Food Stamp Challenge Diary
October 16, 2012
Katie Meade, Maryland Hunger Solutions
This morning I burned my toast, but rather than eat yet another serving of oatmeal, I cut off the part of the crust that was burnt the worst and ate the toast anyway. Today is the last day of the Food Stamp Challenge, and at this point, my husband and I have eaten pretty much everything we purchased with our $60. I think all we have left is some canola oil, a little oatmeal, and about half of a jar of pasta sauce.
During the week, I kept track of what and how much I ate because I wanted to know how my budget affected my ability to eat a healthy diet. I was able to come pretty close to my estimated calories needs, and on average, I met the intake recommendations for most of the food groups. However, I really fell short of meeting the recommendation for dairy foods…most days I only consumed about half of what is recommended for a woman my age. My goal for the week was to maintain heart healthy diet by limiting the amount of sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol in my food. This took considerable effort. It was especially tough to keep my sodium intake low, and at times, my food tasted bland. Because the budget was so tight, it was difficult to afford things like fresh herbs and garlic that can help flavor foods without adding salt. I ate many of the same fruits and vegetables over and over throughout the week, so even though the volume of fruits and vegetables I consumed was adequate, the variety was not. By the end of the week I was pretty tired of eating the same things over and over again. But now, as I am sitting down to write my grocery list for the coming week, I can’t help but think about the fact that if our budget were still limited to $60, we would be purchasing many of the same foods we ate last week once again.
Rachel Yong, Healthy Food Coordinator, Baltimore Food Policy Initiative
Growing up, I was very accustomed to a tight budget. I understand the appeal of cheap fast food, especially when burgers used to be $0.17. Yet this past week, as I ate a disproportionately large amount of carbohydrates and not a lot of meat or vegetables, I realized a few new things.
1) I'm thankful that (a) I love oats, cereal, and bread; (b) H&S Bakery has an outlet store that sells 3 loafs of bread for only $1; and (c) I have a job, a great place to live and friends to enjoy the city with.
2) We need more outreach to eligible individuals and families. According to FRAC, 3 out of 10 eligible individuals do not access their SNAP benefits. The impact of today's economic times calls for a stronger push for continued funding for SNAP and ensuring that those in need are aware of and access their SNAP benefits.
3) Consider the social and community health impact that living on a tight budget has. Living on a $30 purchasing budget this week definitely made me acutely aware of the impact tight food funds have on building community, since most of it is based around eating. On one hand, community and mental health are particularly important for those in hard financial situations. It's tough enough when, for example, you are balancing several jobs and trying to make ends meet for your kids. On the other hand, the double-edged sword is that having little funds for food eliminates many opportunities to be around friends and family, such as eating out.
While I failed to abide exactly to the rules and ate either free food or leftovers already in my kitchen, I would like to say thank you to all the organizations and faith based entities that do outreach as well as help foster supporting communities around meals for those who are hungry and in need of support. Keep up the good work!
October 15, 2012
Anita Wahi, Anti Hunger Program Associate, MD Hunger Solutions
For all the talk about Food Stamps these days, there truly isn’t much understanding of the lives of the millions of Americans who need help buying food. I believe access to food is a basic human right, so it continues to astonish me every time I do Food Stamp outreach how many people in the US simply don’t have enough money to eat. Helping people sign up for Food Stamps is my job at Maryland Hunger Solutions and, as easy as it sounds, it is HARD. I need to understand how the application process works in every county where I work, why two people making the same amount of money will have different outcomes on their applications, and how to advocate for linguistic and other minorities to get the same quality of service as other people. But what’s harder than doing all that is being the person on the other side of the table who is actually applying for Food Stamps.
DCHS invited MDHS earlier this year to an outreach event at a church in Northeast DC, which is when I realized that people needing Food Stamps in MD faced almost the exact same challenges as their counterparts in DC. While I filled out applications for married couples, single mothers, and non-English speakers living in MD, I heard similar stories from the table next to mine, where DCHS was working to fill out Food Stamp applications for DC residents. Later, when talking with DCHS, I realized that Food Stamp applicants in MD and DC face almost the same challenges, from linguistic discrimination to having to take time off work to complete interviews. It is doubly and even triply difficult to receive Food Stamps, considering all the hurdles one must jump for just $120/month in food. Nevertheless, a lot of people in DC and MD have no idea what it’s like to go through this.
That’s why the Food Stamp Challenges that DCHS and MDHS are hosting is such a great idea. The Challenges give people who have never received Food Stamps a way to understand just a part of the struggle that Food Stamp recipients experience.
Anita Wahi will be presenting on outreach strategies at the second annual Fighting hunger in Maryland Conference, Tuesday, October 16th.
October 14, 2012
Only having 30 dollars for a weekly food budget forced me to make difficult decisions while doing my groceries, to keep or forgo. Normally, my food budget is 50 to 60 dollars a week, to keep a healthy, nutritious and balance diet. Since I am a student, I am fortunate to always have the chance to get free food from activities, seminars and conferences in school, which also help me to save some money too. However, the food stamp challenge does not allow me to take advantage on free food. So, I have to think carefully before I buy groceries and plan carefully how to allocate my limited resource throughout the whole week.
Since salt and sugar comes with a large package (5lbs) and would cost more than 20% of my 30 dollars each, I decided to keep my menu simple. I chose food which could be prepared very easily and do not require any condiments. Below is my grocery list:
- Frozen dumplings - price 2.99, quantity 2, total 5.98
- Cucumber - price 0.99, quantity 1, total 0.99
- Tuna can - price 0.99, quantity 2, total 1.98
- Cabbage - price 2.29, quantity 1, total 2.29
- 2% Milk - price 2.59, quantity 1, total 2.59
- Coffee - price 1.75, quantity 1, total 1.75
- Mayonnaise - price 1.99, quantity 1, total 1.99
- Quick hot oat - price 2.29, quantity 1, total 2.29
- Apple price - 4.99, quantity 1. total 4.99
- Wholemeal Bread - price 2, quantity 1, total 2
- Egg - price 2.99, quantity 1, total 2.99
- Total - 29.84
I usually would opt for organic milk, but this week I have to switch to regular milk. I usually buy some snacks like pretzels and chocolates, but it does not seem realistic for me to have it this week too. I also had to give up fruit juice and coffee. I usually drink coffee everyday and it has been quite difficult for me to take coffee away from my food budget. I decided to buy myself a cup of coffee the fourth day, not to only to give myself a lift, but to also to feel better during this challenging week.
My coping strategy for this tight food budget is to cut my portion during the meals instead of sacrificing nutritious balance meal, thus I chosen wholemeal bread and oat which is relatively healthy and could keep me full for a longer time. My menus for this week include pork mixed with vegetable dumplings served with cabbage, Tuna and cucumber sandwich, and oat served with apple slices. Sometimes I add egg into my meal when I felt especially hungry on that day, because I know that protein gives more satiety than carbohydrate and also as an additional source of protein.
The menu managed to keep me from starving, but I constantly feel like eating more food time to time because the length of feeling full is shortened due to the reduced portion of meal. I was somewhat limited to the variety of food I could eat during the week too. After repeating the menu for five days, I felt tired of getting the same type of food each other day. I also felt that I did not reach the daily dietary recommendation requirements, such as at least five servings of fruits and vegetables during the food stamp challenge week. In order to compensate with the low daily energy intake and chilly weather, I slept a lot. Besides that, I skipped dinner twice, because I was worried that the food might run out during the end of the week.
Two more days to the end of the food stamp challenge week, I looked into my refrigerator and shelves to see if there is still enough food left for the rest of the week. There are one more bag of frozen dumplings, few more eggs and apples and a half of container of oatmeal left. I am glad it is going to end soon, so that I could go back to my regular diet. This challenge offered me a chance to experience the hardships of a food stamp household making difficult decisions on food choices at such a tight budget and made me appreciate what I have. Now I definitely understand the importance of SNAP in lifting millions of families out of poverty and hunger.
October 12, 2012
Cathy Demeroto, Director, Maryland Hunger Solutions
I decided to eat a late breakfast (oatmeal) at about 8:30am because I was invited to a luncheon in Annapolis and knew I would not be able to eat. I got to the luncheon and drank water and tea (I brought my own tea bag) -- it was tough to watch others eat while I had nothing. The event went until almost 2:30pm and then I had to run to a meeting in Baltimore with no time to stop at office or home to grab a bite from Challenge food stock. got home that night at about 6:00pm and could not wait to eat as I had not eaten since breakfast. My choice was chili or a can of lentil soup. I went with the lentil soup and it was good, but not filling, so I ate a hard boiled egg as well. I was craving some crackers for the soup, but they were not in my budget. Although this week has already brought its share of challenges -- feeling tired and hungry, headaches and irritability, it helps to know it is only temporary and I am doing this by choice.
Over 730,000 Marylandders across the state rely on the Food Supplement Program (known as "SNAP" nationally) -- and they don't have a choice. They need this program to meet a basic need - food. Most who benefit from this program are children, parents, and seniors. We must protect SNAP so that our neighbors who are struggling can put food on the table. In the wealthiest state in the nation, no Marylander should go hungry.
Hanna Mast, Moveable Feast
Day 2 – Wednesday
Here’s the run-down on what I ate Day 2:
- 1/3 cup of oatmeal (Drew has been starting with 1 1/2 cups)
- Lentil stew and rice for lunch
- ½ banana for snack
- 6 or 7 carrots for snack
- Frozen green beans with rice and lentil stew
- A few spoonfulls of peanut butter (Drew and I both have a big sweet tooth, so this is as close as it gets for dessert).
I’ve found that I haven’t been hungry yet, and the oatmeal actually keeps me full much longer than my normal breakfast of cereal in the morning. I do find myself thinking a lot about the food I can’t eat, though – pizza, chocolate, coffee, etc. I also ended up pushing back a happy hour date with a friend – explaining that it probably wouldn’t be fun for her if I just sat there and watched her eat and drink haha.
Drew and I started brainstorming how we want to use the remaining $12.59 on the last day --- maybe treat ourselves to ice cream or buy baguettes and make French bread pizza? For us the end has always been in sight – it’s easy to make it through the days when you know next week will be different, but that really isn’t the case for most people on Food Stamps.
October 11, 2012
Cathy Demeroto, Director, Maryland Hunger Solutions
I woke up hungry. Last night I ate my dinner (a peanut butter sandwich) early because I was hungry by 5:30pm. Then, I went for a run and did about 3 miles. When I came home I was hungry and tired. I had 2 spoonfuls of peanut butter, but did not want to eat anything else as I want to be sure I don't run out of food. I helped my kids with homework -- with limited patience -- and then went to bed realizing that I was hungry and cranky and should just remove myself from the family. This was a real eye opener. How do families do it on a daily basis for an extended period? When I woke up I made oatmeal right away. The day was going fine, but then I realized I had made plans for a lunch with the head of another Maryland non-profit. I sent him an email to say that I could not meet for lunch, but could meet for tea/coffee and I would bring my own tea bag. So we ended up meeting in his office and I brought my own tea. I ate chili for lunch in my office. When I got home, I cooked my one and only box of macaroni and cheese and ate the whole thing. Normally, I would eat half, but I was really hungry -- and leftover 89-cent mac and cheese is not so good. This filled me up and I was better at helping my kids with homework. I even joined the family to watch some of the Orioles game.
Carol L. Palmer, Catholic Charities
Last night's dinner during the Maryland Hunger Solution's Food Stamp Challenge week...a bowl of green beans, that I also had to share with Petey.
It was late by the time we were ready to fix dinner, and we had nothing prepared ahead of time. The only thing we could come up with at the last minute that would be quick was the green beans we had bought. I wanted to make sure Ben had more than I which was more important to me so I willingly gave up extra food I could have had, then to half my share with Petey (who did enjoy is even though it wasn't steak or chicken which he is used to getting). Already decisions to make and we're on day one.
We prepared for tonight...beans and rice. Which I think most of this week's dinners will consist of.
Katie Meade, Maryland Hunger Solutions
Grocery Shopping on Day 1
Healthy eating requires planning. Healthy eating on a tight budget requires a lot of planning. Earlier this week I put together a list of ideas for meals. I am already used to writing out a weekly meal plan and basing my grocery list on what I need to make those meals, so that part of the process has not been too bad. However, I realize that not everyone has the time or the patience to plan out their meals this way. My grocery store has a tool that lets you build your grocery list online, and it adds up the prices of everything as you go along. This morning, I spent at least an hour entering in the items I wanted to buy, adding everything up, making substitutions, and taking things off the list until my meal plan, my grocery list, and my budget were all in agreement.
Because I have Internet access, I had the luxury of being able to make tough choices about what I could afford in the privacy of my own home, rather than having to put items back once I reached the checkout line in the store. Even so, when I arrived at the grocery store, I had a few panicked moments when they were out of the lower cost version of an item that I had wanted to buy, or when the price listed on the shelf was higher than what I had planned for. I had to make a few adjustments in terms of the size and quantity of items I had planned to purchase to stay on budget. My husband agreed to do the challenge with me this week, so our total grocery budget was $60. We spent $59.63.
Although I think we managed to get enough food to prepare three meals a day, our meals this week will certainly lack variety we are used to. Everything we purchased will do at least double duty, showing up in two, three, and sometimes more meals throughout the week. And we had to make many other changes to the way we shop. We bought a loaf of whole wheat bread, but couldn’t afford the brand that we like the best. I like to buy baby arugula to add into sandwiches throughout the week, but it was not an option on this budget. We had to limit the amount of fresh produce we could buy to make sure we had enough money to afford things like peanut butter, cheese, and rice which we knew would provide more of the calories we needed to keep from getting hungry. At one point I had high hopes of affording my husband’s favorite breakfast cereal, but it quickly became clear that we would only be able to afford oatmeal and eggs for breakfast. And my nightly piece of dark chocolate? Not going to happen this week.
So what else is on the menu? Lots of soups (kale and white bean soup, sweet potato and black bean soup, broccoli potato soup) and rice dishes (rice and beans, rice and lentils). We also bought a small chicken to roast. Buying a whole chicken can be very affordable (ours cost a little over $4) and will last us for a couple of meals, but you need to have the time it takes to roast a chicken, which can be between 90 minutes to two hours. We’ll also be eating plenty of peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.
I am currently a dietetic student, so I am interested in seeing how the diet I am able to afford on a FSP budget matches up to some of the current nutrition recommendations and guidelines. I am planning to keep track of what and how much I eat so at the end of the week I will be able to get a sense of whether I am able to meet these recommendations on my limited budget.
We’re now at the halfway point. Today I had the first tuna sandwich I have had in probably 20 years. I LOVE fish, but even as a kid, I could never really stand canned tuna, so this was a little challenging for me. I mixed it with some diced celery, shredded carrots, and hummus, and ate it quickly. That’s one thing I have noticed this week. Usually by the time a meal comes around I am so hungry, that I gobble down my food without really taking the time to enjoy it. Normally, it is pretty rare for me to go more than 3-4 hours without something to eat. Money for snacks was pretty limited in our budget (we have whole wheat crackers, peanut butter, and plain yogurt) so most days I have been able to have a snack in the morning, or a snack in the afternoon, but not both. Sometimes the amount of time between meals seems endless. The other day I was ready to start making dinner until I noticed it was only 3:30pm! And I have started to pay much more attention to what people around me are eating. Not being able to eat what I want or when I want is both distracting and frustrating.
October 10, 2012
I bought groceries from the Food-Value International Food Market next to Marley Stations Mall. The vegetables were reasonable compared to the local chain grocery stores. They also have a lot of dried goods and frozen vegetables that are healthy. Since I had reduced consumption of junk food, I was able to make my $30 go a long way. It is very exciting to get in touch with my Asian side again when creative cooking with limited ingredients is the key to good meals. Here is what I purchased:
5 pre-packaged lbs. of Jasmine rice $2.50
1 bunch of asparagus $2.99
3 small sized tomatoes $1.50
3 bunches of baby napa cabbage $2.89
1 lbs of fresh shrimp/medium size $5.99 (tails and heads on)
3 cups of dried udon noodles/instant $2.99
1 pack dried sea weed $2.50
2 baskets of fresh strawberries $1.89
1 small packet of bonita flakes $2.99
12 bottles of water (generic) $2.99
Grand total $29.23
Peter Nicewicz, MAP member from Catholic Charities of Baltimore, is doing the Maryland Hunger Solutions Food Stamp Challenge with his Fiance, Emily. Below are their experiences shopping.
Emily's Reflections about shopping for the Food Stamp Challenge:
Peter and I live in Greenbelt, MD and, while we usually shop at the Greenbelt Cooperative Grocery, for the purposes of this challenge we went to Giant. I do the meal planning and cooking for us and stuck to our basic routine for the challenge while simplifying some of the dishes. We split a breakfast of two eggs and an English mu ffin and we will have a salad and leftovers for lunch every day. For dinner, we have a rotation of frozen vegetables to accompany the main meal.
We spent $55 at Giant but that did not include the Pierogi or English muffins which we had purchased on another trip but they do not total more than $5. I was happy that we were able to get a good variety of meals for the amount of money allotted and enough fresh produce for salads every day. I am a vegetarian recreational endurance runner and Peter is a man—we rely on a lot of snacking to meet our caloric needs. Going into this challenge, I am apprehensive about the quantity of food that we have for the week and I hope that we are able to nourish ourselves sufficiently. That being said, I think that it is a great initiative for mindfulness and I look forward to learning from this experience.
Peter's Reflections about shopping for the Food Stamp Challenge:
In looking at the vast aisles at the grocery store, it is quite astounding to have seemingly so many items to choose from - and the seeming freedom that comes with it. This is quite a different experience than I had when growing up in Poland, a country which at the time was slowly unshackling itself from Communist control. Most of us had a limited food budget and food supply was relatively low and the choices limited, so if one could get a hold of a particular food, that is all that mattered.
Here, the challenge is to be flexible enough to find deals each week, be patient enough to peruse dozens of choices per food item, and to plan ahead for a whole week. Often bad deals are advertised the most clearly, and the best deals hide in plain sight. One case in point was soups - I was about to throw in two cans of Giant brand soup in the cart, advertised as a $1.69 deal at eye level, thinking that was the least expensive choice, only to find a deal of 10 cans for 10 dollars, or 1 dollar per can, on the top shelf. It took a lot of effort for us to plan the meals, to find the right items that fit the budget, and to keep a mental tally of all the food we had put in the cart. I can only begin to imagine what a family on food stamps goes through every time it is in the store, as if finding needles in a vast and deceptive haystack. Doing so is not only exhausting, but may also be shameful, especially because one cannot ignore what goes around them - for example, one customer had a cart filled with boxes of ice cream and the soup next to the $1 deal was a lobster bisque for $4.69. While as an immigrant, I certainly welcome the selection and the ease with which consumers may acquire items, I also see this choice as a double-edged sword, where a very limited budget forces one to feel overwhelmed to select only the bare necessities, while having witnessed all of the temptations.
October 9, 2012
Cathy Demeroto, Director, Maryland Hunger Solutions
Day 1 - This is my third Food Stamp Challenge in 3 years and it does not get easier. I went shopping yesterday and was clearly unprepared to stay within my budget of $30. I had a busy weekend and did not plan out my meals so I went to the store without a clear game plan. I went over budget by almost $10 and had to put items back – yogurt, apples, canned soup, a green pepper for my chili. Last night, I made a pot of chili with ground beef – with limited ingredients - it is kind of bland! But, nonetheless, I warned my family to stay away from the crockpot!! I have become protective of my food – a tad irrational, but having done this before, I know I will need what I have to get through the week. Having experienced this before, my kids are already getting prepared for me to be irritable this week and my husband is relieved he is going out of town for business during part of the Challenge week. However, the first day is usually OK. I started the day with oatmeal this morning and am feeling pretty good so far. Again, my diet will lack variety and my regular amount of fruits and vegetables this week, but I will have plenty of oatmeal, peanut butter and beef chili. Next year, I will be more prepared.
Hanna Mast, Development Associate, Moveable Feast
Sunday before the challenge: This is my first year attempting the Food Stamp Challenge, and my boyfriend, Drew is also opting to participate, so we’ll have $60 between the two of us. On Sunday, we sat down to come up with our grocery shopping list. It involved much more energy than any normal list-making and probably a hint more tension in figuring out how to go about planning our meals – as we normally have the luxury to be more spontaneous. Ultimately, we decided we’d just have to use the list as a guideline as sales would rule the true decision-making.
We went to Safeway – where we normally do our shopping. The trip took a lot longer than normal, as we were doing more serious price comparisons and going outside of our go-to choices. In some ways, though, it was easier --- the thought of buying snacks like wheat thins or hint of lime tortilla chips didn’t cross my mind – we didn’t even glance down those aisles and we didn’t consider organic anything (unfortunately).
For Drew, the trip gave some insight into his childhood meals – as one of six brothers and sisters, he grew up eating lentil soup many days a week (and he still dislikes the texture). We had planned to buy black beans and kidney beans for chili, but ended up opting for lentils and split peas – the wallet won over taste preferences. Lucky for me, I like lentils. Drew will just have to choke them down.
With our cart half full, we did a quick calculation of the prices and headed to the check-out line. There waiting for us, was a magazine cover that boasted, “EAT CHEAP: Great meals for two for $40 or less.” We walked out with a week’s worth of food for $47.41.
Monday before the challenge:
Over lunch, we talked about celebrating a coworker’s birthday–which we normally do by going out to lunch. I felt a bit sheepish saying, well remember I’m doing the food stamp challenge, so I won’t be able to partake. It suddenly felt quite restricting, and I felt bad for not being able to fully join in the celebration.
Tuesday- Day 1:
Today woke up and prepped my ½ cup of oatmeal for the morning. Drew and I had made Indian Summer Stew (with lentils, carrots and butternut squash) and rice last night so we would have hearty meals ready for the next few days. I packed a Tupperware of soup, and half a banana and a hardboiled egg for snacks (I’m accustomed to eating breakfast, a midmorning snack, lunch, an afternoon snack and dinner – so I knew I’d need something besides the soup). At work last week, I had asked a number of colleagues to join me in the challenge. I work for Moveable Feast, a local food and nutrition services agency --- so the issue of hunger and food security, especially for people who are struggling with severe illnesses is near and dear to many of us here. Three other coworkers were ready to take on the challenge! In general when telling people about this week, I’ve been surprised that so many are eager to attempt it. I’ve also noticed that while many are interested in participating, this particular week didn’t necessarily work for them – big exams coming up, birthday celebrations, busy schedules. How fortunate we are to be able to choose a less stressful, less scheduled week to attempt to live on this budget.
Entitled to Food (Maryland's Money Matters, 10/5/12)
"So how much food are we entitled to? SNAP recipients have to make do with about $30 per week per person. Is that enough? Well, here's how we can find out. October 9 - 15, Maryland Hunger Solutions is sponsoring the Food Stamp Challenge. Regular people all over Maryland are signing up to see how well we can do living on a food stamp budget. I'll be participating again, and I urge you to do it as well. Then you can begin to judge if $30 a week is a humane food budget."