What does the Challenge mean to me?
When the staff in our office began talking about hosting a Food Stamp Challenge, I immediately committed to participating but also recognized the importance of reflecting on what it means to be part of a simulation like this one. There are things that a week of living on a food stamp budget can show me, as a participant, and there are things it definitely cannot. Meaningful engagement with the Challenge experience means thinking through my assumptions and clearly delineating how the Challenge differs from a true experience of poverty.
Spending just $30 on food in a week and limiting my purchases to those available to food stamp users CANNOT…
- simulate any hunger a food stamp household may experience before receiving SNAP benefits, or the difficulty of allocating disposable income toward food when the family may not have enough for bills, child care, and other immediate needs as it is.
- simulate the often difficult process of applying for benefits, including figuring out which documents to bring, locating a place to apply, traveling to that place, waiting sometimes several hours to be called, finding a front-line staff person who speaks a different language, being asked questions that might make an applicant uncomfortable/embarrassed, having to answer questions about immigration/citizenship status, and feeling anxiety about whether the application will be processed in a timely fashion, whether the applicant will receive benefits and how much s/he will receive.
- simulate the stigma associated with using an EBT card at a grocery store or farmers market or the inconvenience of having to separate out food stamp-eligible purchases front non-eligible purchases in the grocery line and having to ask for separate transactions.
- simulate the looks a food stamp user might get if s/he choose to buy food products such as soda, ice cream or a candy bar, which non-food stamp users can buy without fear of similar judgment.
- simulate the recertification process and any confusion about when/how/where to recertify.
- simulate the gap in benefits if for some reason a food stamp user does not recertify in time.
- simulate the emotions food stamp users might feel when most of the stories in the media around SNAP revolve around misappropriation and fraud.
- simulate the possible effects on the family dynamic resulting from a longer-term condition of having too little food to go around, or the effects on health from having too little money to buy healthy food, which cost more.
- simulate the psychological effects of prolonged poverty and the knowledge that a time when the family can spend more than $30 per person per week may be many months away.
I could list many more, but these are the limitations that come to mind. On the other hand, participation in the ACAA Food Stamp Challenge CAN:
- simulate the difficulty of purchasing sufficient food for the week on a food stamp budget.
- simulate the difficulty of purchasing healthy food.
- simulate the inconvenience of preparing raw ingredients, such as rice and beans, which are often cheaper than value-added products.
- simulate, to some extent, the reduction in menu variety necessitated by bulk food purchases, which are almost always more economical.
- simulate the expertise needed to compare food prices and package sizes to buy the most food for the least amount of money.
- simulate the temporary hunger a food stamp user may feel when meals do not fill him/her up over the course of the day.
- simulate the stress a food stamp user may feel regarding food waste (spilled milk, spoiled fruits and vegetables, rotted meat, burned/overcooked food) and other food-related crisis scenarios.
Though the Challenge cannot be a perfect window into poverty and food insecurity, by acknowledging what the experience can be for me and reflecting on the privilege I have to be able to embark on this weeklong journey as a temporary exercise in empathy, I believe even this small effort for awareness can have immense value.
Emerson Hunger Fellow at ACAA
SNAP as a safety net; food as a human right
I’ve not had much personal experience with food stamps, but, through posting on my own blog, I have come to realize that my cousin, who is about my age (early-mid 20s) and lives in Wisconsin, has been on and off food stamps for the last several years while she worked and attended college. That family connection doesn’t make me feel much different about the program—it’s an entitlement program and should help people meet their needs and preferences for food while they get back on their feet. SNAP is part of a safety net and should, like all government programs, uphold a recipient’s human rights. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive in my mind. I would like the program to be run as if people in my family were benefit recipients, regardless of whether or not they actually are. I’m looking forward to the Challenge for the opportunity to get closer to the issues and to understand more intimately what shopping and eating (or not eating!) on a food stamp budget is really like.
I have agreed to do the Challenge based on the food stamp benefit level if some proposed cuts went into place with the passage of Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation. To be conservative, I’m using $21 for the next week. That’s just $1 per meal. I’ve already also used the internet to look up ads and coupons for my local grocer, Fry’s. I was impressed to find out that you can “clip” coupons online and print them from home. You can also view the weekly circular for your local food store, “circle” items and print out the circular as a PDF. I clipped several coupons for juice, yogurt, lunch meat, cereal, soup and pasta sauce. While I commend Fry’s on making information about its sales so easy to find on the web, I have to admit that this method of coupon clipping is really the only way I would know how to access coupons. We don’t receive the paper where I live. I would guess that many food stamp users also do not receive the paper but do not have the luxury of surfing grocery coupons at work and printing them. I have a feeling that internet access will be important to my success during this experience, an important caveat to note.
I think the main anxiety I have at this point is about the kinds of variety I’ll be able to enjoy over the week and how I will deal with my inevitable and strong desire to eat sweets! Interests in variety and the occasional treat are not isolated to my experience as a non-food stamp user. These are real preferences experienced by many people, and I look forward to learning how to combat them on a limited budget.
Pre-Challenge Reflection from Tucson
When my son was laid off from his job of 20 years this spring, I was grateful the family had food stamps to help them out, but I was shocked to learn how limiting they are. For example, food stamps don’t cover those roasted chickens at the grocery store, as they are “pre-prepared.” I stretch one of those over a week in various forms, but I’m never going to find time to roast the chicken myself. A lot of other things surprised me. But they, as a family of four, have managed pretty well by being very careful and creative. It’s the cleaning products, diapers, etc. that kill them. And many families don’t have parents or grandparents to help out, having the kids over for an occasional meal or giving a gift card to the local grocery store. Even then, I realize this is not so difficult for larger families who can buy in bulk and share the costs with the other people in the family, but $30 for a single person for a week is simply ridiculous. Impossible, as I see it. Yet I realize that many seniors live on this today. Hopefully emergency food boxes and meals on wheels assist them, but I know there are many that don’t have access to these “extras.”
I’ve already been noticing prices of things in preparation for this challenge, and while I know I won’t be able to do it (wouldn’t be fair; I already have 3 events that week that will provide me a meal) but I’m going to try. I now understand why people eat Top Ramen and rice a lot. . .things I never consider. My box of strawberries (a staple with my morning cereal) cost more than 1 day’s allowance.
Betsy in Tucson
Having the choice to choose
Eating out is what we do – us late twenty something unattached urban dwellers who don’t like to cook all that much. We go out, we try new restaurants, we drink wine, and we talk about downtown gentrification and avoiding the claustrophobia of the suburbs – with their endless corners of Applebee’s and Macaroni Grill’s and Olive Garden’s and Ruby Tuesday’s – at all costs.
So…when approached with the Food Stamp Challenge my first horrifically spoiled thought was “How in the world was I going to manage on a food budget of $30 for the week TOTAL, when a regular occurrence in my life is spending that (plus more if dessert is too delicious to pass up) on one dinner?” My second thought was of pure embarrassment – I’m a Social Worker after all and proud to be one. I spend my days advocating for and working on programs that help lift people out of poverty – programs that aim to help people get to a place where they can buy groceries AND afford to pay rent – let alone spend $30 plus on one meal.
Reflecting on both the selfishness and the resulting embarrassment of my initial thought, I realized that the Food Stamp challenge was creating a lot of anxiety for me about not being able to live a lifestyle that is of my choosing. I work hard for my paychecks and I don’t have children and college funds and lawn services to worry about – so eating out is a luxury of the lifestyle I have chosen and actively created. But the ironic reality in all that is that there are millions of people who don’t have the luxury of having anxiety about not being able to live a lifestyle of their choosing. When you are bounced around from foster home to foster home until you are 18 and then you are “released from state custody” to figure it out for yourself, the luxury is having a place to sleep every night. When you lose your job because your child is sick and you then lose your home because of the ensuing medical bills, the luxury is that you can scrape together enough food to feed your family. When you fight in a war for your country and come home to a medical system that doesn’t understand what you’ve been through, the luxury is somehow managing to make it through every day without falling apart.
And so — because every good Social Worker needs to constantly challenge the boundaries of their empathy and be reminded why they are fighting the good fight — I’m going to participate in the Food Stamp Challenge fully cognizant that I have a choice and I hope that that choice, in some small way, will represent those who don’t.
Kelly from ACAA
What Does A Dollar Buy?
An important part of the ACAA Food Stamp Challenge experience is shopping on a very tight budget. Perhaps we will think in new ways about the value of our money in the grocery store. Perhaps we will be inspired to do some research on the factors that determine the prices of the food we eat. Perhaps we will take the initiative to research where our food comes from and how geopolitical relationships affect when and for how much we can purchase foods from different regions of the world. Perhaps we will see, through our own experience, how hard it is to make a meal with just one dollar.
One photo journalist, Jonathan Blaustein, has taken photos of what $1 can buy you. His work brings up interesting questions about the price of produce and other unprepared foods relative to value-added products and food served by fast food chains. It brings to light the importance of food sourcing and the price differential between organic and conventionally-farmed foods. His photos of the food he could by with $1 are as realistic as he could make them. The images remind us about the allure and glamour of certain foods as they are portrayed by ad agencies. See his important work here: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/08/food-for-a-dollar/
Some ACAA staff members have agreed to shop on what a food stamp budget might look like if $2.2 billion was cut from SNAP through child nutrition reauthorization. This new budget gives us not $4.22 per day but about $3 or about $1 per meal. We will quickly discover what $1 can and cannot buy a modern shopper in Arizona’s supermarkets.
All photos featured on this blog were taken by ACAA staff unless otherwise credited.
Reflections from ACAA Staff
Making the commitment to participate in ACAA’s food stamp challenge was easy – it’s a great way to gain some experience with this program and I’ll have stories to share and be better able to advocate for the community we are here to serve, and people are interested when I tell them what I’m doing. As the day came closer to begin the process, the excitement has waned a bit and the anxiety has begun – I feel as if I am beginning a diet, and the urge to splurge on Starbucks coffee, meals at my favorite restaurants has been strong. I went shopping for my week’s food Sunday afternoon and noticed a couple of things. First, I was very aware for the first time in a long time, how much food actually costs – I have not been good about paying attention in the past, merely selecting those items I like, want or need. Second, I was very aware of what others were buying and how many people use coupons, and seem to have a very clear plan about what they will be purchasing. Third, I was a little upset about what I could no longer afford, and more importantly somewhat ashamed of my past behavior, particularly how I take the food I buy for granted. The main meal I will be preparing takes 3-5 hours to prepare (crock pot), and I haven’t prepared it yet (white chicken chili), so now I’m stressing about how late I’ll need to be up to complete it so that I can eat it this week. Yikes. What outraged me, however, was how little money this is, and how much it costs to maintain a “healthy” diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables. I already held great respect for families who must rely on SNAP for meals for their families, and I am already gaining much greater respect and appreciation for them and for their ability to create meals with this meager funding.
Last night, I made a late night trip to the grocery store. When ACAA decided that our staff would all undertake this Challenge, I chose the benefit level an average single person in Arizona will receive if Congress uses the money provided to SNAP recipients via ARRA funding to offset increased costs related to Child Nutrition Reauthorization: $21/week. At first, $21 seemed like a totally reasonable amount of money for one person, but I quickly learned that my limited budget was going to force me to make some very tough choices at the checkout lane.
I hadn’t looked at ads or clipped coupons (if my family was really living on SNAP, I doubt we would be able to afford the luxury of a $13/month newspaper subscription) so I decided to shop the same way I always do, but with a much smaller budget. I started in the produce section, where I found a sale on bagged spinach. Rather than filling up a big bag with pears, I stuck to two pears and planned to slice them and put them on the spinach salad. I had walked into the store thinking I could eat PB&J sandwiches for lunch all week, but quickly realized both peanut butter and jelly weren’t going to fit in my SNAP budget, so I chose peanut butter and added 2 bananas to slice onto the sandwiches. I opted for pita pockets over bread, because I can make sandwiches or stuff them with salad. Realizing I needed to add some protein to the mix but knowing meat and meat substitutes (like my favorite veggie burgers) weren’t going to fit into the budget, I opted for eggs, cottage cheese, and yogurt. I put some pasta in my cart, but the sauce was going to put me over budget, so I put it back and chose to get boxed pasta meal mix instead. Here’s how my receipt stacked up:
Noodle Roni (2 @ $1.39/ea.), $2.78
Generic salad dressing, $0.99
Skippy natural peanut butter, $2.50
Eggs (store brand, 2 dozen @ $0.89/ea.), $1.78
Cottage cheese (store brand), $1.89
Yogurt (store brand, 3 @ $0.40/ea.), $1.20
Broccoli, frozen, $1.39
Salad pockets bread, $1.99
Bananas (0.71 lb @ $0.49/lb.), $0.35
Grapes (2.27 lb. @ $0.77/lb.), $1.75
Corn (1 corn on the cob), $0.34
New potatoes (0.67 lb. @ $1.49/lb.), $1.00
Bartlett pears (0.87 lb. @ $0.99/lb.), $0.86
Spinach (bagged), $0.99
Tax = $0.32
TOTAL = $21.12
I was happy to see I was only over by 12 cents, which I could pay for with my ‘out-of-pocket’ contribution of $10. The hardest part of shopping for me was passing some of the ‘staples’ I get at the grocery store and not being able to afford them: feta, parmesan, sharp cheddar, milk, boneless/skinless chicken breast. I even paused in the coffee aisle and mentally calculated how much food I’d have to return to the shelves in order to buy both coffee and cream or milk, but I decided the pay-off wasn’t worth it and walked out without a single caffeine fix in my cart. I worry a bit for my co-workers, dealing with a caffeine-free Katie all week!
When I went to check out, I had the cashier ring up my basket of food separately from the rest of my cart, which contained food for my husband and kids. I opted not to include them in this Challenge primarily because both kids are in paid care during the week (she in preschool, he in an in-home daycare) and their daytime meals and snacks are included in the cost we pay for their car. I didn’t know how to keep the Challenge honest in light of that ‘free’ food our children are provided 5 days a week, so I thought it easier to separate my food from theirs for the week, which I also recognize is a true luxury a family on SNAP just would not have.
My late-night shopping and request to pay for different items separately is a real-life experience for many people on both SNAP and WIC. In fact, a lot has been written about the midnight lines for food and formula, as families are struggling with both tight budgets and stigma while receiving help from these programs.
So now we are to Monday, and the Challenge kicked off when my son woke me at 5:15. I am, with equal measure, excited to take on this challenge and learn from the experience and nervous about how well I spent my money and how many days I can go without coffee before I start having to go straight from rush-hour traffic to my bed. But most of all, I am looking forward to sharing this experience with the other participants and helping to educate friends and family about the harsh reality of food insecurity. I know this week won’t provide me a true picture of what families on SNAP experience day-to-day, but I hope it will give myself and others a sense of empathy and increased compassion for those who struggle to put food on their tables every day.
Today’s shopping experience was positive overall. I came to the store with a rough idea of what I wanted to buy but enough flexibility to adapt my list based on sale items. I also came with the intent of spending almost my entire budget, which I reasoned would keep me from overspending or making impulsive and inefficient purchases later on in the week. I also decided to shop at my normal grocery store, which is just four or five blocks north of where I live. It was a priority for me to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, so I shopped in the produce section first. From sales there, I decided that my menu would center around a few main dishes—baked potatoes, stuffed peppers and rice & beans. Unfortunately, I had to leave milk, meat, and cereal off my list, which are normally staples in my diet. For breakfast I bought from the day-old bakery section and reasoned I could make a bag of six raisin bagels last the week. Unfortunately I couldn’t afford any jelly or cream cheese to go on top. I knew I couldn’t go a week without chocolate, so I bought a four-pack of store brand chocolate puddings, but I opted not to buy the better-tasting pudding mix because I couldn’t afford the milk required to make it. Ultimately, with coupons, sales and loyalty card savings, my shopping list consisted of the following items:
Small store brand sour cream, $0.99
Store bakery reduced-price raisin bagels (6), $1.29
Store brand chocolate pudding cups (4 cups), $0.89
2 cans of beans, $2.38
1 can diced tomatoes, $1.00
2 bags of unpeeled, whole carrots $0.88
1 small bag of rice, $0.88
4 small green peppers, $1.76
Store brand imitation shredded mozzarella cheese, $1.29
5 apples, $0.89
6 bananas, $1.23
2 yellow onions, $1.01
2 cans soup, $3.98
2 baking potatoes, $1.38
Orange juice, $1.99
I paid $0.49 in tax.
I have restricted myself to the $21 food stamp budget (with a possible $9 supplement with “out-of-pocket” funds), which is the approximate weekly benefit level for SNAP users if the child nutrition reauthorization bill cutting SNAP makes it through Congress. Though I kept careful track of my spending as I put things in the cart, I was surprised to find that I had actually already dipped into my supplementary spending. As I look back on my list I am worried about the healthfulness of the food I purchased, which is based around starches: bagels, potatoes, and rice. I do not think that I, and therefore food stamp users on a $21 budget, could purchase enough foods in each food group to get all the micronutrients I need to live and grow normally. Even with coupons, calculator and a college education on hand I couldn’t make my $21 stretch to cover the food pyramid.
I would like to say that this is definitely a challenge – how easy it is to go to the store and maybe overspend a little, especially if you haven’t planned your meal. And I didn’t really think twice about it. Usually I vowed to make a list next time. But now, I have taken the food stamp challenge and I am shopping for two! My granddaughter recently joined my household and she takes her lunch to school! Even with the best planning, couldn’t find everything I had on my list and have it fit into my budget. Finding nutritious snacks, meeting her expectations, and only spending the allotment…challenging. I packed her lunch today, peanut butter sandwich – no jam as not on sale, organic apples – these are expensive, and organic carrots, Safeway brand granola bars, no chips (she will miss these), but instead some small rice cakes I found on sale. Let you know tomorrow her reaction….Dinner, now that is a totally other story!
As I started to prepare for this challenge, I have to tell you I was and still am very stressed about having a limited amount of money for the week to spend on food. I have thought myself into a grouchy mood knowing this week was coming. I have been constantly thinking what things I could eat to keep me full. I hope I can do this for a week……I can’t imagine this being something I would have to do everyday…..no one should have to worry about food!