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Published: Monday, 11/24/2008

Challenge to live on food stamps a week serves up insights

BY KATE GIAMMARISE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Editor's Note: Staff writer Kate Giammarise participated in the weeklong Food Stamp Challenge to give readers her perspective on what it would be like to live on food stamps.

In my first day of taking the weeklong Food Stamp Challenge, I realized it was going to be a very long seven days.

I had eaten my allotted small portion of chicken and frozen vegetables for dinner and shortly afterward, I was still hungry.

The challenge was organized by the Lucas County Hunger Task Force

Hunger Task Force and Toledo Area Ministries to bring attention to the growing number of Lucas County residents who depend on the program.

In Lucas County, 72,932 people use food stamps.

The groups invited representatives of the media to take the challenge - eating for one week on the amount of money the average food stamp recipient receives, about $23 per person. That's about $3.28 per day and $1.09 per meal.

Critics of the challenge have said that it does not accurately reflect the amount of money some food stamp recipients receive and that the program is intended to be a supplement, not a family's entire food budget.

As the Rev. Steve Anthony, executive director of Toledo Area Ministries, pointed out when I agreed to the challenge, the budget makes eating healthy foods very difficult.

"You'll find that in order to fill your stomach you will have to resort to cheap, starchy foods," he warned me. "It won't be a problem getting the volume. It's getting the nutrition."

As I shopped for my week's worth of meals on Sunday, I kept Rev. Anthony's words in mind.

One area where nutrition definitely costs more is in the bread aisle. I could have purchased a loaf of off-brand white bread for 88 cents, and a loaf of Wonder Bread for $1.79. The organic, whole-grain bread was a whopping $3.49.

Almost all of the whole-grain bread was $2.99 or above. I had already purchased other groceries and at that point had only $2.55 left to spend on bread.

Luckily, I was able to find a loaf on sale for $1.99.

There have been calls to reform the food stamp program to require or make it easier to purchase healthier foods.

Nutrition advocates have proposed food stamp debit cards double in value when used at farmers' markets to encourage recipients to shop there for fresh fruits and vegetables. (A limited-time program that does that is in place at the Toledo Farmers' Market.)

Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, a pediatric dentist in Bangor, Maine, and president-elect of the Maine Dental Association, recently called for soda pop to be added to the list of items that can't be purchased with food stamps.

"Younger children that have been introduced to soda have a much higher risk of developing tooth decay than children that have not been exposed to soda," said Dr. Shenkin.

Food stamps already cannot be used to purchase alcohol or tobacco.

He said taxpayers should not have to subsidize poor nutrition "and then pay again for the health care expenses that are associated with it," such as tooth problems and obesity. "Nobody is taking away choice. You have the choice to buy it with your own money," Dr. Shenkin said.

Stretching limited food budget dollars is something often covered in classes offered by the Ohio State University Extension in Lucas County, said Patrice Powers-Barker, program assistant.

A cost comparison by her office found it was possible to eat a healthy diet - items such as fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, milk, and low-fat yogurt - for as low as $4.47 per day.

"Getting food from all five food groups is very important, especially in the long term," she said.

Ms. Powers-Barker recommends planning meals ahead of time, purchasing frozen or canned vegetables, or in-season produce to get cheaper prices.

She also suggests planting a garden to save on food costs. Food stamps can be used to purchase seeds and plants.

My co-worker Tahree Lane, who also participated in the challenge, was able to stretch her food dollars through frugal shopping at the Toledo Farmers' Market and by eating tomatoes, kale, and swiss chard she had grown in her garden.

All my food purchases totaled $22.44 for the week - a box of cereal, seven bananas, a carton of grape juice (cheaper than orange juice), a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, a bag of carrots, two cans of chicken noodle soup, a bag of pasta, a can of tuna fish, two large chicken breasts, and a bag of frozen vegetables.

(Note that does not contain any condiments or seasonings; I cheated on that count and used ones I already had at home. It also doesn't contain any paper products or hygiene items such as shampoo, which cannot be purchased with food stamps.)

And while shopping, I had advantages a food stamp recipient might not have.

For instance, I have a car and was able to drive to more than one store to get the best prices. I also had time to plan and cook all my meals.

During the week, I had a pretty bland diet - mostly dry cereal with juice and a banana for breakfast, a lunch of a peanut butter sandwich and a few carrots. Dinners were chicken and frozen vegetables, pasta with tuna fish, or canned soup.

I noticed myself feeling tired and hungry at several points. And in trying not to think about food, I sometimes found it was the only thing I could think of. Even though I was hungry, I didn't always look forward to my next meal, because I knew it was going to be so repetitive and unappetizing.

My colleague, Blade Religion Editor David Yonke, who also participated in the challenge, said he did not experience hunger, but described the week as "a matter of living without options."

He continued, "I couldn't buy name-brand grocery items. I couldn't afford fast food, let alone a restaurant meal. I had to do without a lot of the things I take for granted, like soda pop and coffee and an occasional candy bar."

I'll celebrate the end of the week with fresh fruits and vegetables and a return to my normal diet - though that's not an option for actual food stamp recipients.

Contact Kate Giammarise at:

kgiammarise@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.



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