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 |
  8. am

    i did this challenge twice. for me it was a challenge – others a way of life. this isn't fun or easy unless you educate yourself about healthy food and plan. I ate the same thing at breakfast and then lunch and dinner for a week – no coffee – no milk and very little meat protein – nothing extra. An individual can not eat healthy on this amount of money. no one should be food insecure. what individuals should plan for are children. having them and not being able to provide for them doesn't make a whole lot of sense either. There is enough birth control methods out there – let's be responsible for ourselves first.

    November 20, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
    • Dani

      Good idea, but it sounds like maybe you don't have children (?). Lots of people have children and can afford them at the time they make that decision, but then something happens, like a loss of job, or failure of job to keep pace with inflation, or the father leaves the family. Just saying, yes it is important to be responsible when bringing children into this world, but none of us can predict the future - we just do the best we can, given the cards we hold, and try to improve a difficult situation, if that is what life throws us.

      November 22, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • CJ

      I'm *on* stamps. I buy a gallon or two of milk every week, chicken and fish and ground beef as I need it, eggs, cheese, bakery goods, canned, frozen, just about every category of food *except* soft drinks and candy. Apart from arthritis (which I've had since I was eight), seasonal allergies, sinus trouble, and occasional sleep disturbances, my health is fine; I don't even get colds! What am I doing right that you're not?

      November 22, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  9. Coupon-a-holic

    Susan, just thought you might want to reread her statement...."total we have 2900 a month that covers our car payment, house, electric, gas water and garbage."

    November 20, 2013 at 9:50 am |
  10. Stella

    But health isn't really about choices, is it? You don't get to choose an impairment or an illness, do you? What if you can't work or support yourself because of an illness or impairment? What if you can't get insurance? What then? Go through life with an untreated ailment or impairment? Rely on charity?

    November 19, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
    • CJ

      Many people do exactly that. It's the definition of "poverty": not having enough money to pay for your basic needs. And that's what charity is *for*–to "help the hardly-ables," as Peter Falk said in "Pocketful of Miracles."

      November 20, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  11. Jenai Goss

    30$ a week is plenty. (I am on foodstamps for disability). It's not only doable, but I have enough left over that I can 'stock up' and have food so if I cannot make it to the store due to my health, I can survive without shopping for a week or two. The trick is learning how to budget, and starting with getting basic staples and foods that stretch before you start adding to the diet. Also, realize that foodstamps are not $30 a week, they are over $170 a month. A person can spend more at the beginning of the month, or on a trip when they need to stock up, and less on a trip that they just need to get some milk or eggs. If one -only- had 30 a week it would be pretty hard, but because I can spend 40 one week and 20 the next, it's not. (Or, 60 one week and skip two weeks).

    For the first shopping trip, get foods that can cover breakfast/lunch/dinner such as Several boxes of instant oatmeal packs, eggs, peanut butter and jelly and bread, and a large box of instant rice. Those hot dog like sausages are often on sale – there are 4 to 6 in a pack and they can be used for a meal on their own or sliced up to be put in stir fries or over rice. Get whatever fruit is on sale that week, or bananas. Frozen veggies are nice, or fresh veggies on sale. I always have onions, carrots, and potatoes on hand. However, once you have the staples taken care of, you can buy a lot more variety on future shopping trips, or seasonings, or stock up on the pasta.
    (speaking of pasta – avoid the premade sauces unless they are on sale for $1. Make your own with regular tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, seasonings, garlic, carrots, etc, and never get ground beef unless it is $1.99 a pound or less. Go with ground turkey if you have too).

    Where I live there is Grocery Outlet (very cheap groceries, though a little hard to find specific items, plenty of variety though, and super cheap snacks too!), Safeway (Reasonable, though you have to plan and keep an eye out for sales) and Walmart (cheap, and a great place to buy meat, but I avoid the produce and bread as they seem to go bad quickly).

    My self-cost for groceries is about 25-30 a week, though I also spend a little on 'stocking up' as I mentioned before. Also, this 25-30 a week is a pretty well balanced diet, and includes some splurging (like I bought a pie last week, it was on sale for $3, and a frozen pizza a couple days ago). I eat meat a lot (probably more than is healthy).

    November 19, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  12. Chris

    The secret: (1) Shop the circulars. (2) Use coupons. (3) Buy as much of your groceries at WalMart as you can possibly manage. (4) Don't eat so much! You can live on one meal and a snack per day. I do it.

    November 19, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Jenai Goss

      Actually, the secret is buying and making meals that stretch across several meals. For example, a $3 pack of chimichangas or corndogs that lasts 4-8 lunches or snacks is a lot better than 8 $1 meals. Making a casserole or large batch of pasta makes not just dinner, but lunches and dinners and side dishes throughout the week in leftovers. A carton of 18 eggs can add to 6 breakfasts, a couple boiled eggs for a snack, boiled egg to add to a salad, and be used in box cake or brownie kits for some cheap snacks and desserts. A box of instant oatmeal packs doesn't go bad quickly, so leave a couple in the cupboard and grab a pack for breakfast when food runs low. Grabbing boxes of breakfast bars or granola bars when on sale (places like grocery outlet or walmart are great for this) is great for breakfast on the run or a midday snack. Stock up on fillers (like 6 for a dollar ramen noodles and 4 for a dollar mac-n-cheese). Get healthy juices – you can usually find a 100% juice for $2.50 or less, sometimes you can even find a veggie-fruit juice, even better!

      Avoid getting sodas or fake juices, avoid instant meals wherever possible (An exception – if you can find one of the marie callendar family casseroles on sale for $4-$5, it's worth it, those things last so many meals :P) Shop sales. Don't get meat over $2 a pound. Aim for meats that can be used in dishes that spread (like chicken that can be sliced for a stirfry, or ground beef/turkey for a pasta) vs. meats that are meals in themselves, unless there is a very good sale. Don't get expensive snacks. A good rule of thumb is that a 'snack serving' (if you calculate it out) should cost 25 cents -or less-. So, while a 4 pack of pudding for $1 would be ok, a pack of 20 donut holes (serving size 5) for $3 would not be.

      November 19, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  13. Name*Denise

    I can eat better than that on $30 wk. 10 lb bag chicken thighs and legs @ .29 lb = 2.90. That stretches to next week. Dented cans tomato sauce 4 @ 10 =.40 big bag of rice .49 . I used cpns. Onions garlic $1. Made big pot chicken and rice. I grow lettuce in pots off my balcony make own said dressing. But bread at bread store. Stock up for 2 wks for only $6. Even got Thomas' English muffins for .50. Dented can of coffee 2.49 lasts a month if I'm careful. Haven't even spent half of my $30. Use cpns you can get lots of free fancy stuff.

    November 19, 2013 at 9:49 am |
  14. Tracie

    While she gets an e for effort,and I know all about the foodstamp debate, we need to also talk about the families that are still poor to buy food,but make too much money to qualify for assistance. When my daughter was growing up,I was a single mom and made $15 over the limit for the 2 of us. Now I did what I had to do,worked 2 jobs, one which was at a restaurant,so I was able to bring food home for us, but after working at one job for 40 hrs then the other job for 25-30 hrs,my daughter spent some time alone- now this was late 90's,the cost of living was different,fast forward to now,and I don't think we would make it

    November 19, 2013 at 8:43 am |
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