Try eating on a food stamp budget

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Thirty dollars and twenty five cents.

That’s the budget Open Arms is challenging Minnesotans to eat on for one week in November — the average weekly food stamp benefit for one person in Minnesota.

“Our goal is solely to bring awareness to hunger in Minnesota,” said Susan Pagani, communications director for Open Arms, which provides free meals for people with diseases including HIV/AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, and cancer.

More than 500,000 Minnesotans receive food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That number jumped 19 percent between February 2010 and February 2011, due to increased need and changes in eligibility.

This is the nonprofit’s second annual food stamp challenge, which helps participants understand what putting together meals is like for that growing number of Minnesotans, Pagani said. She watched last year as participants blogged about their experience.

“It was really interesting to see people go into the SNAP Challenge with the idea that they could manage this,” she said. “And a lot of people, their first blog posts were about how it took them three hours to plan where they would shop, so they could get the most out of the money they had to spend for the entire week. So that was one epiphany — how much time you would have to invest if you wanted to eat well.”

Pagani also saw participants experience what she calls “shelf shock.”

“People would find themselves in the grocery store negotiating with themselves — well, I would really like some fruit. Well, I don’t want fruit in syrup. Well, I could either buy one pear, or I could buy this can of fruit that’s filled with syrup.”

Many began to understand that some Minnesotans make those kinds of decisions regularly.

“It started to really bring home for them the correlation between health and poverty and food,” Pagani said.

Such challenges are common and have drawn media attention across the country. In the past, a few members of Congress have participated in them.

But the challenges also have been criticized. Some critics say food stamps, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, are not intended to cover all the groceries a person buys. The program is designed to merely supplement a food budget.

But that’s not always the way the benefit is used, argues Pagani.

“I think it’s supplemental in a best-case scenario,” she said. “But if you really look at it, [for] a lot of the people who are using it, it’s their entire food budget.”

Open Arm’s one-week challenge will begin on Thursday, Nov. 17 and end on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24.

  • LC

    I rely on food stamps for my entire food budget. I almost never go over my limit, and eat almost exclusively bulk foods and fresh produce from my local coop. I also take full advantage of the AMAZING benefits at farmer’s markets.

    It is possible to eat a balanced diet using EBT. I eat a healthier diet than I did before, which lowers my eventual health care costs. Everyone should have access to fresh, healthy food…and stop making food stamps seem like a terrible thing!

  • David

    Sorry but as a family of 2.5, we have to call foul! I work 40 hours a week and her 15-20 at a job where we can fortunately bring our now 6th month old. We budget $50 a week for groceries (or $25 per person) and we eat healthy meals with fresh produce from the farmers market and no one is going hungry here (and I bike commute so probably eat more than I would driving or busing). To many times we see others paying with ebt to buy junk foods and soda. So what do we get for “making it happen” since we won’t qualify for public assistance?

  • Crystal

    My hubby and I have 4 children, and we have been on the foodstamp program for over 2 years. Without it, neither of us would have made it through college. The hubby now works full-time, and we still are able to receive $200. A month for food. Unfortunately, even with him working(I can’t find a job) after that 200 is gone, it is hard to afford food. For the comment previous to this, yes, I have definitely bought junk food with food stamps, I even buy my kids their birthday cakes with it. I buy soda, and occasionally even chips. It is a luxery to buy these things, though. Most ppl I know use foodstamps for nutritious meals. Sometimes, we splurge. Just because you see people buying junk food with food stamps doesn’t mean that that is what they always use it for.

  • dwanalee

    I use “Get Official Samples” to find free samples of major brands online. Please note they update their samples every day but I just pick what ever available at that time and use them.

  • Sue

    Congratulations to the “LC” person and their ability to stretch their food dollars and buy nutritious stuff.

    My family is lucky that we are in a position to not depend on food stamps. We stay with the staples and don’t buy processed food. There is a lot of nutritious food and in the short and long run it costs less than the processed food.

    Americans really need to rethink the way they buy their food not only to save money but for their health.

  • Bob Moffitt

    I think it would be especially usefull if all state lawmakers took the challenge to feed themselves and their families on $30.25 a week.

    I believe a little first-hand experience, if just for one week, would be of value to them in any furture discussions of the program.