When Melissa Marts of Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado told me about the Food Assistance Challenge, I blurted it out before I really thought about it.
"I'll do it. Sign me up."
Meet my daredevil streak, responsible for a trail of broken bones, frostbitten toes and some serious concussions dating back to when I was 2 years old. For some reason, challenges are irresistible to me. And thus, in that moment, the idea of living off the amount that an average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) recipient receives — $35.40 a week — seemed like a cakewalk.
These challenges have been going on, nationwide, for years. Lots of journalists and even a few politicians have signed up. Plus, it's for a good cause: raising awareness of hunger and encouraging people to donate food.
September is Hunger Action Month, and a great time to be thinking about those less fortunate. According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, 464,088 Colorado families or individuals were on food assistance in August, compared to 419,737 in August 2010 and just 247,523 in August 2008. Feeding America, Care and Share's parent organization, recently released its "Map the Meal Gap" study, which found that 14.3 percent of Coloradans (694,760 people) are food insecure, meaning they may not always have access to food, or access to quality food. A staggering 22.7 percent of Colorado children (271,660 kids) face the same tough odds.
Nationwide, more than 40 million are on food stamps.
So what's to gain from eating on $35.40 a week? For one thing, understanding. Food stamps go to people who meet certain income requirements set by the government. A family of four, in most cases, must not have a gross income of more than $2,389 a month.
Food stamps are intended as a supplement, with a family spending about 30 percent of their own money on food. But those in the helping business will tell you that's often not the way it works out. With mounting bills and debt, and lack of awareness of or access to charitable resources, many depend on food stamps alone, they say.
Marts points out that food stamps only buy food, meaning any extras — deodorant, pet food, toilet paper — still are paid for out of pocket.
Since the SNAP program has been trying to emphasize proper nutrition and cheap, healthy recipes online (fns.usda.gov/snap), I decided to try to put together the healthiest meal plan I could muster. Meanwhile, my husband decided to try the challenge as well. But he chose to eat the way that many food-stamp recipients do — on the cheapest, and often most-processed, foods.
Read on to find out how the week went for us firsthand. And keep in mind that Care and Share's official challenge begins Sept. 12. Go to careandshare.org and click on "Hunger Action Month" to learn more.
Josh and I were planning to start today. But now we're waiting until Wednesday.
We simply had too much perishable food in our fridge. So we're gorging on lettuce and fruit, spicy meatloaf and mashed sweet potatoes, fresh blueberry pancakes with organic butter and real maple syrup, Greek yogurt and Ezekiel bread.
Tonight, I sit down and agonize over a grocery list of healthy foods that would fit my budget. Josh leans back in a chair and cat-naps. Then we drive to King Soopers on Uintah Street — chosen because it shares its parking lot with a dollar store, where Josh will buy most of his groceries.
My head swims with questions. Isn't there any string cheese for less than $3.50? (No, apparently not.) Isn't there a brand of eggs that's at least cage-free for less than $2.75? (Yes, one for $2.35.) I stare at the lettuce for ages, wondering if — at $1.50 apiece — I can really afford two heads. (Eventually, I indulge and throw them in the cart.)
I have never spent this much time thinking about how much my food costs. At one point, when I'm typing in my calculator and frowning, a mother and a child shove past me to grab something off the shelf. The mother turns and gives me a look of repulsion — as though my budgeting is shameful.
Later, at the cash register, I realize that my navel oranges are 55 cents each, not 55 cents a pound, as I had thought.
"I need to take those oranges off my bill," I tell the cashier.
"You can't pay $1.10 for a couple oranges?" she asks, looking me up and down.
"No," I tell her. "I can't."
I wake up an hour later than usual, and quickly face a disturbing fact: Coffee is not on my meal plan.
Grumpy and tired, Josh and I battle for position in the kitchen. I'm planning to go to a concert after work, and he's going to Fort Collins for an evening of cycling. Neither one of us has time to go home for dinner.
That means we have to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now.
My tuna sandwich, yogurt, carrot and small salad have to be packed separately from my bean, rice and ground pork burrito. Then I fix oatmeal with raisins for breakfast. Without sugar or flavoring, it's pretty bland.
Josh is boiling Ramen with eggs for his lunch. At the same time, he gobbles down raw oatmeal with yogurt — one of his healthier choices. For dinner, however, he packs three bologna-and-American-cheese sandwiches on white bread.
Josh's blood pressure tends to rise on occasion, so we try to keep our salt intake down. Usually, this is easy. We're food snobs. We don't buy many things that come in a box or a can. There are a lot of legumes and organic brown rice in our diet.
Josh's version of the food-stamp diet hardly follows our low-sodium trend.
"Guess how much sodium one slice of bologna has?" Josh asks me.
"I don't know," I say.
"Guess," he insists.
"I don't know!" I say.
"300 milligrams," he says. "This is going to kill me."
A person is supposed to consume a maximum of 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day. People like Josh should consume much less. Yet Ramen, a staple of his new diet, contains up to 800 milligrams per packet.
At the end of the day, Josh comments that he rode badly, felt tired and had a pounding headache. It's a common side-effect of high blood pressure. And caffeine withdrawal.
My head is pounding, too.
By night, I still have a screaming caffeine-withdrawal headache and end up lounging on the couch, skipping a planned bike ride.
On the positive side, I notice my taste for salt and sugar subsiding. And I do feel that I'm getting enough to eat.
Josh, meanwhile, is miserable. His blood pressure continues to rise. He wants to stay on the diet, but since he's heading to Stage 2 hypertension, we both agree that this should be his last day.
Since Josh's dad died in his 40s from a massive heart attack, I'm scared. I can't believe how many Americans see this diet as normal.
Josh is a persistent guy. He had what he called "a lapse" last night and consumed a bowl full of broccoli. But this morning, he's back to oatmeal and then Ramen for lunch.
It's a valiant effort, but unsustainable. By dinner, he dips into my beans and rice for dinner. (No skin off my nose, I have plenty.)
It's over. His general assessment: Yuck. He felt icky, lacked energy, and had a terrible time in the bathroom. In other news, Josh tells me his low-priced eggs "taste like cheap fried chicken." Alrighty then.
Meanwhile, I'm actually starting to like my plain and repetitive diet. My caffeine/sugar/salt withdrawals have subsided. And I really don't have hugely strong chocolate cravings anymore. I feel awake in the morning even without coffee. Unsalted things taste like salted things used to. I'm not hungry, though I'm eating less.
I've lost three pounds.
I have to go to Denver today for a museum tour and to celebrate my grandmother's 99th birthday.
Trips are difficult. Most of this food doesn't travel particularly well. I decide to wing it. I eat eggs for breakfast (a rare treat) and a tuna sandwich for lunch, before getting on the road at 11:45.
I visit Grandma first. I've already decided to eat a sliver of whatever goodie is offered. At 99, my grandma is stubborn, and she's always insisted that people eat when they come visit. In her time, refusing food was an insult.
I eat a small portion, give Grandma a kiss and a present, and am on my way. I'm feeling pretty guilty by the time I get home around 8. And hungry. Really, really hungry.
I have had urges to eat apples, steamed squash and whole wheat pasta. Today, after a day of hiking and driving, it's late and Josh and I are hungry. I remark that I could really go for a steak "marinated in balsamic vinegar, fresh garlic and basil, and grilled on the barbecue." I look dreamy-eyed.
"Yeah," he says, his own eyes lighting up.
"Maybe I'll fry my burrito tonight," I say, with a tone of defeat.
I fry my burrito in a little spray oil. It gives the tortilla a nice crispness, and I find the meal satisfying.
Josh, however, is not interested. He starts defrosting a steak from the freezer ... until I lay a guilt trip on him.
"You're really going to eat a steak in front of me?" I ask him. "The one thing I told you I was craving?"
He ends up eating a bizarre concoction of beets, pasta and tofu. Apparently, it's not very good.
Secretly, wickedly, I am pleased that my stupid burrito was better than his meal.
What is it about me and cake lately?
There's a birthday at work, and I can't resist helping myself to a piece. Hey, it's free, right? Sadly, it tastes too sweet. Almost oddly so. I find I can't eat the frosting, usually my favorite part.
The diet is still fine, but to be honest, I'm still thinking about steak. And chicken. And shrimp. I work out most days, and I've been craving protein like mad. Plus, I'm just sick of eating the same things day after day.
I fry my burrito again.
The amazing thing is how much food I have left. Plenty of beans and rice, lots of oatmeal, about a half-carton of eggs, even some cheese from the tiny block I bought. I'm running low on veggies, though, and my tortillas and yogurt are dwindling. After today's serving, I'm out of bread and bananas.
I can't even start to explain how glad I am that this will soon be over. Tomorrow, I'll get my steak. And a giant Vietnamese noodle bowl.
Tomorrow, I'll go back to eating whatever I want. No more budgeting. No more pinto beans.
A lot of families aren't so lucky. This isn't an experiment for them. And they don't get to whine about it the way I do.
This is their life.