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Food Stamp Challenge: Try living on $31.50 for food for a week

Dennis Boe and Tamim Saidi
Courtesy of Foldes Consulting LLC
Dennis Boe, left, sharing his tips for living on a $31.50 a week food budget and Tamim Saidi, an imam.

An imam and a man who knows poverty up close and personal came together in understanding the other day.

It happened over a grocery cart.

Said the first, Tamim Saidi, 39, who came to Minnesota 20 years ago as a refugee from Afghanistan, “Let’s see what I remember from my college days’’ about shopping cheap. 

Said the other, Dennis Boe: “For me, it’s daily life, so you’re just playing a game.’’

A Food Stamp Challenge grocery shopping trip Sunday brought together Boe, who lives on about $1,000 a month in disability payments and other income supports, and Saidi, vice president of the board of the Northwest Islamic Community Center in Plymouth, as well as 20 other religious leaders of Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths.

Their goal: buy a week’s worth of food for $31.50 per person, the weekly national average amount allocated to the poor through SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program of the federal government, formerly called food stamps. 

Then see how far that money goes.

“This is a tiny, tiny glimpse of what it’s like’’ to be poor, stressed Rabbi Amy Eilberg, one of the guiding hands behind the effort to raise public awareness of hunger and to engage religious leaders in a better understanding of poverty and food insecurity.

The program was inspired by the Muslim-Jewish Twinning Project  and co-sponsored by more than 15 Islamic, Christian and Jewish groups and the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning.

“What’s really important,’’ Eilberg tells the group before sending them out into biting-cold winds on a multi-block walk to a discount grocery store,  “is where it goes after this,’’ whether participants work harder advocating for the poor and what action Congress and legislators take to help.

'Is anyone here poor?'

At Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis, where they meet before shopping, is Boe, who somehow has heard of their challenge and joined the group.

“Is anyone here poor?” he asks. No one answers.

“If you don’t’ live it day by day, you don’t know how to do it,’’ Boe says, holding up a cloth bag stuffed with ads from a variety of grocery stores.

There’s truth to that. Accustomed to middle-class incomes, some shoppers arrive having given little thought to the foods they’ll purchase. They soon realize they must settle for beans rather than meat, that grocery shopping on a tight budget is a balancing act between nutrition and filling foods.

But the Rev. Patricia Lull, executive director of the St. Paul Area Council of Churches, one of the sponsors, comes armed with a shopping list neatly penned in blue ink and including wheat bread and peanut butter, canned red beans and oatmeal, carrots, coffee and chicken legs.

She shares her experience on Facebook: “Spent $26.67 in the Food Stamp Challenge. No dairy, few fruits and vegetables. Will look for a better place to spend the remaining $4.83,” she writes. 

On the walk Boe attaches himself to Saidi to share his advice.

Zafar Siddiqur and Shoaib Siddiqur
Courtesy of Foldes Consulting LLCFather and son Zafar Siddiqur and Shoaib Siddiqur, 14.

He tells Saidi about a food program where he accesses food coupons and a bakery where he buys discounted bread. He’s invested in a suitcase with wheels to carry his groceries from store to bus to apartment because his car is “dying.’’

A flyer listing sale food items in hand, the pair thread their way up and down grocery aisles at a Cub Foods on 26th Avenue South.

Saidi pauses at a bin of clearance food items, including cake mixes, but turns away. “This is luxury food,’’ he says.

Thoughtfully, he adds items to his cart, a bottle of vegetable oil, apples selling for 88 cents a pound, olives for “some protein,’’ and two cans of minestrone soup, choosing to buy for his entire family rather than a single person. 

Boe suggests his money will go further if the soup is homemade. The soup returns to the shelf.

Other shoppers are just as careful.

Search for healthy food

Laurie Radovsky, from St. Paul, a member of Beth Jacob congregation in Mendota Heights, searches for healthy foods like organic peanut butter and foregoes pasta for more nutritious potatoes.

Kosher foods aren’t affordable in this budget, so Rabbi Eilberg stocks her cart with milk, bread, cottage cheese, hard cheese and eggs, four cucumbers, four peppers, a head of iceberg lettuce. If there’s money left over, she’ll buy granola or cookies, she says.

Meat, because of its higher price, is off their menus, but some shoppers buy a few cans of tuna. Many buy beans and rice. They worry about the shopping challenges of feeding children and the elderly. 

“There are so many thing you walk by and can’t afford because of the budget they put us on,’’ says shopper Elliot Schochet, 13, accompanied by his father Wes Schochet. Both are members of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.

The issue of hunger is very central to Islamic teachings, Zafar Siddiqur, director of interfaith relations for the Islamic Resource Group, tells me, and fasting is an important element of their religious observance.

“We understand what it is to be hungry,’’ Siddiqur says.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
MinnPost photo by Cynthia BoydRabbi Amy Eilberg calls the shopping experience "a tiny, tiny glimpse of what is poverty."

One of the reasons for fasting is to feel sympathy and empathy for the starving, says Saidi, who with some of the others has pledged to feed his family for a week on what he has purchased that day.

Shopping finished, participants talk about the commonalty in their faiths: the responsibility to feed the hungry and help the poor.

Judi Tennebaum, a member of Adath Jeshurun Congregation, says, “I really hate the idea we think this is working for poor people to eat this way.’’

“Nobody should have to buy the same food every week because they can’t afford to buy anything else, not in the richest country in the world,’’ says Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action. 

As for Boe and Saidi?

“By the end I think [Boe] understood it was not a game for us,’’ Saidi says, and “he could tell me how hard it is for him.’’

A discussion on hunger

People interested in learning more about combating hunger in Minnesota can attend a discussion from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Nov. 18 at First Baptist Church, 499 N. Wacouta St., St. Paul. For more information, contact Eilberg at rebamy@eilberg.com.

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Comments (20)

A bit of clarity may be needed.

My wife and I put ourselves on a very strict grocery budget about 4 months ago. We spend $45/week per person already, but we typically have left over cash at the end of the month from our $380 dollars.

We eat well: Lots of meat, fresh vegetables, and soups.

Don't think we're small people either. I'm 6'7" and pushing 350 lbs... so I can eat my share of food.

When I see stories like this I get confused because aren't food stamps paid in a monthly amount? Yes, it's VERY difficult to shop for the week if you're constrained to that weekly amount, but when paid monthly for the family it /should/ be easier to shop and buy things in bigger quantities (I'm not talking costco quantities here) and prepare foods for use later and store them in the freezer (fridge freezer, not a chest freezer since we're talking low income)

I'm not saying that shopping on a strict budget is easy, but you have to plan. You have to cut coupons. You have to look at the circulars. You're not going to get prime rib, but you don't have to eat hamburger helper either.

This also makes me think that there aren't enough community ed classes on how to actually shop for your groceries on a budget. How to meal plan. How to group recipes together so they use like ingredients and still offer a variety of foods to eat.

Do the math

I agree that it would be difficult to shop for one person spending only $31.50 per week, but people don't shop per meal like thatl. You buy staples and items that last for more than one meal (a bag of potatoes, a box of cereal, a carton of eggs, a loaf of bread, etc.). If you add up the money each person gets per week, a family of four would get just over $500.00 per month to spend on food - that is not a small amount. You would not have to forego buying meat and live on just beans and rice on that budget, so this experiment is not accurate. The challenge would be to see how they spend $504.00 per month to feed a family of four, and then see how difficult it is (if at all).

Food Stamped

There's a documentary about a couple who lived for a month on a food stamp budget and tried to eat a healthy diet. It's a great film to screen for a community discussion. www.foodstamped.com

More education needed for food stamp recipients.

Coming someone who receives food stamps, when I see stories like this there are two running threads I always notice:

1) Many food stamp recipients do not buy in bulk.
2) Many food stamp recipients do not know how to cook from scratch.
3) Many food stamp recipients do not grow some their own food.

By doing just these three things your food budget will go much much further. Other things such as buying on sale and using coupons (duh!), going to discount stores (i.e. -Aldi), cooking ethnic meals, staying away from pre-made baked goods and frozen foods, making your own drinks, etc. will stretch your budget even further. One person in this challenge mentioned not being able to buy cake mix. You can make your own cake mix for a fraction of the price. Having a class for recipients to teach some of the "tricks of the trade" would go a long way in teaching them how to eat well on a budget.

I understand my living situation may be different from many recipients. I am single, no children, and a underemployed part-time cook. However, with some forethought it is possible to eat well (albeit not like a king obviously) on food assistance.

Other stores missed.

Aldi's and Rainbow Foods in particular. And they don't watch TV? Remember those Walmart ads telling people to bring in their Cub receipt and buy the same items at Walmart to compare prices? Why didn't they do that? $31.50/week is pretty reasonable.

Gallon milk: $2.50 (Rainbow and various stores) = 1 week.
running total : $2.50
1 lb pasta..: $1.00 (all major stores--regular sale price) = 4-6 servings/lb.
$3.50
2 lb bread..: $1.60 (Rainbow cheapest white bread--2 loaves).
$5.10
1 pkg fish..: $8.00 (Gorton's 24.5 minced fish, 12 pcs = 4-6 servings--sale for $4, use for 2 wks)
$13.10
3 can veg..: $0.99 (3/99-cents,Lunds, green beans, corn, peas--ad special, Aldi's = 59-cents/can)
$14.09
1 doz eggs: $1.75 (assumes $1.75/dozen--most major chains, look for sales)
$15.84
1 cookies..: $1.00 (Cub--regular price for the inexpensive ones by Fehr Foods = week of munchies)
$16.84
3-4 apples.: $2.00 (individual apples)
$18.84
Tomatoes..: $1.00 (about 1 lb)
$19.84
Lettuce.....: $1.50
$21.34
1 lb hamb.: $3.00 (regular price, 4 meals with 2 Hamburger Helper--use 8 oz hamburger per box)
$24.34
2 H helper.: $2.00 (standard sale price = 2 meals per box with 8 oz hamburger per Helper)
$26.34
1 tuna......: $0.80 (5 oz can)
$27.14
1 tuna help: $1.00 (standard sale price = 2 meals w/1 can Tuna Helper)
$28.14
Bacon.......: $3.00 to make 3-6 BLT
$31.14

Total spent: $31.14, but the fish cost is for two weeks, so have $4 to buy peanut butter and jelly if desired. No coffee or tea budgeted because it is a one-time buy that lasts a month or more, so it is not rational to put the entire cost in one week when it should be over a month or longer.

I see you support the Affordable Care Act

Since every member of the household will be have high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and diabetes after consuming a regular diet of that menu. Sheesh.

"SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION"

This is not the only "food stamp" program available and is meant to be supplemental, not primary, as seems to be implied. There is also a photo of a man and his son shopping and I know there they would qualify for hundreds for dollars a month more, if they were below the poverty level. I know people who's only income is social security or social security disability, that don't qualify for any food programs. Entitlement is not a career path, but people that need help, do get help. Find the people that don't actually get help and get them help, if you can find them, not the ones complaining they don't get enough, when others are fine with the same amount.

Food support is just one piece of the poverty puzzle

There are many well-intentioned people asking valid questions. Why not cook from scratch. Why not buy in bulk. Why not buy at Store A and compare prices at lower-price Store B. All, excellent advice.

But maybe the person doesn't have a car. Or they have a car but enough gas to get to a big-box store 25 miles away. Or they don't have the upfront dollars it takes to buy bulk and save. Or they're working 40 hours a week for barely above minimum wage.

These may sound like excuses, but they are very real obstacles millions of people face -- especially people who don't live in metropolitan areas.

If living on food stamps for a week is too easy of a challenge, try living (virtually) on minimum wage for one month at www.playspent.org. And share your comments here.

.

Some things that might not be

Some things that might not be understood by the readers here, is that poverty is often a full-time job in itself. Sure, it's better to shop around ... but you have to be able to afford a car, which many people don't, or you're paying for bus fare and lugging heavy bags. If you have a job (or two, or three), time makes the whole enterprise extremely problematical.

Coupons: from where? Can you afford the newspaper? Can you afford the ink to print them online? Can you afford a printer? A computer? The internet? Lastly, coupons GENERALLY cover name brand items; when you're poor, you don't buy name brand items.

Sure, growing your own food is great: if you have ground. If you can afford seeds. If you can afford soil, the nutrients ... See where I'm going with this? (A great idea - let's get rid of some of the useless lawns around our government offices and convert them into community gardens.)

Poverty is wearing, it's grinding, it's depressing. Many people don't get to remember that the test is over in a week. It just goes on and on for them.

I agree that many people don't know how to cook. It's amazing to me how many people my age, from better incomes, who have NO idea how to, say, boil pasta. Cooking classes are essential in any serious anti-poverty plan, IMO.

Cooking classes

I think it might be an excellent idea to provide cooking classes for those on a budget. Of course, there's the issue of being able to get to such a class--no car, working too much, no child care, etc., etc. and on down the line. That being said, perhaps an in-home lesson for those getting food assistance? Volunteers to teach the basics? Having grown up on food assistance (government commodity foods--I will never eat canned meat ever again unless I'm in dire, DIRE need), I automatically make sure I always have some basics on hand. Although there's not a lot of variety in the basics, they will get you through some rough times without an empty belly without having to buy in bulk (and haul all that on the bus, if that's your only option). Admittedly, though, the best nutrition is NOT going to be affordable on such basics. You can't buy fresh fruit and vegetables in bulk. Canned goods are heavy and generally salty. Frozen foods take up limited freezer space when you might need that space for meals that you prepare ahead of time. It's not all about being able to simply buy food on a budget. Good food on a budget is difficult. And the logistics of being poor are hard to fathom if you've never really been there. Between these two issues, it's really no wonder that the obesity epidemic isn't amongst those that can afford the most food, but those that can afford it least.

Why chose the SNAP average?

The full SNAP allotment for a single adult is $200 a month. When someone has income, they are expected to put a certain amount of their income to purchase food, then supplement with their SNAP grant. The reason $31.50 is the average amount is because many SNAP recipients work and they are expected to pay for part of their groceries. If they had zero income, or some income and high shelter costs, they get the full $200/month, which is $50 a week.

Poverty

Interesting article, but how many people on food stamps are depending on that source for their entire food budget? Poverty statistics are kind of odd and do not take into account food stamps, Medicaid, and housing and child care assistance as a part of income. We also do not know use of food shelves or places where someone can get a meal. I've been to shelters where they actually throw out food. Housing cost seems to be more of an issue.

$31.50 per week? Nah, $42.24 better reflects reality

The $31.50 for the shopping challenge is lower than the 2010 **actual** benefit for one adult living alone.

I found USDA report showing the 2010 SNAP actual average paid to one adult (lives alone/not disabled/under age 60) was $42.24* per week. And for 2012, the weekly maximum is $46.15.

So it seems to me the challenge would better reflect reality if they used either of these amounts.

As for cooking on a budget classes, many of us in the 99% could benefit from such a class not just those receiving food stamps.

*http://www.fns.usda.gov/ora/MENU/Published/snap/FILES/Participation/2010Characteristics.pdf
Chart, page 20

Cooking Class, etc

There is a program that teaches lower income people how to shop on a budget, stretch food dollars and prepare meals. It is called Simply Good Eating: http://www.extension.umn.edu/Nutrition/

I do agree that shopping for the month on SNAP dollars might be easier than shopping by the weekly allotment, but I think the exercise is a good one. There is no reason that we can't all benefit from stepping outside our own shoes for a week. There are a lot of obstacles for some people who receive SNAP benefits, and I think that the comments here show just how diverse a group of people the recipients of SNAP benefits are.

One thing no one really ever thinks about are the lower income seniors who live in our communities. I have taken the SNAP challenge with a component of CSFP (Commodity Supplemental Food Program) a food program mainly for seniors that does not exist in every state. The emotions I had centered around food insecurity and hunger were eye opening. Whether or not people can prepare meals, have transportation, have the will to search out healthy foods, live in a rural area, etc. etc. are valid points, but I think that people can learn a lot from participating in this exercise - about themselves and about some of the people who live this way on an ongoing basis.

Simply Good Eating

Interesting. I didn't know about that program. That being said, I found the website to be not terribly helpful--where are classes? when are classes? And it was full of "print this" and "print that." Which is fine...if you have a printer or access to a printer. Or the internet. Much of the info is vague--when you're dealing with people who know little about nutrition, being vague is a turn-off. I learned a lot of cheap recipes growing up. Because I learned how to cook, I can build on those recipes from memory and the ingredients I have on hand. Many people don't have that background--and chips and soda are cheaper and less time-consuming (very important when you're working long hours) alternatives to real food.

I do agree with stepping out of our own shoes. Of course, most of us commenting on this article have pretty comfortable shoes. We can rationalize the food budget based on our ability to shop in bulk because we have a vehicle with a trunk, compare prices because we get the newspaper or can check online ads, get cooking classes because we only have one job and don't work weekends, cook a nutritious meal because we have time to go to the farmer's market and get fresh produce, and think through our day and budget because we're not exhausted from work and depression.

Some points about Food Stamps

I was a county financial worker for many years and in all these reports on food stamps there seems to be some rather glaring points missing from the coverage.

1. Food Stamps are an entitlement program, yes. BUT for whom? The missing fact here is that the FS program is run by the Department of Agriculture not DHS--think about that. The FS program was a way to increase consumer buying power, but it was just as important to the farmers who needed to sell more of their products. Food stamps must be used for edibles and as such this guarantees our farmers that they can sell more goods. This creates/retains jobs for farm workers (who grow and harvest), truckers (to haul the goods), factory workers (who can/prepare the goods), grocery store chains (who buy the goods), clerks (who ring us through the checkout), etc. And because of food stamps there are more people buying and that keeps prices reduced for everyone. We all have a stake when the food stamp program can help those who do not have enough income to purchase food.

2. The amount of food stamps issued to a household is based on a formula taking into account the number in the household, their housing costs, utilities, etc. and are meant ONLY as a supplement to other income that the household has for buying food. The $31.50 mentioned in this article is not what the program administrators think you need to buy food for a week but is a supplement after applying household income to that formula and determining what "extra" is needed to help the household's edibles buying power. (I will admit the program uses some low standards for what is actually takes to eat for a month, but again, there is always the assumption that the household has money of their own for food.)

3. There is the misperception about who food stamp users are. In my many years of determining food stamp benefits for households, the truth was that most food stamp households were very much the same as my own household, except for the misfortune of being unemployed, underemployed or just not making enough from their jobs to feed their families. Most households were on the program for a very short time while they secured employment of household income increased--it was never a "way of life" for most as the naysayers want you to believe.

4. I, myself, have never had to apply for the program as I have always had the fortune of fulltime employment, but I was always appreciative of the fact that the program was available and that the determination of the benefits was done with equality and non-discrimination.

5. If the worst had made me seek help through the program, I am certain that I would not have become an overnight whiz in the kitchen: knowing how to prepare meals ahead of time and buying in bulk. I, no doubt, at least for a while would do my grocery shopping as I do now. Buying wisely and food preparation are acquired skills. So we should not be too hard or judgmental of others who are using food stamps.

6. AND one last thing: for any of you who think there are those who are getting something for nothing I tell you this. In all the years I helped my clients with the application for food stamps, I NEVER, looked at them and thought, "Gee, I wish I was you!"

Excellent points

These are some very, very excellent points. The first one is not something most people forget, but something that most people simply don't know. I made that same case to a farmer friend of mine who was pointing out that the Farm Bill "wastes" so much money on food stamps. I pointed out that it's in the Farm Bill because it benefits American farmers as much or more than it benefits those on food stamps. Think about it--where does that food come from? Quite frankly, I would prefer it to be more of a direct link. Much of the cost of food comes from packaging and processing, and therefore little of it makes it to the farmer. What would happen if there were more local programs that more directly link the people who grow food to those that need it. I would bet that more money would make it to the farmers' pockets and more nutrition would make it to those who need it. Of course, processors and packagers need to make money, too. But on basic foods? I suppose, the jobs (and crappy foods) they create are more important...

What I'm seeing in a lot of the comments above is

the misconceptions about food stamps that circulate among people who will never need them.

First of all, it's not easy to qualify, and not everyone who uses them is unemployed or "refusing to work." A full-time job at $10 an hour is $1600 a month before any deductions. That's an extremely tight budget even for a single adult. Look at the prices for 1-bedroom or even studio apartments if you don't believe me, and then remember utilities, transportation, and the inevitable surprise expenditures that come up in everyone's life. If you boast that you survived on that much in the 1970s or 1980s (as I did), remember that the cost of living is much higher than it was then.

People at that income level routinely run out of food money by the end of the month and end up relying on food stamps, food shelves, and free meals offered by churches and other institutions. (I suggest volunteering in such a program to meet the working poor and newly poor--people with obvious middle class backgrounds who never imagined that they'd be eating a free meal in a church basement alongside street people and people who have always been poor.)

The way middle class and affluent people feel entitled to judge food stamp recipients is infuriating. "I saw a well-dressed person using food stamps," they sniff. Perhaps that well-dressed person was like my friend in Portland who lost her job in late middle age and never worked full time again. She had professional clothes from her working days and liked to look nice when she left the house, only to meet with critical glares and snide remarks when she used her SNAP debit card at the supermarket.

Another common complaint is that someone saw a person on food stamps buying steak. So what? Do you know why that person was buying steak? Maybe he was celebrating finally getting a job. Even if he was just plain buying steak out of sheer self-indulgence, it means only that he will run out of food stamps faster than if he had bought dried beans, and he will not be able to go and ask for additional funds for the month. In other words, his steak costs the proverbial taxpayer no more and no less than dried beans.

I agree that cooking from scratch and in large quantities is cheaper than buying prepared foods. However, for various reasons, cooking skills have not been passed down through the generations, so you find people at all socioeconomic levels who wouldn't know where to start.

Food

Do we really want to pick apart people who need food?

What Ms. Fleets says makes sense.

We are talking about food her for gosh sakes get some perspective.

Next some of you will begrudge poor diabetics insulin. Oh wait some people do that now.