Food Stamp Challenge
Reporter tries week of meager eating
October 1, 2013
Daily Times Herald Reporter Rebecca McKinsey cooks vegetable and rice stew in preparation for the SNAP Challenge. The challenge invites people to try eating for $4.50 a day, the average amount provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Harkin: Attack on food assistance ‘unconscionable’
By DOUGLAS BURNS
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's days in the great American food-stamp fight go back to the 1970s, his first years in Congress representing Iowa.
"I remember going through all these things about, 'Oh, people are gonna cheat, people are gonna cheat, people are gonna cheat,'" said Harkin, a Democrat. "And at one time, I got so exasperated on one of these discussions I said, 'Well, I have an answer. I know exactly how we can make sure that no one ever cheats on food stamps. Very simple. For every food-stamp recipient, you assign an accountant and minister, priest or rabbi.'"
Harkin added, "The cost would be, well, exorbitant, should I say. I mean, that's how ridiculous things get around here."
Harkin said the House Republican-led assault on food stamps - officially known as the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (the government switched from "stamps" to electronic benefit transfer cards) - is "unconscionable."
"We're becoming so hard-hearted," Harkin said in response to questions from the Daily Times Herald on a conference call last Thursday.
The House voted last month to cut $39 billion in food-stamp funding over the next decade.
As it stands, without the proposed cuts Harkin is fighting, the average, monthly food-stamp benefit for one person is $133.44 - $4.50 a day. About 20 percent of people on food stamps have no other source of income to "supplement" the U.S. Department of Agriculture-administered program.
"I'd say, 'Go try that some time,'" Harkin said. "Try it. Try to eat on $4.50 a day. Oh, you can do it. But, boy, I'll tell you, you're not going to eat very well."
Harkin said that amounts to bare-existence living. He's one of Capitol Hill's fiercest defenders of food aid to disadvantaged Americans.
"In chasing that last single person that may have gotten a little bit more than he or she deserved, we go overboard in regulations and structures and spending taxpayers' money chasing that last person who may be getting something that he or she doesn't deserve," Harkin said.
One thing to remember, Harkin said, is that many poor people don't have access to cooking facilities - microwaves or stoves or pots and pans - meaning they can't spread the $4.50 as far as people outfitted with full kitchens - like some of the conservatives who have bragged about their own success with frugality while taking the "SNAP Challenge" and living on $4.50 a day.
"We have a lot of homeless people," Harkin said. "Look at your shelters here and all over America. Homeless kids. Homeless people. They don't have a stove. They don't have a kitchen to cook stuff in."
During the financial crisis of 2008, many bad actors in the financial industry received bailouts - not the sort of punitive action the government is looking to visit upon some of the more vulnerable Americans, Harkin said.
"You see the injustice of this with the people that ran Citicorp and Chase Manhattan and JP Morgan - and all the people that ran those places during the crisis in the last 10 years - they got by with millions, hundreds of millions of dollars," Harkin said. "Not a one ever got punished or sent to jail. And yet, we're getting upset because somebody who is poor, down on their luck, lost their job, has mental illness, a child who is homeless, we're going to say, 'We're going to make it really tough on you to get your food, kid. We're going to make it really tough on you to have an adequate diet.' Where's our sense of justice in this country anyway?"
During the conference call, Harkin singled out Florida Republican Congressman Steve Southerland for criticism. Southerland, whom Harkin blasted for inheriting a funeral-home business and judging the work ethics of other Americans, has been a leader in GOP efforts to kill billions of dollars in funding for food stamps.
The Washington Post Sept. 24 carried a feature on Southerland's efforts. At one point, the Floridian visited Southeast Washington, D.C., where people were crammed into a classroom to learn tips about preparing for a job interview in fast food. All were unemployed. Most were among the 24 percent of Washington residents who receive between $100 and $600 each month in food assistance.
"Shower. Tuck in your shirt. Make eye contact with the interviewer," the teacher was saying, The Post reported.
"Make sure your belt and your shoes match," Southerland interjected, walking into the room with his colleagues and then introducing himself, according to The Post.
Harkin referenced the "belt-and-shoes" comment several times on the conference call as an example of what he believes is the tone-deafness among wealthy Republicans in Congress who appear to take pleasure in slashing programs for the poor.
"This guy is so out of touch with what's happening in real life," Harkin said. "And yet he believes that he has the answer to solving the SNAP program."
Eat on $4.50 a day?
Piece of cake, I told myself after I was approached about trying the SNAP Challenge, which invites people to try spending only $4.50 a day on meals - the average amount provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Several members of Congress have undertaken the challenge as discussions of cuts to the assistance program continue.
In college, I had several paycheck-less periods during which I survived on canned green beans, off-brand coffee and whatever I could convince my underclassman friends to nab for me from the dining halls. I wouldn't have a problem eating like I'm on food stamps, I thought.
Of course, I didn't literally think it would be a piece of cake - I wouldn't be able to afford cake on that budget - but I wasn't expecting it to be tough.
My arrogant self soon found out otherwise.
The most-arduous part of the process - besides the fact that I couldn't eat cake - was the planning, as it turned out. I set numerical boundaries for myself: $31.50 for the week, which needed to evenly divide out to $4.50 or less a day.
The first thing I did was account for a $3.27 gallon of skim milk and a $2.99 bottle of coffee creamer, which took me down to about $3.50 a day that I could spend on food.
The easiest way to approach this, I decided, was to buy large amounts of cheap, relatively healthful foods that I could cook in bulk, such as dry beans, rice and pasta.
I knew I would have it easier than most, for several reasons. I'm not a big eater. I'm a vegetarian and didn't have to worry about buying meat. I had the use of a kitchen and would be able to cook meals. And I didn't have picky kids, or hungry teenagers, that I was trying to feed on this budget.
Co-workers and friends challenged me further, though, to consider that often, those buying food with food stamps don't eat healthful meals. I didn't want to face the prospect of a week of processed foods, so I decided to make my first day the "unhealthy day" for the week. Perhaps surprisingly, that day was the hardest to plan.
Dinner was easy. I nabbed a $2 frozen dinner and called it a day. Except it wasn't a day - I still had to buy breakfast and lunch, and I had only $1.50 left to do it.
A 77-cent box of macaroni and cheese took care of lunch, and I scored big on the clearance rack with a 25-cent lemon pastry thing, which had 400 calories and tasted like something I might scrape off the bottom of my shoes.
Lunch on my "unhealthy day" ended up being leftovers from a Chinese-food dinner a friend had bought, rather than mac and cheese, but my difficulty in planning that day had already knocked me down a peg or two as I stood in the middle of the grocery store, scribbling in multiple notebooks and muttering to myself. This wasn't going to be as easy as I'd thought.
The rest of the week revolved around three main meals for lunch and dinner - salad and peanut butter sandwiches, pasta, and vegetable and rice stew. The latter was a Cajun restaurant-inspired recipe I'd been wanting to try out, and it ended up being a near-success (did you know you were supposed to soak dry beans overnight?) as well as my most expensive set of meals.
I decided to keep breakfast simple by sticking to corn flakes (the cheapest type of store-brand cereal I could find on that particular day) with bananas, supplemented with scrambled eggs on the days I was really hungry (read: had extra time and felt like cooking).
Once I had the basic menu planned out, I started stocking up, keeping track of how much I was spending. As I inched closer to my weekly price limit, I started making sacrifices.
My usual Balsamic Vinaigrette salad dressing, as well as the tomatoes and avocados I liked to throw in my salad, would have to wait. Italian dressing was on sale that week.
The tofu and soy products that my vegetarian self likes to incorporate into meals were going to have to be put on hold.
And snacks and desserts? Forget those.
Meals had become very simple.
After my "unhealthy day," which left me 2,000 calories richer and a little sick to my stomach, I figured things could only get better.
And, as it turned out, the week did fall into place. Since I bought cheap food and then didn't eat all of it, I easily stayed within my budget. Counting drinks, I averaged $3.23 a day.
As with every experiment, there were some glitches - or, at the very least, some situations to take into account.
Two of the 21 meals I ate were restaurant meals paid for by someone else and, as such, didn't factor into my total cost.
I also succumbed to the devastating lack of chocolate in my life near the end of the week and accompanied my co-workers to lunch, where I spent $3.50 on a gigantic brownie sundae and called that lunch.
I don't regret that.
But I did struggle with the fact that because of that lunch, my total food spending for that day ended up being $5.08.
As it turns out, about 75 percent of SNAP recipients also use other money when buying food (that's where the "supplemental" comes from), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which distributes the money.
I decided to let that legitimize the fact that I went over my allowance one day. But I'm glad that other than that one slip-up, I didn't use "other money" for the rest of the week, because that let me see what it's like for those - even if it's only a few - who do have the SNAP money and nothing else to use for their meals.
After the U.S. House voted to cut $39 billion from funding for food stamps over the next 10 years, I continue to hear heated debates, ranging from "People on food stamps could easily eat on less than what they're getting" to "How dare you suggest they try to pinch pennies even more?"
I'm not sure if I have a set opinion, even after eating on this budget for a week.
Eating on $4.50 a day is doable. It's very doable, in fact, especially when you consider that most people using food stamps are supplementing them with other funds.
But it takes planning, and it requires sacrifice. I couldn't go out and buy myself a snack or drink whenever I felt like it. Desserts weren't a luxury I could afford. "Extras" - spices, cheese and the like - were cut out.
On the flip side, though, the $9 or so I ended up having left over at the end of the week could have been used to build up additional ingredients that would last longer and would enrich meals, such as spices.
For the most part, any spontaneity in my eating habits was erased. My meals were filling, but they weren't incredibly satisfying. And if I was hungry, my only option was waiting until the next meal.
I'm glad I did this challenge, because although my eating habits didn't change drastically, my thinking did. If you're going to successfully eat on that kind of budget, it takes a lot of planning.
I was able to do it. And in fact, I hope I put the spending habits I practiced this past week to use in the future.
But I'll never take chocolate for granted again.