A week on food stamps in Sacramento

Our writer dishes data and diary notes on his food-stamp challenge and hunger in Sacramento

Photos of groceries and meals from our writer’s food-stamp challenge.

Photos of groceries and meals from our writer’s food-stamp challenge.

A week ago, I joined the 246,334 other Sacramentans living on CalFresh, a.k.a. food stamps. My decision to survive on a grocery budget of $5 a day for 10 days was a personal choice. Most people don’t have that option: They’re broke, or close to it, sometimes elderly living off Social Security, sometimes recently unemployed, turning a few $20 bills into a month’s worth of sustenance.

In fact, a few readers who emailed me after learning about my so-called “food-stamp challenge” in last week’s paper mocked this “game” of living on food stamps.

“Eat on $5 a day for 10 days? A ’challenge?’” wrote “Bill,” on the first day of the food-stamp journey.

Bill, not his actual name, says he’s been living on $1,000 a month Social Security for two years. He pays $500 for rent, $250 for Medicare premiums, $30 on prescription meds and about $7 a day for everything else. “But know what? I’m doing just fine! I’m certainly not starving,” he wrote.

He says his secret is that he shops at less-popular markets, such as the La Superior chain, where he can get deals, like a pound of chicken drumsticks for 89 cents, or two pounds of onions for 99 cents. Or, amazingly, 10 pounds of potatoes for $1.29. He makes simple recipes from scratch—and he actually attached what amounts to small recipe books for his signature soups and salads (think a “Power Kraut” saurkraut).

Bill thinks a big problem with people spending too much on food is that they don’t know how to cook for themselves. And “the screwed up attitudes about food that makes people want to pay more for a less healthy diet,” such as farm-to-fork entrees at central-city restaurants that are high in sodium and fat.

Affordability and nutrition is indeed a critical issue: Most low-income Sacramentans can’t afford a healthy diet. As one follower on Twitter wrote: “Its ridiculous how #healthy foods costs more. Kind of like you must be rich to have #healthyliving.”

A breakfast staple during my food-stamp challenge was sauteed kale and scrambled eggs, because it’s got greens and is high in protein. Organic, local kale is typically $1.99 a bunch, if it’s on sale, and that’ll last three breakfasts. Maybe. Spinach is usually a little more affordable. Farmers markets, such as the Saturday one in Midtown and the Sunday one downtown, accept food-stamp EBT cards and will even match purchases dollar-for-dollar up to a certain amount. But in general, organic produce is not reasonably priced for low-income shoppers.

And even eggs are not cheap. At Midtown’s Grocery Outlet, where I shopped while simulating life on food stamps and which accepts CalFresh EBT payments, the business model is to buy overstock from manufacturers, stuff that companies made too much of, like Prego spaghetti sauce and Hamburger Helper. They say they purchase it for cheap and, in theory, pass on the savings to consumers. They also offer stuff like produce and dairy at a just-under market-rate price. Eggs were $2.69 a dozen.

That doesn’t seem like much. But when a box of macaroni and cheese is 50 cents, and Annie’s rabbit-shaped crackers are 99 cents—you get the point: Why cook when pre-fab meals are a fraction of the cost?

And then there’s fast food.

On the sixth day of my food-stamp challenge, I found myself at a McDonald’s drive-thru for the first time in more than a decade. Most of you probably know the Golden Arches has a “Dollar Menu” (nothing on it is actually $1). My point is that, when you’re working poor and living on CalFresh supplemental income, $1.79 for a double cheeseburger (which I ordered) won’t bust the bank, fills you up and is of supreme convenience.

Besides the stigma of being on government assistance, fast food is one of the biggest obstacles to getting people to sign up for CalFresh. It’s just cheaper. But science-food burgers aren’t healthier, and Sacramento County’s working to up its nutritional-outreach game in low-income communities.

Registering for food stamps takes about an hour online, and you can obtain an EBT card for purchases that day—if you have Internet access and are savvy with digital copies of your pay stubs, etc. If you’re not that person, it’ll take a lot longer—and that might mean hours seated in a county waiting room.

Nevertheless, Sacramento County does a better job than most in the state when it comes to enrolling eligible residents for CalFresh. According to a 2013 report by California Food Policy Advocates, the county ranked fourth in California when it comes to CalFresh utilization by low-income individuals (trailing only Del Norte, Calaveras and San Bernardino).

That’s tremendous news, considering that just five years ago, in 2010, California ranked dead last in the entire country when it came to federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participation, at 55 percent. (That number inched up to 63 percent in 2012.)

The state’s abysmal ranking motivated politicians, however, who tweaked laws and eased red tape, and now food-stamp enrollment numbers are up (still waiting on the return of the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture data).

The renewed focus on enrollment is, of course, economically driven. When Sacramento County bumped up its numbers, the net impact was an additional $25.9 million to local residents—with an additional $46.4 million in economic benefit to the region, according to CFPA.

SNAP’s multiplier effect is impressive, too, as every dollar in benefits equals $1.80 in economic activity, according to the USDA.

If California increases its participation rate and enrolls everyone, the estimated economic impact would be $8.3 billion a year.

Instead, the state loses out on $4.7 billion in federal funds.

Sacramento County is succeeding because of increased community outreach and guaranteed 30-day application processing, plus expedited services, according to a spokeswoman. And now some felons and students are allowed to participate, too. The county also provides a translator for the application process if needed.

Still, there remain the requisite, GOP-driven questions about trafficking benefits, or trading them for guns and drugs, or double-dipping.

Despite the success, there are a lot of enrollment challenges, according to the county. The elderly, or individuals living with others, are difficult to register. Same for people that have jobs and are above the poverty level, but would still qualify for lower monthly benefits. Legal-resident noncitizens also are tough to enroll.

The Sacramento household of one receives a maximum of $194 a month, and a household of four a $649 max.

During my food-stamp challenge, I posted updates, facts and photos of groceries and meals on my Twitter account (@NickMiller916). It’s the Internet, and, of course, a few commenters dismissed those on assistance as fraudsters, “welfare queens” and “people who don’t want to work.”

According to the USDA, however, only 20 percent of food-stamp recipients don’t work—because they are disabled or elderly—and more than 80 percent worked in the year leading up to going on assistance. And, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the SNAP “error rate,” a.k.a. fraud, is just 3 percent. Few cheat the system.

A few also accused me of cheating on my challenge during the past week. On day four, for instance, I received an email comment from a reader who I will refer to as “Regina”: “You invited us to watch what you are doing for your challenge on Twitter and frankly—YOU ARE CHEATING!”

Regina wrote that she was offended by joking about eating co-workers’ potluck snacks and not counting it toward my food-stamp budget. She even cited a Facebook post from Rep. Doris Matsui, when she did the food-stamp challenge in 2012, during which the congresswoman joked how miserable she was because of her sandwich’s wilted lettuce and dry bread.

Regina says she lives on $100 a month for food and gas, and doesn’t qualify for CalFresh. When she goes shopping, she says she only brings a $20 bill (“or $15 for long months”) and no other form of payment, so that she won’t go over budget. “Meat, a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables (especially in winter), healthier oils (like olive oil), eggs and dairy are luxuries I can rarely afford,” she wrote.

She says that, when she sees sale items on things like mac ’n’ cheese, she’ll buy them, but prepare them with water instead of butter and milk. It tastes better than plain pasta, she says, but she can’t afford to make sauces.

She also says she has ended up skipping meals “because the only thing in the house was the bounty of the previous week’s shopping trip.

“And it was not much.”

It’s difficult to reconcile this reality—again, more than 240,000 Sacramentans survive on food stamps, which is only a fraction of those who are food insecure. Sacramento is a world of Instagram foodie pics and local celebrity chefs. A region that often defines itself by its restaurant scene and culinary bounty, that farm-to-fork spirit that makes us “world class,” that decorates nearly every block in our urban core.

I’ve walked the city streets this past week, tempted by that world, but knowing I can’t be part of it. This is just a simulation, but I’ve learned that poverty is a lot further removed from reality than we think.

When my “challenge” ends on Thanksgiving, I’ll eventually be back eating out at these restaurants, buying all this tasty and healthy food—but hundreds of thousands of my neighbors and fellow Sacramentans won’t. And that’s not right.

My food-stamp-challenge lesson: Food inequality keeps growing, and I challenge Sacramento to do more about it in the coming year.