The food-stamp diet

Our writer tries living on $5 a day

SN&R 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 equivalency 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 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 in real life, I’d be jobless and homeless. I’m neither. I have a well-equipped kitchen. I can store, heat and chill anything I want. I have a car, so I can 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.

February 12

I shopped yesterday for my first week of food-stamp living. I’m attempting to do this healthfully, with mostly whole grains and vegetables, without resorting to things like Ramen noodles. And I’m starting from scratch. I have a cupboard full of cooking ingredients, but I’m pretending I don’t.

Shopping was stressful. Every cent counted. I raided the bulk-food section 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. The bill came out under $38.

February 14

I met a food-stamp outreach worker today who’s 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 because they like mac ’n’ cheese so much more than whole grains and veggies. It’s that 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.

February 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 said, “were good, but no Ghirardelli’s.”

February 16

I pillaged the brownies again after work. There’s a 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.

February 19

Week two of grocery shopping, and the bill came in under $25.

It’s Monday afternoon and I’m not hungry. The hard part now is social expectation. I miss not being able to sit with a friend for a beer or cup of coffee.

February 20

A young, disheveled guy with a cut on his lip stands in the food-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 typically gets $87 per month in food stamps in addition to his Supplemental Security Income. But he hasn’t gotten food stamps for four months. It seems something got lost in the mail.

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.”

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 gray-haired lady at the counter smiles and asks for my ID. She hands me a simple form to fill out, which includes my monthly income. Thinking they’ll say I make too much to rob 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 tray-like box. Doren flashes an approving smile. I set it down, and Doren picks through the box of instant mashed potatoes, peanut butter and canned fruit and vegetables. “You have to keep half of this,” he says. I tell him 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. 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. The soft-spoken, clean-shaven man wishes he could get food stamps. He works for a temp agency and makes just over the $1,062 monthly maximum for food-stamp eligibility. “But then there’re two or three weeks where there’s no work,” he says.

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 make up the bulk of what they’ll eat.

Johnston 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.

February 22-24

Jake and Kat visited this weekend. They’re Peace Corps friends from our time in Ecuador, and Grant and I haven’t seen them since we left there three years ago. We all “lived poor” in Ecuador on about $200 a month, which went further than it does here. But there were also many nights of drinking foot-tall bottles of $1 pilsner. So drinking was inevitable this weekend, which is strictly not covered by food stamps. Neither is the $25-a-plate dinner we treated them to. But I couldn’t serve them beans and rice. 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.

February 26

My cheapest grocery bill yet: $18

February 28

About eight people are filling out food-stamp applications on folding tables in the blue-walled, white-tiled room at the senior center.

An older woman applying for food stamps has $4,600 in her savings and checking accounts. The younger woman helping her says the amount like it’s an unbelievably small sum. Her face twitches, astonished, when the outreach worker says 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. She’s told to hold on to the application in case her savings amount drops.

Seniors notoriously save for the next disaster. That’s why food banks, welfare offices and health workers are trying to get Congress to raise that limit to at least $5,000.

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, given the central role food plays in interacting with them. 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 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?