.

•Time visits to the grocery store. Darkenwald allows 30 minutes. The more time one permits in the grocery store gives more time to contemplate making purchases not on the grocery list.

•Shop for groceries on a full stomach, otherwise hunger-induced decisions can lead to unhealthful choices and a larger grocery bill.

•Avoid taking children grocery shopping if possible as grocers place items kids are going to want at their level, which means a more likely chance they will end up in the grocery cart. These are usually more unhealthful choices, as well.

•Portion out meats in Zip Lock bags for specific meals and freeze.

•Build up a good assortment of quality spices, as they can be used to enhance average foods for a variety of flavor options.

What if people lack the skills or know-how, though, to de-bone a chicken or to make their own pasta or bread?

Darkenwald says there are many good videos on the Internet that teach those things and more, which are free.

Cooking Matters also offers free classes. Information can be found at

Another online resource is

Even with resources, it can be a difficult proposition to stretch $21 to feed someone for a week.

“When the three weeks (food challenge) was done, I was so glad because I am so used to just grabbing stuff off the shelf,” Darkenwald says. “I cannot imagine having to live like this all the time.”

It has changed how Darkenwald views food, though, and about enforcing healthful eating habits. She says she will never buy stock from the store again, and will incorporate better food choices into her family’s meals that she discovered through the $21 food stamp challenge.

“The key thing is planning,” Darkenwald stresses. “Once you get the hang of it, it will get easier and it will give you healthier meal choices.”

Grandma Nesie would be touched, she says, if she were still alive to see her granddaughter expand on her legacy of helping the underprivileged.

“Everyone is a lot nicer when they have a full stomach,” Darkenwald adds.

What is a Chef’s Role in the Community?
by LaShara Darkenwald

When asked the question, “What is a Chef’s role in a Community,” I immediately think of my grandmother, Renesia Miller. Was she considered a great chef by today’s standards? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to see her dish it out on “Top Chef” or “Hell’s Kitchen.” I think she would have sent Gordon Ramsey running scared.
In March of 2009 my grandmother passed away at the age of 78. At her funeral is where I really realized the effect she had serving her community. I understand many people denote their grandmother as their greatest chef, but I’m writing to tell you that my grandmother was not only a great chef to me, but also to the hundreds of homeless and troubled people in her community. I got the chance to sit down and eat with the homeless people she fed at her funeral. I found out that the homeless shelter named their kitchen after her. It made me so proud to be her granddaughter. It is my motivation to serve my community and to become a great chef someday.
My grandmother lived in a small house a block away from the North Chicago projects. This was an area high in crime and where my grandmother chose to live. She cooked meal after meal in her tiny kitchen, raising money for her church and being close to the people who needed a hot meal. Growing up I never really realized the impact she had on her community just by cooking! It was then I understood the power of food. My grandmother fed thousands of people. In an area where most people would lock their car doors as they drove by, my grandmother kept an open door and hot food for those that needed it. I now know through the help of my grandmother that food can mean another day of hope and survival for many people.
So as a student at Le Cordon Bleu, this is the kind of chef I strive to be. This is the role I hope more chefs realize is their responsibility. As a culinary student and active member of my community I try an set an example for my peers and utilize my skills where needed. Currently I volunteer as a big sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters preparing meals and showing my little sister how to cook. I have also worked with Second Harvest Heartland handing out food to our community and providing support in raising funds.
At the moment I work as a prep cook for a catering company. My goal after finishing school is to one day have my own company. As a future chef I understand it is my obligation to not only dish out great food, but to pick up where my grandmother left off … serving the community. Working with anti-hunger advocates to help eliminate childhood hunger would give me a great start in achieving this goal.

Bread recipe LaShara Darkenwald uses:
2 1/2 cups white whole-wheat flour (300 grams) • 2 1/4 teaspoons rapid-rise or instant yeast
1 tablespoon salt • 1/2 cup wheat germ, untoasted (64 grams)
1 tablespoon honey (21 grams) • 3 cups warm water (2 cups then 1 cup at about 110 degrees)
4 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour (480 grams)


Mix the dough. In a big bowl, put white-wheat flour and yeast. Stir to mix, then add salt, wheat germ, honey, and first 2 cups of water. Stir to dampen flour, then whisk or rapidly stir the batter for a minute. Swish your whisk in the remaining cup of water so you don’t waste anything. Add the all-purpose flour and then last cup of water to the dough. Stir with a big spoon until all the flour is damp.

Let it rise. Cover the bowl with something tight enough to keep it from drying out but loose enough that the gasses from the yeast can escape. I use a plate but any loose lid or even a piece of waxed paper would do fine. Let the dough rise for one to five hours (see Note below if the room is cold). Refrigerate the dough overnight or for up to five days. This will let the yeast work on the flour longer, making the bread taste better and rise more.

Take the dough out of the bowl. When you are ready to bake the bread, grease one or two non-stick bread pans and a spatula with shortening, pan spray, or butter. Oil or flour your hands so the dough doesn’t stick to them. Sprinkle a little flour on the dough, then use a serrated knife to cut it in half. Coax half the dough out of the bowl with the greased spatula. Try to keep the dough together without tearing it to preserve the progress the yeast has already made in making your dough rise. Sprinkle the other side of the dough with a little flour too. If you are only making one loaf, then return the rest to the refrigerator in the covered bowl.

Shape the dough. Hold your hands underneath the dough and slowly spread them so the dough almost falls through. As it falls, the dough will stick to your hands a little and stretch, creating the gluten web that will support the bread as it rises. Gather the stretched dough at the top like a very short ponytail. Turn the dough some and repeat, until you have dropped the dough and gathered it at the top of the ball five or six times, going all the way around the dough. Stretching the dough should take about a minute. Turn the dough ball over so the rough, gathered part is underneath. Pat and stretch it some until the dough is nearly loaf-shaped, then put it into the loaf pan rough side down. Press the dough down gently until it fills the bottom of the pan. Repeat with the other loaf if you are making two at the same time.

Let the dough rise again. Put the dough in a small, warm place so it can rise without drying out, such as a cake carrier or a microwave. If you don’t have something to use as a rising box, then just cover the dough with a clean tea towel or piece of knit cloth. Let the dough rise for about two hours until it has doubled in size. It should be at or near the top of the bread pan.

Bake. Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Put an empty pan or iron skillet on the very bottom of your oven. If you have a bread stone, put it on the bottom rack of your oven. When the dough is ready to bake, it will be at or just above the rim of the bread pan. Touch it gently with a finger and watch the dough spring back into place. Put about a half-cup of ice cubes in a bowl so you can easily put them into the empty pan in the oven without burning yourself. Open the oven, put in the bread, and slide the ice cubes into the empty pan below. Quickly close the oven door so you trap the steam from the ice cubes. Do not use convection baking since this will take away the steam.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until golden brown. The interior temperature should be 205 degrees.
Remove the bread from the oven. Remove the loaf from the pan. If you like a crisper crust, put the bread back into the oven without the pan for about three more minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

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