Last week, Gwyneth Paltrow accepted Mario Batali’s Food Stamp Challenge, designed to raise awareness around obstacles that low-income families face. For a week, participants live off of roughly $US31 worth of food — $US1.48 per meal.
I decided to craft a more realistic grocery list and give the challenge a go.
SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients receive a daily average of $US4.17, so I decided to limit myself to a budget of $US29.19.
While this challenge is an extreme version of the realities that low-income families face (the SNAP program is meant to be supplemental), I know that this week will still not authentically replicate food insecurity. I do hope that it will help me better understand the day-to-day struggles that millions of people living off SNAP benefits face.
On Monday night I headed to the most affordable grocery store I could think of: Trader Joe's.
Shopping at TJ's in Manhattan is no ordinary grocery store experience with its chaos and weaving lines -- add a calculator into the mix and things get exponentially more hectic.
It took me a little over an hour to select an assortment of high-calorie, low-cost groceries for $US29.
I was super conscious of sales and steals as I wove through TJs. This sign sold me on the yellow onions, a versatile ingredient that will be one of my only 'flavour enhancers' for the week.
Other steals of the night included: sweet potatoes ($US0.49 each), bananas ($US0.19 each), and a 16-ounce bag of bowtie pasta ($US0.99).
I kept tally of exactly how much each item cost to ensure I was remaining within the allotted budget.
I found myself scrutinizing prices much more so than I normally would, constantly reevaluating my choices, and indecisively swapping things in and out of my basket.
While I would normally grab a bag of popcorn or a carton of ice cream to satisfy my sweet tooth, I steered clear of those luxuries and focused on the essentials.
A breakdown of how I spent my $US28.27:
- Red split lentils ($US1.69)
- Bowtie pasta ($US0.99)
- Can of garbanzo beans ($US0.89)
- Can of black beans ($US0.89)
- Butternut squash soup ($US2.79)
- Chunky peanut butter ($US2.49)
- 8 corn tortillas ($US1.99)
- Half-gallon of almond milk ($US2.99)
- Dozen organic eggs ($US3.99)
- 8-pack of maple and brown sugar oatmeal ($US2.99)
- 7 bananas ($US1.33)
- Bag of spinach ($US1.99)
- 1 yellow onion ($US0.79)
- 3 sweet potatoes ($US1.47)
- Sea salt ($US0.99)
I'm not a vegetarian, but meat seemed too expensive to invest in. I went back and forth on this decision, and ultimately opted out, hoping that peanut butter and eggs would provide enough protein.
If I could do the shopping trip over, I would definitely substitute the organic eggs for the much cheaper regular eggs. The only two cartons of non-organic eggs remaining were littered with cracked ones, which is why I went with the more expensive choice.
Another big splurge was butternut squash soup ($US2.79). Looking back, I probably should have bought more pasta (only $US0.99 per bag) or another cheap, complex carbohydrate.
One of the biggest mistakes I made was not buying butter or oil, essential cooking ingredients that I take for granted, and therefore completely overlooked.
You'll notice a lot of the same colour foods, and limited fruits and vegetables. It is incredibly difficult to fit a healthy amount of fruits and veggies into a $US29 budget. I decided that calories were more important than greens, a compromise I have never had to make, but is reality for many low-income families.
You'll also notice there is no coffee, a staple in my normal diet, but one that would blow the budget.
I don't even know what it's like to feel hungry yet, but I'm already gaining insight into the challenges that low-income families face.
The shopping experience was highly calculated, and even though I carefully tallied up the price of each item I selected, I still stressed about going over budget as the cashier rang up my groceries.
Grocery shopping has always been a therapeutic activity for me -- but tonight's experience, shopping in survival mode, was anything but calming.
My ordinary morning routine involves oats and a banana, so this was a familiar and comforting start to the week.
The unfamiliar part of this Tuesday morning was the absence of coffee. My previous attempt at eliminating my liquid energy failed miserably, so I knew I would have to come up with an alternate morning energizer.
I decided to go for a 30 minute jog each morning, and hoped that the exercise, coupled with a cold shower, would simulate my double dose of caffeine.
It also seemed appropriate to incorporate something physical in my day-to-day, as people living on SNAP benefits tend to lead very physical lives.
I felt hungry very early today, around 11:30am, and recklessly delved into this unappealing can of black beans before noon. Despite its simplicity, eating the beans still felt like a reward.
My strategy for the week was to eat my ingredients individually, rather than combining foods and risking over-consumption early on, a strategy I am considering amending.
An interesting psychological observation: While I normally eat at my desk or with a group of coworkers, I felt embarrassed about my pathetic looking lunch (and eating before noon) and took my Tupperware to the stairwell to eat in solitude.
I made up for the stairwell lunch with a surprisingly tasty, and somewhat balanced, dinner. I discovered my new favourite vegetable tonight: sweet potatoes! They're charmingly simple, full of flavour, and satisfyingly hearty.
Not pictured: the spoonfuls of peanut butter I shoved into my mouth upon arriving home and the corn tortilla I ate plain. In my ravenous state, I didn't think to combine the two.
I'm a serial snacker and often eat multiple mini-meals throughout the day. One of the most challenging parts of this week will be not having the freedom to snack when I please.
Since I will not be scrambling too many eggs without oil, I decided to make a batch of hard-boiled eggs, which will come in handy when I get the urge to snack.
My adrenaline and excitement over starting the challenge helped alleviate caffeine headaches or hunger pains, and even carried me through the dullest of lunches, but my body felt disrupted.
I feel incredibly constrained with my limited food options, and each meal felt utilitarian. I predict that the joy of eating will quickly vanish, and it will become like homework -- a task to complete or something to check off of a list.
The major challenge of the morning was resisting cupcakes and other office pastries that a coworker had brought in to share.
I will not be accepting any free food this week -- including office coffee and snacks -- as there is no guarantee people feeding themselves with SNAP benefits will be offered freebies at any given time.
After yesterday's disaster, I truly stepped in up for lunch -- or so I thought, until I saw what others had packed or bought.
While my coworkers enjoyed nutritious salads, cous cous, hummus, and carrots, I settled for plain noodles with a dash of salt.
My food stamp meal lost in both the aesthetic and nutritional categories, and I couldn't help but feel envious and a little bitter.
I'd been fantasizing about an omelet all day, and so I decided to test the validity of the non-stick pan.
It appeared to work. Maybe it's a good thing I didn't direct any money towards butter or oil.
I'm out of bowls (and dishwasher soap), hence the mug of oats.
I struggled on my jog this morning; the runs seem to be wearing me out and increasing my hunger more than acting as a substitute for coffee.
I'm truly worried about being able to focus at work this morning and maintain a high level of productivity.
I stepped up my lunch-game again today, incorporating baby spinach into my pasta.
Just a smidgen of green made a world of difference flavour-wise, but lunch did nothing to curb the caffeine headaches or screaming legs.
Today was by far the hardest day and had me questioning whether or not I could finish out the week. I fell asleep before I had the chance to make anything for dinner, which was probably my body's way of temporarily escaping the discomfort.
In addition to the constant feeling of fatigue, one of the biggest unforeseen challenges has been living on only two liquids: water and milk. I take so many liquids for granted, most notably coffee, soda, and Gatorade.
I also feel constantly bloated, due to the carb-overload and water guzzling. I have seemed to keep my mood in check, however, and am very aware of my presence to ensure that my physical discomfort does not negatively affect anyone around me.
Feeling malnourished after missing dinner last night, I opted out of running this morning and wolfed down three hard-boiled eggs instead.
I also attempted to spice up my oatmeal by adding almond milk in addition to water; I failed miserably with the liquid to oats ratio and had to add a half packet of oats to balance out the soupy concoction.
Hopefully I won't regret using that half pack of oats later this week.
You may have noticed something missing in today's oatmeal. My bananas are looking pretty rough these days so I decided to repurpose them and create a breakfast smoothie by combining almond milk, a heaping spoonful of peanut butter, ice, and one speckled banana.
The result could not have been more glorious; it's also exciting to add a bit of variety to my diet and eat something new.
The breakfast-that-never-ended held me over for a while, and I didn't feel the need to eat my spinach-noodle combo until 2:00pm. Late lunch, and the fact that it was Friday, made for a bearable afternoon.
I faced an interesting dilemma this morning at a coffee meeting with a coworker and one of our partners.
Having only $US0.73 left in my weekly budget, I couldn't order a coffee or a pastry. I didn't care too much about not having something to eat or drink, but the situation did make me feel like an outsider (similar to the feeling I faced in the stairwell on day 1). I cannot imagine if this feeling was reinforced day after day.
Finishing the work week was a huge relief. I love my job, and so this wave of relief was an unfamiliar, and scary, feeling.
My blissful smoothie combination made an appearance again this morning before I headed out for a day of tennis. I coach on Saturdays, and the day flew by without a thought of food -- that was a first.
During my half hour lunch break I munched on a peanut butter 'sandwich.'
This feeling of being an outsider crept back in this afternoon. Post-tennis I met up with some college friends at a rooftop bar to enjoy the first day of real spring weather. While people ordered several rounds of appetizers and drinks, I sipped on a glass of water.
Once again, I didn't care too much about not being able to drink a beer or eat chicken tenders (and it was definitely economical), but I felt detached from the group.
Today, it became very clear to me that when I want to interact, socialise, or build relationships with people, I eat and drink with them! Just one meal at a restaurant, however, would likely use half (or more) of my weekly budget.
I returned to my trusty oats this morning, and after breakfast I decided to break into my bag of red split lentils.
I learned exactly how not to cook red lentils, and ended up with some sort of mushy product, which I stuck in the fridge to deal with when lunch time rolled around.
Lunch time did indeed roll around, and I made some shockingly delicious veggie tacos out of my lentil mush (covered by the onion and spinach).
I hadn't felt severely hungry until tonight. Ironically, today was one of my least active days, too (no run, no tennis, and no walk to work), but food depletion seemed to catch up to me this Sunday evening.
Since I had been doing a good job stretching my resources, I didn't feel too guilty about whipping up several courses.
Dinner started at 4:00 p.m. when I cooked my last sweet potato as an appetizer...
I then ate the rest of the mushy lentils plain and cold. I also finished off the 'splurge soup' that I had opened on Tuesday.
To cap it all off, I made a peanut butter sandwich, but that still didn't alleviate my hunger.
I used the last of my peanut butter to make another smoothie; I then took a spatula to the near-empty jar, scraped off every last bit of peanut butter remaining, and ate it off the spatula like a kid licks icing off a beater.
Today was an interesting day; I was clearly incredibly hungry, but was nowhere close to feeling the same levels of fatigue and exhaustion from day 2 and 3.
Part of it was me keeping busy, and distracting my body with hobbies such as tennis. Also, I was eating larger portion sizes in general, as I had rationed well early during the week. Finally, I could see a neon light at the end of the tunnel.
My end date, Tuesday, was in reach. I had plenty of food left, and I felt in control for the first time this week.
I took a few hard-boiled eggs to-go on my walk to work this morning. A busy Monday made the morning fly and I enjoyed the remains of my pasta at my desk this afternoon.
Upon leaving the office, I remembered that I had $US0.92 remaining in my food budget. I passed a Duane Reade, saw Cadbury eggs for $US0.29, and there was no turning back.
Shortly after snapping this picture, I shamelessly dug into the caramel egg in the middle of Times Square.
I'd been meaning to make some form of breakfast burrito throughout the week, but had forgotten about the idea. I also wanted an excuse to use this awesome, single-serve egg pan.
I added some veggies on top of my beautifully runny fried egg and scarfed down my breakfast burrito alarmingly quickly.
I had extra food left over, but it felt weird indulging just because it was the last night of the challenge. I decided to eat my last meal as if I were continuing with the $US29 budget next week.
- 1/4 of a carton of almond milk
- Half a bag of split red lentils
- Can of garbanzo beans
- 2 1/2 packets of oatmeal
- 1 banana
- 3 eggs
- A small handful of onions
- A handful of spinach
- 2 corn tortillas
My experimental week clearly does not fully represent food insecurity that millions of Americans face, but it allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the day-to-day struggles they might experience. A few final reflections:
Living off $US1.38 a meal is possible for one week, but certainly not glamorous or comfortable. While the SNAP program is designed to supplement meals and this was an extreme simulation, I still had the advantage of having a light at the end of the tunnel; this gave me a huge mental boost, particularly during the last few days of the challenge.
my life this week in a very different way. I did not savour nice meals or gawk over 'food porn' on instagram like I normally do; rather, I thought about creative ways to space out my meals so that I wouldn't feel too hungry, counted down the minutes to meals, and constantly worried about my dwindling pantry.
I felt physically limited this week in a way that I never had before. The absence of caffeine definitely contributed to my sluggish and weak energy levels. I also noticed that my walks to and from work (35 minutes each way) started taking longer as the week progressed (40 to 45 minutes). If I were to repeat the challenge, I would make room in the budget for cheap coffee grounds.
Eliminating restaurants and the dining experience from my week meant skipping out on social and networking events.
I overcame several challenges over the course of seven days, but this is a glimpse into millions of people's reality all the time, and for that, my perspective has significantly changed.
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