Last week, my husband and I took the food stamp challenge. This is an opportunity to gain some understanding about the difficulty of food stamp rules and limitations. Check it out and consider trying it yourself at http://www.foodstamped.com/get-involved/take-the-challenge. As the director of The Coalition for the Homeless, I felt pretty confident in my understanding of food stamp rules and limitations, but I still had a lot to learn.
My husband and I started out by discussing our shopping for the week. As usual, we asked what we'd like to eat this week, but we also asked what is reasonable considering our limitation of $34 per week per person. This was my first learning opportunity. We eat a lot of fish and vegetables most weeks and both were included on my shopping list. However, when I got to the grocery, there was no deal on fish but I found chicken breasts for .99 per pound. I also found a large container of lettuce on sale which could be used for salads and soft tacos where many vegetables were more costly and less easy to fit with various meals. In other words, this level of money for our weekly food bill means it is hard to plan meals ahead. I really had to take advantage of grocery store deals and coupons. This was easy in my large suburban grocery, but might have been more difficult in a small city corner store.
Here are the other major learnings from my week:
1) I really had to challenge myself to buy healthy fresh vegetables. I usually eat several vegetables a day, but when I saw what they cost, I quickly started to eliminate these from our list. I did use beans for tacos and salad. I also used canned tomatoes in spaghetti sauce, but my only fresh vegetables were a bell pepper and lettuce. My usual breakfast is an apple with peanut butter. When I realized I could buy a box of peanut crackers for the week at .99, my fruit for the week at .99 per day was crossed off my list. My reading shows that the healthiest people focus on what healthy things they can eat versus what they are missing. The truth is that I lost the healthy things in my fridge that I allow myself as a treat whenever I want them. Instead, because I was limited to only one snack purchase for the week, I picked goldfish over a bag of carrots, when I'd usually take both.
2) Food stamps are not going to force people to eat what they should. In fact, as I described above I gave up my daily apple and the underlying reason was that I wanted enough money left to insure I could have a diet coke each day. I'm not saying that food stamps caused me to drink pop daily. I drink pop daily because I like it and it makes me happy and I'm willing to give up other more healthy things in my diet to insure I can still afford it. But why do I feel guilty about that because I'm only allowed $34 per week? I realized during this experience that we blame poor people for making the same bad choices I make every week in the grocery - buying Diet Coke at .40 per can.
3) Putting up or canning foods really helps when you're limited on funds. My cheese sandwiches were good because I had canned tomato jam. My tacos and quesadillas were especially good because I had canned salsa from the summer harvest and I had pickled veggies which were great in my salads.
4) One of the rules in the food stamp challenge is that you can't eat any place for free. Well, I'm here to tell you from my experience that if you only had $34 to eat each week, you are definitely looking for any opportunity to eat for free. My mother-in-law took me to dinner one night during the week, but I also took advantage of every sampling at a grocery, anything co-workers brought to the office and even gave blood to get the cookies. But, the sad thing about this is that someone like me who has plenty money for food has a lot more opportunities to eat free than anyone on food stamps. I get lots of free meals and snacks at work. I live in the suburbs were my grocery has samples and I have friends who invite me over for food and drinks.
5) Food stamps only addressed a portion of my grocery and food needs. When I drove to Birmingham for my day's surgery, I included the cost of my fast food stop and lunch at the hospital in my $34 limit, but neither of these locations would have taken food stamps and in Kentucky, where I live, you cannot use food stamps for these warmed items even if you are homeless. But, I could have purchased peanut crackers, chips or a cold sandwich at a gas station. And, food stamps cannot be used for non food items. I still needed dish soap, laundry detergent and toilet paper this week which couldn't be purchased with food stamps.
6) Finally, it is possible to eat on $34 per week, but it is difficult and certainly takes the joy out of eating. I tended to eat more pasta and bread versus vegetables and fruits and simple hearty foods versus items with many ingredients. People certainly aren't living it up on this benefit and they are really struggling if they are living on the streets trying to eat unprepared and unwarmed foods.
What I bought during the week:
$1.50 peanut crackers
$3 Diet Coke
$3 salad dressing
$.99 chicken breast
$2.5 bagette (also used to make croutons)
$1.99 sour cream
$.99 red bell pepper
1.99 cheddar cheese
$1.49 sandwich bread
$.99 tomato sauce
$.49 tomato paste
$2.49 bag of goldfish crackers for snacking
$5 cafeteria food at hospital
$1.25 Taco Bell bean burrito
I used my own spices, pickled vegetables, tomato jam and salsa
What I ate during the week:
Peanut crackers for breakfast each morning
Two Diet Cokes each day for breakfast and morning
Cheese sandwiches and salads for lunches 5 days
I had a lunch at the hospital and a burrito at Taco Bell while driving
My family bought my dinner one night
I had chicken soft tacos two nights and quesadillas another
I had pasta three nights with bread a slice of bagette I had to buy the wine to make pasta sauce and have a glass both nights with my pasta without food stamps
I had water with the rest of lunches and dinners
I also couldn’t buy toilet paper, napkins, laundry detergent or any other of my household needs with food stamps