So we just started the second week of the food stamp challenge, and so far, it’s gone a little better than I expected. I have come in under budget for the first week. My budget was $6 per day per person and I came in at $5.13 per person. This includes my basket of produce I purchased from Bountiful Baskets with the only ‘cash’ I was allowed for the budget of $20. So I’m seriously impressed with that. We’ve eaten well. The food is a little low on the calorie end, but I’ve had carrots, celery, onion, apples, oranges, asparagus, avocado, leaf lettuce, radish, spinach, and then apples, oranges, bananas, mangoes, tomatoes, and grapes. These are all good things that most people say you can’t afford on food stamps. You can, but you have to be careful with it and how you do it. I’ve had green, yellow, red and orange bell (sweet) peppers, fresh garlic cloves and jalapenos, squash and zucchini. Then on the frozen end, I had frozen peas, corn (organic) and edemame (organic soy beans), frozen artichoke hearts, and some really tiny expensive shrimp, some sausage, bacon, chicken and ground beef and ground turkey.
The only processed foods we had were cereal, blueberry bagels and some yogurt, and milk and coconut milk in a can, the noodles, a can of creamed soup, the cans of spaghetti sauce and the meatballs. Well, and I guess technically bacon and meatballs are processed too. So yeah for us, this is a lot more ‘processed’ foods than we’re used to eating, in part because some of this stuff was cheap and/or free on the meal deals.
But for the most part, and particularly compared to the standard American diet, we’ve eaten mostly whole foods, mostly single-ingredient stuff, and we came in under budget. So far, if I were to try to do the diet for just one week, I’d have to say that it’s definitely do-able and definitely able to be done healthily.
But I wanted to point out that this is about so much more than JUST the food, just the diet.
FOOD INSECURITY IS MORE THAN JUST NOT HAVING ENOUGH TO EAT
As I’ve tried to talk about throughout the challenge thus far, I can recreate the conditions of the budget and the diet. But what I can’t recreate is the feelings of fear and insecurity that come from not knowing if there’s enough to eat. Even so, I will say that the challenge has felt very realistic to me, compared to how I used to feel when I had to make ends meet on a limited budget, a food stamp (or even less) budget. I find myself in a strange conundrum while doing this challenge: I want to be frugal and not use too much, so I’m careful with proportions when I’m cutting up veggies, then I store the veggies, only to have them start to go bad before I can use them! I want to conserve, but the food keeps wanting to spoil so I have to use it! Catch 22!
That’s one of the problems with food insecurity–sure, a red bell pepper that is large can be used for three meals, provided it doesn’t go bad before you get to the third meal!
Learning how to properly manage the amount of food purchased, how much to use, how to store and save it–these things take time. These are things you have to learn over time for your individual family, and in the meantime, while learning it, you run the risk of things spoiling or buying too large of portions (or too small) and it ends up costing you more money in the long run.
Portion size is a big problem. When I follow recipes, the portion sizes they always say are never what I want them to be. I wonder sometimes if they do that on packages and stuff to try to fool people into buying them. For example, if you’re buying a processed food item that you have to mix with something to make, and it says it makes 6 servings, and you’re feeding a family of four, then you think, “Okay, this should be enough…” right? So you buy it, only to get it home and realize that, even with knowing we all eat portions that are too large for us–even scaling down for that knowledge–there’s still not enough for a full portion for a family of four.
Or let’s say you’re buying it based on the calories or the sodium content, and you think, ‘Okay, that’s low enough of both of those…” only to realize you’re going to have to eat two servings, which doubles the calories and doubles the sodium, and probably the bad fats too, which is another way to ‘trick’ you into buying the product. You’ve got to really look at these serving sizes.
I know a woman with a healthy teenaged son, he’s a football player and his weight is good (he’s not obese at all and is healthy and active) and he could eat an entire box of Hamburger Helper himself. There’s no way one box is enough to feed an entire family by itself. When my kids were little, one box could feed the three of us, but that’s because I added to it. I chopped up onions and peppers and added that to the meat, and then I would add sides like green beans or corn or potatoes or something else the kids would eat, and maybe a salad and some milk for the drink. All that together, that’s enough for the three of us, but for a family of four with teenaged boys? No, not even close. (Homemade Hamburger Helper is better anyway–learn how to make it by clicking this link)
So you can’t budget and plan based on what the companies say on the nutritional information on the packages.
THE COST OF REAL FOOD
I come at this at an advantage in that I’ve been cooking for my family with mostly whole foods and mostly healthy now for about two full years, with our diet being mostly plant based (though we do eat meat–we’re not technically vegetarians or vegans, but we try to eat mostly a plant-based diet and then buy our meat only grass-fed, locally raised, pastured beef and free-range, local chickens and farm-fresh, unpasteurized eggs, unpasteurized raw milk from the happiest, healthiest dairy cows I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Yes, we’ve ‘met’ our food providers. I wanted to be sure our local farms we purchased from were all they said they were, and they were only too happy–seriously, really pleased–to show off their facilities to us. I buy with confidence from these local farms. I’m very blessed to be able to do this. But if I were to be actually living on food stamps, I couldn’t do that, because they don’t take food stamps.
I couldn’t even do it on a food stamp budget if I were paying cash, because it’s not cheap. I mean, milk is $9 per gallon for the goat’s milk and $7 per gallon for the raw cow’s milk. The eggs that are $1.67 per dozen at the store are $6 per dozen from the farm, but man, they are large, with the prettiest golden yolks and amazing hard shells and the flavor… omgosh, the flavor. The grass-fed, humanely raised and as humanely butchered as possible beef is about $7 per pound–which actually isn’t that bad, when you consider some of that is steak and some of that is roast and some of that is ground beef, etc. When you buy by the side or the whole and store that in your deep freezer (if you’re lucky enough to have one), then you actually can get it at a decent price and stock up on it for the whole year. They even deliver it to us for free and put it in the freeze for us.
I’m blessed. This is all happening at a time when I’m fighting for my life, and I believe, with almost 100% certainty, that a big part of why I’m sick to begin with comes from food, and that a big part of why I’m still alive right now in spite of all the odds against me is because I chose to take control of what I put into my body.
And it sickens me.. it totally saddens and sickens me that people in the richest country in the world have to make a choice between their life and health and whether or not they can afford to eat foods that won’t kill them.
SOCIAL ISSUES WITH FOOD INSECURITY
Am I succeeding in the challenge? Well, yes, I am. I’m eating healthy foods (not organic, but whole foods at least) and I’m getting plenty of nutrition and enough calories for me, anyway (my budget plan when finished will add things to increase calorie count for those members of the family who need more calories, like a grown man or growing teenaged boy)… but I’m having to put a lot of time into this and it all has to be cooked in the kitchen. There is no going out to eat, buying anything ready-made (except the rotisserie chicken that one night), no socializing around food. No drinks at a club. No sandwiches over hot lattes. No breakfast meeting in the morning before work. Nothing. And yet, we are a culture that socializes around food.
When there’s not enough for your own family, it’s hard to even invite someone else to come over and feed them anything. When every penny is pinched, every soda is counted, every morsel accounted for, how can you share that and make it last throughout the month?
You watch television, and you’re inundated with commercials for family-style restaurants. Pizza coupons are littered everywhere. You can’t drive down any major street in any town in America without seeing at least one or two fast-food joints littering the city. Food is everywhere. It’s a big part of how we interact with one another. The two bucks you have to send with your kid to school for the pizza party. The after-school birthday party you can’t afford to go to because they held it at the food place and you have to pay for your own kid. The other kids in the neighborhood who come running the ice cream man jingles down the street and your kid comes running in the house and you have nothing to give them. (The book at the end of this challenge will have tips on this and multiple ways to handle it that might surprise you!)
And when you’re living on a limited budget, you become more socially isolated than ever. Think about my story on the first day about not being able to eat lunch with my new coworkers because I was broke. Think about how isolating it really is not to be able to just do what you want to with your friends, family members, coworkers… it’s hard enough to be broke and not have any spare money for entertainment, but to be even further isolated because you or your kids can’t be ‘normal’. And how it feels to be a mom or a dad and not be able to give that to your kids, or to try to give it to your kids and wonder where the other parts of the budget will have to make up for it.
TIME IS A FACTOR
If you’re not working, not looking for a job, it’s easy enough to budget and live on food stamps and be frugal. There are multiple resources for you, from food pantries, social service agencies, food stamps, couponing, budget planning, whole foods cooking, and much more you can do to save money. If you’re not working, this can become your full-time job and you can save as much or more than you spend and make it the same as if you were working and bringing in that money. After all, as long as it’s for something you would have bought anyway, a dollar saved really IS a dollar earned. If your family usually spends $2000 bucks per month on food and household items, and you can coupon, budget, shop and save so that you only spend $500 instead, you basically could have worked a job for $1500 bucks and had the same results, but at least this way, you’re there with your family.
The problem is for the people who don’t have the time to do this. Contrary to a large public opinion, most welfare recipients do work. They have children and families to take are of, jobs to do, households to keep running, homework, and all the other stuff. YOU who aren’t on food stamps, try adding this type of a budget into your already busy and hectic lifestyle. It’s not easy. I can only do this right now because the work I do is from home and my family takes care of all the other stuff for me. What would I do if I were a single mom with two kids who were young and I was responsible for their care? I don’t know. It wouldn’t be easy, I do know that.
So yeah… this is about a lot more than full bellies. This is about fitting into a society–or in this case, not fitting into society–and feeling always on the outside. It’s about self-worth and the perpetuating cycle of loathing, embarrassment, guilt, insecurity, fear… it’s about perpetuating poverty through so many different ways.
For every one of you out there who think welfare recipients are just unmotivated, lazy, fraudulent, freeloaders… quit reading and listening to people who spout of that they heard a story about something from someone who told them something about someone else and do the research. Meet the real people. Read the report from the USDA. Show some compassion and do not judge unless or until you know the factors contributing… and even then, maybe reserving judgement and instead offering solutions would better solve the problem. Take the challenge yourself, for real–don’t cheat. Don’t play the game. Take the challenge for real and be honest with yourself. THEN you have the right to say something, from your own experience. Until then, back up and learn.
And for those who are living it… I hope you know, my challenge is in no way meant to mock your struggle. I’m doing this because I understand your struggle all too well and I live every day feeling blessed and so grateful and fortunate that I’m not there any more. I’m trying to make a difference. I donate time and money. I’m writing the book to help people. I’m sharing my resources and information. I’m trying to bring about awareness. Please know, I don’t mean to marginalize your experiences at all. I love and care about you all.
More to come in week two…
Love and stuff,