Food Stamp Challenge, Day 2: Rethinking My Meal Choices


Welcome to Day 2 of PW’s food stamp challenge, wherein I eat on just $5 a day—the amount of money the average Philadelphian on food stamps receives from the government. Like I noted yesterday, 31 percent of Philadelphians receive food stamps. That’s more than 450,000 residents.

Here’s what I learned after my first full day:

I may have some poor eating habits. Apparently, I eat too much bread. Having not done too much planning ahead for this challenge, I went food shopping thinking three things: 1. I need to fulfill all my meals, every day. 2. I need to spend less than $35. 3. I need to stay full. So the food I bought would have to be actual breakfast/lunch/dinner items—and they’d have to hold me over until the next course. Fruits and veggies are nice, but I decided not to pick them out until ingredients for the main dishes were purchased. Which sort of sucks, given that I’m a vegetarian.

You can’t go wrong with oatmeal for breakfast. It’s cheaper than what I usually have when money is less of an issue (Kashi cereal with blueberries and/or raspberries and/or cut-up strawberries mixed in). Plus, I can re-use the peanut butter that I’ve bought for lunch in the oatmeal for flavor, drown it in milk for protein and cut some banana into it for vitamins. And coffee. I bought a new tin of coffee.

Lunch was easy. Peanut butter and jelly. Why peanut butter and jelly? Because I eat it for lunch three-to-four times per week, anyway. (My co-worker and cubicle neighbor Tara Murtha can attest to this.) The heaviness of crunchy peanut butter keeps me full throughout the workday so I don’t have to think about jetting out of the office at 15th and Sansom to buy a meal in Center City, at Center City prices, on a journalist’s salary.

As for dinner, I needed something hot and cheap. Pasta, pita, bottled tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese. Individually, these foods are malnourishing and boring. Put together, they’re still malnourishing but can end up as either pizza or baked ziti. I often eat things like this for dinner, though I have been trying to supplement my night meals with recipes from a cookbook I’ve had for a couple years, and veggies, tofu and seitan from my bi-weekly Greensgrow CSA (now finished for the season). And like I said, all that stuff, even in the grocery store, is really expensive.

On Twitter and in yesterday’s comments section, I’ve been recommended a radically different grocery list—one that involved more hearty vegetables (like beans), rice and fruit. Maybe, said some commenters, I should have bought the ingredients to make my own bread instead of buying it outright. Yeah, that’s all probably true. The good news is I think there are probably a few follow-up experiments to be had here over the next six months or so. I’ve got $6 left with which to spend throughout the week, so if I can swing some small bags of dried beans and rice from a corner store for additional dinners, I probably will.

The difference I’m noticing so far (after just one day!) are the in-between foods. I already miss them. Sometimes I eat a couple oranges or apples throughout the day as a snack, or I put together a plate of cheese, crackers, vegetables and Sriracha sauce while I wait for my real dinner to come to fruition in the oven. Not so now. Oranges were four for $5 at the grocery store. Nuts are always more expensive than they seem like they should be. So is cheese.

Other than that, meh. I’m not hungry. At least, no more than usual. Tomorrow I’ll wake up, make the same oatmeal, banana and peanut butter brew, and do it again with the $35 worth of America’s Choice (more on that later) products I bought at the Superfresh in NoLibs. We’ll see how that goes after a few days of the same meals, over and over again.

Meanwhile, not all of the 473,037 Philadelphians on food stamps are getting the full $35 a week; the Hunger Coalition says a portion of those who qualify for food stamps get as little as $16 a month (after all, $5 is just the average) with which to feed themselves or their families. It’s a huge source of stress for those who are struggling with unemployment and underemployment throughout the recession. Their plight isn’t getting any easier with the Corbett administration. The governor recently made it more difficult for people to get food subsidies. His plan, which went into effect May 1, 2012, imposed what’s called an “asset test” for those looking to collect SNAP benefits; most households with more than $5,500 in assets would not qualify for SNAP, and for people 60 and over, that value is $9,000. So if you need SNAP benefits, don’t bother putting your money away in a savings account to, you know, one day get off the government benefit.

Regardless of what side of the political spectrum you fall on, hunger is nothing to balk at. Yet there is a stigma attached to collecting SNAP (or any taxpayer-funded) benefits—which you can see for yourself by Googling something as simple as “food stamps” (really) and watch as hits for pages like the uniquely titled Facebook group, “I work hard so lazy people can use food stamps to buy junk food” pop up. That page has got more than 2,000 “likes.” Similarly, late last month, Fox News host Andrea Tantaros seemed to mock those living on $133 per month when discussing Cory Booker undertaking the challenge: “Do you know how fabulous I’d look?” she said. “I mean, the camera adds 10 pounds. It really does. I would be looking great.”

Between making sure I stay full and rationing my food and money, looking great is the least of my worries.

3 Responses to “ Food Stamp Challenge, Day 2: Rethinking My Meal Choices ”

  1. Donna says:

    All great points! When people have a true need they should be able to have assistance! There is a shame and a stigma for those who use food stamps…and those like that Facebook page…I challenge them that if they happened to find themselves in that situation one day to ask themselves how would they truly feel! People who are on Food Stamps for the most part truly need the help!

  2. Julie says:

    thank you for sharing your experiences and attempting to clear up a lot of misconceptions about people who are trying to eat without much money.

  3. Oven Mitt says:

    While eating on 5 bucks per day is certainly quite a challenge, I’ve been struck by another number. 31% of population on food stamps! Do you think it is normal?

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