Thursday, November 3, 2011

Food Stamp Challenge(Alternate Title: Stephanie is a Numbers Nerd)

"Live simply, so that others may simply live." --St. Elizabeth Seton

$31.50 per week to feed one person. That breaks down to $4.50/day or $1.50/meal, if you break it down even further. Does that even sound possible?

It's not only possible, but millions of Americans that receive food stamp benefits do this week in and week out as they feed themselves and their families. $31.50 is the average per-person weekly allowance of an American who receives food stamps. For many, these are their only food dollars, and they have to make it work.

I read an article on a local Indianapolis news website today about the Food Stamp Challenge that is going on this week across the country to help increase awareness about SNAP (food stamp) benefits and hunger in the United States. The article followed one local man who was engaged in this challenge and how he found that his food choices were limited by the $31.50/week limit for all of his food for the entire week and that he chose to eliminate breakfast in order to have enough money to eat lunch and dinner, as well as choosing less nutritious options to save pennies.

While I was unaware of the challenge, I was curious how possible it is to live on $31.50/week per person. So I pulled out our family budget to see how our family compares. Our family of six has spent slightly more than $5,000 in the first 10 months this year on groceries, also including the cost of seeds and plants for our garden, all bulk fruit and vegetable purchases for canning and freezing, 1/2 hog and 1/4 beef. We don't purchase formula or prepared baby foods, but it does take into account my extra caloric intake for nursing as well as all foods used to prepare baby food for Eliza.

If I extrapolate that $5,000 figure out for the rest of the year, we will probably spend around $6,000 this year to feed our family of 6. When I break that $6,000 figure down, it figures out to roughly $1,000 per person per year, or about $19.25 per person per week. That's $12.25 less than the $31.50 average for food stamp recipients.

Now, the $31.50 for the Food Stamp Challenge needs to include ALL foods, including eating out. So I checked the budget again and added in the almost $2,000 our family has spent dining out and school lunches in the first 10 months of this year. Again, extrapolated out, let's call our 12-month dining budget $2,500. When added to the $6,000 food budget and broken down between 6 people, the weekly average is still only $27.25.

$27.25 per week to feed one whole person? Well, surely we must eat only processed foods and rice and beans, right?

Actually, no. Over the past few years we've eliminated almost all processed foods from our house except cereals (I'm not a morning person and I have a 2-year-old that demands breakfast immediately upon waking at 6am), crackers, pasta noodles (because that's one thing that's just not worth my time to make), Annie's shells and cheese (because they are just too yummy!), granola bars, tortilla and potato or veggie chips, yogurt and ice cream--which I don't plan to ever give up. Otherwise, it's a rarity for other processed foods to jump into our grocery cart unless they are free and we will use the item.

We have chosen to purchase as much locally produced, whole foods as possible, and when that is not an option, we then choose the most naturally produced, whole foods as possible, including our choice to purchase only local, pasture-raised chicken and pork, and 100% grass-fed, pasture-raised beef.  Amazingly, when we began purchasing local and organic whole foods, our food bill is actually lower than purchasing prepared, processed foods. 

We make almost everything from scratch, down to the whole wheat bread and strawberry jam we make our PBJ sandwiches with. We do have meatless meals, but most days we have meat with 2 out of 3 meals, but we plan ahead.

Many weeks I will roast a chicken and get 3 meals out of it. The first meal is roasted chicken with our vegetables and other sides. The second meal I use the rest of the chicken that is removed from the bones and shredded--instead of purchasing the pricier boneless, skinless chicken breasts--to serve with pasta or to make chicken enchiladas, or another chicken-based entree. For the third meal I make chicken stock from the carcass and vegetable scraps and use the stock to make chicken noodle soup, or chicken and dumplings, etc.

This week I made French dips with a beef round steak one night, then used what was left to make beef and noodles for lunch the next day and had enough leftover for Jason and I to each have leftover beef and noodles for a second lunch.

Eating well for under $31.50 per week is possible, but it takes discipline and a lot of hard work.

When we were still students at Anderson University and not yet dating, Jason and I would meet for lunch every Sunday after church to clip coupons, look over the grocery ad, and plan our food purchases for the week, being mindful of our meager RA stipends that were paying for our groceries. Today, on Sunday afternoons, you'll still find us doing the same thing. Now, however, we are sitting at the kitchen counter and checking the online ads at our favorite stores. The habits we've learned from the humble beginnings of our relationship continue to stick with us and are second nature.

I do understand that at 20 and 21, we were forming habits that would be much harder to try to learn today, but it's not impossible. If you are interested in trying the Food Stamp Challenge, check it out. Even if you didn't do it this week, you can try another week between now and Thanksgiving. Anyone CAN live on $31.50/week for food, and some people have no choice.

For just one week, you can make the choice to live simply, and perhaps you can help someone else simply live.


  1. Stephanie,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog on the food stamp challenge. Its amazing how far your money can go with a little extra planning. It seems like your family has the right idea on managing the cost of feeding a family. Interestingly enough, I also purchase yearly 1/2 hog and 1/4 cow to supply meat for my family. I have had the idea of expanding my garden to a size that could potentially provide vegetables for the entire year. Over the past few years I have been getting more into gardening and the idea of self sustainability. There is just something rewarding about getting back to a simpler way of life. If you had the time and equipment then this could potentially be a huge money saver. I have done just about everything from hydroponics, rain barrels, compost tumblers to worm farms. I'm a firm believer that obesity in the world today is created mostly by increases in industrialized processed food and a lack of choice by the consumer. It seems as though the only way to avoid all the toxic food is to obtain it naturally. Anyhow, I have obtained a lot of different type of seeds from around the world for just about every type of vegetable. I would be more than happy to send your family some if you would be interested. You seem to have a wonderful family and its nice to see that I'm not the only one to share some of the same viewpoints.

  2. Thanks, Tom!
    I definitely agree that food should not be industrialized to the degree that it has become. What the majority of our country eats can hardly be considered food at all, as it is so far removed from anything that is "real food".
    Jason has really gotten into the gardening process over the past few years and it sounds like he could really pick your brain to learn best practices with small-scale family food production.
    While we have chosen this route for a number of reasons, the overall health of our family definitely weighs heavily in these decisions.