OP-ED: Can You Live Off $4.20 A Day?

Brandon Dwyer June 20, 2013 0
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One week’s food? Photo Credit: Brandon Dwyer

Can I live off four dollars and twenty cents a day? It was a question I asked myself a few weeks back. It had been in the local news: Mayor Greg Stanton (Phoenix, AZ) took the challenge; Mayor Cory Booker (Mayor Newark, NJ) took the challenge… I would see press releases, news stories, and various blog posts on the subject. So after a little bit of arm twisting, I convinced my girlfriend that we should try. Could we live off the average SNAP benefits for 5 days?

Step 1: Preparation

Forty two dollars doesn’t seem like much money, but this was the amount we were allotted for 5 days. So I started planning. I knew a few things going into the challenge: keep processed food to a minimum, eat as much fresh fruit and vegetables as possible, and keep it under $42. For this task, free food is OK – free coffee at work, food that co-workers bring in, and dinner at the parents’ house – none of that comes out of the food budget. I’m not willing to take food away from the truly needy, so that leaves food banks and/or soup kitchens out of the challenge.

I shopped at different stores and weighed the options, paying close attention to which stores offer the best prices and which stores are better with staples and veggies.  I took a week and built a shopping list; it was reviewed and edited, reviewed again, and put into action.

Step 2: Shopping.

With a meal plan and a list in hand we took off shopping.  We had planned to go to three stores: Sprouts, The Asian Market (that is the actual name), and Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market.  We could get some bulk items at Sprouts, veggies at The Asian Market, and Wal-Mart for the staples.  After getting the bulk food, my girlfriend decided that we should check out the produce as well.  We ended up spending $16.79 on various veggies. This included a great price on brussel sprouts and an organic salad mix way cheaper than prepackaged.  Because of the great deals, we decided to skip The Asian Market and go straight to the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market.

The Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market is not my first choice when it comes to grocery stores.  Controversy swarms around Wal-Mart for their business practices being the low labor-cost leader.   However, it does offer deals on staples such as bread, pasta, eggs and butter. It is a giant of grocery that accounts for 140 billion in food sales each year. So yeah, LOTS of food stamp recipients shop at Wal-Mart and so did we for this challenge.

Twenty two dollars thirty four cents later, we walked out with all the staples we needed for the week.  We had enough money left over from our normal shopping that we splurged on a 12 pack of Diet Coke.  I was right in thinking that Wal-Mart would be cheaper: butter was a dollar cheaper, we saved two dollars on pasta, we got a great deal on a package of strawberries, and last but not least, we picked up six packs of Ramen noodles.  Our shopping was done and we had two dollars and eighty seven cents left over. We planned to use it later in the week for some fresh bread.

Day 1.

Breakfast:  2 eggs, 1 tortilla.
Lunch: Skipped.
Dinner: Soft tacos (mushrooms, onion, Italian squash and a flour tortilla).

I think I’m starting withdrawal headaches already.  Switching to the free coffee at work gave me some massive jitters.  I was happy to get home after a grueling work day. After all, it was taco night! We cooked up some veggies, heated a few flour tortillas… BAM! Soft tacos were a meal for two that costs less than two dollars. In all honesty it wasn’t a typical full meal.  There were no side dishes, no rice added, but after a long day it was filling. Throw in a can of Diet Coke and we were dancing.  A nice walk around the neighborhood after the sun set helped quell any remaining hunger we had.

Our food stock went down. This might be a problem.

Day 2.

Breakfast: 2 eggs, flour tortilla, ½ banana.
Snack: 1 banana.
Lunch: Mixed green salad with strawberries.
Snack: The rest of my breakfast banana after work.
Dinner: Linguini pasta w/butter and lemon, brussel sprouts, toast w/ butter and herbs.

My headaches continue. I skipped the caffeine until around 2 o’clock when I finally opened a can of Diet Coke. I find myself a little irritable… okay, very irritable. I took a lunch break for the first time in a few weeks. It is normal for me to just grab something and go. It was nice to simply sit down and relax while eating. It helped me just taste the food and take my time. It was a good salad.

For dinner we cooked one of our favorite dishes, linguini with brown butter, lemon, and miscellaneous herbs.  I tried to portion out the pasta so we could get 3 meals out of it. I’ve known that a whole box feeds about 6 so a third of the box would be plenty. It was. Along with half of the brussel sprouts and a few slices of wheat toast, we had a complete and filling meal. In fact, it was too much food. We had a few brussel sprouts left over.  The calculated cost of the meal was around $2.40. I made another batch of the pasta for tomorrow’s lunch, it was that good.

I’m getting worried about the food stocks now.

Day 3

Breakfast: 2 eggs, 1 toast.
Lunch: Lemon herb linguini and banana.
Snack: 1 package ramen noodles.
Dinner: roasted parsnip and brussel sprouts, mashed sweet potatoes, and rotini pasta with marinara sauce.

Today overall was a good day.  Headache was at a minimum and I think I’m in the middle of detox. When I awoke this morning I was not groggy. I drove to work wide awake and didn’t feel the need to go straight for the coffee. I ended up skipping the coffee all together.  During my delivery route I stopped home to grab a banana and a diet coke. It wasn’t out of the way.

Up to this point dinners had been under $3.00, but tonight we went all out and it cost around $5.44. Oh, I might add that I’m too old for Ramen noodles now. I decided to cook a package today. It was way too salty. I now open the kitchen cabinets and cringe when I see the remaining Ramen noodles inside.

I am worried about the food stocks.  We ran out of Diet Coke.

Day 4

Breakfast: 2 eggs, 1 tortilla.
Lunch: Skipped.
Dinner: Rice bowls with mushrooms, onion and Italian squash. $1.78, give or take.

I find that I’m feeling quite well. I’m hungry, never really full, but I don’t see that as an issue.  We do periodical 500 calorie days and I think that has prepared me for this challenge.  Also, the biggest single item to help me cope with this challenge is that I’m a vegetarian. We don’t have to pay for the extra filler of meat.

Stocks of fresh veggies are depleted. 1 Italian squash left.  We were hoping to use the remaining money for a six pack of diet coke. This would have to be passed on.  So I took a trip to The Asian Market and picked up a few veggies to replace our stock of fresh food. I had $2.87 left so I spent another $1.95 and walked out with a red onion, banana, almost two pounds of potatoes, some green onions and a carrot.

I also broke down and made a liter of diet coke on my home Soda Stream. It costs around a dollar per liter. The money is gone, all used up.  One day to go and plenty of food to get me through the last day.

Day 5:

Breakfast: 2 eggs, flour tortilla.
Lunch: Brown butter linguini with green onion herbs, mashed potatoes and a banana.  I forgot the lemon.

I don’t know what it was about today but when I got home I was famished. I ate some leftover rotini from day three and about half of what was left over of the mash potatoes.  Then came dinner.

We went to a farewell party at my girlfriend’s parents’ house. Their exchange student was leaving, and her family had flown in from Denmark to escort her home. They were flying out in the morning and we had to have a going away party.

It was free and part of the rules; it wasn’t directly taking from someone less fortunate and there was plenty of food. We had more food on the table than my girlfriend and I ate all week.  I couldn’t help but think that it was too much. Her father spent almost as much on five steaks as we spent the whole week. My girlfriend’s mother mentioned that while we were discussing our food stamp challenge over the dinner table she began to feel the same way.  It had been too much, an overindulgence.

You could think to yourself that, “Hey I earned this. I made it through a whole week.” But I didn’t feel that way. All I could think of was that tomorrow I can go back to where I was before the challenge, but for over 50 million Americans they don’t have that option. Almost one sixth of the population gets assistance with food. There is no “going back.” This is everyday life for them. Sure, I was hungry, but I had some good meals. We kept it as healthy as possible but I was also cooking for an hour a day. Planning meals, making sure I always used fresh fruits or veggies: sometimes that isn’t a reality for others.

Day 6: Reflections

So what did I learn? I learned that if you are not prepared, don’t plan for the week, don’t skip a meal, or if you eat meat, you will need more than what SNAP provides. I worked for a week to prepare for this challenge, and I still couldn’t do it. It is possible to feed yourself on $4.20 a day, but it doesn’t fit into the America I know.

I still have leftover food from the challenge. We never touched the flour or sugar. The lettuce mix got pushed to the back of the fridge and was ignored. Not using the other food in my cabinets became a mental problem for me. I was constantly questioning myself on each meal. Was I going to have enough? Would I be hungry all day?  Was I doing the right thing?  What would I do without a safety net? All of these questions came to mind and they all led me to believe one truth: The truth is I am not doing enough and everyone needs to do more to stop hunger.