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How well can a family of four eat on just $68.88 a week? For more than 38 million Americans, it’s more than a matter of conjecture.

With job growth and the economy still only sputtering along, a record number of Americans have turned to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for federal food stamp program.

At the end of last year, roughly 1 in 8 Americans received food stamps, the highest rate ever, according to Lisa Pino, the program’s deputy administrator. During the past two years alone, another nearly 12 million people enrolled in the program.

How much a family gets per month is determined by a number of factors, but typically ranges from less than $100 to more than $500. The national average for a family of four at the end of 2009 was $275.53 a month, or about $68.88 a week.

Despite growing dependence on food stamps, the popular impression is that the meals you can make with them are bleak.

To find out how well you can eat on food stamps, two chefs and a magazine food editor to plan out seven days of meals for a family of four using that budget: $68.88.

Food stamp officials note that the program is meant to supplement a household’s food budget, not be its only spending. But to best illustrate what’s possible — or not — on a very tight budget, we asked the participants to work with the food stamp budget only.

“It was tough. You really have to think outside the box,” says Jose Garces, a Food Network Iron Chef and James Beard award-winning chef from Philadelphia. “When you are used to creating food the way we do, it takes you back.”

Though not everyone succeeded in staying within budget, the lessons learned were universal. All three said planning and careful shopping were key, as was a willingness to recast leftovers. They also championed chicken as an inexpensive and versatile protein.

Here’s how they managed:

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Bill Telepan of Telepan restaurant in New York

Telepan approached the food stamp challenge with the same sustainable eating philosophy he uses at his restaurant. He favors high-quality, unprocessed ingredients (organic when possible) and plenty of from-scratch cooking.

“The problem with the way some people spend food stamps is by buying processed foods,” he says. “I wanted to buy everything fresh and cook from scratch. You are not going to do it every day. But do it two or three times a week and then make enough so you heat it up.”

Processed foods may sometimes seem less expensive, but they are harder to stretch and generally not as healthy. Telepan also looked for more seasonal foods, which generally are cheaper.

But even without buying the organic, grass-fed meats he favors, Telepan still came in nearly $20 over budget. Some aggressive use of coupons, sales and bulk shopping probably could bring his total closer to the goal.

When constructing his menu, Telepan began by selecting the protein and building out from there. This ensured the meals were satisfying.

He also assembled his meal plan backward, starting with each day’s dinner, then sorting out how to use the leftovers in other meals. For example, the leftovers from Monday’s roasted chicken dinner became a salad for lunch on Tuesday. And ziti that was served with broccoli, toasted garlic and shell beans on Wednesday got a makeover with meatballs two nights later.

Of course, cooking from scratch is more work, which many busy families will find daunting. Telepan advocates involving the whole family in the cooking. “People look at cooking as a chore,” he says. “In the end, if people all help out it makes it fun.”

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