The CalFresh Challenge: Could you live on $34.31 per week?

by on September 21, 2012 · 3 comments

in Activism, Culture, Food & Drink, Government, Health

By Lorena Gonzalez / Center for Policy Initiatives  Blog

From September 9th – 15th, CPI board member Lorena Gonzalez, Secretary-Treasurer of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council, participated in the CalFresh Challenge. “The goal is to raise awareness and understanding around the challenges faced by millions of Americans receiving CalFresh/SNAP benefits. The average benefit in California is about $4.90 per person per day, or about $34.31 per week.” This blog post compiles how Lorena Gonzalez ate for one week living on that amount.

Cal-Fresh Challenge – Day 1:

Breakfast: Stolen bacon
Lunch: Cup O’ Noodles soup ($.25), cup of Green Tea
Dinner: one orange ($.50), one egg ($.25), two pieces of bread ($.25), a cup of Green Tea (reusing the tea bag from lunch)

When I agreed to attempt to live on a food stamp budget for a week, I knew it would be tough. But, I didn’t realize that one of the toughest challenges would be time. In order to maximize my $34.31 budget for the week, I had grand ideas of going to a farmers market and two or three different stores to capitalize on weekly specials. In my first lesson of the working poor,

I was reminded that the Saturday Farmers Market would be impossible to get to if I was scheduled to work, which I was.

So, I woke up this morning on a budget with no food. My kids had breakfast at the hotel I had to speak at this morning. The total bill was more than my allowance for the week, so I just watched. However, when I went to speak at the Teamsters Union political meeting, there was a full buffet of breakfast. I declined to eat, joking with the server that I only eat bacon and there was only sausage out.

When the server, who is also one of our union members, went and brought me a small plate of four pieces of bacon, I was embarrassed and shocked. In order to not be rude and because I was incredibly hungry, I ate the bacon. So, I started the challenge on a bad note: eating stolen bacon. Oops.

I finally did make it to the grocery store around noon, armed with coupons and a throbbing headache thanks to my lack of caffeine. I am not a patient person and hate grocery shopping on the natural. But, I never imagined how demoralizing it would be to walk through the produce section searching for some type of fruit and vegetables that wouldn’t break the bank. I quickly walked past the berries and peaches, my favorite fruits, because of the price.

I had flashbacks of myself as a child asking my mom “Whhhhhhyyyyyyy?” couldn’t I have one of those pretty white peaches. Now I know why she would rush through the produce section. I settled in on a few oranges, a couple of ears of corn and a pound of broccoli – combined, that would be $3.50.

I spent a lot of time in the coffee aisle, but I just couldn’t justify the cost. So, I decided I would buy some green tea in order to deal with the caffeine withdrawal. $2.79 for 20 tea bags and I knew I could steal some splenda from 7-eleven if I just bought a single cup of coffee on Monday.

I realized quickly that noodles, soup and pasta would be the most cost effective staples of my diet this week. So much for my low-carb diet. I also bought cheap white bread and peanut butter. I found a great deal in the frozen section, individually wrapped pieces of chicken, salmon & scallops – $1.00 per serving. Finally, I decided I needed something kind of healthy, so I bought yogurt for more than I would have liked to spend.

In all, I spent $24.76 – leaving myself almost $10.00 for the week. I’ve never thought so much about food as when I have to think about how much everything cost. I took my kids to pizza tonight, hopeful that I could grab a slice for $2.00. But, the cheese slice was $2.50, so I decided I would make dinner at home. I won’t starve this week, but I certainly will lack in creative meals and vitamins.

Cal-Fresh Challenge – Day 2:

Breakfast: Peach Yogurt ($.60), bread w/ peanut butter (roughly $.75), Green Tea
Lunch: Ramen ($.25), Green Tea
Dinner: ½ lb Broccoli ($.75), 1/3 box of pasta ($.35), chicken breast ($1.00), Green Tea

I woke up hungry and desperately wanting a big cup of coffee. I settled for a cup of green tea. I was proud of my breakfast: yogurt and a piece of toast with peanut butter. I did drop the bread on the floor on accident. Normally, I would just toss it in the trash. But, looking at my sad little loaf of bread, I just blew on it and claimed the 3 second rule. Still, I couldn’t help but stare at my daughter’s fresh mango. Not being able to eat what I want is tough.

By the time I made it in to work, I was afraid I would start snapping at folks thanks to my lack of coffee. I just used one green tea bag (over and over) and kept convincing myself it was “almost as good.” I actually had an internal debate with myself over whether I should just go to 7-11 and buy a cup of coffee. But, I was afraid if I used a dollar today, I may need it later in the week.

I only have $10 left and I know I have to do one meal out, so I stopped myself. The insecurity over “how much money is left” is starting to weigh on me and dictates every decision I make. I can’t think of a time in my adult life that I spent so much time in an internal fight about a $1.00.

I notice I think about food a lot more now. This is the opposite of a diet, it is becoming a food obsession. I keep looking at my bag of food and wonder if it will last the week. Lunch was Ramen again. There are many days when I work through lunch, but today I sat with my Ramen and plotted stealing my assistant’s fruit. I think about how I could scam or steal food all the time. Seriously. I have come to the conclusion that if I had to live on food stamps for my life, I probably would do some pretty unethical things for a good meal.

I rushed home from work at an early hour (for me) because I was so excited about my dinner. I knew I would have enough time (rare) to actually cook. I steamed half a pound of broccoli, boiled 1/3 a box of pasta and cooked a single piece of chicken. What I would normally look down upon as a half-ass dinner, was absolutely delicious. I didn’t have sauce for the pasta, so I drenched it in Tapatio hot sauce and put garlic salt over everything. I am a little concerned about my sodium levels… but, I am full and happy. So, who cares for today?

CalFresh Challenge – Day 3:

Breakfast: Yogurt ($.60), Green Tea
Lunch: Coffee!!! ($1.00), Lentil Soup ($.75)
Dinner: ½ of an Avocado ($.25), Ear of Corn ($.50), two pieces of bread ($.25), one egg ($.25)
Money left: $8.50

I woke up with a terrible migraine at 3:00 a.m. Now, I get migraines once in a while, but they usually hit mid-afternoon and are triggered by stress. I don’t know for sure, but I would suspect that my sudden reliance on Ramen, which has MSG and so much sodium, may have been the trigger. I took medicine and tried to pull myself together for work. I ate a cup of yogurt and drank a cup of green tea at 8:00 a.m. and tried to ignore my migraine because I had a meeting I couldn’t miss. As sometimes happens with my worst migraines, I threw up everything by 10:00 a.m.

Now, I had a headache and was throwing up my breakfast, without a replacement option. Sickness of any kind and no expendable income for “sick food” was a problem I hadn’t really thought about before. I would wait for lunch to replenish.

The medicine kicked in and I decided to splurge on a $.99 coffee refill at 7-11. I usually take my coffee with milk and Splenda. But all the fixings looked like a dessert heaven to me. I quickly drank half the cup of coffee standing at the counter, so I could refill my cup without an extra charge. The cashier nastily stared me down, but I just shrugged my shoulders. What’s a girl with coffee deprivation to do?

I am usually so polite and thankful to every worker, but I found myself becoming resentful as she judged me. Nonetheless, I refilled my cup and added every extra they had: caramel, little marshmallows, whipped cream. I knew this was the first nutrients I would keep down for the day, and that I was making a poor drinking decision worse by adding so much sugar. But, I was just desperate for something that tasted good.

I ate a lunch of Progresso Lentil Soup – disgusting in taste, but healthier than many of my options. It was a steal of a deal – on sale at my union CVS for $.97, but with a coupon $.75. It was more filling and better for me than Ramen, so I feel like I am making progress on food decisions.

I really wanted something fresh for dinner. So, I reached into my $9.00 kitty and spent $.50 on an avocado. I sliced half of it, cooked an ear of corn and made a fried egg sandwich. I don’t think I have ever eaten a fried egg sandwich in my life. Not an ideal dinner (cholesterol anyone?) but at least it wasn’t processed. At roughly the halfway point, I am hopeful I can do this… if they will let me return my unused Ramen to the store.

CalFresh Challenge – Day 4:

This sucks. I was running late this morning so I toasted two pieces of bread and spread avocado on them. Ran to 7-11 for coffee , having decided coffee is worth the price and dashed to work.

I had a lunch meeting planned with Mark Cafferty, the head of San Diego’s Economic Development Corporation, for a few weeks. Luckily, he is a very good sport and didn’t blink when our assistants had a discussion about moving our lunch from an upscale Italian Restaurant to Jack in the Box. I enjoyed a plain hamburger and a glass of water.

He ordered the very amazing-looking sirloin burger with bacon, fries and a diet coke. Is it possible to be jealous of someone else’s order at Jack in the Box? Well, my meal was less than a dollar and his was almost twice what I can spend in TWO days. I did steal a few fries though.

I really did appreciate his sensitivity to me embarking on this challenge and it reminded me not to lump the entire business community together. There are responsible and empathetic folks everywhere. Mid-afternoon, I was hungry, so I snacked on a yogurt. Then, for dinner, I had a pre-prepared Peanut Butter Sandwich. Evening events forced me to bring a sack dinner! I am so tired of bread though, I think I am actually gaining weight thanks to the carbs.

CalFresh Challenge Day – 5:

Breakfast: Coffee ($1.00), 6 grapes and a piece of bacon (picked off the plate of a friend)
Lunch: McDonald’s Hamburger ($.89), a few fries taken from a co-worker
Dinner: Clam Chowder Soup ($.75)
Snack: One piece of bread with peanut butter
Money left: $4.50

I had a breakfast meeting with a friend, and decided I would just have a cup of coffee. It wasn’t the first time this week that my eating partner felt so sorry for me that they kept asking me to eat their food. I obliged with a half-dozen grapes and a piece of bacon. I know you are supposed to shun social food, but I am having a hard time with my schedule to avoid meals out. I have become a pro at eating a little off of other people’s plates.

I worked through lunch and didn’t really have time to make anything. So at 1:30, a co-worker went to McDonald’s, so I asked for a small hamburger. I realized I was getting really close to the end of my money, but it was $1.00 or no lunch.

I ran home to make a bowl of Clam Chowder soup before going to an evening event. My late night snack was a piece of bread and peanut-butter. I feel like I have hit a stride. I’m not hungry at all, but I hate what I am eating, I want something with color. I crave fruits and vegetables. And, I am preoccupied by what I will eat next. If I don’t plan it out, I run in to trouble. I can’t wait to be done with this.

CalFresh Challenge Day – 6:

I am tired of thinking about, worrying about, craving food. Breakfast was an egg & toast (good enough!) and a cup of coffee from 7-11.

Brought my lunch— chicken noodle soup & an orange… Snacked on yogurt.

My dinner meeting sucked. I didn’t eat (except one walnut that fell off the plate onto the table ) when we decided that didn’t count.

I got home and made pasta, a breast of chicken & rest of broccoli. It was fine.

I just want this to be over. I want peaches and mangos and bananas and carrots and SUSHI!!! And I want people to quit asking why I am doing this “diet”… As if it’s an effort to close weight.

Lord, help me make it through just one more day. I have $3.50 to splurge tomorrow!!!!! No more yucky pasta!

CalFresh Challenge Day – 7:

I have waited to post about my final day and final thoughts about last week’s CalFresh Challenge. Quite honestly, once I was done, I didn’t want to think or write about crappy food for a while. I simply wanted to load up on fresh fruit and vegetables and seafood. (I accomplished that) But here was day 7, and some final thoughts.

I had to work early on Saturday, so I just ran to 7-11 and bought a cup of coffee, and 3/$1.00 coconut cream, cherry and apple pies. Total crap, I know. But, I was in a rush and only had a few dollars to spend. I shared the pies with my co-worker who did the challenge with me but had run out of money.

For my final meal, I ate a Costco hamburger patty, sold to me by my staff at cost. I didn’t have any time for anything else and because the patties were bought in bulk, the price was right (around $.50.) It was a totally unhealthy way to end a totally unhealthy week. I felt desperate and gross. But, when you are hungry, you eat what you can.

Final Thoughts:

In many ways, I think I was the perfect person to try this challenge. My life – I am a single mom and work close to 60 hours a week – mirrors that of many working poor who have to supplement their budgets with food stamps. I rarely have time that I can budget for grocery shopping or cooking and I am often trying to just grab something as I run out the door.

But in other ways, I had it much easier. I have a reliable car and don’t have to worry too much about gas money. I am constantly around people who are willing to share their healthy (and not so healthy) food with me. I had no real fear of going hungry and I still fed my kids a regular diet.

I grew up working class, so penny pinching, coupon clipping and getting by on what was available wasn’t new to me. But, as an adult, I was much more aware of what food insecurity really feels like. It causes you to obsess on food and actually grow hungrier. And any cheap filling food is starchy and really bad for you: bread, pasta, Ramen.

Also, I had forgotten what it felt like to be judged for not having as much. I still remember a day in Middle School when we had a potluck where we all brought food from our Country of Origin for a presentation and dinner at school with our families. My mom made Spanish Rice for us to bring. My grandparents, who lived with us, came with us to the event, as did my brothers. It was a potluck, so we ate, of course.

The next day in class when the teacher was debriefing the activity, a girl raised her hand and admonished “someone in the class” who brought cheap food to the event and had her whole family there eating everyone else’s food as “extremely rude.” I will never forget the extreme embarrassment I felt, knowing it was my family. For some reason, this week made me think of that day.

People had a lot of great ideas for me as I posted my blog every night. Most of them sounded great, but were impractical because I had already spent most of my money buying staples. Others would have just taken too much time. Some people suggested I go somewhere “cheap” to shop, like Wal-Mart or Target.

I thought a lot about my values. We don’t shop at Wal-Mart and we don’t buy food at Target. I believe that helping continue the cycle of poverty by sacrificing good jobs at union grocery stores for minimum wage jobs at these places is just wrong. Because I had access to any store in San Diego, I chose to shop at unionized ones. I often wondered this week if I were actually reliant on food stamps for my family, and me if I could afford to be so principled.

Finally, and most importantly, it is unrealistic to expect anyone to live any type of healthy lifestyle on $34.00 a week. I will not hesitate to stand up for protecting and increasing CalFresh food stamp budgets every chance I get. But, for the working poor, that responsibility also lies with the employer and not with government. People just can’t live off of minimum wage. Very few, if any, employers would go under if they had to pay their employees more.

It is unacceptable to turn a blind eye as the wage gap widens and income inequality grows. People who work 40-50 hours a week shouldn’t have to rely on a food stamp budget. We are the greatest Country in the world, and we all deserve better.

Reprinted with permission from the Blog at CPI /Center on Policy Initiatives

Editors Note: Omar Passions, writing at the blog eat.drink.give.go also writes about his experiences on the CalFresh ‘diet’. Worth a read, for sure. 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar KeninSD September 21, 2012 at 12:58 pm

When you felt ill early in your week, you had “medicine” available to you. The likely CalFresh user probably would have had to deal with the nausea and headache without it!

Reply

avatar Ashley November 8, 2013 at 2:49 am

Also, living in a van with food stamps is harder. You can’t buy anything that isn’t full of preservatives or has to be cooked. I learned that salami can last a while without needing to be refrigerated if you had a strong stomach. Of course, I bummed meals and ate fruit at a family member’s house.

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Older Article:

Newer Article: