How well can one eat for less than $5 a day? My family is about to find out.

by on May 10, 2017 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights

By Dave Rice

How well can one eat for less than $5 a day? My family is about to find out.

According to the latest available statistics, 285,000 people in San Diego County receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Once referred to as “food stamps,” here the government food assistance program goes under the moniker CalFresh.

The average benefit for a program participant is currently $4.18 a day, down from $4.27 eight months ago. As I’m quickly learning, those few pennies can quickly add up.

Next week, the San Diego Hunger Coalition San Diego Hunger Coalition is reviving their regional CalFresh Challenge, wherein San Diegans are encouraged to subsist entirely off a typical food stamp budget for a day or a full work week, depending on how ambitious one might be in their quest to establish a fleeting connection with the region’s many residents in need.

The annual awareness campaign dates to 2006, when allies of the Food Research & Action Center first pledged to live on a government benefit budget. It drew national attention the following year, and has since spread to local groups across the country like the Hunger Coalition.

“We want to give people a sense of what life is like on an extremely limited food budget,” says Anahid Brakke, executive director of the Hunger Coalition. “We also use it as a chance to bust some of the myths that exist surrounding food stamps.”

“The biggest thing is that when you’ve gone through it, you have a much better understanding how hard it is to eat healthy on such a small budget,” Brakke tells me during an interview a week before the challenge is set to begin. “You know, we hear these stories about people buying lobster and steak, but when you actually try to live on a food stamp budget you see that it’s just not possible.

“The median income for people who are receiving SNAP is $852 a month. The median housing cost is $564, not considering utilities or other costs,” Brakke continues. “So, SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and it’s meant to be something to ‘add on’ to your household food budget, but for a lot of households living in poverty in San Diego it’s the only food money that they have.”

So, in the spirit of the challenge, I set about creating a budget – $62.82 to feed my family of three for five days. But I already know I’m going to cheat. I try to justify some of this rule-breaking thusly:

My daughter already eats breakfast and lunch at her school’s cafeteria most days. While I pay about $4 a day for this privilege, I’m assuming families who qualify for CalFresh benefits will also qualify for free school meals, so not counting their cost against my meager budget shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. It also gets me off the hook for 10 of the 45 meals I’m supposed to cover, so I can selfishly steal her benefits to feed the adults in the family. She’s also allowed to purchase one ice cream and one fruit soda a week on my dime in addition to the basic cafeteria meals, and I’m not going to deny her those.

It bears noting, though, that if the challenge were taking place in the summer or while school is on holiday, this write-down might be much harder to justify – while there are county programs that provide food for kids outside of school, they’re often not as easy to reach or widely accessible as her middle school two blocks up the hill from our apartment. In fact, if we were even to have to adhere to the seven-day budget of previous challenges including two non-school days, I’d be dead in the water given my current plans.

Next, I have a small chest freezer tucked into the corner of my dining room, and I stock up on things while they’re cheap. I never pay more than $2.50 for a pound of butter, for example, even though the cheap stuff at Vons is regularly priced at $4. The rules say I’m not supposed to eat food I already have, but I anticipate using one stick of butter during the week and can’t swing for another three I won’t need – that would kill my budget. Instead I’m going to charge myself $1 for that stick, which is the price someone who doesn’t have the storage capacity or budget to load up on surplus food would have to pay – the other three sticks can be part of some other week’s budget.

Then, there’s the issue of lunch – I’ve got breakfast and dinner handled, but I’m only planning on leaving about $9, maybe a couple bucks more if I’m exceptionally frugal/lucky. Even if I give all of that to Chris, she’s not going to be thrilled. And I don’t know that I’ll be able to count on enough leftovers to get me through, especially when I’m working as a laborer and won’t have access to a microwave (lengthy aside: most previous challenge participants seem to be office workers – in addition to my gigs as a writer, a significant part of my typical week is occupied performing maintenance work ‘in the field’ at properties my family’s company manages – sometimes I’m literally digging ditches for a paycheck). I don’t know how I’m going to square that one yet.

Also, my wife says she’s not giving up her sodas – if I don’t drink what’s left from last week’s shopping fine, she’s going to take a Coke with her to work, and have another when she comes home. This is my challenge, any way – all the more water mix-ins for me!

Finally, the 12th is our wedding anniversary – I’m not going to be serving hot dogs or plain pasta for dinner that night. So, stopping the challenge one meal early means I’m going to shave three family meals, or $4.18 off the weekly budget. That brings me down to $58.64 to go shopping with.

“You have to let go of your shopping habits,” Brakke warns me, offering tips to get through the challenge. “You can’t buy local, organics are out of the question. A lot of times this means going to markets where all of the produce comes from Mexico. No more chicken breast – at best maybe you’re getting a pack of thighs or leg quarters. Maybe you get a big pack, stick the meat in your freezer and pray nobody leaves the door open.

“Another thing is how long it takes – you’ll spend how many hours thinking about what to buy with your food budget? Then you’ll have to cook – I’m not one who has time to cook very often, but for the challenge I spend hours planning it out, cooking, just keeping myself fed.”

Well, that last part should be no problem – I’m pretty used to cooking, it gives me a break between coming home from my day job and sitting down to write later in the evening. I just hope there are no emergency calls – a tenant’s power going out, a sink developing a leak or a clog (these calls invariably come in just after the close of business, it seems) that keep me working late enough to just drive through a taco shop on the way home.

Brakke warns me, though, it’s easy to fall into a crap-eating trap.

“When you hear the numbers, you might think ‘well, I could live on that grocery budget.’ But it’s so hard to eat healthy – nutrition is expensive, empty calories are cheap.”

So, off to do the shopping. This is another area where I have a relative advantage – within a few miles of my house are the outlets for both of the major union grocers in town, plus several smaller markets. I’ve got a car, which means I can visit more than one store after carefully poring over a host of weekly circulars to find the best prices on everything I think I’m going to need. If I relied on transit to do my shopping, or lived in a food desert without any compelling grocery options within reach, I’d be in a lot worse shape – buying older, lower-quality produce at higher prices from corner markets, thus draining my budget much more quickly.

I think I’ve done okay – I’ve got four dinners, fruit and yogurt for breakfast, sandwich bread for lunch, frozen juice concentrate and a bottle of caffeinated water mix-in, even some snacks. I spend $19.45 at one store, mostly on fruits and veggies (primarily non-organic, but organics aren’t typically in my budget anyhow – I’m pretty sure everything I’ve bought indeed originated in Mexico, sprayed with who-knows-what pesticides and fertilizers), another $22.67 elsewhere largely on packaged goods.

I’ve spent $42.12 overall, leaving me with just $16.52. I also don’t have any meat aside from some canned tuna – as a matter of principle I don’t pay more than $2 for chicken breast, and this week I couldn’t pay more if I wanted to. One of my usual stores had thigh meat for $1.69 (Christina won’t do dark meat, period), but no breast meat on sale. I’ve found another local grocer that has boneless skinless breasts for $1.99, however, I’ll ride my bike there tomorrow and pick up a pack.

So, that’s that. The challenge started Monday morning, and I’ll be checking back in sometime later in the week.

In the meantime, the Hunger Coalition also has a fundraising component as part of the challenge. Donations raised by challenge participants go to fund the CalFresh Task Force.

“It’s a group that we facilitate that meets monthly in four different regions of the county comprised of organizations that are providing CalFresh application assistance for their clients,” Brakke tells me. “We update them on changes with how the program is administered, and it brings together the county and the community-based organizations that are doing the sign-ups.

“It also tends to be an advocacy table where, when we hear about issues from our partner organizations out on the front lines that they’re having in applying for CalFresh we’ll dig deeper and try to understand the problem, removing the barrier to enrolling in the program for various populations.

“We play a bit of a watchdog role, but we try to be a very friendly watchdog organization.”

Here’s a shameless plug for the fundraiser page – spare a buck or two for a good cause? Either way, wish us luck!


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