Try-Day Friday: Taking on the Food Stamp Challenge

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

ByABC News
May 1, 2015, 11:01 AM
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.

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.