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Living on the Edge: Getting By on a Food Stamp Budget

California's average household food stamp allotment is $200 per month. See how Morgan Ray fed her household on $42/week.

When Patch editor Alexis Fitts asked if anyone wanted to take on the challenge of trying to live on a food stamp budget, I jumped at the chance. 

Why? Because I wanted to experience the challenge, first-hand, faced by an estimated 6 million Americans, many of whom have no income to supplement their food stamps.

In the Sonoma and Boyes Hot Springs 727 households, or over 1,400 individuals, use CalFresh (formerly known as food stamps) to procure their groceries.

The is $200 per month.  When I went on line to the State’s food stamp benefit calculator, I discovered that in order for a household of two to get $200 per month in food stamps, the total household gross income had to stay below $320 per week with virtually no other assets.  Many households qualify for less than $200 of food stamps per month.

Check out the full week of groceries and menus in the pdf files at right.

Planning

I knew that if I had any chance of feeding the two of us for a week on less than $50 (my actual budget was $21 per person), I had to have a plan.  I made a menu for every meal for the week, then went online to check for specials in my local markets and download coupons to stretch my budget. In total, I ended up spending $45.59.

Shopping Locally

Unlike many Americans, I am blessed to live in one of the most temperate, agriculturally rich areas in the country.  Sonoma is abundant with quality organic produce and meat.  There’s no food desert here

Despite this bounty, buying healthy nutritious food when a head of lettuce costs $2 or more is challenging.  I immediately had to rule out the usual places I shop: and . Aside from maybe an item or two that was on sale, these stores were out of my league.  (Sure, I could by a lot of  Top Ramen, but my goal was to create the most healthful meals my budget would allow.)

The Coupon Advantage

I did the bulk of my shopping at Safeway. I discovered that Safeway.com offered on-line coupons through their "Just for U" promotion that provided more savings than their in-store Club Card.

It was a good week for coupons. For example, I was able to purchase organic spring mix salad greens, normally $3.69 a package for just .99, I got a dozen eggs for free, a pound of pasta for 71 cents and canned tomatoes for 49 cents.  These on-line coupons combined with the in-store Club Card specials netted me an additional $21.75 of food, increasing my food stamp budget by 50 percent.

I also included ethnic markets in my shopping strategy since they tend to have cheaper prices on things like dry beans, grains and some vegetables.

The Time Commitment

Let me just say that this level of planning takes an enormous amount of time. Before I ever set foot out the door to shop, I had invested about 2 ½ to 3 hours in planning, adjusting my menu according to what was on sale and mapping out my shopping strategy.  

The shopping was slow. I had to be careful that I was buying exactly what was on my list. I weighed all the produce so I didn’t over-buy and studied the coupons to assure that the item in my basket matched the coupon exactly.  I went to four different places to buy food, Safeway, The Fruit Basket, Lolita’s Market and The Grocery Outlet. Total time shopping, including travel: about 2 ½ hours.

I combined a doctor’s appointment in Petaluma with a stop at Lolita’s market and the Grocery Outlet where I was able to buy 3-lbs of sweet potatoes for the same price as one large sweet potato at Safeway.  I noticed that the chicken I had purchased at Safeway on sale was $2 cheaper at Grocery Outlet. I wish I had gone there first but I was trying to shop only in Sonoma. The savings would have easily outweighed the cost of the approximately 22 miles round trip.

Once the shopping was complete, the real time commitment began… cooking! You cannot eat healthfully on a food stamp budget if you don’t start with raw ingredients and know how to cook.  On average, I spent about 1 ½ to 2 hours a day cooking.  This could be a challenge for working people.

In addition to understanding how to cook, you have to be creative in how you use your food to make multiple meals and delicious leftovers. For example, I bought a whole chicken and created five meals out of it.  I cut the wings off the chicken, removed the giblets and made broth that would later become soup.  I roasted the rest of the chicken and served roast chicken with brocolli and baked sweet potato fries.  The leftover chicken was used to create chicken vegetable soup, chicken salad, and chicken enchiladas. 

The Things I Missed

For the most part, I felt like all the meals were healthy and satisfying. I was able to include a good balance of protein, grains, legumes and fresh vegetables in the week’s menu but there were things I missed.  Try as I may, I could not eek out enough money for coffee.  At $5.99 to $12.00 a pound, coffee was just not possible.  I couldn’t even afford instant coffee.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit I did what any coffee addict would do, I cheated and had my daily cup of coffee which was not in my budget.

There wasn’t any money for treats like cookies, ice cream, cheese, or crackers. Our treat consisted of sweet naval oranges that I bought by the bag. We also ran out of milk about halfway through the week and were licking the bottom of the yogurt container by day five.

I found myself wondering how anyone could build a basic pantry of essentials like cooking oil, vinegar, mustard, ketchup, garlic, onions, pepper and other spices.  It would take time, scrimping each week in order to accumulate staples.

Living on food stamps would be more difficult as a single person.  As it was, with $42/week for two, I couldn’t take advantage of lower priced bulk or economy packs and I can’t imagine the challenges parents face feeding children who want commercial cereals, fast food and snacks. These items are simply too expensive.

There’s no eating out on this budget, unless you’re willing to do the fast-food dollar menu that will leave you hungry. I missed the social aspect of dining with friends but I did manage to have two friends over for dinner to share a green salad, chicken enchiladas and beans.  Fortunately, they brought a bottle of nice wine.

While this exercise was enlightening, to a certain extent it rings false. It’s not impossible to live on the maximum food stamp budget if you have a car, a supply of toilet paper, toothpaste, a bottle of aspirin, a computer, good math skills and know how to cook.

But how do you buy essential non-food items that are disallowed by the food stamp program? How do you find the extra time to plan, shop and cook every day? And how do you provide healthy meals if you live in an area where your grocery store option is the local high-priced convenience store?  These are the questions that haunt me.

Personal Impact

Will I continue to try and buy groceries on a budget of $21 per person per week? Probably not. It’s too difficult and  emotionally draining. I had to focus much of my energy on food acquisition and preparation, something most of the rest of the world does on a daily basis.

My experience did, however, make me more committed to being a mindful shopper.  It also made me more committed to supporting my local food banks. With so many American’s strugging to get enough food, we should help when we can.

I also wish that every person who is in the unfortunate position of trying to feed themselves and their family with food stamps could receive free education on how to shop and how to prepare the most healthful meals possible on the limited allotment they receive.

Celeste Winders June 01, 2011 at 07:35 PM
Thank you for doing this piece and being honest about what it takes to do it healthy. Yes you CAN but it is a lot of work as you demonstrated. Most people on Food Stamps are working people, many working several jobs and raising kids and 2 hours of cooking prep a day may not be possible, at least not without a lot of support and extreme organization. This is why it is SO IMPORTANT that the local farmers markets take food stamps. It's critical! Food stamps pay the same as cash to the farmers so it supports our local farmers and many markets (all of ours need to!) have matching programs so for every $20 in food stamps spent the person gets $40 in produce; the farmer is paid $40 for the produce and matching funds are raised through grants (some USDA grants) and donors/fundraising. Additionally the markets need to have a table at the markets with tips, recipes and information to support people on limited budgets with ways to stretch their purchases in healthy ways. The community needs to let go of the judgment and just problem solve together and work as a community. This was a great article, thank you! Oh and a great book just came out called Fair Food. Check it out. I am reading it right now and it really speaks to the heart of what you just did.
Michele Clawson June 01, 2011 at 07:53 PM
Thanks for doing this, Alexis... it is not easy! I concur with Celeste, we need to support our community, support the Farmers!
Laura June 02, 2011 at 05:25 PM
Interesting article. As a former employee of a large chain grocery store (in a low income area) I saw many food stamp families. Most of the purchases were prepacked items, very few fresh vegetables. Frozen would even be better than what I saw come through the line. It seemed to me at the time that people on food stamps just didn't know how to cook with fresh ingredients or just didn't want/care to learn. Celeste has some great comments, i.e. tips, recipes and info. at Farmers markets and YES get over the judgement of low income people. It isn't easy to live on that budget but it can be done. We are a family of 5 on one income and we get by on $100/week, including organic produce from local farmers. Takes planning, which is a lot in the beginning but it gets easier with time.
Peter June 02, 2011 at 05:37 PM
Whole Foods had Rocky Jr. chickens on sale last week for .99 cents/lb. This week Sonoma Market has the same deal. Corn is .20 cents/ear at Safeway. 10 lbs of potatoes at Fruit Basket for around 3.50 or rice. One can eat good food, cheap if one can read. I like Farmers Markets but they aren't for the budget minded. Grow some pride and get off government assistance and quit promoting it. Aren't we looking for less government?
Laura Lou June 02, 2011 at 06:58 PM
Trouble with your research: you cannot use Cal Fresh at most small markets nor at the Fruit Basket. So, can you live on $200/month in cash? Yes, but not easily. Can you do it with CalFresh? Probably not. After eight years of being a stay-at-home mom, becoming a divorced, sole-parent of four was more of a challenge than I imagined. I needed some temporary help, and we were all glad it was there; but, I didn't buy coffee, we didn't eat out, and we were thankful for every dinner invitation we received because there might be a roast or another larger slab of meat, which was largely missing from our diet. We ate oatmeal for breakfast everyday. We drank more water. We left behind the processed foods like crackers, juice, pasta, and ice cream, and made our own yogurt and grew some of our own food. We ate clean though spare. And when I finally was able to break back into my field of work, we kept eating this way--best hard lessons ever! In my opinion, the only people who will take advantage of shopping at the Farmers' Market using EBT are those who won't be with the program long, but will appreciate it the most.
Ash June 03, 2011 at 10:37 PM
I actually lived on food stamps for several years, throughout college and grad school. I was eligible because i am legally blind and receive social security. However, i did not receive the full amount. I also lived with my best friend who had an extremely low paying theater job and she received the full $200. We pooled our resources, i was the chef of our apt and we actually ate well with $350 a month for the two of us. The key i think were casseroles and meals that lasted for a few days as leftovers. We sure ate the same things in a row for several days, but we were never hungry and it was possible to buy fresh ingredients and produce frequently. Definitely not at whole foods though!
loopyduck June 04, 2011 at 02:24 AM
20 years ago, my mother fed a family of three on $30/week. Cash, no food stamps, no food banks (a pride thing, I guess), no bulk purchases -- just sales and coupons. Even factoring inflation in, she'd have found this $42/week for two people a cakewalk, and a paradise compared to the poverty she grew up in. I grew up without eating out, drinking soda, etc. I'd like to think I turned out okay.
carole reynolds June 04, 2011 at 01:13 PM
I have a limited income, same as you worked with.....but I've become quite creative, and enjoy the challenges.....education and understanding different methods of cooking can keep a person well feed and enjoy a variety. Knowledge is a key. from "clever and cheap"
Amy June 04, 2011 at 01:37 PM
...
Amy June 04, 2011 at 01:46 PM
Sorry about the last "..." comment, I was testing. I have found it "easy" to live on food stamps via the following method: I cook, I clip coupons, and I grow my own produce (when possible.) If you aren't aware of it, food stamps cover edible seeds and plants. I know that many don't have the space to do so, but I have an array of fresh herbs, lettuces, tomatoes, peppers and fruits that I'm growing. This takes another level of skill, but it's quite worthwhile, and I would love to teach those who must rely on food stamps how to make the most of them and make it healthy. Using this method, I can afford coffee, the occasional treat, baby formula (not cheap!), and I do eat healthy. I can also afford to stock up on staples, so I have a stash to fall back on when prices on certain items skyrocket. Of course, I usually buy Goya coffee when it's on sale, and I have a great local market here. I also send away for samples and coupons online, so my coupon stash is better than most--I also plan on learning how to make fresh mozzarella, and know how to make my own yogurt, bread, crackers and can dehydrate and can fruits and vegetables. These are excellent long-term skills that more people should have, in case of serious financial distress. Personally, I can't wait until my daughter is old enough so I can teach her. :)
Dee Baucher June 04, 2011 at 07:54 PM
Last week I was shopping in Whole Foods, where I occasionally purchase specific items that are not usually available elsewhere. The person in line before me was purchasing many very expensive groceries, that I would not typically indulge in because of high cost. She was using her Food Stamps card, and payed for the rest of her cart with cash. She was not shopping in a manner consistent with a wise cost- effective healthy diet, but rather in an indulgent manner. Give me a break. While I know that most people who receive CalFresh cards truly need the assistance, it is obviously still an abused system. If there are people using those cards for luxury items at Whole Foods, while the rest of us who work hard and shop wisely to put healthy meals on the table struggle, there needs to be revision of this program. There should be more accountability in what types of groceries/food products can be purchased with those cards.
Carol Levy June 04, 2011 at 08:07 PM
Boy Peter, I hope you never become disabled to the point where you cannot work, I hope your savings are not eaten up by illness or your house foreclosed upon by a bank using nefarious means. I hope you never lose your job and so on. This is not promoting it by any means but telling how one family is getting by. Pride is saying I do not need help even when you do and refusing any assistance that can help you. I feel sorry for you for compassion and empathy does not seem to be in your vocabulary.
Lisa June 05, 2011 at 01:08 PM
Really? You actually believe people on food stamps care to stretch their budget? I've been in the grocery store (chain) business for years and can tell you that, most of the time, they do not. They buy steaks and expensive sweets, very little produce, a lot of prepackaged, processed foods. I rarely see them use coupons. They don't care, the thinking being it's not their money. The sad thing is, after they've purchased their groceries on our dimes, they then saunter over to the lottery machine and buy bunches of lottery tickets.
Taxed More June 05, 2011 at 01:31 PM
Congress passed the Food Stamp Act in August 1964 By April 1965, about 561,000 people nationwide were enrolled. By 1969, 2.9 million people were receiving food stamps by 1980, 21 million. by 2010 Over 40.3 million people receiving food stamps, about 10 million of these were the result of the current recession, the other 30 million are part of the generational welfare crowd. Wow - if the government hands out taxpayer money, more and more people will show up for their freebie. Who would have thought?
Alisa Costa June 05, 2011 at 05:02 PM
Thank you for doing this. You left out several things that I think people should understand while you did this experiment. First, you purchased this food within your budget but still within your privilege: - You had the ability to go on the internet and find coupons. - You have a car and could shop at 4 different stores which were available to you. - You had 2.5 hours in which to do your shopping where many may be working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet. - You had a fully equipped kitchen in which to cook your food. - You assume the stores you shopped at accept CalFresh benefits. Not all stores do. When we look at the CalFresh program and others around the country, when we look at it from privilege, we still look at it from an ideal situation. But poverty is far from the ideal situation. I'm not saying that the benefit is too low. I'm just saying poverty is more than just a monetary issue and we need to look at the entire person/family before we can assume that the benefit is helpful.
Mary O'Garbiadd June 06, 2011 at 05:32 AM
I think that some things are adviseable for better health for recipients and better bang for the buck money-wise. First of all, I think there should be a second food stamp card, for treats, snacks, coffee..non-nutritious items but for a small percentage of treats, especially for children. That would stop arguments about don't people deserve a diet Pepsi or a birthday cake..the answer to me is, yes they do..but there also have to be nutritional and financial limits. Other food should be like WIC..marked as to what is eligible to buy, which would be mostly whole foods and some canned precooked etc. sugary breakfast cereals should be purchased under the snack card, along with a modest amount of soft drinks, etc. We really need to figure out how to have group/communal kitchens, with some people doing the cooking, some the washing up, pay on a sliding scale or free. Part of the problem is the fatigue that hits after working, especially single parents with kids I would think. If you could go to a church kitchen, use your food stamps for a healthy meal, and be a cook or server if you were not working and were healthy..that would go a long way to providing better food for a community..and also have community gardens where the able-bodied could work in exchange for fresh foods. mg
St June 06, 2011 at 08:08 AM
Any comments that folks on food stamps "don't care" is disheartening. As a former social worker, I've seen that folks are just in survival mode. If they aren't trying to get off food stamps it's simply because they cannot imagine that they can. They have no one cheering for them. They have no examples of even one success story in their circle of family or friends. My years in social work left me with the conclusion that the folks who improved their quality of life and were then able to lessen their dependence on government assistance had at least one very supportive, consistent friend or family member in their lives. To drive them to doctor appointments. To give them a place to stay when needed. To offer child care help. To educate about budgets, and cooking on one. To encourage and cheer for them. So, when you see someone on food stamps buy a lottery ticket realize that is in an act of desperation bc they can't possibly imagine that they have the ability within themselves to improve their situation. And think of the little hope they have if that is what they consider their way out, with those incredible odds. And then encourage them and give them hope--share the hope you have that keeps you out of the lotto line.
annelouise June 06, 2011 at 11:22 AM
Remember to try and use a crock pot or slow cooker if you cant spend the time to cook, or in my case, I live in sw florida and its hot. Turning the oven on or even the stove make the ac work harder and makes our bill go up, crock pots use very little wattage.
katemcintyre June 06, 2011 at 02:37 PM
I really feel like this is totally possible. I spend $100/month on groceries and shop only 2x/month at one average grocery store. I don't use coupons, but I do try to stick to my list. Most of what I purchase is produce and I don't buy meat, which I'll eat only when dining out once a week. I've found that by purchasing a combination of fresh and frozen produce and some staples like pasta, bread, eggs, soymilk and jarred tomato sauce, I can easily make it through two if not three weeks without shopping and enjoy healthy meals.
heather June 07, 2011 at 04:18 PM
I think the point that is being missed is that the max gross income for the house weekly is $320 to get the $200. $320/40 is $8 an hour. Pretty much federal minimum wage. That means at most, the household is producing 4oish hours of paid work a week. If there are two adults and they are receiving the full $200, obviously they have PLENTY of time to cook. Even one person should have time to cook. I really don't think we could say the person receiving $200 in food stamps is also working 60 hours a week unless they are working for less than federal minimum wage.
Shan May 14, 2012 at 04:01 AM
I just read this. The answer is people starve. Children do live on top eamen uncooked its called ghetto popcorn they get free school lunches WIC or the nackpack on friday and other supplemental programs but in reality Americans mainly children go hungry...everyday.

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