Category Archives: Food

Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Wrap Up

Day 7 and Beyond

“How did you do on the ‘food stamp’ challenge?” That’s the question people have been asking me since Sunday. “Did you have enough to eat, or did you have to cheat?”

I recently completed the SNAP Challenge, designed to give participants a taste of what it’s like to feed yourself with no more than the $31.50 per week you’d get if you relied solely on food stamps.

In one sense you could say I succeeded: I didn’t overspend and didn’t go hungry.

I carefully monitored my budget to stay on track. Coupons, yes. Items on sale, absolutely. Since condiments were allowable under the rules of the challenge, I added back in to my total the $2.50 I’d spent for a bottle of soy sauce. That allowed me to replace the milk that had spoiled before I could finish it. But the early satisfaction was fleeting.

I hadn’t accounted for staple items a household would purchase infrequently and stretch for many weeks or even months. So I made a judgment call, allowing myself to “pro-rate” a handful of flour and splash of oil here and there.

On Friday evening I attended a meeting where a meat-and-three dinner was served. Strictly speaking, maybe I should have declined. But since I’d fed a guest out of my own budget on Tuesday, I justified partaking. Besides, wouldn’t anyone do the same, regardless of budget? Community events like this one can – and do – go a long way toward filling the gap and feeding the hungry neighbors we may not notice in our midst.

The lettuce was bland, unadorned iceberg; it was the only salad I saw all week and I was grateful to have it. As I welcomed the change from my own monotonous cooking, I recognized the irony of doing so, and realized only later that what I enjoyed most about this one nourishing but unremarkable meal was that I didn’t have to worry how much it cost.

The practice of such careful budgeting is foreign to those of us too young to have lived through the privation of the Great Depression or the restrictive rationing implemented during the 20th century World Wars. Perhaps we’re headed there again.

I won’t argue with those who complained that the SNAP Challenge is nothing more than the thinnest slice-of-life exercise. On his blog, actor Josh Malina wrote: “I don’t know what it’s like for this to be my normal. I always had a vision of a finish line in my mind, and I am very aware that others live this challenge with no sense of when if ever they may cross that line.”

And so by successfully completing the challenge, we reveal our enduring failure.

Hunger is everywhere. It’s global and local, societal and deeply personal. Writing about it doesn’t alleviate hunger directly, but I’m going to continue over the coming months as I keep sifting through what I learned this week.

Through stories about the people who feed us I plan to share some insights, practical information – and with a little luck, some inspiration, too, I hope.

Click for additional resources and to read all the stories in Amy’s series.

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Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Six

SNAP recipients receive EBT (electronic benefit transfer) debit cards to use for their food purchases.

Day Six: “Who’s Hungry?”

On a long car trip when a fast food joint comes into view, someone will shout it.

“Who’s hungry?”

If you walk into your office with a giant pizza box in your hands, you can call out to your co-workers.

“Who’s hungry?”

When the holiday meal is ready after hours of waiting, it’s a summons to gather and share something special – or even sacred.

“Who’s hungry?”

Who IS hungry? This past week, that question has taken on a very different meaning for me.

I’ve been participating in the SNAP* Challenge to experience 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.) I started out hoping to get a sense of how people on a limited food budget cope with the logistics, limitations and difficulties of making ends meet. I wanted to confront the blind spots in my own admittedly haphazard understanding of hunger, its scope and its impact.

Getting my mind around all of this has been another kind of challenge altogether. I read hundreds of pages of policy and statistical research, interviewed experts, responded to blog posts – then tried to distill down what I’d absorbed into any sort of basic grasp of the who, what, when, where, and why of hunger. I wanted to understand how we as  individuals, a community, and a society make decisions to address the hunger crisis.

“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. I agree with him. I swam in knowledge, gained little understanding, and certainly failed this aspect of the challenge I undertook.

I’m writing this post the morning of Day Seven of the SNAP Challenge. In the next few days, I’ll continue to respond to your comments, then I’ll wrap up.

I don’t remember what I ate yesterday, on Day Six, and it doesn’t matter. I haven’t done the math to see if I succeeded in feeding myself on the $31.50 I’d get from food stamps, but that’s no longer the point for me – and that’s exactly the point. People I know, people I care about, people you and I will never meet are struggling. That much, I now understand.

Who’s hungry.

*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)

Eating on a Food Stamp Budget (Day Five)

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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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Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Four

Leftovers. Photo by Amy Rogers.

Day Four:

Time for a mid-week reality check. The jug of milk has started to go sour. The fat in the leftover ground beef we cooked with last night’s spaghetti sauce has congealed into a bright orange slick. I may have just busted my budget by opening a Dollar Tree bag of Twizzlers I discovered in the pantry.

And I hate oatmeal.

I’m halfway through the SNAP* Challenge, trying to eat adequately and healthfully while spending no more than $31.50 for the entire week. At the beginning I was confident I could manage easily, but quickly learned how tricky it is plan, shop, budget and adapt to this way of thinking. Everything I typically buy is eligible, right? Not if I want a marked down rotisserie chicken at the end of a long workday. Hot foods aren’t allowed and neither are foods that can be eaten in the store.

Then there are the leftovers, unavoidable if you’re trying to get by on a food stamp budget. You can’t indulge in single-serving foods, so you’ll be looking at staples such as legumes and grains repeatedly on your plate. If you can afford fresh vegetables, you’ll need to prepare them early in the week and try to stretch them out. If you wait too long to cook them, some will certainly spoil. Tonight, leftover beef goes into a soft tortilla with tabouli on the side.

How often do we reach into a cupboard for some small item – garlic or Jell-O or just plain salt – without thinking twice about it? Canned soup, a bag of chips, pancake syrup: walking past but not having enough money to purchase these items at the grocery store has been peculiar and uncomfortable. Not because of any actual deprivation I’ve experienced, of course, but because it’s more tedious and frustrating than I want to admit, constantly calculating each item’s cost against that dwindling $31.50.

Actor Josh Malina is also taking the SNAP Challenge, and blogging about it. “I’m not necessarily hungry, but I’m finding myself thinking about food a lot. It’s something I normally take for granted,” he wrote on Wednesday.

And that’s the most startling thing about the seven-day experiment. It makes a person realize not simply how much we take for granted, but how habituated we can become to our own comfortable circumstances. Which got me to wondering: Just how many people currently rely on aid from SNAP?

The answer in North Carolina alone: 2.2 million.

*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)

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Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Three

Day Three:

“I want spaghetti for dinner,” said a young friend who was visiting me Tuesday.

“We don’t have any.”

She just looked at me and rolled her eyes. So we got in the car to spend the last $5.22 remaining from my $31.50 grocery budget for the week.

So far I’ve managed to feed myself well on the basic, staple items I bought for the SNAP* Challenge. But how do you explain to a child that tonight’s dinner will be cereal or soup again?

Returning to CVS was my clever solution. The Ragu spaghetti sauce and Barilla pasta rang up at $4.24. But I had $3.50 in the store’s “ExtraBucks” rewards, so we spent only 74 cents (75 with sales tax).

That $31.50 is the amount each person eligible for SNAP can obtain to spend on food each week, and if my young friend were my child or dependent, I could combine our allotments for a total of $63. But what if I were her grandmother or aunt without that additional amount to spend? What if we couldn’t get to a grocery store and had to shop at convenience stores where, overwhelmingly, the least healthy foods are also the most  expensive?

Food banks, emergency food pantries (such as Charlotte’s Loaves and Fishes), houses of worship, and regional agencies help to bridge the gap. Still, across the U.S., millions of kids who qualify for free or reduced-price meal programs at school face worsening hunger, especially in the summertime when school is out.

“You have to put hamburger meat in the sauce,” my young friend said. It’s a reasonable request. Growing children need protein.

The least expensive package of ground beef at Harris Teeter was $4.34.

Tomorrow, I can return that $1.79 bottle of soy sauce to the store, maybe even those tea bags I forgot to count in my budget earlier in the week.

But tonight, we’re eating spaghetti with hamburger meat.

*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)

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Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Two

Rotel seasoned tomatoes marked down to 14 cents a can at Target.

Day Two:

Yesterday I was feeling pretty smug about my cost-effective shopping. I’d spent only about half of the $31.50 grocery budget I’d agreed not to exceed as part of the SNAP* Challenge.

Then something happened to shake my confidence in my plan to make the supplies last an entire week. I realized I needed to factor in the cost of items I’d previously purchased or had on hand if I wanted to use them.

At Target, I’d paid fifty cents for a single lime. Seventy-five cents for a tomato and it was already going bad. A half-gallon of milk: $2.29. A package of provolone: $2.49. Soft tortilla shells were on sale for $2. Best find of all? Rotel seasoned tomatoes marked down to 14 cents a can.

Sure, the parsley at Super G Mart was a steal at 99 cents yesterday but to make the tabouli for last night’s dinner I had to add 1/2 cup of bulgur, which I’d bought in bulk at the Healthy Home Market. There went another 96 cents.

It added up to $9.13.

With the $14 I’d spent yesterday and the $3.15 for my sale-priced drugstore coffee the day before, my total now stood at $26.28.

No eggs, no meat, not even a can of tuna. I have just over five dollars left.

And it’s only Tuesday.

*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)

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Eating on a Food Stamp Budget

What you get for $14 at Super G Mart. Photo by Amy Rogers.

Day One:

Think you could manage on $31.50 a week for groceries? That’s the amount you’d get to spend if you had to rely solely on food stamps.

From July 9 through July 15, I’m taking the SNAP* Challenge. Its purpose is to give well-fed Americans a chance to experience the struggle an estimated 1 in 7 are facing every day in the U.S.

I’m a creative cook so I’m not planning menus or making lists. My only advance strategy is to stop at CVS Sunday night where my 25% off store coupon cuts the price on Café Bustelo from $4.19 to $3.15. Monday morning coffee? Check.

What to buy today with the remaining $28.25? My first – and probably best – decision is to avoid my local grocery store and visit Super G Mart on Independence Blvd. Known for its extensive ethnic offerings, here the produce is bountiful and inexpensive. A pound of bok choy is 98 cents. A giant bunch of parsley, headed for tabouli, is 99 cents. A fat lump of ginger is only 20 cents. Extra firm tofu is 99 cents; I don’t recognize the brand but its advertisement for DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” on its label is oddly reassuring. A big bag of Asian noodles rolled into nests is $1.79. I’m thinking this won’t be so hard after all.

Confidently, I bag two red bell peppers. Yes, this is a bit extravagant. Normally $4 a pound at other stores, I can’t resist them here at only $1.49. They’re irregularly shaped but firm and fresh, so I get two and they ring up at for $1.31. I indulge in a small block of black sesame candy for $1.79.

Quaker Oats are more than $3; the no-name brand is $1.79 so that’s what I get. Cabbage, an onion, a small bottle of soy sauce.

I’ve still got nearly half of my $31.50 left. Then I remember: You can’t use anything already in your kitchen, other than condiments. I’ll have to add in the cost of the tortilla shells, bulgur, lime, cheese, milk and yogurt I bought a couple of days ago.

This creates two possible problems: One is math. The other is that even if I haven’t over-spent, I may have under-shopped.

I’ll let you know more tomorrow…

*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.

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