Could you live on $4.62 in food every day?
Millions of Americans do. That is how much in benefits the average food stamp recipient gets, a mere $140 per month. In many cases, all of their other available money goes to pay for necessary expenses — rent, energy, health care — so they can only eat what their food stamps will buy them.
Last week, many people who are fortunate enough not to need the assistance of food stamps tried to learn for themselves what it means to live on $4.62 in food every day. They took the Ohio Community Action Food Stamp Challenge, which encouraged those people who are not in immediate financial peril to put themselves in the shoes of 1.75 million Ohioans.
It was an exercise in empathy.
The challenge, which was created by the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, was just for five days. That’s $23 in food per person. Sounds easy, right?
Not if you grab a can of Coke out of a vending machine every day. Certainly not if you get one of those fancy coffees. And don’t even think about going to a restaurant.
The trick was to buy foods that are cheap and plentiful. But the biggest trick was to buy foods that you wouldn’t soon grow tired of. A loaf of bread — get it on sale if you can — and a package of bologna was a good bet (though mayo or mustard can be pricey), but after a few days of that you may never want to look at another slice of bologna again.
A colleague at the paper who took the challenge (I was on an assignment that precluded my participation) planned to stock up on lots of fruits and vegetables. That’s a good idea, but only in theory.
You can find green beans for less than a buck a pound, and cabbage and corn are cheap. But other than those, going the fresh route will cost you. When pinching pennies, your best bet is vegetables and fruit from a can.
Of course, a can of spinach does not taste nearly as good as the real deal and has less nutrients, Popeye’s experiences to the contrary. But that’s not too much of a problem, you think; you’ll gladly make the trade-off of saving a lot of money for food that is only slightly less healthy.
But the problem is bigger than you might think because most other inexpensive foods tend to be unhealthy in another way. They can make you, well, bigger than you might think.
The cheapest meal to make, the meal eaten in one form or another by a large part of the world’s population, is beans and rice. Or to look at it another way, carbohydrates and carbohydrates. Another staple of the low-income diet, spaghetti, has more carbohydrates. Bread is a good choice — it is cheap and filling — but it is also loaded with carbohydrates.
That’s what marathon runners have in common with people who have little to spend on food: They both load up on carbs.
Having little choice in what you can eat can be hazardous to your health. But it can be done. Nearly 48 million Americans used food stamps for at least some period last year.
If you are on food stamps — technically, the program is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, but everyone still calls it food stamps — you are not alone. If you are not on food stamps, you can count your blessings.
Last week, a number of people who do not receive them chose to live as if they did. It was only for five days, but they learned something. They learned how the other half lives.