Try-Day Friday: Taking on the Food Stamp Challenge

Trying to follow in Gwyneth Paltrow's footsteps with $29 for food for the week.

May 1, 2015, 11:01 AM
PHOTO: What I was able to buy under $29 at the grocery store for the food stamp challenge.
What I was able to buy under $29 at the grocery store for the food stamp challenge.
Stefanie Tuder/ABC

— -- Five days in to my food stamp challenge, I was seriously hangry.

To be clear, I wasn’t hungry -- I’d consumed enough calories and nutrition to fill me. But I had just finished my fifth night in a row of meatloaf, roast potatoes and frozen green beans and I had to literally choke it down. I was full but entirely unsatisfied, as if mentally I had never eaten.

At that point in my week-long journey, when my yearning for my normal food routine was at an all-time high, I blamed Gwyneth Paltrow. Poor girl got a lot of flak recently after tweeting a commitment to the food stamp challenge, along with a photo of what she bought on her $29 food budget for the week.

The photo included things like cilantro, kale and seven limes ... not exactly practical items for getting you through the week. Unsurprisingly, Paltrow lasted four days before giving up on the challenge.

Though she received mostly criticism on social media for her somewhat pathetic attempt at the challenge, I, for one, commend her. No one had been paying close attention to the food stamp challenge before that. Designed as a way to raise awareness of the difficulties of living on the budget -- a maximum of $29 a week per person -- provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, a.k.a. food stamps), the food stamp challenge was essentially nonexistent in national conversation before Paltrow inserted herself into the issue. Regardless that it was a personal failure for her, she managed to bring the issue to the forefront of national conversation, and that in and of itself is a success.

Because of Paltrow, as ABC News’ food writer, I was tasked with trying out the challenge and writing about my experiences on a national news website. As a food writer, I spend the majority of my life -- professionally and personally -- thinking about food, writing about food, Instagramming about food and, the best part, eating food. I derive a lot of comfort and pleasure from my favorite meals, and I relish the moment of the day when I decide what I want for dinner (Thai? American? Italian? Korean?) and not putting a ton of thought into the budget, as long as it’s under the $20 mark. This experience would be the complete opposite.

At the beginning of the week, armed with Paltrow’s mistakes, I headed to the grocery store with what I thought was a solid, realistic plan. I would have oatmeal for breakfast, hard-boiled eggs for a snack, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches with pretzels for lunch and alternating roast chicken and meatloaf with potatoes and vegetables for dinner. As someone with a big appetite, it was important to me to have not only enough nutrition, but also enough food, period. Joke was on me, though, when I found out I couldn’t afford much of what I wanted, leaving me reeling in the supermarket as I tried to rejigger my meal plan. I settled on a monotonous repeat of the same foods every day for the week (oatmeal for breakfast, a hard-boiled egg for midmorning snack, roast chicken, potatoes and green beans for lunch and meatloaf, potatoes and green beans for dinner), trying to figure out how to stretch certain items, like the eggs for both the meatloaf and snacks. The irony wasn’t lost on me that as I figured this all out I was sipping a $9 kale smoothie that was my last normal-life hurrah before the plan started.

Going grocery shopping (which took three times as long as normal since I was cost comparing and swapping ingredients on the fly) was only half the battle of getting the food ready. I then had to go home and prepare it all, which took a ton of time. I had to roast my chicken and potatoes and prepare the meatloaf, since chicken was my lunch every day and meatloaf was dinner. I didn’t have the luxury ahead of me of zipping down to the work cafeteria one day when I hadn’t had the chance to bring lunch. And, to avoid the meat from going bad on the later days of the week, I had to freeze some portions to be reheated later. All of this work was just to feed me -- I can’t imagine how much time a family on SNAP has to devote to food preparation for the week.

As the week kicked off, the eating of it all started off not so bad. The food I had prepared was tasty (thank you, culinary school!) and healthy. Days one to three breezed by. I missed some of my afternoon snacking or after-dinner dessert, but I was on a pretty solid path to success, at first.

PHOTO: A peek at my roast chicken repeat meals for the week.
A peek at my roast chicken repeat meals for the week.
ABC News

Then, day four hit. “Meatloaf again?” I thought miserably. “Well, only four more days of it. You can do this for just four more days.”

Except, that wasn’t fair. I may have only had four more days of living off of a $29 for my week’s food budget, but for the 46.5 million Americans (one in seven!) who actually have to live off of SNAP, their Groundhog Week of eating starts over again when the seven days are up.

Fatima Arellano, a 17-year-old in New York City whose family relies on SNAP benefits, described to me the harsh realities of her diet.

“Sometimes, we have good days and we get good meals,” she told me.

I asked for clarification, expecting maybe a treat like dessert or steak.

“Something enough so everyone gets full,” Arellano said.

Oh. Enough so they could get full? It was unfathomable to me. Anytime I was hungry, I reached for the myriad of snacks in my pantry or pulled up Seamless on my browser. And here this teenage girl was sometimes eating an egg and beans for dinner, which is what our governmental benefits afforded her.

Arellano’s family situation is not what SNAP is supposed to provide. Generally, in order to qualify for SNAP, a household’s net income must be less than or equal to the poverty line ($1,650 a month or $19,800 a year for a three-person household), according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Eligibility is assessed on a case-by-case basis and benefits are awarded based on the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, which is the minimum amount of money required to consume a healthy diet that follows the dietary guidelines for Americans.

According to the Thrifty Food Plan (which, by the way, seems woefully outdated to me), people should be able to healthily feed themselves on $38 a week for adult females and $43 for adult males. Yet the maximum benefits provided are $29 a week, so the SNAP formula assumes that the program is, as the name suggests, supplementary. Except, for people like Arellano, it’s not supplementary once the costs of living (housing, health care, transportation, etc.) are taken into account. To make up the difference, that’s where food pantries step in.

“For New York City, in 2012 -- which is the most recent year for which we have data -- 42 percent of SNAP recipients in the city were also using food pantries and soup kitchens because they had run out of their benefits. For most recipients in those lines, their benefits were running out sometime between the second and third week in the month,” Triada Stampas, the Food Bank of New York City’s vice president of research and public affairs, told me. “And if you are on a food pantry or soup kitchen line, that’s because you’ve exhausted all other options. The behavior of waiting on line, sometimes for hours out in the elements, is the behavior of the last resort.”

So while SNAP is intended as supplementary, that’s unfortunately just not the reality for a lot of recipients. Food banks step in to pick up the slack, often providing families with their only source of meat and vegetables for the week, which are the most expensive foods. They even have birthday packs that include cake mix, frosting and candles, since treats like those are unfathomable on a SNAP budget.

Even more unfathomable? Eating out. I eat out two-thirds of my meals, often only preparing my own quick breakfast of oatmeal or cereal. Arellano can’t remember the last time she ate out.

“The last time I did I was probably 12, maybe 11?” she guessed. “That was only once. It’s when my stepfather had a good day at work.”

Going to restaurants is so far from possible on a SNAP budget, and my social life that week suffered for it. I sat through one meal while my friends devoured $18 Neapolitan pizza pies and I ordered a water before realizing if I was going to make it through the week, I simply had to stay in, which is the constant reality of Arellano’s life.

“Sometimes, I get really frustrated because you see all those other people and they get what they want and we have to just deal with it,” she said. “It is hard because they’re my friends and I want to go out, but there’s not money for that.”

As much as I learned from my week living on a miniscule food budget, which is the point of the food stamp challenge (“It is not an exercise in pretending to be poor. It’s an experience that reflects one aspect of the reality of what living on SNAP is like that a lot of people in this country don’t have any insight into until they do it themselves,” Stampas said.), at the same time I had the comfort of knowing that it was for just one week, and if I really, really struggled, I had my bank account safely waiting for me. Arellano, and many millions of others, do not have that luxury.

I was hangry for a week. Arellano always is.

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