Sheila Steffen is a producer for CNN. Tune in to American Morning this week for special reporting on hunger in America, and check back with Eatocracy to see how she does on her food stamp challenge.
That is the reality for the more than 40 million Americans who rely on food stamps. According to the Food Research and Action Center the average food stamp allotment is just $30 per week.
I began thinking about taking a food stamp challenge earlier this month when I met several women who we profiled on hunger for two CNN stories (which will be posted on this site later in the week). These women had to make tough choices between paying bills and buying food. Often they skipped meals so their children could eat. Often the amount of food stamps they received was not enough.
Living on a food stamp budget for just one week won’t begin to put me in these women’s shoes or come close to the struggles that millions of low-income families face every day; week in and week out, month after month. But I do expect to gain a new perspective and a better understanding.
– September 19-25
I already feel the challenge just by the awareness of how much I have (or don’t have) to spend on food for an entire week. There can be no leeway. No impulse buying. No visits to Starbucks, or the vending machine at work for an afternoon snack, and certainly no dinners out or glass of wine in the evenings.
On the first day I go to the grocery store (Fairway) and try to put fruits and vegetables in my cart - things I normally eat a lot of. I grab a bag of 12 apples that at $1.99 I think is a good deal. I also take some broccoli, a container of tomatoes and a bag of 4 peppers which I agonize over and later regret buying. That’s already close to 1/3 of my entire budget!
I reluctantly grab a small bunch of loose spinach but realize the salads I normally bring and eat at work are not going to be possible and if I don’t change my strategy I’m not going to have enough food or the right food and will end up hungry.
Fish and meat are out of the question so I scan the chicken and pick up two breasts for $4.62 though I know I should probably select the package of chicken parts. I also grab a box of pasta, a loaf of bread (on special but still a whopping $2.99!) and peanut butter and jelly. Cost: $20.16
With my remaining $10 I head to another grocery store (C-Town) determined to do better; ignore brands and nutritional content and look for the cheapest food that will be filling. I get a bag of dry black beans and a bag of rice figuring that will be a meal for several days.
I also grab a box of Farina; it's like Cream of Wheat but cheaper, and I can't afford oatmeal. Coffee is something I don’t want to do without, especially if my energy level becomes low so I choose a small brick of Café Bustelo espresso for $2.86 and forego the milk.
Lastly, I find cans of tuna on sale! For $.99 I grab two that are packed in water and feel really good about that choice. Still, I leave the store feeling less than satisfied and walk home questioning my purchases. I feel totally constricted; not free to eat the way I want or buy what I want. I cannot afford that freedom.
I get home and realize I’m hungry. No need to ask myself what I feel like eating. It will be Farina for breakfast – all week long.