How I failed the Food Stamp Challenge

OP-ED: A local activist finds out just how tough it is to live on $4.20 worth of food a day.

day of hope 7 2012

People lined up for free produce and detergent at a 2012 “Day of Hope” festival in East Baltimore.

Photo by: Louie Krauss

In both a challenge to myself and as a gesture of solidarity to the one in eight Marylanders who live on food stamps, I committed, along with the other participants of the Food Stamp Challenge, to spend no more than $30 on all the food I would consume for that week.

Not to ruin the story, but I failed the challenge.

Instead of my regular salads for lunch, I ate rice and beans every day last week. And rather than cereal and tomato juice, I had a banana and glass of water for breakfast.

I was able to get a few apples, a bag of carrots and some peppers – and that was about it. My hunger began keeping me awake as soon as the first day ended.

Within two days I was having difficulty waking up in the mornings, had little energy for my usual exercise, and nearly fell asleep during classes and work meetings. It is known that poverty is a significant determinant of health, and poor nutrition is a primary player.

Can’t Afford to Feed the Family

The Food Stamp Program, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is vital to the nutritional well-being of so many Baltimore residents – one in three of whom is born into poverty.

Nearly a quarter of these children live in a “food desert,” making access to not only healthy food, but to all food, an increased challenge.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, every $1 billion of food demand from SNAP participants generates 3,300 farm jobs.

Food Stamps have been shown to help lift people out of poverty and to improve the overall health of our children. They are a vital resource that should be expanded rather than reduced.

Yet as Congress considers cutting over $40 million from the current SNAP program, I cannot help but think about how this will affect Maryland’s children, many of whom eat on much less than the national average of $120 per month.

As wealth disparities increase, more than one in six Americans now report being unable to afford enough food for themselves and their families, according to a study by the Food Research and Action Center.

According to recent U.S. Census data, 48% of Americans are living at or close to the poverty line. With such volatile housing markets, increasingly high rates of unemployment, and a quagmire of infighting within Washington, these numbers demonstrate an increasing risk of hunger and homelessness for much of our shrinking middle and working class.

Carrot Stick Lunch

By last Friday, I had nearly run out of food. Despite planning out my meals for the week, I found that I simply was not able to stick to a handful of carrots and an apple for lunch.

I cheated twice by buying some snacks and a cup of coffee to help get me through the work day. And when friends invited me to dinner Friday night, I didn’t have it in me to say no, giving in with two days still remaining in the Challenge.

My take away from this is not that I failed, but that I could not feed myself for one week on $30, which is more than many people in Maryland currently receive in SNAP benefits.

I know that this challenge only touches on one small aspect of poverty, but one which I now more deeply understand as extremely significant. It is a fundamental injustice that in the most affluent country in the world so many will go to bed hungry tonight.

Food and nutrition must be seen as basic human rights for all, starting right here in Maryland.

Matt Quinlan is a participant in SHARP (Stop Homelessness and Reduce Poverty), a coalition of service providers and activists across Baltimore fighting to end hunger, homelessness and poverty.

Be sure to check our full comment policy before leaving a comment.

  • samantha

    divide days by money. nope. doesn’t work. what you do is you eat good at the first of the month. you have food for a few weeks. at the end of the month you depend on food pantries and “borrow” money from relatives or friends or do anything you can to get something to eat. that you are so happy again by the first of the month that you can eat something decent again and have food for a bit. we also lived on rice and beans. but there was eggs and cheese and etc. too early in the month. this is the difference between living in poverty and trying to understand what its like, even dividing up a sum of money equally through out the days you need it – because living in poverty is never having enough and always pulling something away from something to cover something else and being short somewhere else, always, but balancing what you have to for survival. the difference is day and night. there just isn’t enough and you know it. everything really counts. free lunches at school – even if they are unhealthy and you know it – are life savers. an exercise can never match the resourcefulness of true desperation – but I think its good you tried to see what it feels like.

    • MerkMan

      Samantha, how about addressing the “Supplemental” aspect of the criticisms here? Simply providing benefit and not requiring some return service or sacrifice in exchange for that benefit is a recipe for continued dependence and dissatisfaction.SNAP may feed the body but it robs the soul.

      • samantha

        are you speaking from your personal experience? I’ve never heard anyone express that having enough food to eat in order to survive has ever robbed their soul. Also I have no experience with any kind of “supplemental” aid. No one uses it like that, but some hipster and punk “kids”. Families who apply desperately need and survive on as their main food source. Other countries that have better safety nets have more kinds of suplimental assistance for those like the hardworking single mother earlier, who made too much to qualify for food stamps and begrudged those had less and could qualify. food stamps = survival and there is a lot of hunger in the u.s. i don’t care if a few hipsters get suplimental food in the process when the bulk of those on foodstamps need it to live. the more benefits have been cut the greater numbers have increased in jail – over the last few decades. something has to give. and it does. food is a basic necessity. no food, no hope, no nothing.

      • samantha

        so what I’m saying is that, in practice, “supplemental” is a farce, and anyone who could supplement what they have with this wouldn’t qualify for food stamps.

  • Aaron Haser

    Color me unimpressed. If you’re working with $30 per week, you’re not going to be buying fresh fruit or vegetables. But achieving a diet of 2200 calories per day (about what a big guy like me requires) is definitely within the realm of possibility.

    1lb of rice – $1 – 1600 calories
    1 7oz tin of sardines – $1 – 400 calories
    2 eggs – $0.30 – 200 calories

    And we’re there with almost $2 a day left to spare. Frozen veggies are less than $2/lb, and between those 4 things and a few condiments and spices you can make some decent meals. Chicken thighs or breasts are only $2/lb, and you get 500 calories from that, and a good chunk of protein, so there are options other than sardines.

    Given that, I have to ask, did the writer even try? Now that is not the best diet in the world for you (not the worst either) and it would get monotonous quickly. But it is the *Supplemental* Nutrition *Assistance* Program. The MD program is called the Food *Supplement* Program. The desire is to boost lower income folks buying power, not supply their food budget.

    I’m not arguing that being poor is easy, or that food insecurity isn’t really a thing but if all the writer learned was that he can’t go to Whole Foods, buy fresh produce and get anything close to enough to eat for $30 a week, then he really didn’t learn anything useful. Baltimore only exercises limited control over whether Congress will give money to poorer folks or to wealthy farmers and agribusinesses. Perhaps the solution isn’t to (only) waive signs at powerful people, but to help Baltimore residents to make the money they do get go further.

    • samantha

      so you are replying *theoretically*, without yourself trying a week on 30 dollars – like the writer did? (which isn’t even like what it is really like to subsist on food stamps for a year or more.) i don’t think there is anything anyone can say to you to make you feel any differently than you already do if this is your response to the essay.

    • Michael J Wilson

      People who think it’s easy always criticize the folks who are doing it. My hat is off to Matt for not just talking the talk, but actually accepting the challenge.
      Folks like Aaron – who can mathematically figure out the calories, dollars and cents, but who have never actually taken the challenge are purely posturing; it’s easy to say but hard to do.
      And if focusing on the word “supplement” in the program lets you feel better about yourself because you believe that they have “other food” waiting for them in their refrigerators or freezers, then bully for you. In the real world, the good thing about FSP is that is is a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of folks in Maryland. The bad news is that it is a thin string of lifeline.

      • Aaron Haser

        I have lived on $35 a week for food. I did it for about a year out of necessity and not choice. It’s hard and it sucks. But it’s not nearly as depriving as the writer makes it out to be. He shouldn’t have been starving by day 5.

        • Barnadine_the_Pirate

          Was in 1962 when you lived on $35/week? Because that would be pretty comfortable.

    • Barnadine_the_Pirate

      I wanna see you eat nothing but a pound (!) of rice, a tin of sardines, and 2 eggs every day for a month.

    • eeby

      Well, color me diabetic, type 1, and thus not in a position to take in the biggest chunk of my calories from rice or other cheap starchy foods like white bread, pasta, potatoes, and of course sweets. Even half a pound of rice a day would catapult me into a different benefit-grabbing category: the ambulance and ER care. Having to choose your nutrients wisely isn’t a simple matter of preferring Whole Foods. I hope you appreciate the good fortune life’s given you if you don’t have to worry about where your 2200 calories come from. For poor people who must worry, what part of Suck Up and Deal is going to help them live frugally and healthfully?

  • Jamie Schott

    Well, if Maryland ever wakes up and follows the trend it will offer matching benefits for SNAP dollars used at Farmer’s Markets. Recipients will be able to increase their budget and eat healthy at the same time and farmers will make more money then they ever did at markets.

    • Alexander Mitchell

      There is already a program in place that lets those on assistance use their benefits at farmers markets, at least the ones here in Baltimore City. Of course, there’s no such thing as free benefits, and as well-intentioned as such a program may be, someone has to find the money for such a “giveaway” of money…..

      • Jamie Schott

        I think you missed my point. Yes EBT is now finally accepted at most farmers markets and Baltimore was way late in adopting that. Maryland has never been anything close to a leader in Food Stamp promotion. But my main point is that there are several states that will match EBT dollars when recipients use them at farmers markets. There is no point in shopping at farmers markets on EBT because it is so expensive. Of course these matching funds have come largely from charity money. $RB announced a similar plan in Baltimore but the wording is so vague that it sounds like they will match only $5 per week at a farmers market. Paltry.

  • baltimorebrew

    Samantha – all of your comments have been posted. We appreciate your first-hand experience and are glad you are sharing it with our readers. -ed.

    • samantha

      thank you! I guess it was just some kind of computer snafu

  • Michael J Wilson

    Kudos Matt, both for taking the challenge and for sharing your experiences with readers of the Baltimore Brew. It is journalism similar to Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickled and Dimed” and John Howard Griffith’s “Black Like Me”. It is an experiment living as others live and letting others know what those lives are like.

    And you found out that it really is a challenge.

  • Alexander Mitchell

    Your “failure” (and that of literally everyone else staging these publicity stunts disguised as “experiments”) was not in not being able to feed yourself for a week on $30, Matt, but in believing that said program was supposed to supply your every food need for a week. It’s called the SUPPLEMENTAL program for a damned reason!
    My wife and I, who for all I know possibly qualify for this program, could boost our standard of eating quite considerably for an extra $30 a week. And we’re not having children, by our choice, until we can afford to raise them, which would probably mean moving to a different state.

    • Barnadine_the_Pirate

      Yes, move from the richest state in the nation to improve . . . wha-? Do you really believe what you type?

      I understand and, to some extent, share your instinctive disdain for the person who has children while on SNAP. However, consider two points:

      (a) What about people who already had kids before a reversal of circumstances put them on SNAP?

      (b) If you propose that people on SNAP be denied benefits for any children they have while on the program, who are you punishing? The parents or the utterly blameless children your proposal would starve?
      Punishing children for their parents’ choices and/or bad luck seems not only utterly counterproductive but also downright cruel.

      • Kathryn Warner

        You can reply here and live in a different state. But aside from that, a rich state doesn’t necessarily make it the easiest one to live in on a budget. The important thing to take into consideration is relative wage level vs relative cost level. For instance, in MA the median income is about $43,400 (nationally $51324) or 84% of the national average, while its cost of living is 116% of the national average.

        • Barnadine_the_Pirate

          Maryland’s cost of living is about 122% of the national average, it’s per capita income is about 135% of average, highest in the country. It’s overall tax burden is 12th in the nation, slightly lower than Pennsylvania’s.
          I’m sure there are states where the difference between cost of living and income are more favorable, but probably not many; the two go hand in hand. The idea that you have to move to another state to have children is just silly.

  • Andrew

    How is it that America has the fattest starving people in the world?

    • Barnadine_the_Pirate

      Corn subsidies.

    • Lizzie 58

      Andrew: you are smart enough to search the Internet on your own and find medical, public health, sociological and economic websites that will discuss the relationship between poverty and obesity.

  • Barnadine_the_Pirate

    I find these “food stamp” and “homeless” and other “empathy challenges” to be rather insulting and degrading to everyone.

    It’s insulting to people who are actually receiving SNAP benefits or who are actually homeless because it’s basically just poverty tourism. Your privilege is not something you take on and off like a hat.

    It’s insulting to the rest of us because it implies that we are otherwise incapable of empathy and/or unentitled to opinions on the subject. Do you think that only people who have served in combat are entitled to have an opinion about war?

    • purgatoroid

      Shove your “insulting” and “degrading” BS. If you’re one of the less-privileged people then you are too busy living day-to-day to care about someone writing an article about taking the food stamp challenge. And if you are privileged, then you have no right to be offended by anything.

      • Barnadine_the_Pirate

        If you believe either of the things you typed — that poor people don’t mind if rich people play at “hungry” for a week in order to feel better about themselves, or that people with enough to eat are not allowed to feel insulted — you’re probably the dumbest human being I’ve encountered in a month.

        • purgatoroid

          find me one poor person who even cares. you don’t know anything about what it’s like to be poor. have you ever eaten food from a dumpster? I don’t think you have.

          • Barnadine_the_Pirate

            Clearly, then, I am not entitled to an opinion about anything. My hat’s off to you — you managed to get dumber in 24 hours.

          • purgatoroid

            You’re entitled to every stupid opinion that you currently believe.

          • Barnadine_the_Pirate

            Thanks. You’re entitled to be condescending and clueless.

  • Lisa

    You might find this interesting.

  • Kathryn Warner

    I applaud the authors intent and desire to understand what its like to be in poverty, but the challenge is flawed. You absolutely can eat for less than $4 a day – and get plenty of calories – but those calories won’t be good calories.

    My fiancee and I are eating on about $12.50 per week for each of us ($25 a week in total) and we got plenty of food. Mostly carbs, no fruit, no meat and a few cheap veggies like carrots, peppers and onions. Our protein is through cheese and peanut butter. As was noted below, this isn’t a problem because we’re young and relatively healthy. We wouldn’t survive if diabetic.

    So the challenge is flawed. It will reinforce the notion that the poor just aren’t trying hard enough.

More of the Daily Drip »

Below the Fold

  • March 24, 2014

    • Last Thursday, I sent an email to the Mayor’s Office of Communications asking for some basic responsiveness: Please return our emailed queries and phone calls about stories. Please send us the same routine emails you send to other members of the media. Lately, more so than usual, they haven’t been. It’s a shame because, even [...]