I’ve been struggling with what to say about the food stamp challenge for the past couple weeks. Not because the challenge was overwhelmingly difficult, but rather, because it was surprisingly doable.
Before I go further, I want to clarify that my week of eating on the average food stamp benefit amount bears no comparison to what it is like to live in poverty and actually use food stamps. The idea of the challenge was to gain insight into what others experience, to reflect on my own spending on food, and to understand the costs behind eating healthy and local foods. And I think I did gain a better understanding of these things, but that doesn’t mean I know anything about the experience people on food stamps go through. It’s just not the same.
Those things considered, I did get a few things out of the challenge.
- Success! I made it through. It took a bit of extra effort and time to budget, but as I became accustomed to the prices of ingredients, the calculations got easier and I got better at estimating prices. I wouldn’t have done the challenge had I thought it impossible to complete, but I ended up surprised by how well I was eating. I could have seconds, and thirds, and still had money left for snacks in the evening.
- My budget. As a recent college graduate working a few part time jobs on a pretty tight budget, the challenge helped show me the minimum I can spend on food. This was actually empowering! I realized that I could get by on less than $100/month for food, if necessary. For me, that means I have room to go out to bars, or restaurants, or for drinks. For other people, it’s not that easy—and that’s something I won’t forget.
- The price of things. On a personal level, it helped me to gain an acute awareness of the cost of foods. A teaspoon of salt is less than a penny, while a tablespoon of vegetable oil is about 3 cents. A slice of local Indiana bread is 15 cents, and a local, organic, free range egg is 17 cents. Cheap Kroger cheddar is 25 cents per ounce, and local cheese can be up to 60 cents/oz. (If not more.) I realized I could afford to buy local produce (especially when pumpkins are 99 cents/each!) and free range eggs
Overall, I don’t think my experience can easily compare to what people in poverty face. I have a pretty solid background in cooking, enough money to buy kitchen supplies and appliances, and a pretty good knowledge of nutrition. And I didn’t learn what I know from school—most of it came from my mother, family, and friends, or was just self-taught. It took time, the willingness to experiment, and more time! And time is something that not everyone has.
I do believe that it’s possible for people on food stamps to be able to eat and prepare cheap, nutritious, and ethically-minded food. But I’m not going to say that this justifies funding cuts to the program. People on food stamps must have limited assets and a very limited income to qualify, and making their access to food a bigger challenge is not the answer. I believe we need more funding for nutrition education and a continued increase to food stamp benefits as inflation rises and the economy remains unstable. Fortunately, it looks like the food stamps program will not be cut, and congress will also add more funding and programs for child nutrition.
Finally, when I started the challenge, I expected healthy and local foods to be more expensive and therefore more challenging to include. This was true, to a point—but I still think it would be possible to choose eggs and milk from local, ethically-minded farmers without breaking the bank. And if it’s possible, I think it’s worth the effort.
As for health, I recently read an article about a nutrition professor who lost weight and improved his cholesterol by going on a “Twinkie diet.” He managed to lose almost 30 lbs in two months eating mostly “convenience store food,” by simply maintaining his daily calories below a certain level. The point was to prove that it doesn’t matter what you eat, but how much. And by all external indications, it seems he was right.
I still think I’d rather eat a variety of fresh and local food. Part of that involves my own peace of mind. I want to know that my food is sourced from sustainable growers, and produced ethically. Food is a huge part of my daily life—it would be wrong to choose factory farm eggs over cage free ones. And ideally, I would just raise my own hens. (Hopefully one day I will!) The other reason I’d prefer fresh food is that it tastes better. Don’t get me wrong—my weakness for chocolate covered peanut butter cups sometimes wins out. But I cook my own food because I like the variety. It’s empowering. And it eliminates the discomfort of not knowing.
I could go on for pages with my growing philosophy about this country’s rampant overconsumption, but I think I’ll stop here for now in favor of some semblance of brevity.
tl;dr – It was possible for me to eat on food stamp prices if you know how to cook food from scratch, but there is little leeway for mistakes and people shouldn’t have those limitations on food. Because food is, and should be, a human right.