22 Aug 2014
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Living on the Edge: Getting By on a Food Stamp Budget

California's average household food stamp allotment is $200 per month. See how Morgan Ray fed her household on $42/week.

When Patch editor Alexis Fitts asked if anyone wanted to take on the challenge of trying to live on a food stamp budget, I jumped at the chance. 

Why? Because I wanted to experience the challenge, first-hand, faced by an estimated 6 million Americans, many of whom have no income to supplement their food stamps.

In the Sonoma and Boyes Hot Springs 727 households, or over 1,400 individuals, use CalFresh (formerly known as food stamps) to procure their groceries.

The is $200 per month.  When I went on line to the State’s food stamp benefit calculator, I discovered that in order for a household of two to get $200 per month in food stamps, the total household gross income had to stay below $320 per week with virtually no other assets.  Many households qualify for less than $200 of food stamps per month.

Check out the full week of groceries and menus in the pdf files at right.

Planning

I knew that if I had any chance of feeding the two of us for a week on less than $50 (my actual budget was $21 per person), I had to have a plan.  I made a menu for every meal for the week, then went online to check for specials in my local markets and download coupons to stretch my budget. In total, I ended up spending $45.59.

Shopping Locally

Unlike many Americans, I am blessed to live in one of the most temperate, agriculturally rich areas in the country.  Sonoma is abundant with quality organic produce and meat.  There’s no food desert here

Despite this bounty, buying healthy nutritious food when a head of lettuce costs $2 or more is challenging.  I immediately had to rule out the usual places I shop: and . Aside from maybe an item or two that was on sale, these stores were out of my league.  (Sure, I could by a lot of  Top Ramen, but my goal was to create the most healthful meals my budget would allow.)

The Coupon Advantage

I did the bulk of my shopping at Safeway. I discovered that Safeway.com offered on-line coupons through their "Just for U" promotion that provided more savings than their in-store Club Card.

It was a good week for coupons. For example, I was able to purchase organic spring mix salad greens, normally $3.69 a package for just .99, I got a dozen eggs for free, a pound of pasta for 71 cents and canned tomatoes for 49 cents.  These on-line coupons combined with the in-store Club Card specials netted me an additional $21.75 of food, increasing my food stamp budget by 50 percent.

I also included ethnic markets in my shopping strategy since they tend to have cheaper prices on things like dry beans, grains and some vegetables.

The Time Commitment

Let me just say that this level of planning takes an enormous amount of time. Before I ever set foot out the door to shop, I had invested about 2 ½ to 3 hours in planning, adjusting my menu according to what was on sale and mapping out my shopping strategy.  

The shopping was slow. I had to be careful that I was buying exactly what was on my list. I weighed all the produce so I didn’t over-buy and studied the coupons to assure that the item in my basket matched the coupon exactly.  I went to four different places to buy food, Safeway, The Fruit Basket, Lolita’s Market and The Grocery Outlet. Total time shopping, including travel: about 2 ½ hours.

I combined a doctor’s appointment in Petaluma with a stop at Lolita’s market and the Grocery Outlet where I was able to buy 3-lbs of sweet potatoes for the same price as one large sweet potato at Safeway.  I noticed that the chicken I had purchased at Safeway on sale was $2 cheaper at Grocery Outlet. I wish I had gone there first but I was trying to shop only in Sonoma. The savings would have easily outweighed the cost of the approximately 22 miles round trip.

Once the shopping was complete, the real time commitment began… cooking! You cannot eat healthfully on a food stamp budget if you don’t start with raw ingredients and know how to cook.  On average, I spent about 1 ½ to 2 hours a day cooking.  This could be a challenge for working people.

In addition to understanding how to cook, you have to be creative in how you use your food to make multiple meals and delicious leftovers. For example, I bought a whole chicken and created five meals out of it.  I cut the wings off the chicken, removed the giblets and made broth that would later become soup.  I roasted the rest of the chicken and served roast chicken with brocolli and baked sweet potato fries.  The leftover chicken was used to create chicken vegetable soup, chicken salad, and chicken enchiladas. 

The Things I Missed

For the most part, I felt like all the meals were healthy and satisfying. I was able to include a good balance of protein, grains, legumes and fresh vegetables in the week’s menu but there were things I missed.  Try as I may, I could not eek out enough money for coffee.  At $5.99 to $12.00 a pound, coffee was just not possible.  I couldn’t even afford instant coffee.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit I did what any coffee addict would do, I cheated and had my daily cup of coffee which was not in my budget.

There wasn’t any money for treats like cookies, ice cream, cheese, or crackers. Our treat consisted of sweet naval oranges that I bought by the bag. We also ran out of milk about halfway through the week and were licking the bottom of the yogurt container by day five.

I found myself wondering how anyone could build a basic pantry of essentials like cooking oil, vinegar, mustard, ketchup, garlic, onions, pepper and other spices.  It would take time, scrimping each week in order to accumulate staples.

Living on food stamps would be more difficult as a single person.  As it was, with $42/week for two, I couldn’t take advantage of lower priced bulk or economy packs and I can’t imagine the challenges parents face feeding children who want commercial cereals, fast food and snacks. These items are simply too expensive.

There’s no eating out on this budget, unless you’re willing to do the fast-food dollar menu that will leave you hungry. I missed the social aspect of dining with friends but I did manage to have two friends over for dinner to share a green salad, chicken enchiladas and beans.  Fortunately, they brought a bottle of nice wine.

While this exercise was enlightening, to a certain extent it rings false. It’s not impossible to live on the maximum food stamp budget if you have a car, a supply of toilet paper, toothpaste, a bottle of aspirin, a computer, good math skills and know how to cook.

But how do you buy essential non-food items that are disallowed by the food stamp program? How do you find the extra time to plan, shop and cook every day? And how do you provide healthy meals if you live in an area where your grocery store option is the local high-priced convenience store?  These are the questions that haunt me.

Personal Impact

Will I continue to try and buy groceries on a budget of $21 per person per week? Probably not. It’s too difficult and  emotionally draining. I had to focus much of my energy on food acquisition and preparation, something most of the rest of the world does on a daily basis.

My experience did, however, make me more committed to being a mindful shopper.  It also made me more committed to supporting my local food banks. With so many American’s strugging to get enough food, we should help when we can.

I also wish that every person who is in the unfortunate position of trying to feed themselves and their family with food stamps could receive free education on how to shop and how to prepare the most healthful meals possible on the limited allotment they receive.

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