Philadelphia Weekly Staff Writer Randy LoBasso Is Doing the Food Stamp Challenge

The holidays are coming up, and for lots of us, that means time with our families, a day or two off work and a general massive increase in food consumption. But for the 473,037 people in Philadelphia (31 percent of the city’s population) who rely on food stamps, things aren’t always so dandy. According to statistics by the Hunger Coalition, the average food stamp (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipient in Philadelphia gets $5 a day to spend on food. Which, if I’m calculating correctly, is about two slices of pizza, and maybe a drink. Or, one latte. Or, 3/5 of a burrito. Or, one craft beer. Or … you get the idea.

Earlier this year, from April 23-29, several area politicians, leaders and journalists took what’s called the “Food Stamp Challenge,” in which they attempted to live on just $5 a day. Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker is currently participating in a challenge of his own. The challenges have been brought on for several reasons. One of which is the gigantic amount of criticism those who receive food stamps often get. Take former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s insistence that President Barack Obama is the “food stamp president,” because the Great Recession saw a record number of Americans rely on food stamps over the last five years. Those receiving public assistance, such as food stamps, are often cast aside by the American Right as lazy abusers of the system. Or, just as often, it’s argued that they should receive less support because communism is the worst/the free market is the best/Darwinism.

So, with some of that in mind, today marks the day I begin living on $5 a day. PW’s arts and culture editor, Sheena Lester, will be joining me (Solidarity!). The guidelines, as we understand them, are as follows: $35 for the week; no dining out (because food stamps cannot be spent at restaurants in Pennsylvania); we cannot eat food we’ve already purchased; no accepting free food; and keep track of receipts. I plan on being as transparent as I possibly can throughout the process, with updates both on PhillyNow and Twitter (follow me @randylobasso). I’ll be updating you on Sheena’s experiences, as well.

Last night, I made my first food purchase for the week. Below is a photo of the food I bought to get through the challenge: pita, bread, cheese, tomato sauce, pasta, peanut butter, jelly, milk, butter, oats, bananas. (By the way, I am a vegetarian.)


It all cost $27.64 at the Superfresh on 180 W. Girard Ave. in Northern Liberties (I saved $4.96 with a discount card). Which means I still have about $6 to spend on anger/stress foods throughout the week. The workday has begun and so has this challenge. I’ll talk to Sheena and let you know how we’re doing in an update later on today.

13 Responses to “ Philadelphia Weekly Staff Writer Randy LoBasso Is Doing the Food Stamp Challenge ”

  1. Matt Hazz says:

    What is in the big black can on the left?

    Being a vegetarian and not buying meat I think will be a big advantage here.

    Did you consider buying a bag of flour and some yeast and making your bread? Surprised there is only bannas there and no other fruits and veggies.

    Doing this for five or seven days isn’t that big of a deal. To really see what food stamps are like try it for at least thirty days, your food choices will surprise you.

  2. Randy LoBasso says:


    That can is a leftover coffee can in my kitchen (which I, of course, won’t be using). My new coffee beans are at the bottom and were, surprisingly, less expensive than the stuff I usually get.

    Regarding the fruit: Like lots of people who are actually on food stamps, I ran into the age-old problem when I went grocery shopping: I had to get things that would fulfill my needs for actual meals (pasta, bread, peanut butter, jelly, cheese) before I went back to the fruit aisle. But knowing I have $6 with which to spend freely throughout the week, there’ll probably be some more fruit in my future.

    And I agree, not eating meat probably helps.

  3. Bobbee Gerson says:

    Having grown up on public assistance, I can tell you that dried beans are your friend. We ate lots of beans when I was growing up, and had very little junk food. And, yes, fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive.

  4. Phillyguy says:

    Wow, 31% percent of the Philadelphia population is way more than I would expect to be on food stamps. It makes me think that we should decrease the number of people it is available to and increase the amount given out. It almost seems pointless at $5 a day.

    Randy good luck, and enjoy that one PBR Pounder you can afford!

  5. Alex says:

    If you can learn how to make some spanish food, that will go a long way. My mother fed my four brothers and I growing up and while she wasn’t on public assistance, her income wasn’t really high either. We ate a lot of rice and beans (dry ones work, just soak them overnight). Pigeon peas are also nice (texture similar to a bean). Rice is filling and inexpensive.

  6. Randy LoBasso says:

    Hey all:

    Thanks for the tips. Between these comments and those on Twitter, I’m feeling my grocery list was a little sad. Seems like there may be some follow-ups to the project.

  7. CB says:

    I really hate stunts like this and feel they do a disservice to people struggling to make ends meet. I imagine for real people that are struggling, finding enough to eat is a full time effort not a temporary challenge like some sort of triathlon that they boast about afterwards (which is what the “Food Stamp Challenge” turns it into IMHO.)

    And what if you are “successful”? Have you proven that food stamp benefits are sufficient? That they should/could be reduced? Does “failing” prove that they should be higher?

    Frankly I’m not sure what living for a week on food purchased only with SNAP benefits demonstrates. Please enlighten me.

  8. Nina Hoffmann says:

    CB: Thanks for your comment. We are certainly not looking at this as a stunt. We are not trying to make a political statement here. We aren’t interested in validating Democrats or Republicans on their views. Our ultimate goal is to gain a greater understanding of how to more effectively cover poverty. Too many of our residents are in it. And too often, journalists fail to frame/cover social issues properly, most likely because of a lack of understand of how complex those issues really are. It may only be a week of living off $5. But if that proves enough time for Randy to gain a fresh perspective on the problems plaguing this city, then I’m OK with what we’re doing.

    Nina Hoffmann
    Senior Editor
    Philadelphia Weekly

  9. Randy LoBasso says:

    CB: What she ^ said.

    I think some of your questions may have been answered in the initial blog post (paragraph 2). If not, I’m sure explanations will come about throughout the week.

  10. PhillyGal says:

    cool experiment. i’m curious to see how it goes. when i lived in oregon, i used to recycle cans and bottles for safeway (supermarket chain) credit and try to eat off that for as long as possible. i’d stock up on rice, barley, quinoa, beans, lentils. i’d make a pot of soup with a few potatoes, carrots, and lentils that would get me through a few meals. for me, it was as much about saving money as it was about rethinking food, you know? the frustrating thing is how expensive fresh fruits and vegetables can be sometimes. good luck!

  11. Working ForALiving says:

    This is supposed to supplement your food budget. It’s in the name. Political smokescreens for the uneducated.

    Congressional stats say the government spends $60,000 for each household under the poverty line — that’s higher than the median household income in the US. You know, for people with jobs. Why not just give the households a $60,000 check every year. Poof, no more poverty.

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