Could you eat on $30 a week?
September 21st, 2011
01:00 PM ET
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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
– No eating of food that I already have.
– I may use spices, condiments and oil that I already have.
– I will avoid any free food from friends, or at work.
– I will eat and drink only what I buy for this project.

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.

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Filed under: Food Politics • Hunger • News

soundoff (1,079 Responses)
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  12. zoltanwelvart

    As teen I went to different houses at 2:30,sinaloa, sandy floodplane, sinaloa, mexico.they fed me, soupy beans and very fresh homegrown corn tortillas.subsistance, trading corn for beans, sugar, inca(veg.oil)salt, chili.always barley and lentils of jesus.i notice lots of diabetes, arthritis. But in california , alot of gluttony, ugliness and diseases.maybe 4 main food groups grown in sewage.a sewage fed pig given to doctor(matasano)to cure a disease.better a priest.

    July 25, 2014 at 11:46 am |
  13. thefoodstampdiaries

    Reblogged this on The Food Stamp Diarie$ and commented:
    What we're doing, but for a longer duration!!

    April 16, 2014 at 11:54 am |
  14. FrugalCat

    I feed 2 adults on $50 a week. That includes meat, dairy, produce, starch, ice cream and juice. We don't buy cereals or drink coffee. My big cost savers- chicken thighs instread of breasts, some slightly "out there" meats (goat, liver, gizzards. etc). shopping on sale and stocking up, trying out ethnic grocery stores like Latin or Asian.

    March 19, 2014 at 5:55 pm |
  15. JJ

    NONE of you must smoke pot...because $30 of food goes in 3 hours after a smoke session with me and my bros lol

    December 7, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      I remember once in high school getting really baked with my step brother. I had a GF that worked at McDizzles so we stopped there and our total came to almost $30. We got it for free due to the GF being the shift manager. She took one look at us and laughed.

      February 6, 2014 at 11:49 am |
      • Good

        ol' Eatocracy days when we could post. I'm so depressed and miss everyone.

        October 9, 2014 at 8:11 am |
  16. Jaay

    All this bitching and whining about HOW to do what's obvious??
    SAVE money and STILL EAT!!
    Guess what, I'M HOMELESS and I am still able to buy food and sometimes even MEAT!!
    Why, because because I THINK about what I can buy BEFORE I get to the store with the money that I have!
    Aldis, Dollar General, and walmart are my usual choices. Hint, shop at the OUTSIDE aisles because these are where the CHEAPER brands and CLEARANCE items usually are! NO LINK here either, because I can forage for food better than most, so I leave the welfare for the welfare moms!
    WHAT do I get?? Lots of pastas, noodles,ramens, bread on markdowns, sauce packs, SPAM, (yes it makes a tasty meal, WHEN done right!) Rice, beans, and anything I can cook without a kitchen.

    November 14, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • Joy

      How is someone that is homeless able to give a valid opinion on how someone should be BUDGETING food money, if you don't even live somewhere with a roof over your head?

      How about getting a job and budgeting a food bill AND utilities, AND housing, AND healthcare costs. This thread pertains to those people that do this. NOT someone who is homeless that gets everything for free. Sure people get food stamps for free but MANY of us are working and MANY of us work FULL-TIME.

      February 6, 2014 at 11:23 am |
  17. Tara

    Many people are missing the point. The writer didn't make very good choices for the $30 per week challenge …because it's not something the writer is accustomed to.

    $30 per person / week is an average. Some states allow more, some less. I'm from NY, where a family of four gets about $290 a month in food stamps. Not $30 per person per week.

    Not all families have access to farmers markets or even the ability to store fresh produce. In many instances, families on food stamps eat lots of rice, pasta, beans, and canned goods. Lower quality, cheaper meats. Foods that store Well. This usually means less than stellar nutrition. Unfortunately, children are fed this food … they have No say in the matter.

    I noticed lots of references to blogs and websites for recipes, etc. Not everyone has internet.

    Such bitterness and hatred in these comments! Why? Our children are starving. Instead of criticism, put together a recipe suggestion list and tuck it into your donation to a local food pantry. Offer to take some one to a supermarket with better prices …they might not be able to drive there …gas costs money. Stop being so selfish and judgemental...if you're not helping you're just part of the problem. Be grateful for what you have.

    November 13, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
  18. cherry koolaide

    Some of these response don't seem to be very honest. A lot of people have preconceived notions and even angry. Some of them ,like the family of four who receive $700 a month couldn't be true. There is a website that calculates how much a family would get. For example I have 7 people in my family and we get $598 a month. I work hard full time and take care of my children ,and my minor brothers and sisters since our parents passed away. I have to admit I bargain shop cut coupons and utilize the farmers market and still struggle. I make everything I can from scratch and I always cook, barring serious illness. After working 13 hours a day and commuting on the bus, because I cannot afford the gas to drive my car. Everyone is diffrent, I too see people making unwise choices and seemingly squander their food stamps and I wish there was a way to reach out to people and trade recipe's , and ideas and even technique and help eachother. Everyone is not able to grow their own food, although I am happy to hear some of you are blessed to be able to do so. I wish I had a co-op farm I could work a deal with for produce. I am very health concious and try to deliver the best healthiest food for my family.

    November 13, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  19. M

    short term-beans and rice, beans and rice, beans and rice, Mexican tostadas, spaghetti, burritos, hamburgers, eggs, oatmeal for breakfast, bake a whole chicken and get 4 meals from it ( baked chicken, enchiladas, chicken soup, wraps/burritos)
    long term- learn to cook like poor people from OTHER countries–picadillo, enchiladas, bean burritos , etc....Mexican style. Rice with a little bit of meat on top chinese style. Pastas, spaghetti, Minestrone soups made with leftover vegetables Italian style. Potatoes like the Irish and Germans.
    longer term- learn to vegetable garden. Most anyone can grow green beans, peas, figs , potatoes, sweet and hot peppers with little trouble or extra additives......Carrots, tomatoes, citrus, broccoli, etc. take some skill, some reading, some extra fertilizers and additives.

    November 13, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  20. edwin

    I'm single, so I can eat on as little as $5 a week if I really need to.

    Bulk chicken, bulk rice and beans, a couple of seasonings and veggies and I'm set.

    November 12, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
  21. J

    Maybe it's from growing up in a poor family but there are definitely ways that you could have gotten more food out of that $30. You can buy a bag of chicken for $5 at certain stores. Bread should not cost $3 (Maybe not going to Costco's could have helped?) You don't need brand named peanut butter either.

    November 12, 2013 at 9:12 am |
    • Rose

      I never spend more than $100 a month on groceries, toilet paper, laundry soap and other needed items. It's possible if you don't have more money to spend.

      November 12, 2013 at 9:31 am |
  22. Eric

    Nope, not possible. I am a family of five, and we spend about $30 a day on food. $30 a week, crazy!

    November 12, 2013 at 5:00 am |
    • tonya

      You misunderstand the is $30/week/person. Your family would get $150/week or$600/month.

      November 12, 2013 at 9:18 am |
  23. dipesh

    I live in British Columbia, Canada and I am full time student. I work 20 hrs per week with $11 per hr salary. I make around 8-900 per month. I share two bedroom apartment with another friend. I pay 300 per month. I cook all my foods so every month when i calculate my food expenses, its around $90-110. I pay $12 for utilities per month and in winter I pay around $25. $ 15 for phone and $35 for internet per month. I use gas around $50 per month. $160 for car insurance. On an average I save $100. Yes the life is not fun living under the stress but with my saving I can pay my university fee which is around $300 per semester.

    So, its possible to survive on $30 per week but you should have time and energy to cook.

    November 3, 2013 at 1:09 am |
    • Not So Sweet

      Please unsubscribe me from this discussion. I've tried to do it through WordPress, but they say I am not subscribed to you and want me to pay a premium membership. I did not subscribe to this discussion and am very angry I cannot unsubscribe!

      November 3, 2013 at 7:53 am |
  24. Tonya

    Disclaimer: We received SNAP benefits for one month 2 years ago before it was determined that the value of our single car disqualified us from benefit eligibility. That one-month allotment lasted my family of 3 for 3 months.

    I grew up the child of a welfare mom...simply put, I don't remember when we weren't on welfare. My mom worked but it was never enough to get us off the system. I graduated high school, went off to a public university on a hodge-podge of need- and merit-based scholarships and earned my bachelor's degree. Fast-forward 15 years and my husband (a teacher) is laid off due to budget cuts right after our daughter is born, and I'm unable to find even entry-level work because I'm "over-qualified." We find ourselves "on the system" despite our personal efforts to the contrary.
    Throughout this time, I refuse to feed my family sub-standard food. Partly out of necessity (we suffer from food allergies) but mostly, because you don't have to sacrifice quality for quantity. I make all of my daughter's baby food simply because it's easier to me to cook a little extra for dinner vs. spending hours in the grocery aisle deciding which brand of jarred food is best.
    We are not on the system - we just don't qualify - and we watch every penny. My grocery budget is $160/month for my family of 3. That covers breakfast/lunch/dinner/snacks for two adults and a preschooler. That also includes all restaurant and impulse (e.g. Starbucks) purchases. How do we do it? Easy...First, I have an arrangement with a local organic farm to work in exchange for produce. That takes care of a bulk of my family's need for veggies/fruits. Then, I take my shopping list and visit my fave Grocery Outlet or Dollar Store. My next visit is Costco for their discount organic items before I'm done with usually enough left for one trip to Starbucks and one trip to a low-cost restaurant (we have a local diner where we can get a family dinner for $25).
    Through all of this, my family does not eat low-standard food. We don't fill our menus with pasta, cereal, bread, etc (my husband is diabetic). We focus on fresh vegetables, some fruits and lots of legumes, seeds, nuts. It works for us. We are not starving, yet we are also not over-fed.

    November 2, 2013 at 10:18 am |
  25. Rhonda

    With all due respect, I am a single mom, I have been on food stamps before and I was given $100/month. I was working full time, the sole income provider for my son and although $25 a week is a small amount it was meant to assist in food purchases, not cover the full grocery bill each week. Many people are on food stamps and working and pay for food out of pocket when their food stamps don't cover the whole months worth of food.

    The "food stamp challenge" is unrealistic, people have other sources in food banks and shopping for certain items (like the bread in the photo above with the $2.99 price tag, I buy our bread at the dollar store, good healthy whole grain bread even though it's close to expectation date, I just freeze half if we aren't going to use it up right away) at different places, such as fruit/meat markets and using their own money to buy additional food as needed.

    It's ridiculous to assume that someone on food stamps would not shop around for good food at good prices, just going to one supermarket and using $30 to buy food is not a likely scenario for most people especially if you are feeding a family.

    Also, I'm sure people would buy in bulk, not buy a pack of 2 chicken breasts for $4/5 a pound. Food stamps are paid monthly, not in weekly allotments so while I understand the point if the article, I'm sure that many people would appreciate and extra $120.00 a month for food and this "challenge" should have been done by a real life food stamp recipient, maybe more people would have learned more useful ways to shop and stretch a food budget, surely that would have been lots more helpful than a well off writer eating a week of their life "playing poor", it's honestly offensive a bit. Showing me how I can, not or how I can't, would have made for a much better article, that's the reason our country is in the state it is in, laziness awarded, wake up people, it's getting harder to be proud to be an American by the minute these days.....I hope things turn around soon!

    November 2, 2013 at 8:16 am |
  26. Rene

    I honestly think the majority of people don't understand what the Food Stamp program is designed to do. It was never intended to be the only source of food for families. The name explains it- The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Look up the meaning of "Supplement". It's meant to Add food. Meaning if a person has $50 a week for food, the program helps by adding $30 more. Now the person has $80.

    November 2, 2013 at 1:37 am |
  27. Not So Sweet

    I didn't read all the responses, but most of the responses show that you people are totally out of touch. First off, the challenge is BOGUS. People on food stamps (I know, I have been there) get all their money at once, which allows them to stockpile specials. I used coupons, shopped sales, and stockpiled BOGO's when I was on food stamps, and I ate pretty well. Farmer's Markets usually don't take food stamps, but I did manage to find one inexpensive produce store that did. I bought markdown meat from Sav-a-lot and not much of that. I learned what "complete protein" was, and ate a lot of those things. I actually ate a lot of fresh fruits and veggies by not eating much meat. I was kicked off of food stamps because I made $10 over the $600 a month income limit, so now I buy my own groceries, and this week and last, I had just $25 to spend on groceries. I didn't starve, and I ate good, healthy food – whole grains and frozen veggies. I made a huge pot of veggie soup that lasted me three days. You know what pissed me off? My roommate had me pick her up some organic baby carrots at $2.19 an 8-oz. bag, then was whining about how broke she was. I bought two pounds of regular carrots for $1.89 and they lasted a lot longer than hers. No, you can't eat organic food on a food stamp budget, but you can eat decently because you don't have to keep it to $30 a week. How you spend your monthly amount is up to you. For me, that meant not buying anything that wasn't discounted or on sale and stretching it by making soups or stews. OH– and if you're REALLY smart, food stamps also buy seeds and fruit and veggie PLANTS. I grew some of my own food on my tiny little patio in baskets and containers.

    October 17, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
    • Marie Shanahan

      What a smart idea. I had to stop working due to nerve damage and other health issues, so I'm now some "lame and poor, disabled lady." LOL While I always had empathy for the poor, I never felt the "bite" of it until now that my food – all of my food – depends on food stamps. I often wish I could grow my own vegetables, but had no idea you could buy the seeds with food stamps. I literally believe you've just changed my life, so thank you. :)

      November 1, 2013 at 7:17 am |
      • Not So Sweet

        If you buy seeds, buy them someplace like WalMart, because a lot of stores and online places aren't set up to accept food stamp purchases. I like buying the cheap little 2/$1 packs, but no place that has them has them set up as a food stamp item. I hate to shop at WalMart at all, but I buy my seeds and veggie plants there.

        November 1, 2013 at 9:14 am |
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