Lessons Learned from New York City’s Food Stamp Challenge

by Gina Blitstein · 1 comment

Recently in New York City, the Food Bank of New York issued a challenge to raise awareness of the plight of those who rely on food stamps to procure enough nutritious food for themselves and their families. That challenge to the general public was to eat for one week on only the food you can buy with the amount in food stamps the average person receives: $1.48 per meal.

No, that’s not a typo – $1.48 per meal.

I realize that food stamps are intended as a subsidy and not meant to cover the entire cost of the food required for a meal. Their purpose is to help people achieve and maintain a suitable level of nutrition for themselves and their family when finances are especially tight.

When I shop for groceries, $1.48 here or there doesn’t make an impact in my overall purchasing decisions. Considered alone, $1.48 does indeed seem like a meager amount; but multiply it by 3 meals per day, 7 days per week and you have $31.08 per person. That’s an amount I can relate to in my grocery budget.

New York’s Food Stamp Challenge raised my awareness of the fact that, when it comes to purchasing groceries, thirty bucks a week can make a big difference, whether it’s the lion’s share of your budget or, like mine, just a part.

This led me to ponder this question: If low-income individuals are faced with the challenge of feeding their families with so little, what could a comfortably middle-class person like myself do with that same amount of money from my grocery budget? Could I be as frugal and responsible at procuring nutritious, affordable food with it as food stamp recipients must, by necessity, be?

My Own Grocery Challenge

I devised a mental challenge of my own: Earmark an amount of my own grocery budget equivalent to the subsidy we would receive in food stamps and spend it as if it were the majority of my money for food. (As a family of two, we would receive a little over $62 a week in food stamps.) My challenge would stipulate that I would need to spend that money only on nutritious foods that would be acceptable under the food stamp rules and regulations.

How would I spend carefully?

  • “Invest” in cheaper-per-unit bulk foods, like rice, beans and pasta which are nutritious and keep well to build up a well-stocked pantry of affordable staples
  • Purchase frozen vegetables which retain nutrition longer
  • Buy fresh vegetables and fruits in season when they’re cheaper
  • Look for and stock up on “Manager’s Specials” and sales to stretch my dollars farther
  • Devise and implement a strong coupon strategy
  • Plan meals in advance and shop accordingly
  • Make a list and buy only what’s on it
  • Frequent thrift and outlet stores for discounted, high-quality groceries and breads
  • Shop warehouse stores for food items in bulk at discount prices
  • Avoid convenience stores

My challenge really begs the question, “How can I maximize a portion of our household grocery budget to get absolutely the most nutrition for the money?” Fortunately, I don’t have to shop for groceries primarily with a limited subsidy – but what if I did? What if it were sheer necessity, rather than an exercise in frugality? My challenge provides an eye-opening perspective: There is a lot of power in the ability to choose to live frugally. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have that power in the marketplace – so recognize and appreciate it if you have it. I know one thing: I’ll never think of $1.48 as insignificant again.

How would you feed your family on less if circumstances demanded?

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Priswell July 10, 2012 at 10:37 am

I don’t know if food stamps are a “subsidy” as much as it is “This Is What You Get”.

Many years ago, I had a friend that was on welfare. We lived in the same apartment complex, and I know that the food stamps that she got was the great bulk of her grocery shopping budget. Every month, she had to scrimp on other necessary purchases so she could have enough to buy what she *really* needed for groceries.

She had always been something of a “free spirit”, but she worked hard to learn to cook from scratch for herself and her daughter, to make every food dollar count.

That’s another thing – cooking from scratch. If you’re gonna have to live on $5 per person per day, you have to learn to cook from scratch. If those skills aren’t in place already, it’s going to be a long, tasteless month at the kitchen table.

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