Here’s What It’s Like Feeding Yourself On Food Stamps
I participated in the SF Marin Food Bank's weeklong Hunger Challenge and lived off only $4.50/day plus a bag of starter supplies.
Hi, I'm Mathew. Like a lot of people I love Chipotle, pizza, and Pumpkin Spice Lattes. I've even been known to wait in line for fresh-baked doughnuts or a bottomless mimosa brunch.
However, I recognize that just by having easy access to food means that I live a far better life than millions of people in this world who go hungry every single day.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 795 million people globally are considered undernourished. That’s one out of every nine people on the planet.
When I was growing up I frequently volunteered with my grandfather at a local food pantry. As a kid, I was just excited about spending time with my grandpa, but he made sure that I understood the significance of what we were doing. It was only a few years prior that my parents had relied on food stamps to feed our family, and even at a young age I recognized how much of a struggle it can be to survive on a very limited budget.
In the years since my grandfather passed, one of the ways I try to honor his memory is by occasionally volunteering at my local food bank.
The shifts are just a couple of hours, and I used to live walking distance from the San Francisco Marin Food Bank's main warehouse. However, since my partner and I moved to a larger place across town, it hasn't been as convenient for me to volunteer. So I hadn't been able to in a few months.
Then, a few weeks ago I got an email from the food bank announcing their 2015 Hunger Challenge. The premise seemed simple: For five days live off of what the average food stamps recipient would have available to them. That is, the equivalent of $4.50/day plus a bag of supplies typical of what would be given out by a local food bank.
I immediately wanted to participate in the Hunger Challenge for a couple of reasons.
First, although I don't have any children, I was hoping to gain a better understanding of the struggle my parents (and so many others) go through having to cook and eat on an insanely low budget. Second, and more importantly, if my participation could help bring awareness to worldwide hunger, even just a little, then it would definitely be worth attempting.
Here's what was included in my bag of starter supplies:
I erroneously thought that I'd started preparing for this challenge months ago. With my recent move came an increase in my monthly expenses, and I've been putting a significant amount of effort into reducing the amount of money I spend on food.
I've also been a vegetarian for well over a decade. I'm used to regularly cooking vegetarian meals for my partner and I, which I thought would help make me a good candidate for this challenge. I mean, I really love cooking, perhaps I'd even enjoy spending the extra time in the kitchen?
Little did I realize how drastically different it is cooking for pleasure on a comparatively reduced budget, versus having to meticulously track every cent in your budget then spend hours cooking everything from scratch.
I'd mistakenly thought that with careful planning I'd be able to get through the challenge pretty easily. In the weeks leading up to it I tested a few new recipes and put together a very detailed menu plan for my five-day challenge. The main problem however, was that I didn't really plan any back-ups. The food budget was so tight that besides a few slices of bread, I really wouldn't have any extra supplies in case of error.
This was my food plan for the week:
I compared the prices of every single ingredient I would need to purchase. Surprisingly, I found that Whole Foods actually had better prices on a few of the items that I would need during the challenge.
I got started bright and early on Sunday morning.
The Sunday before the challenge was to begin, I was up at probably 4 a.m. I couldn't sleep. I had a lot of food preparation scheduled for myself and was anxious about getting started. The closest Safeway is open 24 hours a day so I was en route during the six o'clock hour. Then after a quick coffee break — my final latte before the challenge was to begin — I was off to Whole Foods.
The bulk section was good to me.
Carefully weighing out the bulk items took a while though. Then, I was off to the salad bar. I couldn't find any small enough wedges of cheese so I grabbed handfuls of blue cheese and a cheddar mozzarella mixture along with containers of liquid aminos that combined cost a little over two bucks. Paying this much attention to my shopping trip was already causing me so much stress, definitely more than I was anticipating.
I spent $9.19 at Safeway and $7.90 at Whole Foods. $17.09 in total, which left me just over five dollars for midweek grocery shopping.
The actual shopping didn't take too long, but what did was my Sunday marathon of cooking. To cut down on costs I even made my own strawberry jam instead of spending three bucks on a pre-made jar. By the time I went to bed I was exhausted.
Total Time Spent Preparing Food: 5 Hours
Before going to bed however, I noticed that my PB&J sandwiches weren't freezing very quickly and I cranked the fridge/freezer temperature all the way down.
We currently have a mini fridge and freezer in our kitchen and it only has one temperature control for both the fridge and the freezer. So before I called it a night I cranked the temperature all the way down. Big mistake.
Day One: Feeling hungry and undercaffeinated.
Around lunch time things started becoming more difficult. By adjusting the temperature in the fridge and freezer I accidentally froze my remaining strawberries, which I had planned to eat as part of my lunch.
And once frozen, strawberries become gross and mushy after being thawed. At first I attempted to hold out, but by the afternoon I started getting more hungry, gave in, and ate the weird semiliquid strawberries.
I was also really feeling the lack of caffeine.
I'm used to at least one — sometimes two — cups of coffee in the afternoon. So yeah, I was hungry, undercaffeinated, and definitely not enjoying the challenge so far.
Once I got home and had a few pieces of toast, I started feeling better. Then I noticed that both the other half of my watermelon, and the bag of cabbage that I was planning to use for dinner the next night had also been frozen. I readjusted the temperature on the fridge and hoped for the best.
I had a decent amount of preparation that needed to go into my dinner and needed to focus on getting that done.
Day Two: Dealing with the results of the fridge fiasco.
The fridge temperature situation really got to me on Tuesday. I'd been counting on that watermelon for my breakfast, but luckily had my back-up toast. It just sucked knowing that I had wasted food, when I already had so little to work with. I remember my parents and grandparents telling me, "Waste not, want not," yet here I was at only day two of my challenge, throwing food in the garbage.
I made a very important decision that morning. For the rest of the week I was going to wear my favorite food-themed clothing items to keep me inspired.
Accidents happen, but I wasn't prepared for any.
When I got home from work I inspected my coleslaw mix, hoping that it wasn't completely ruined. But it was. Although it looked good in the Instagram, let me assure you, the coleslaw did not taste good. It was a mushy pile of limp cabbage covered in a pretty bland, nasty-tasting dressing. But what choice did I have other than to eat it? I was starving and my food calendar was too tight for me to be making any more substitutions. I choked down as much as I could but went to bed still hungry.
This was definitely something that stuck with me. On this super-tight food budget I literally did not have any room for failure, which is an unfeasible expectation. It's impossible not to occasionally mess something up and in this situation, messing up bad enough meant going hungry.
Total Time Spent Preparing Food: 2 Hours
Day Three: The stress and anxiety really got to me.
I was actually really glad to be able to start my day with half a melon again. I guess you don't really miss something until it's gone because eating a sturdy breakfast had me feeling good.
For dinner though, I was going to attempt fried rice. I already knew it was going to be time-consuming but I felt like I was prepared.
My partner, David, got into a minor scooter accident. He wasn't injured, but in the stressed and hungry state I was in, I had a hard time keeping it together.
One of my responsibilities in our household is taking care of food. David couldn't participate in the challenge but I didn't want to just leave him high and dry, so for the first two nights I'd also been making separate dinners for him. But with all of the time it would take to prepare tofu fried rice, I knew I wouldn't be able to on Wednesday night. It was just one night, right?
I definitely blamed myself a bit for what happened. I couldn't help but feel like if I had made dinner for the two of us, or taken care of coordinating a dinner order like I usually do, he wouldn't have had to venture out into the rain by himself in the first place.
The fried rice was cold by the time I got around to eating it, and even though I'd been hungry earlier I lost most of my appetite.
Needless to say I didn't sleep terribly well that night. I realized that David's accident was small, but it definitely weighed on me, probably more than it really needed to.
I was stretched too thin, and was putting so much pressure on myself. It was starting to become too much for me to handle, which I know sounds rather ridiculous considering that living on this budget is something that so many people simply have to "handle" day in and day out.
Total Time Spent Preparing Food: 3 Hours
Day Four: Trying my best to keep going.
I woke up late and hungry from not eating much the night before. I was also still feeling a little off my game, but knew that life needed to go on. I had a busy day ahead of me, so I busted out my pizza shirt and hat combo to help keep myself focused.
Because the reality is that accidents happen all the time. David wasn't injured, thankfully, but just because it happened didn't mean I was going to cheat on this challenge. That isn't an option for people who live off of food stamps, and I wanted to take on this experience in as realistic a way as possible.
I pushed through, but I felt like shit.
The dinner I had planned for Thursday evening was my easiest one of the week. A simple spinach salad with a lime dressing and roasted veggies on top of the other half of my soup base. It only took me about 30 minutes to prepare dinner, which felt heavenly compared to the night before.
The biggest underestimation I made was how stressful it is having to prepare every single meal for yourself.
Day Five: Feeling guilty about celebrating.
Friday finally arrived and I wanted to celebrate, but felt like doing so would be a slap in the face of the millions of families for whom this isn't just a weeklong challenge. It's real life.
Since it was the final day of the challenge I decided to relax a bit.
For lunch I had both of my remaining PB&J sandwiches, again, something I probably wouldn't have done if I were an actual food stamps recipient.
My final dinner was also pretty straightforward. Garlic lime tofu and cold pasta salad. I'd used the last of my budget on a fresh lemon to amp up the flavor of the salad.
When I began eating my meal though, I again started to feel bad about celebrating the conclusion of the challenge. I felt like participating wasn't enough, and that I needed to do more.
Some people mistakenly assume that recipients of food assistance are lazy... but if there's one thing that really resonated with me it's that living on food stamps requires a lot of hard work, preparation, and determination.
Living off of $4.50/day for a week was one of the most stressful weeks of my life. I didn't realize how much mental preparation and strain living off a food stamps budget could be, and I honestly can't imagine how anyone does it. The stress of planning alone was almost unbearable.
I may have only had $22.50 in my budget for the week, but as a result I spent about 17.5 hours shopping for and preparing my food.
Which was basically like working another part-time job. Now I'll normally spend an hour here or there making the odd dinner or salad for work, but this extra amount of effort took a legit toll on me.
I can't help but think more cautiously about every dollar I spend on food now. I'm also more conscious about not wasting food, but to be totally honest, I still don't fully understand what it's like living as an adult on food stamps.
You can make a difference too! Donate to your local food bank and learn more about what you can do in your own community to reduce hunger.
Through the end of the month donations to the SF Marin Food Bank (up to a total of $100,000) are being matched by Riverbed. So if you live in the Bay Area and have a couple of extra dollars to spare, then now is the time to make a donation.
Personally, I pledge to not let months go by before I volunteer again at the food bank. Even if you are unable to make a monetary donation I hope you follow my lead and find time to volunteer. Every little bit counts!