The food stamp diet

Life on $5 a day

Photo By David Robert

I’ve been on a diet for the past month. It’s not one I expect to sweep the nation anytime soon. It’s called the Food Stamp Diet. It’s not to lose weight or improve my health—in fact, I feel like crap, and I think I’ve gained a bit. The idea is to see what it’s like to live off the equivalent of food stamps for a month.

$155 a month. $38.75 a week. About $5 a day.

That means no booze, no restaurants and some careful grocery shopping.

But let’s set something straight. This experiment is not a realistic interpretation of food-stamp life. The $155 a month I’m using is the maximum given for one person on food stamps. To get that amount in real life, I’d be jobless and homeless. I’m neither. I have a well-equipped kitchen with an oven, fridge, freezer and microwave. I can store, heat and chill anything I want. I have a car, which I can use to go to the budget-friendly supermarkets rather than the nearest place within walking distance that accepts food stamps. And my food-stamp life has an end in sight—one month. That’s it. By the time you read this, I hope to be eating sushi somewhere.

I’ve got it made. And yet, I can’t wait until this is over.

Feb. 12, Monday morning
I went to WinCo off North McCarran yesterday for my first week of food stamp shopping. I had a well-planned list of things like oatmeal and raisins for breakfast, tuna or pinto beans for lunch, vegetarian dinner ingredients and some snacks.

I’m attempting to do this healthfully, without resorting to things like Ramen noodles or the diet of one D. Giolitto, who posted these ideas for “Low Budget Meals in Minutes” on the Internet: “saltines and ketchup” and “jelly in a bowl.”

Shopping was a bit stressful. Every cent counted. I raided the bulk food section—a glorious thing for anyone on a budget—for spices and other staples. I even found a just-add-water brownie mix for 95 cents a pound, so I can at least make something for my boyfriend Grant for Valentine’s Day. (We’re foregoing our annual fondue dinner out for this, but he won’t be doing this diet with me.) The bill came out under $38.

Food is only one anxious part of the equation for someone on food stamps. They also have to worry about rent, utilities and other incidentals. But for me, this is an experiment about living on food stamps, not necessarily about living poor.

Next week’s shopping should be easier. This week’s was so “expensive” because I’m starting from scratch. Yes, I have a cupboard full of spices and cooking ingredients, but I’m pretending I don’t.

Feb. 12, Monday, 2:30p.m.
I’m starving. Today, I’ve had oatmeal, an apple, tuna with tomato, and a cup of weak hot chocolate. In retrospect, that doesn’t sound like a helluva lot. So I’m hungry and cranky, and I broke down. There was a yogurt I left in the office fridge from last week (not part of the budgeted diet), so I ate it to hold me over for the next 2-3 hours until I can go home and make dinner. Next week, I’ll buy some peanut butter to get me through the day.

Feb. 13
I made veggie curry for dinner—brown rice, carrots, tofu and green beans. Despite an onslaught of curry, cumin and salt, it was ridiculously good for me but utterly tasteless. I’ll be eating it for the next couple days.

So, Day 2, and I’ve yet to have a satisfactory meal. Today’s morning oatmeal was overly mushy. The pinto beans and parmesan tasted strange for lunch. I have, however, managed to not be starving today.

Feb. 14
Boxed up packages of food is stored inside the chilly Sparks warehouse that is the Food Bank of Northern Nevada. There, food is sorted and distributed to local pantries. It also serves as home base for its food stamp outreach workers, who give workshops at senior centers and travel throughout the region to reach people who find it hard to get to the welfare office to sign up for food stamps.

Among those outreach workers is Rhonda Rickland. The dark-haired woman with the heart-shaped necklace is on food stamps, herself. She gets $400 a month for her family of five. They live in a motel room with a tiny microwave and a tiny refrigerator. Naively, I hadn’t thought about how food preparation plays into the often abysmal diet of people on food stamps. It’s not necessarily because they like mac ‘n’ cheese so much more than whole grains and veggies. It’s that something like mac ‘n’ cheese stores easily. It can be cooked in the microwave, and it’s filling. Veggies go bad. Meat goes bad. Ramen noodles—wholly lacking in nutrition—can get rid of that empty, aching-belly feeling for less than 10 cents. Some people even eat it dry.

Nikki Firpo, seated left, and Rhonda Rickland of the Food Bank of Northern Nevada help a food stamp applicant fill out forms while others line up for St. Vincent’s food pantry.

Photo By David Robert

Rickland often feeds her family on TV dinners from Albertson’s because she knows they’re sold 10 for $10. She can’t buy the more economical “family pack” of hamburger —it won’t fit in her fridge and will go bad unless eaten right away since she has no freezer. She reminded me that people who haven’t eaten in a couple days don’t much care about nutrition, or at least, it’s not their top priority.

Feb. 15
I made brownies for Grant last night. I ate more than my fair share for someone giving brownies away, but I’ve felt on the edge of hunger pretty consistently for the past four days. The brownies, as Grant so aptly put, “were good, but they’re no Ghirardelli’s.”

Feb. 16
I pillaged the brownies again when I came home from work yesterday. There’s a weird, psychological deprivation I’m beginning to notice that comes from not being able to eat or buy food whenever, wherever I want, so when I finally get it, I inhale it, like someone might take it away from me.

The veggie dirty rice I made was really good, and a serving cost less than a dollar.

Feb. 19
Week two of grocery shopping. It was much easier this time, having bought most of my staples last week. The whole bill came in under $25.

It’s Monday afternoon, and so far, so good. I’m not hungry. The hard part now is social expectation, especially when my friends aren’t used to this lifestyle, and neither am I. I don’t mind beans-and-rice. But it sucks not being able to sit with a friend for a beer or cup of coffee. My editor keeps forgetting I’m doing this diet. He’ll come in my office and say, “What’s for lunch? I’m thinkin’ of going for some Indian.” He’s probably one of the few bosses in the world who laughs when his employee flips him off.

Feb. 20, The Food Pantry
St. Vincent’s food pantry is buzzing. The small, sterile room smells vaguely of old clothes and antiseptic. Outreach workers from the Food Bank of Northern Nevada are at a table, helping a line of people fill out food stamp applications. The pantry operates every day, but the Food Bank folks come every Tuesday from 9-11 a.m.

“Most people need a lot of handholding,” says Nikki Firpo, food stamp outreach coordinator for the FBNN. “It’s better to get the application filled out. It’s better yet to get the application to the welfare office.”

“Are you the food stamp lady?” a lanky guy calls out to her. He looks young and disheveled, with a cut on his lip. He’s in the pantry line, where, because he has no ID, he’ll only be able to get a “snack pack” and not the daily or monthly supply.

His name is Doren. He’s 37 and homeless. He hasn’t gotten food stamps for four months, and he’s wondering why. It seems something got lost in the mail. He says he typically gets $87 per month in food stamps in addition to his Supplemental Security Income, or SSI.

Later, outside, he lights a used cigarette and asks me, “Hey, do you have an ID?”

I do.

“Then you can go through the food line for me.”

Sure, why not? Though I feel oddly nervous about it, as if all my middle-class cushiness is transparent on my face, and they’ll deny me for it. A nice, gray-haired lady at the counter smiles and asks for my ID. I give it to her, saying I’ve never done this before. She hands me a simple form to fill out, which includes my monthly income. Thinking they’ll say I make too much to be robbing the poor, I fill in what I think might be the high end of low, $1,200, and sign my name.

Moments later, I’m handed a cardboard tray-like box. Doren flashes an approving smile. I set the box down on a bench and take inventory: One bag instant mashed potato flakes, 1 can pears, 1 can asparagus, 1 can peaches, a can or two of tuna, a bag of dried northern beans, 1 can cranberry juice, peanut butter, 1 can corn, 1 can chicken noodle soup, 1 box 2-percent milk, 1 cup yogurt, 1 package elbow macaroni.

Doren picks through the box. “You have to keep half of this,” he says. I refuse, saying I have plenty of food this week. “No, you have to,” he says. “You have to do your experiment. If you’re on food stamps, you’ll need this.” Again, I refuse. I tell him to take what he wants and to give the rest to someone else who needs it. He relents, hugs me and wishes me luck.

Mark Johnston, a 37-year-old man in glasses and a coat is rummaging through his monthly food box beside me. A man standing in line for an application offers to give him his “daily"—the pantry’s daily portion.

Photo By David Robert

Johnston doesn’t know him. But among those here, there seems to be an appreciation for hunger and the logical, resourceful view that it’s better to give away what you know you won’t use.

“Thanks,” Johnston tells him. “My daughter could really use the eggs.”

His daughter is 7-years-old. Her mom is more or less out of the picture. School food programs feed her for most days, but these once-a-month pantry rations are what they’ll live off for the month.

He wishes he could get food stamps. He works for a temp agency and makes just over the $1,062/month maximum for food stamp eligibility. “But then there’re two or three weeks where there’s no work,” he says. Johnston, a soft-spoken, clean shaven man, became homeless about a year ago. He had a lengthy hospital stay that left him with a $31,000 bill he couldn’t pay. He lost his car, his home. “I lost everything,” he says.

Failure, Feb 22-24
Jake and Kat visited from upstate New York this weekend. They’re Peace Corps friends from our time in Ecuador, and Grant and I haven’t seen them since we left that country three years ago. We all “lived poor” during Peace Corps on about $200 a month, which went much further in Ecuador than it does here. Our diets were simple there, but there were also many nights of drinking foot-tall bottles of $1 pilsener. So drinking was inevitable this weekend, which is strictly not covered by food stamps. Neither is the $25-a-plate dinner at Louis’ Basque Corner we treated them to. But I couldn’t see serving them beans and rice during their first trip to Reno. So I failed completely. But failure isn’t an option for someone on food stamps. Failure means debt, a late or unpaid bill, or maybe a dip into precious savings. I promise I’ll be good for the remaining two weeks.

Feb. 26, Monday
My cheapest grocery bill yet: $18

Feb. 28
About eight people are filling out food stamp applications on folding tables in the blue-walled, white-tiled “Art Room” at the Washoe County Senior Center. There are no art supplies in view, just empty shelves and a sink that probably once washed paint-splattered hands. Firpo and Nowak from the Food Bank are here to help demystify and expedite the application process.

Firpo spent 27 years working in the welfare division before she came to the Food Bank about a year ago. Her experience shows. She’s efficient, respectful, and mildly playful but businesslike. She knows the welfare division back and front, which helps her advocate for these folks.

A woman helping an older woman fill out an application tells Firpo the older woman has only $4,600 in her savings and checking accounts. She says it like it’s an unbelievably small sum. Her face twitches, astonished, when Firpo tells her that’s too much to be eligible for food stamps. There’s a $3,000 limit for savings for seniors. For everyone else, the limit is $2,000. Firpo tells her to hold on to the application in case her savings amount drops.

“Seniors notoriously save for the next disaster,” Firpo tells me. “They would rather go hungry than dip into their savings account. … We keep trying to get Congress to raise that limit to at least $5,000.”

Minutes later, Phillip Ulibarri from the county health department walks in with a clipboard and asks Firpo if there’s anything she’d like him to put on the next meeting’s agenda. “Yeah,” she says. “Tell ’em to raise it from $3,000 to $5,000 and to raise the minimum from $10 to $25.” (The least amount of food stamp money available is $10.)

Firpo and Nowak take in more than just financial information at these workshops. They take in stories of love, war, crime and pain. Behind nearly every fill-in-the-blank, there’s a story, and the applicants seem eager to share it.

There’s the dignified 64-year-old gentleman with his silver hair slicked like a duck’s back. His aorta ruptured, his wife says. He’s lucky to be alive, but the couple tells Firpo how they’ve been mistreated by the welfare division “all down the line,” unable to get assistance despite hospital bills they can’t pay. “You pay 50 years into the system, and when it happens to you, you get nothing,” his wife says.

Near them, a seemingly healthy, 47-year-old man with dark, full hair, wears braces on his legs, hidden by his pants. An imminent foot operation will keep him off his feet for eight weeks. He’s applying for food stamps with his roommate, a woman who’s also on disability. He talks about his six kids and how he “honorably pays” their child support. He jokes flirtatiously with Firpo and says she looks much younger than her 58 years. After his application is filled out, he thanks Nowak and Firpo for their help saying, “We’re not looking for a handout. We’re just looking for a hand.”

March 10
Twenty-six days of food-stamp living, with four days to go, and I give up. Unexpectedly, some friends came to visit this weekend, and the thought of sitting there watching at a restaurant while they drank and ate was too much. So I’ve had it.

A monthly $155 has been plenty to feed my belly, but not enough to keep me from missing friends, considering the central role food plays in interacting with them. I realize my priorities may change if, on the hierarchical scale of needs, my basic ones (food, shelter, health) were not being met, as is the case for many on food stamps.

But I’m taking a few lessons and resolutions with me: I’m spoiled and wasteful, and so is nearly everyone I know. Food banks need and deserve donations, and despite what some say about “enabling” bad habits, I think most panhandlers do, too. It goes back to what most lining up at the local food pantry already know—if you can spare it, why not give it to someone who needs it?