September 28th, 2011
09:01 AM ET
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Sheila Steffen is a producer for CNN. Read part one of her food stamp challenge, wherein she shopped for a week's worth of groceries, spending only the $30 which would be allotted by food stamps.

Previously: Could you live on $30 a week? | Witnesses to Hunger: A portrait of food insecurity in America | Childhood malnutrition has long lasting effects

On Sunday night I’m finishing up the last of my big pot of black beans. The bag of dry beans I purchased along with a bag of rice has been three of my main meals this week.

I’m not against leftovers; I eat them. It's just that I normally wouldn’t plan to eat the same thing again and again but this past week it was that, or go hungry. I didn’t have the luxury of variety or choice.

My $30 food stamp challenge forced some difficult shopping choices and as many readers pointed out, I may not have made the wisest. I’m more accustomed to shopping for convenience than hunting for bargains. But I am keenly aware that each purchase I made for this week is accounted for, either for a breakfast, a lunch, or a dinner and maybe a snack.

There is no room for waste, and one bad choice is all it takes to go hungry. If a jar of pasta sauce breaks an entire meal could be lost.

I spend all of my $30 before realizing I've forgotten sauce for my box of pasta. The peppers I'd initially regretted buying come in handy and along with three tomatoes I make my own sauce. Cooking big pots of food is a necessary strategy.

The first two days are filled with periods of hunger. 5:30 on Tuesday seems too early to be thinking about dinner but that’s all I can think about it. I race home from work to fix a chicken breast, broccoli and rice; the best and most nutritious meal in my week. I get to have it twice.

Wednesday’s the most difficult; I wake up hungry and help myself to a big bowl of Farina but realize a ‘bigger portion’ strategy isn’t the answer. It’ll fill me up now but I’m afraid if I eat too much I will run out of my allotted food before the end of the week.

I count the slices of bread in my loaf and discover there are a few extra slices– which means one day I can have two sandwiches! I decide today is that day and bring two PB&J sandwiches to work for lunch.

It's clear food has been on my mind more than usual this week. I think when you have a limited budget and fewer choices; you’re forced to do more thinking and planning around meals. I’m so very conscious, too, of all the things I have to forego. I can’t just grab a coffee or go to dinner with friends. I feel a bit isolated. Not having enough money for food affects not just your mood and health, but also your social life.

Thursday is the first morning I don’t wake up hungry. I think my body may be getting used to less food. Still, I’m afraid I’ll get hungry so I eat a bowl of Farina anyway. I get through the day fine but decide against going to the gym after work. How do parents, who may skip meals so their kids can eat, find the energy they need to shop, cook, and care for the kids?

Coffee may be a luxury, but I’m glad I bought some. If my calorie count this week is low, my morning cup of joe helps make up for it and keeps me going.

A weekend out of city limits proves a bit tricky. Not only do I have to bring food, I can't share it! “Sorry honey, can’t offer you any,” is what I keep saying.

Sounds selfish, right? But my food supply is limited, and this last chicken breast is what I’ve set aside and planned for my dinner tonight. It’s all I have. On Sunday rushing to catch an afternoon train back to the city leaves me no time to make a sandwich, and so I have to go without lunch. Ugh!

Definitely knowing that this challenge is only for a week has been helpful in getting me through it. I’m grateful for the new insight and lesson in empathy. At times I realize it’s difficult to avoid hunger, to afford nutritious food. I certainly won’t look at the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables in the same way.

Next week I can go back to more options and more food. But for millions of Americans across the country this challenge is real. week in and week out.

One in four families - according to the Food Research and Action Center - worry about having enough money to feed themselves and their families. And for those who may get the help of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps, it still may not be enough to buy the minimum amount of food the United States Department of Agriculture says people need to survive.

What I ate this week

Breakfast: Farina, two espressos
Lunch: PB&J, one apple
Dinner: Black beans & rice (made with: one pepper, two tomatoes), tap water to drink.
Dessert: Small bowl of leftover rice with packet of Splenda sprinkled on top

Breakfast: Farina, two espressos
Lunch: Salad (made with: spinach, two tomatoes, 1/2 yellow pepper, one can of tuna)
Dinner: Chicken breast, broccoli and rice, tap water to drink

Breakfast: Farina, two espressos
Lunch: Two PB&J sandwiches
Dinner: Pasta (made with: two peppers, three tomatoes) - two helpings, tap water to drink

Breakfast: Farina, two espressos
Mid-morning snack: two apples cut up
Lunch: PB&J, apple
Dinner: Black beans & rice - two bowls, tap water to drink

Breakfast: Farina, two espressos
Snack: Two cut up apples
Lunch: Salad (spinach, two tomatoes, one pepper, small floret broccoli, one can tuna)
Dinner: Pasta - two helpings, tap water to drink

Breakfast: Farina, one espresso
Lunch: PB&J, bowl of applesauce (made with three apples)
Dinner: Chicken breast, broccoli and rice, tap water to drink

Breakfast: Farina, one espresso
Dinner: Black beans & rice, tap water to drink
Dessert: One apple

Previously: Could you live on $30 a week? | Witnesses to Hunger: A portrait of food insecurity in America | Childhood malnutrition has long lasting effects

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Filed under: Food Politics • Hunger • News

soundoff (1,201 Responses)
  1. Margarete Bleichner

    Very Informative article. Thank you

    October 11, 2014 at 1:26 am |
  2. John Dybala

    Loved the details.Thanks

    October 11, 2014 at 1:23 am |
  3. William Tate

    Hello! I could have sworn Ive been to this site before but after browsing through some of the articles I realized its new to me. Anyways, Im definitely delighted I discovered it and Ill be book-marking it and checking back often!

    June 22, 2014 at 12:04 am |
  4. casmere

    I had to live on $20-30 a week. I made $8.40/hour and since I lost my job its been hard. IV ate one pack a noodles a day and drank a cup of tea with. It was already hard enough my bills are high. I was in retail so my hours varied and weren't guaranteed. Finding a job is hard especially since I take the bus and the good jobs are all far. I was going to go to the mall, but no money to print an updated resume. I'm turning in my McDonalds application soon, hope I get it.

    May 19, 2014 at 3:39 pm |
  5. New Traditional Dad

    Sadly this post is a revealing reflection of the poor state of American culture. In nearly 80% of the world the issue is finding enough to eat to survive. In this country the emphasis is on eating less so we don't die of obesity. It is not only possible to survive on $30.00 or less (with great nutrition) I have done so for a great many years for less.

    April 16, 2014 at 8:24 pm |
  6. Brain Spilski

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    December 30, 2013 at 8:46 am |
  7. Usernamesareuseless

    Honestly, I live off of about $10 a day for food. I don't know how any of the rest of you do it. If I really tried I could get it down to $5 at best. Since I am not giving up sleep (otherwise I am working) to cook some huge rice meal that will still end up costing me the same amount once I add veggies and meat. I used to try this amount with my ex-bf and his gluten allergies. Would not work, unless you like all your food extremely bland (gluten-free is already bland and expensive enough as is). Maybe I'm just a big eater, but I can't have the same meal two times in a row or I am still hungry. And if I am still hungry, I'm going to eat again, no way am I just going to "wait." I am just surprised how many can survive off this amount. I seriously never get any juices or icecream or junk food in general. Though, I do treat myself to sushi, but even without that, I just don't understand how you guys can make real nutritious meals on so little money. I mean a lot of the cheaper things like instant noodles really aren't nutritious or filling.

    November 21, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
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