Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Five

Photo by Amy Rogers.

Day Five: Rumors and Reasons

It’s not really about the food.

That’s what I’m starting to realize. People are angry, exhausted, frustrated, despondent. Resentful, worried, afraid or annoyed – but no one I’ve talked with in the last five days is blasé on the topic of food stamps and other programs that help feed the hungry.

All week I’ve been taking the SNAP Challenge to learn first-hand what it’s like to feed yourself with no more than $31.50 per week. (You can read back through prior blog entries for more about what’s happened so far.)

The novelty wore off quickly. I didn’t mind restricting my food spending or intake; in fact, it was a good reminder of something I’d been meaning to work on anyway. But I discovered that doing so requires a level of focus and attentiveness I was not prepared to summon. And it suddenly dawned on me that plenty of my fellow grocery shoppers, at any store on any day, were having to do the same: Add and subtract the cost for each food item, weigh its necessity, hope you can manage to make it last.

But most of all, I wasn’t braced for the intensity of people’s reactions. Some posted comments online, others emailed me, and one conveyed his nearly unprintable remarks through a mutual friend.

People respond to what they believe to be true. But when the underlying beliefs are incorrect or “contrary to fact,” so are the conclusions. So let’s set the record straight on a few things right now:

You cannot use SNAP to purchase cigarettes, alcohol or lottery tickets.

You cannot use SNAP to purchase household items, personal care items or vitamins.

You cannot use SNAP to purchase medicines, either prescription or over the counter.

You can use SNAP only to purchase eligible food items.

This is the area where people disagree strongly – and loudly. Say you believe cookies and snacks shouldn’t be eligible. Well, what about fruit rolls, cheese crackers, granola bars or protein breakfast bars? Want to exclude steak from the list? What about low-cost family-sized packs, mark-downs or specials when beef costs less than chicken or cheese? And since we recognize the harm that results from a cheap, fast-food diet, how can we deny people access to the fresh foods that are also more expensive?

There’s an “us vs. them” component to all of this. That shouldn’t be surprising, because as long as we’re pointing fingers at each other, we don’t have to acknowledge the enormity of the problem.

Or the possibility that any of us could find ourselves hungry, sometime soon.

*SNAP is the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. And for many low-income individuals and families, it’s not a supplement; it’s their only means of buying food.

Amy is documenting her experiences with the SNAP Challenge all this week. Check back daily for updates.

Eating on a Food Stamp Budget (Day One)

Eating on a Food Stamp Budget (Day Two)

Eating on a Food Stamp Budget (Day Three)

Eating on a Food Stamp Budget (Day Four)

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Five

  1. Marlene

    What you did helped to make more people aware of how very difficult it is to live in the confines of an ever-shrinking economy.

  2. Pebbles

    Your soup looks yummy. Is that chicken or tofu? Regarding the comments you’ve received it’s important to remember there are lots of lobbyists for SNAP. Big agriculture (Con-Agra), big producers (Kraft, Coca-Cola), big retailers (Wal-Mart, Target), and big banks to manage the SNAP cards. They all make some money from the use of these cards, and we all know they have the power to decide what the cards can and cannot be used for. Two days to go!

    • Pebbles, it was tofu. I’m eager to learn about the connections between agribusiness and food policy. Thanks for the reminder that we citizens need to be better informed.

  3. Rachel Eldridge

    I’ve been thinking of how does manage the special dinner to celebrate, the birthday party for a child, the big family meal when company comes into town. It was interesting to see that birthday cakes are covered under eligible food items with a caveat.

    In the last year, I’ve dealt with families who are struggling because they can’t use SNAP for some basics and don’t have other means to buy items like toilet paper.

    And as you said, it is the constantness, the mindfulness about food and the budget that grinds people down.

  4. Elaine

    I lived on food stamps for almost five years. It’s not something to joke with or take lightly. It’s FOOD…the poor are not equipped to feed themselves well with the money they are allocated. When I got food stamps, they were still coupons in set increments that you had to pull out of the book at the time you bought your food. And buying food was a job – you had to plan it. I had foodstamps, WIC coupons, and regular coupons. I was embarrased to shop unless it was late at night because I didn’t want to piss off the poeple behind me. I don’t know what you’re doing or why….but just stop. It’s not funny, amusing, or educational because no one learns anything from this other than how fucking wretched it is.

    • Hi Elaine, I’ve given a lot of though to your comments. First, if you read no further than this, please know this is anything but a joke. I’m humbled by the SNAP Challenge and I’ve learned a lot. But most of all I’m deeply troubled by the amount of hunger that persists here in our land of plenty. I, too, remember when people receiving assistance had to carry the coupon book, pray we wouldn’t lose it, and hope not to run into our neighbors as we were checking out at the grocery store. The hardest thing was watching the casual manner in which other shoppers filled up their carts, especially since I knew much of that food would go to waste. I sincerely hope your circumstances are better now than in those days, and I thank you for expressing your thoughts here.

  5. Salem

    Elaine, you must have missed the beginning of the experiment, but please don’t think Amy is doing this as a joke. She’s responding to a challenge meant to raise consciousness about how hard it is for people to feed themselves on food stamps.

  6. At a quick read through of these posts, I have yet to see mention of food salvage stores. These are like remainders outlets for grocery items. When stores have dented cans or crushed boxes which are not aesthetically acceptable, but do not affect the contents they sell them to salvage stores in bulk. Families depending on assistance often stretch their shopping dollars there.

    • Peter John, thanks for mentioning this. The USDA cautions against eating the contents of dented cans but plenty of other second-quality items are perfectly safe. Sometimes a manufacturer will change packaging or discontinue an item entirely. These bargains can really help stretch a budget.

  7. Pebbles

    What about your last two days?

  8. Diane

    maybe some kind of educational initiative needs to be administered with the SNAP program? you are ahead of the pack Amy because you know how to cook and you understand nutrition…

    • Hi Diane, there are lots of good reference materials provided by the USDA, which administers the SNAP program. They offer shopping guides, recipes, store locators, plus fact sheets in 30+ languages. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  9. Hi…
    I blog about living on food stamps. I have a round-up of SNAP & Low Budget grocery challenges. Do you mind if I add your blog?
    http://dumbsainthood.wordpress.com/food-stamp-limited-budget-grocery-challenges/

  10. In New Hampshire, you CAN buy cigarettes with food stamps, as crazy as it sounds. Recently a store employee lost her job because she refused to sell them to someone paying with food stamps. She was fed up with the policy and I really can’t blame her.

    Since I’ve been blogging about being on food stamps, I’ve received an overwhelming amount of emails and private messages on my FB page from people on food stamps who are too embarrassed to say anything or ask questions they have publicly. That’s the saddest thing I’m finding – people made too embarrassed by a stigma to even be allowed to say that they need help.

    I’ve personally had very few negative things said directly to me BUT I have seen conversations about me/my blog posts . I try not to take any of it ersonally. There’s a lot of speaking out of misinformation,ignorance and fear

  11. KimAnn

    I think where the confusion lies is that there are 2 ways the EBT card can be loaded – those that receive food stamp/SNAP benefit dollars and those that receive a cash benefit like welfare. When you use your card with SNAP dollars ONLY you can only buy food items. If you use your card that has cash benefits then you can use it like an ATM – you can pay for non-food items or get cash back. Once the person gets the cash they can do with it what they will – buy cigs or pay their water bill. Also, in California, the SNAP card can now be used at fast food restaurants. The logic – there are people so poor that they do not have access to a microwave or stove to cook their food.

    • These are very important points, KimAnn. The EBT cards look very much like other debit cards and it’s not surprising there would be a fair amount of misunderstanding. Thanks for your comments.

  12. Susan

    Amy,

    I just want to ad a bit of positive and say thank you, thank you for sheding light on how much of a challenge this really is. I get tired of hearing critics say “just get a job…” it’s not always that simple depending on your life’s circumstances.

  13. megan

    thank you for setting the record straight about what you can and cannot buy. i am a social worker and i am sick of people posting on facebook ignorant comments about things like SNAP and living within a budget, unless you are poor or in the working poor category, or work closely with this population, you have no idea how hard it is to eat healthy and sustainably for yourself, your children!!! thank you, thank you!

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