Tag Archives: Greater Philadelphia Food Stamp Challenge

$35 week second thoughts – added costs of being poor

Here’s an issue related to the Food Stamp Challenge that, I’m ashamed to admit, didn’t occur to me until I was grocery shopping this morning. Poverty doesn’t just mean food stamps; it also tends to mean no car, or an unreliable car, as well as living where there are few or no supermarkets. (All the mom-and-pop corner grocers in my town went out of business decades ago, but next door to my town is Camden – one of the poorest cities in the country, and still full of corner stores. And the economics of running a corner grocery mean higher prices and smaller selections.)

I was able to get through the week under the $35 ceiling because I could drive to Wegman’s – the cheapest supermarket within 5 miles (8 km) of  my home – and use the car to lug back whatever I bought (instead of needing to carry it myself, while walking dangerously along the side of a high-speed road). Even depending on the supermarket that’s less than a mile from my house would have put me over the limit; their prices are that much higher. If I were really living like a poor person, I don’t think I could have finished the challenge successfully after all.

How many people on food stamps can’t be as thrifty as they need to be, because there’s no practical way for them to get to the stores with the best values?

A week at $35

Last Monday, I started the Food Stamp Challenge – an experiment to try to live on the average food stamp (or SNAP) benefit of $35 a week. Now it’s Sunday. How did things turn out?

The experience was very, very stressful at the beginning of the week when I was inexperienced and anxious about what a day’s worth of food was likely to cost. By this time, I have a clearer idea of what I can get away with eating, so I’m less worried – but I’m also pretty sick of counting pennies.

On the other hand, I did come in under the $35 limit – by the end of the day, I expect my food for the past week will have cost $29.32. (But who’s counting? 😉 Millions of people who have to go right on living like this, that’s who.) So you can say I was successful – but what did being successful require?

First, I relied on cooked-from-scratch food. I like to cook, I have enough free time to cook, and I’m in good health and have the energy to cook, so that wasn’t a burden – for me. With a job or two plus kids to care for plus health problems? Could look very different. Second, I had pay a lot of attention to what I was planning to eat and what it would cost. Third, I ate less meat than usual – over the course of the week, about four ounces (a very little more than 110 grams) of chicken and two ounces each of cod, pork, and hamburger.  And finally, I ate less food of any kind than usual – there’s a pound, or not quite half a kilo, less of me than there was a week ago.

(Could I have had more meat and more food? To some extent, one or the other. Not both. Meat becomes shockingly expensive when you’re trying to keep your food costs under $5 a day – I would have had to eat even less overall to afford the amount of meat I usually eat. And I could have traded off meat and milk and cheese and vegetables for a lot more bread and rice. But I was also trying to come up with a reasonably healthy diet.)

What did this approximation to a healthy diet look like? Lots of beans. Plenty of vegetables. Not many sweets – and that’s counting the muffins as sweets. Not a lot of meat. So far, that’s reasonable – nutritionists are forever complaining that we Americans eat a lot more meat and sugar than is good for us. Does that mean there are no problems with eating like this?

There’s at least one. Quantity. I’m a five foot one inch (1.55 m) tall woman who stopped growing (except sideways) years and years ago. I make a point of exercising, but if I chose I could spend most of my time sitting down. And I lost a pound in a week without trying to. I don’t think this would be enough food for my six foot two inch (1.88 m) tall husband – active, but with a job that’s not physically demanding. (I didn’t try to talk him into joining this project. It didn’t seem fair to pressure him into a project that I had mixed feelings about myself, and he habitually eats lunch at work anyway.) I’m positive it would be too little for growing teenage boys (I don’t have any daughters, but I do have experience with trying to keep fourteen year old boys fed) or those doing manual labor.

Again, you might be able to make up the calorie deficit by leaning harder on rice and bread and pasta than I did – but what’s the nutritional cost in the long run? I can’t stress hard enough that there are a lot of people who live like this indefinitely, because they have no choice.

So here I am at the end of the Food Stamp Challenge week. Only not; I plan to try to stick this out for at least a month. Why? To give myself a better picture of just how possible it is to stick to this budget, for one thing. The challenge rules allowed you to ignore the cost of condiments. And that makes sense when you’re only tracking expenses for a week, because it’s hard to figure in the price of small quantities. But condiments tend to be relatively expensive. Over the long haul, you have to either find the money to replace them, or go without. And, beyond that, to get a feel for the longer term psychological and nutritional effects. And it still seems as if it should be possible to use this experience toward programs for my church to help people who are hungry more effectively.

I put up a couple of other posts related to this challenge:
Could I live on food stamps?
Three days into the $35 week
186 cookbooks – 7 days of lentils

For those with a thirst for detail – what I actually ate:
Monday, black coffee and seven or eight peanuts for breakfast. Lunch, red lentils with ginger and garlic, and homemade pita bread. Dinner, African peanut chicken (chicken cooked with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and thyme, plus peanut butter at the end), rice, and salad. Also, two cups of milk.
Tuesday: coffee and peanuts for breakfast; lunch, lentils with caramelized onion, pita bread; dinner, macaroni and cheese, asparagus, salad.
Wednesday: Breakfast, coffee and peanuts; lunch, lentils with spinach, pita bread; dinner, cheese and veggie omelet, bread.
Thursday, coffee and peanuts again; lunch, Greek style peppers with yogurt, pita bread; dinner, New England fish chowder and salad.
Friday, more coffee and peanuts; lunch, lentils with chilis, pita bread; dinner, pork sate (skewered cubes of pork marinated in a mixture of peanut butter, soy sauce, lemon juice, brown sugar, and spices, then broiled), green beans, apple-raisin-walnut muffins. Two cups of milk.
Saturday, a change in the pattern – leftover muffins for breakfast and lunch, with coffee as usual. Dinner, spaghetti with meat sauce and salad.
And today, coffee and peanuts for breakfast and lunch; dinner will be chicken enchiladas (with corn, peppers, and onions in the enchilada filling as well as chicken), refried beans, and salad. Probably some more milk; at least, I included its cost in my calculations.

186 cookbooks – 7 days of lentils

This time I didn’t follow my usual pattern with this project to weed out cookbooks – one cookbook, one recipe. Hey, it’s my project; I get to make up the rules as I go along.

There I was, looking through Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries, when I realized that he was offering 7 different recipes for red lentils, and they all sounded easy and appealing.

All right, I decided. I’ll try them all. I’ve been testing lentil recipes for lunch almost every day since Wednesday a week ago. (And in the process, I discovered a way to make the cooking even quicker and simpler, though Mr. Iyer probably wouldn’t approve. He tells you to cook the lentils – it only takes a little over 20 minutes – while you prepare the seasoning mixture, and then combine them at the last minute. But it’s awkward to cook just one serving of lentils at a time. What I wound up doing was cooking enough for several days, refrigerating what I didn’t need for the recipe I was trying out that day, and then adding a serving worth of lentils to the seasonings each day and reheating them.)

All the seasoning mixtures are different, but the procedure is basically the same – chop or puree various vegetables and fry them in a little oil, adding different spices as the vegetables cook. Finally, add the lentils, and sometimes lime juice and cilantro at the end. Once you’ve cooked any of these recipes, the process for all of them will be simple and familiar.

But were they worth eating? Yes, almost all of them (and many people might like the one I didn’t care for). I didn’t like the red lentils with mint; but then, I don’t like mint very much in general. The lentils with bell pepper and the lentils with caramelized onions were good – so was the version I made of the lentils with gongura leaves (I can’t get gongura leaves, never saw any, and never heard of them before, so I followed Iyer’s advice to substitute spinach and lime juice); maybe with the correct greens it would be even better.

Then there were the lentils with chilis – hot but very good – and the lentils with ginger and garlic…mmm. And best of all, the lentils with tomatoes, lime juice, and scallions. The only word for them is “delicious”.

For those who care, all the lentil recipes are vegetarian – if you leave the optional butter out of the lentils with chilis, they’re all vegan. (Many of the recipes in this cookbook do include meat.) They’re cheap, too. I started this recipe test before reading about the Food Stamp Challenge, but these dishes have been a big help in staying under the $5/day ceiling.

It was amazing how different the seven dishes taste. They even look different. Several call for a little tomato, which turns the lentils an attractive pinkish color. The lentils with, well, spinach leaves not gongura leaves were very green from the spinach. Others were mostly the light yellow color of the cooked lentils with specks of other colors from the seasonings. And each of the seven could be cooked in less than half an hour.

By the way, I think I’ll keep this cookbook.

Three days into the $35 week

Last Friday, I posted that a number of people in Philadelphia were preparing to spend a week living on a Food Stamp budget, and I was planning to see if it was possible myself. Here’s a half-week update:

First, I now understand a little better what’s going on – basically, it’s political theater. (Which is not always a bad thing, mind you.) The state of Pennsylvania is about to impose restrictions on how much people getting food stamps can have in assets; a number of people consider the restrictions way too harsh. In addition, the Republicans in the (national) House of Representatives cut the Food Stamp budget in 2010 (cuts in benefits kick in as of 2013) and want to continue cutting it over the next ten years; Democrats don’t agree. (More detail in this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

But what am I learning? First, there’s a lot of discipline and anxiety in trying to keep food costs under $35 a week. More to the point, though: Just how generous or how stingy are such benefits?

On one hand, so far I am sticking to the $5 a day limit – I’m averaging a little over $4 per day. So it’s theoretically possible, with qualifications. I’m a short woman who doesn’t do a lot of physical work, and I’ve been fairly hungry. Could you feed a man doing manual labor on this amount of money? What about a teenage boy? I don’t think so.

Of course, you could argue that I’m being too luxurious. And I’ll agree that some of what I’ve eaten (fresh asparagus, bought last Thursday before I heard about this project) was expensive. On the other hand, it’s been an almost entirely vegetarian week, bordering on vegan. What did I eat so far?

Breakfast each day, black coffee with a small handful of peanuts (7-8 nuts).

Lunch, lentils cooked with several Indian recipes (more about this in a few days) with homemade pita bread.

Dinner: Monday, African peanut chicken / groundnut chicken with rice and salad. Tuesday, spicy macaroni and cheese, asparagus, and salad. Tonight, cheese and veggie omelet and bread.

In all honesty, I don’t see a lot of extravagance there, and not a lot of food either. I say it’s time to raise the allotments, not cut them.

Could I live on food stamps?

Just across the river, in Philadelphia and the adjoining Pennsylvania counties, the Coalition Against Hunger is making plans for people – people who don’t have to, that is – to live on a food stamp budget for a week. The estimate is that this comes out to $35 a week for one person. (Food stamps, or SNAP as the program is now officially called, are provided in varying amounts depending on family size and a lot of other complex variables.)

I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about this experiment. In some ways, it smells – no, reeks – of an upper-middle-class game of pretending to be poor, and thinking that this shows some sort of symbolic solidarity with people who really are poor. Folks, how about using the money you save to give your cleaning lady a raise? (And maybe some of the participants will.)

But I think I’m going to try it in spite of my doubts. With modifications. The Official Rules say that you’re supposed to use all newly purchased food for the week of April 23 – 29. I’m not going to do that; I have a lot of fresh produce that I bought during the past week, and it won’t keep till May. It seems completely against the idea of thrift (let alone imitation poverty) to just throw it all away unused.

Besides, I’ve been carefully tracking what I spend on food for several months, so it should be pretty easy to calculate how much it costs to feed me for a week, even if I am using food that’s already in the house. (The other semi-modification is that I’m not going to try to force my husband, let alone my adult son, to participate. I will be interested to see whether they feel as if I’ve been shorting them on quality or amounts of food for dinner; I’ll ask them at the end of the week. Meanwhile, I’m just going to calculate how much my food costs.)

But again, it isn’t right to do something like this purely as an experiment. Not when there are thousands of people for whom living on food stamps is no experiment; it’s just daily life. So how can I put the experience to use?

Well, one of the committees at church is looking into ways we can do more to help people who are short of food. (My church sprouts committees the way trees sprout leaves.) Maybe what I find out can be used toward that end. And, if I find out that I can manage on a food stamp budget, that means that I have some knowledge I should offer to anyone else who can use it (warning: more blog posts!). Also, if I can live on this restricted budget, I’m sure there are lots of charities that can use the cash I save.

Tomorrow, I can go on eating like a middle class person with a stable income. Monday, the test begins.