Our reporter was able to eat good food while on a food stamp budget, but it wasn’t enough
Reporter Chris Shores with his food for the day.
An hour into my food shopping trip, I was faced with a choice: should I put back my $1.59 jar of jelly in exchange for a $1.14 bag of frozen mixed vegetables?
My week’s worth of food, in front of me in my Target shopping cart, needed more vegetables. The two ears of corn I planned to purchase would need to be eaten in the first few days and I’d probably only be able to have about 10 baby carrots each day to make my small bag last.
I made the switch. My planned peanut butter and jelly sandwiches would have to go sans jelly.
My mind numb from 70 minutes of scrutinizing prices, I blankly watched my cash register total rise until it stopped at $31.46 — four measly cents shy of the amount I had been allotted this week for food.
I’d decided to undertake the “SNAP Challenge” in August — a week-long attempt to experience what it is like for some people, including local residents, who live on a food-stamp budget. The challenge, often taken by politicians and anti-hunger activists, has made headlines across the country amidst a larger political debate about federal funding for food stamps.
Some have praised the challenge as a way to bring awareness to national hunger issues, while others have criticized it for not accurately portraying reality. I was curious to try it out myself and talk to others about their reasons for participating.
It’s unclear to what extent the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as the Food Stamp program, which helps low-income families across the country buy food — is intended to subsidize a person’s food budget. Multiple calls made to the United States Department of Agriculture were not returned.
But officials at local food charity organizations, like the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and Greenfield’s Center for Self-Reliance, say that many residents use SNAP money to purchase most of their food.
Families also look for free food in their community, turning to pantries and free meals for additional aid. Greenfield public schools offer free breakfast for all and about 60 percent of its students, over 1,000 children, qualify for free or discounted lunch.
In Franklin County, the average monthly household allotment is just under $200 a month, according to the food bank. That means that individuals receive between $25 and $30 a week to spend on food.
These numbers will likely be shaved by 10 to 15 percent when federal stimulus money helping to support the program runs out in November, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
And the Republican-led House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that would cut SNAP by $40 billion over 10 years. Those cuts, which are unlikely to get support from the Senate or White House, would halt benefits for 4 million low-income people, according to the research institute Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Nearly 48 million people receive SNAP benefits now.
The SNAP Challenge, intended to raise awareness about the difficulty of living on a tight food budget, limits participants to spending no more than $31.50 on food for the week — equating to about $4.50 a day or $1.50 a meal. They can’t accept free food from others or eat food they may already have at home.
To put that into perspective, my favorite to-go lunch wrap in Greenfield is $6.50. The Dunkin’ Donuts morning combo meal I often turn to comes in at about $4.75. Even cook-at-home items — like ground beef, Italian sausage or frozen chicken tenders — each cost at least $4 a meal; about the same or more than an entire day’s worth of food under the SNAP challenge.
The challenge also encourages participants to eat as healthy as possible during the week. So, I left ramen noodles on the shelf and instead picked up items like the vegetables, beans, three bananas and apple sauce. Pasta and rice would serve as my primary grains for the week. Hard-boiled eggs and peanut butter sandwiches would carry me through lunchtime.
But some vices I couldn’t shake off. I needed coffee and found the cheapest option I could find: a $1 Folgers instant coffee box with exactly seven individual packets.
I chose white rice instead of brown. Both butter and pasta sauce made its way into my cart. And my plan to buy a tiny packet of shredded cheese to add to my meals was thwarted when I realized I couldn’t live without a 94-cent packet of salt and pepper.
The first day
On Monday, and for the next six days, my breakfast was exactly the same: a bowl of Raisin Bran cereal with milk and a cup of dreadful coffee-flavored water. (Actually, I have to admit, the coffee didn’t taste so bad by the end of the week).
My lunch that day began with one of my three 24-cent bananas. I was lucky to have that many. U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said that when he first took the challenge in 2007, he had to sheepishly return one of his three bananas at checkout because he just barely went over his limit.
A peanut butter sandwich — with so little peanut butter that it looked like I was eating two pieces of bread next to each other — and a small bowl of apple sauce finished off my lunch. Eating while I worked, I purposely spread out the meal over two hours, turning to the food only when I couldn’t fight the hunger anymore.
I drank water all day, dutifully filling up with my bottle whenever I could (I reasoned this could surely be an exception to the “no free food” rule). Aside from the morning coffee and one glass of milk for dinner one night, water was the only thing I drank all week.
Headaches came around 4:30 p.m., so I ate a handful of baby carrots and two hardboiled eggs that I had cooked the night before. Two hours later, I was home, steam-boiling half an ear of corn and cooking up some tri-color rotini pasta and sauce.
The food was good, but it wasn’t enough; I was forced to split the pasta in half in order to save some for my lunch the next day. My hunger became clear when I automatically opened up the fridge at 9 p.m. without thinking and resigned myself to having a second peanut butter sandwich to hold me over until morning.
Short meals the key
I’ve always enjoyed eating food: how the textures and flavors react with one another in interesting ways.
I sometimes eat snacks and fast food, but in recent years, my tastes have changed. I’d rather bite into an apple than open a bag of Cheetos. And at places like McDonald’s, I now prefer wraps that mix chicken, salad greens and dressing over the meat patties I used to crave.
As the days went on during my challenge, however, I learned that eating interesting food often wasn’t a possibility. I couldn’t afford daily fruit or to make myself a salad. Instead, my dinners often consisted of rice and beans — a meal that wasn’t anything to write home about yet did the trick of satisfying my hunger.
The rest of the work week continued in a similar way. I learned to spread out my meals over hours and leave the food in the fridge instead of bringing it all to my desk at once.
I became accustomed to this pattern, but sometimes the hunger had a mind of its own.
During one lunch, I grabbed a peanut butter sandwich from the fridge and sat back down at my desk to take a bite. It felt like a scene from an old comedy movie when I looked down just a few minutes later to see it gone from my hands, a few crumbs resting on the napkin below. I had literally eaten the sandwich in a few, powerful bites without even realizing what I was doing.
I ate dinner at work one of the nights and brought in a can of Campbell’s Southwest Style White Chicken Chili — which I decided to splurge on, since it had cost only 38 cents more than a can of beans. I mixed the soup with rice I had cooked earlier that morning (that had been an episode in itself as I woke up late and had to cook frantically before heading off to work).
Looking down at the little chicken bits inside my bowl, I realized it was the first meat I had eaten all week. I ate the dinner slowly, relishing each bite, until a co-worker walked by and joked that it look as if I was eating dog food. Alas.
Reasons behind the challenge
The challenge’s biggest critics argue that SNAP isn’t intended to cover all of a family’s food needs. Others point out that a one-week challenge isn’t a real indicator for what it’s like to be hungry all the time.
State Rep. Paul Mark — a Democrat from Peru who participated in the challenge earlier this summer with fellow state legislators from Berkshire County — couldn’t agree more with the last point. It’s easy to do the challenge when a person knows their regular food diet is going to return in a week’s time, he said.
“Anyone that’s taking this challenge that thinks that they’re really proving something, they’re really sacrificing, they’re doing that for the wrong reasons,” said Mark. “They should do it just to get an idea of what this kind of lifestyle is like and to bring attention (to the issue).”
There is no one website that tracks all challenge takers, but news stories about participants pop up all over the country. Politicians from Capitol Hill to Beacon Hill have tried their hand at it.
The issue hits home in western Massachusetts where about 11.5 percent of residents do not have access to enough nutritious food, according to FeedingAmerica.org.
The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts — which serves four counties including Franklin County — is taking part throughout September in a national Hunger Action Month. Food bank officials sent out an email to its mailing list this week, encouraging people to call their representatives in opposition of the proposed SNAP cuts. Other upcoming events including a “Will Bike 4 Food” charity bike ride on Sunday, Sept. 29, in Hatfield.
Going in, I had wondered if I would feel faint or weak by the end. But aside from brief moments of hunger pangs, I felt like myself for most of the time. From start to finish, I only lost about a pound-and-a-half.
But if my diet had continued beyond the week, would an emergency room trip factor into the immediate future?
That’d be unlikely, said Cheryl Pelland-Lak, a dietician at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, who said that my diet was pretty well-rounded given the budget I had to work with.
There would, however, be some long-term effects.
The low amount of fruits and vegetables could lead to an increased risk of cancer, said Pelland-Lak. A diet of such high cholesterol, over years, could result in heart disease. And my levels of protein and vitamins weren’t high enough, she said.
“Hopefully this (diet) is not a permanent solution. This is hopefully something to tie you over,” she said.
Anti-poverty organization Community Action provides nutritional analysis and shopping advice for poor people. An agency dietician agreed that my carbohydrate level was higher than suggested, which could lead to long-term health problems.
Were I to take the challenge again, Pelland-Lak suggested trying to add some canned tuna or salmon or a meal of chicken if I could afford it. Instead of corn, I should pick up a leafy green like spinach.
Instead of baked beans, I could have gone for dried beans or chickpeas. Fruit juice would be an easy way to add some vitamins to my diet, she said.
Pelland-Lak said my peanut butter sandwiches were a solid lunch choice. The carrots and Raisin Bran cereal were also good selections, she said. And while the eggs were a healthy choice, she recommended lowering the number I ate throughout the week.
I finished the week with some food left over: half of my frozen mixed vegetables, most of my butter and still-pretty-full salt and pepper containers.
Had I extended the challenge into the next week, I wouldn’t have had to buy these items again — meaning I would have had $4.27 (almost a day’s worth of food) to spend on extra items. Maybe I would have used that money toward frozen meat, or perhaps I would have simply stocked up on other items (like cheese, salad greens or more fruit) that I couldn’t otherwise afford.
Not counting the butter, salt and pepper (which together cost about 44 cents each day, but would cost much less if I bought these once a month and spread their use out) my average daily spending was $3.83.
I ate the least amount of food on Tuesday ($3.13) and the most on Sunday ($5.43).
My average per-meal spending across the week: breakfast, $0.79; lunch, $1.16; and dinner, $1.88.
Finishing the week strong
As the weekend approached, the only thing I was nervous about was my dwindling food supply.
On multiple occasions, I had poured cereal or apple sauce into a bowl and then thought better of the amount and returned some to its container. By Saturday, I could see the clear bottom of the peanut butter jar and desperately scraped at every inch of the container’s sides.
Keeping me honest was a hand-scribbled meal chart I had taped to my fridge that outlined a rough sketch of my week.
I occasionally deviated from this slightly. By the end of the week, I had learned how to ignore hunger pangs and was happy to save some food (like the day’s limited apple sauce allotment) for an extra treat the following day.
When I woke up on Sunday, I had a large brunch to celebrate the final day.
After eating two hardboiled eggs each day for the first five days, I specifically saved the last two for my favorite breakfast meal: egg-in-a-hole. It involves making a hole in a piece of bread and frying an egg inside. The egg and butter run all over the bread, creating a french toast/fried egg mixture that is truly a delight.
On this morning, in addition to my standard Raisin Bran cereal and milk, I had two eggs-in-a-hole. It was the best meal I had all week.
The challenge ended that night with stomach pains and apple sauce.
Staff reporter Chris Shores started at The Recorder in 2012. He covers education and health and human services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 264. His website is www.chrisshores.com.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.