Monday, November 18, 2013

Day 190 - Living on a Food Stamp Budget (for a week)

I have never lived on food stamps. I know I'm lucky to be able to say that. Even though I have faced some rough patches of limited income in my life, I have never faced the prospects of turning to the nominal support of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to meet my basic nutritional needs. In fact, I have never been able to wrap my head around the idea of eating with little more than a few dollars a day; a reality that became even more difficult to understand when I heard recent news reports stating food stamp funding had been cut to $3.90 per day for each person using the program. As a result, I knew the only way to understand that reality faced by so many Americans each day would be to experience it myself, and in a year of new experiences for the sake of growing as a person, I had the inspiration to do just that.

As a result, I decided living on a food stamp budget would be one of the weekly sub-challenges during my "I have never..." year. After some thought, I determined the best week to complete this sub-challenge would be the week before Thanksgiving, given I feel the modern holiday is built around the concept of gorging one day each year under the guise of giving "thanks". In my mind, doing so will help me truly understand and value the meal and comfort that will come with next week's holiday, and will hopefully help me better understand the challenges faced by people throughout the United States each day. Now, I acknowledge living on a food stamp budget for a week will only provide a glimpse into one facet of living in poverty, but I also also know the experience will give me insight unlike any other during my "I have never..." year.  As a result, I intend to live on $1.30 per meal for the next week with no exceptions. I may find myself hungry and my diet may not end up being balanced, but if living that way for a week can help me understand a shred of what Americans in poverty face each day, I know I will come out a better person.

Day 1:
My basket...
I went into the first day of my week living on a food stamp budget knowing it would be a challenge to secure enough food for three meals with my allotted daily funds of $3.90. Even with that perspective, I didn't anticipate having to face the very real prospects of going without a meal this early in the week. After stopping at the grocery store this morning, I realized I was approaching my daily spending limits just minutes after entering the store. After being priced out of most fresh fruits and vegetables, I grabbed two bananas, a bag of carrots on sale, a box of pasta, and a jar of discounted pasta sauce. Those four items left me pressing the ceiling of my $3.90 limit. With plans to eat a banana for breakfast and the pasta for dinner, I was left only with the carrots for any sort of lunch. It was only day one, and I was already facing a stark reality.

Day one: $3.73 spent
The very thought of eating only carrots for a meal left me with a sense of hopelessness and defeat just hours into the first day of my challenge. Reluctantly, I accepted the reality and moved to the front of the store to buy the goods in my basket. Luckily, a last minute review of the weekly ad resulted in me finding a coupon for the pasta sauce, which left me just enough money to run back into the aisles and grab a package of Ramen noodles. Relieved I had enough to cover three meals for a day, I nearly overlooked the limited nutritional value of limited food supply I had purchased within my $3.90 cap. However, I was willing to make the sacrifice if it meant having enough food to prevent me from feeling hungry throughout the day, figuring I will be able to get more expensive items with greater nutritional value in the coming days.

By the end of the day, I was surprised to find I was only moderately hungry, but I wasn't uncomfortable. As an added benefit, my pasta and sauce and my bag of carrots left me with plenty of leftovers for tomorrow, which should permit me to pick up some higher cost items without skipping a meal in the coming days. It's going to be tough going, but at this point I think I will be able to make it through the week alright.  That stated, I'm already missing complete meals...

Day 1 Meals:
Breakfast - Banana
Lunch - Beef Ramen with three carrots
Dinner - Pasta with sauce and two carrots

Day 2:
I woke up this morning hungry. It wasn't the sudden stomach growling hunger that comes with significant gaps between regular meals, but a kind of constant, rolling hunger that felt similar to when I start to feel hungry. The only difference is it didn't get worse as I worked through the morning and it didn't go away, even after I ate a small breakfast. Accompanying it was a kind of hazy state of mind that left me forgetting a few things on and off as the day progressed. I don't know if it was just an off day or if my body was already retaliating against yesterday's less than nutritious meals. Regardless, the low, persistent hunger and the hazy feeling stuck with me the entire day, and by the end of the day I felt a headache starting to creep up on me. Again, I can't necessarily say anything but the feeling of hunger is the result of my limited diet this week, but if they remain tomorrow, I think it will be safe to say the food stamp diet in the source.

Day 2: $3.75 spent
Getting back my experience during my second day on a food stamp diet, this morning I tackled a "I have never..." event of visiting the Oscar Mayer/Kraft Company Store at the local Oscar Mayer plant in Madison, Wisconsin. As one of Madison's "hidden places" I have always been curious about the company store, and the rumors I heard of incredibly low prices at the store appealed directly to me and my limited food budget this week. Thankfully, the rumors proved true, which permitted me to obtain a much needed source of protein via some turkey bologna and a box of macaroni for later this week. After my trip to the store I was also able to pick up a loaf of bread, but my budget priced me out of some basic essentials like milk, butter, and cheese that I hope I will be able to pick up in the coming days.

After a small breakfast, a limited lunch, and a basic dinner I'm starting to see exactly how difficult living on a food stamp budget can truly be. I have been able to eat, but I can't say that I actually feel nourished. Instead, as I write this blog entry I'm only thinking about how I'm going to afford putting together full meals tomorrow. With my fruit and vegetables almost gone and basic essentials still lacking in my diet, I don't know how far my $3.90 will get me tomorrow. All I can do at this point is get to planning as the distracting feeling of that low, constant hunger returns some 90 minutes after eating dinner. I guess I'll be drinking a lot of water tonight.

Day 2 meals:
Breakfast - Banana
Lunch - Leftover pasta and two carrots
Dinner - Four slices of turkey bologna, two pieces of bread (sandwich), and a handful of discount tortilla chips

Day 3:
The hunger and the haze continued today. Before heading to work this morning I stopped by the grocery store in hopes I could pick up some basic foods that my limited budget had made impossible to obtain over the last few days. With my fruit and vegetables from earlier in the week gone, I concentrated on finding a way to pick up some milk, butter, fruits, and vegetables with my daily $3.90 budget and the 32 cents I had remaining from spending under my limit the last two days. Thankfully, some incredibly low prices on canned corn, potatoes, and bananas let me put together a large haul of food to get me through the next few days. However, my lack of clarity as of late led me to miscalculate the value of the goods I intended to purchase, which led to an overage of 14 cents on today's purchase. To stick with my goal for this week, I will simply have to deduct the amount from tomorrow's budget, which may just leave me priced out of some critical sources of protein. I guess I'll see what tomorrow brings in the regard.

My overrun... Tomorrow will be tough
Three days into living on a food stamp budget I'm stunned at the constant state of uncertainty that comes with trying to simply get a nutritious meal to make it through the day. As I stood in the grocery store aisle today looking at the bag of dried beans I knew I couldn't afford if I wanted to buy some milk, I couldn't help but shake my head at the idea I was relegated to make such a decision. Although I was by myself in the store, the disappointment that came with the realization made me cut the air with a remark that sums up the most insightful and disheartening aspect of my experience living on a food stamp budget, "It's nothing but a game of sacrifices." To simply eat, to simply try to stave off the persistent hunger, requires a full effort to find the best way to get the most, and that often requires buying the worst available foods to get by. I was able to by "butter" today because it was an unhealthy vegetable oil spread, and I was only able to afford the potatoes because they were days away from no longer being suitable to sell. This isn't living. It is surviving.

The day's haul
I'm going to try again tomorrow to pick up some dry beans and rice with the $3.76 I will have to spend. Based on what I saw in the grocery store today, I just might be able to pull it off. At minimum, I will have to pick up the beans as an alternative source of protein to my highly unhealthy and basically disgusting turkey bologna that has served as my dinner the last two nights. I'm not sure how I will prepare them, but at this point, I don't really care. That reality is helping me gain insight on exactly how lucky I am to have the things I need, and it's making me grateful for the privileges that have been afforded to me throughout my life. Even when things were bad, I never had to face this kind of reality, and this is only about finding things to eat each day. I still have a job, a car, a house, and all the other things I consider to just be a regular part of my life. If I feel this distracted and concerned about trying to put together meals each day, I can't imagine what it would be like to be trying to cope with the other facets of a life in poverty while trying to manage this type of diet. I just feel drained and clouded as I work through each day, and I still recognize I'm only dealing with the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a life with food stamps. That is some of the most powerful perspective I have gained to date in my "I have never..." journey, and I still have four days of the food stamp budget to go.

Day 3 meals:
Breakfast - Banana
Lunch - Leftover pasta, a carrot, and eight tortilla chips
Dinner - Four slices of turkey bologna, two pieces of bread (sandwich), 1/3 a can of corn, and six tortilla chips

Day 4:
I was surprised to find I didn't wake up this morning as hungry as I have been over the last few days, but I could still feel the effects of my limited diet. I remained hazy and forgetful throughout the day, and hunger quickly followed my normal morning routine. Following another simple breakfast, I coped with the now-familiar mild hunger that has become a part of each day until it became too hard to ignore. My lunch was once again simple, but I was hopeful it would get me through the day. Unfortunately, I found myself feeling hungry once again toward the end of the day.

Another day... 

Although I thought I would be able to cope with the feeling until after work, a new, unexpected feeling of light-headedness crept in with a few hours left in my workday. As a result, I gathered some leftover food from a catered meal hosted by my employer earlier in the day and had the first real meal I have eaten this week. It was small, but it incredibly satisfying. Afterward, I felt guilty for accepting food outside of the scope of my food stamp budget purchases, but the fact that I obtained a full, free meal let me feeling somewhat like myself again for the first time in days. In other words, it was worth it.

Under budget!

During my visit to the grocery store today I was able to pick up the bags of dried beans and rice that had escaped me earlier in the week, and a few much needed price reductions left me with enough money to pick up some unbelievably cheap (and likely equally poor in quality) franks to accompany my beans. While the items I purchased were limited in quantity, I ended up feeling good about the overall outcome given the versatility and longevity of the foods I was able to pick up. Heading into the end of the week, I'm feeling a little better about the diversity of food items I now have, even though I know it will still be a tough few days leading to the end of my seven day "I have never..." event.

Day 4 meals:
Breakfast - Apple
Lunch - Leftover pasta and 1/3 can of corn
Dinner (courtesy of my employer) - A piece of turkey, a roll with butter, and a small side of potatoes

Day 5:
I'm not sure why, but today was a little easier. I was still hungry for most of the day, but an early morning find of some very cheap McIntosh apples and carrots left me with enough food to nibble on throughout the day. Additionally, the fact that I had some milk to drink this morning staved off the regular hunger that struck shortly after starting my day the last few mornings. I think the multiple sources of protein and vitamins in my diet as of late are definitely helping me feel more "normal" than I have the last few days, even if I still end up feeling hungry as the day progresses. Today was better, but I'm definitely looking forward to the end of this week. I'm just lucky I know when my limited food budget will end.

A little saved today hopefully
means more tomorrow
With only a few days left in my "I have never..." sub-challenge to live on a food stamp budget for a week, I took some time to reflect on my experience over the past five days. It has obviously been hard, but the reality is I am only experiencing life with such limited resources from a very narrow scope for a very limited time. The more I try to fathom what it must be to live with these daily challenges each day, the more often I come to the conclusion that we can do better for the people in need across our nation. With programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that funds food stamps recently cut, we have essentially said to the people already fighting to stay fed each day that they now have to live with less.

After trying to live the way they do everyday for a mere five days, I can already say I never want to experience this kind of struggle again. At a cost of $36 per taxpayer in the United States, the programs funded by SNAP shouldn't be seen as a problem, it should be seen as a critical program to help all of us, especially those in need, meet our basic human needs when we have nowhere else to turn. I still have two days left in my experience living on a food stamp budget, and I can say already this experience has been one of the most eye opening, transformative experiences of my life. Perhaps I was bound to ignorance or apathy before, but over the last few days I have really gained perspective on how  lucky I am to have a life of comfort and stability. With less than a week before Thanksgiving, that insight is something worth recognizing, and I'm sure that feeling will last well beyond Thursday of next week.

Day 5 meals:
Breakfast - Banana, three carrots, and a glass of milk
Lunch - Macaroni and cheese, a hot dog, and a six ounce container of yogurt
Dinner - Three pieces of turkey bologna, two pieces of bread, and an apple

Day 6:
I was surprisingly busy today, which made it easier to ignore the fact that I felt hungry a good portion of the day. That stated, I must admit I was less hungry today than I have been other days this week. Additionally, I was was definitely more focused after I loaded up with a late breakfast and an early lunch that had me eating two meals within two hours of one another. With the ability to afford some discounted cheese and a cucumber today, I was also feeling pretty good heading into dinner tonight. While the quality and nutrition of the food I am eating leave something to be desired, I had enough to get by and I'm starting to feel a little more leveled. Maybe I'm just getting more used to my limited diet or maybe I have done well in recent days to get a more balanced diet. Whatever the case, I made it through today alright, which was a nice change of pace.

Making the most of yesterday's carryover
At the grocery store today, I had to use some of the leftover change from yesterday's under-budget purchase to cover my two cups of yogurt, my cucumber, and my eight ounce block of cheese. As two of my favorite foods, I went into the store knowing I was going to do whatever possible to pick up a cucumber and some cheese from dinner. I'm just happy I was able to make it happen. That outcome alone was a big contributor to making today a little easier, which was exactly what I needed to push through to the end of this "I have never..." experience.

Although it was an easier day, I'm happy to know tomorrow will mark the end of my experience living on a food stamp budget. This week has helped me gain perspective on the struggle that comes with trying to feed oneself with $3.90 per day. It was harder than I expected it would be, and I don't think I would have truly understood that reality had I not made this experience a part of my "I have never..." journey. As overwhelming as it was at times, the takeaways from make me happy I had the experience. I've learned a lot and formed some new perspectives on the reality many people face, and I know that will give me pause as I make decisions on how to spend my money and where I can contribute in the future.

Day 5 meals:
Breakfast - Banana and a glass of milk
Lunch - Macaroni and cheese, 1/3 of a can of corn, and a six ounce container of yogurt
Dinner - A hotdog, a piece of bread, two cubes of cheese, and an apple.

Day 7:

Game day snacks...

Remaining blog entry coming soon...

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