Challenge Insights

Spending a week on a food stamp budget barely scratches the surface of what it’s like to be truly food insecure. I spent three hungry days, gorged over the weekend, and then spent three more days being hungry. That was all I could take.

The 35.5 million Americans who are food insecure (the USDA’s euphemism for those who are hungry or who live on the edge of hunger) don’t have the luxury of taking time off from not getting enough to eat whenever being hungry becomes too inconvenient. They must face hunger day in and day out, with no discernible end in sight.

$21 is simply not enough to provide a healthy, filling diet for a week, especially as food prices continue to rise. According to a 2007 paper by public health researchers Andrew Drewnowski and Pablo Monsivais, the average price increase in supermarket foods and beverages from 2004 and 2006 was 7.9%. Yet not
all foods increased in price equally, or even at all. The least calorie dense foods (like fresh fruits and vegetables) gained in price by an average of 19.5%, while the most calorie dense foods (highly processed foods full of refined sugars and grains and added fats and salt) actually dropped in price by an average 1.8%.

A large part of that disparity can be attributed to the U.S. Farm Bill. Our government currently spends billions of dollars every year subsidizing commodity crops. In 2005, $9.4 billion was spent on corn alone. In order to be eligible for such subsidies, farmers are not to grow fruits or vegetables. Thanks to our Farm Bill, the price of corn (and wheat and soy and rice) is kept artificially low because farmers are paid to grow lots of it, while the price of non-commodity fruits and vegetables remain high, because farmers are given financial incentive not to grow them.

Our government’s agricultural policy must change. We must stop paying already wealthy factory farmers to grow obscenely vast quantities of monoculture crops. Instead, we should pay them to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, and more of them. With this change, the price of such monoculture crops will go up, and the price of processed foods containing derivatives of those crops may increase as well. But the price of fruits and vegetables would go down, which could present enough of a financial change to our food environment to enable food insecure families to eat better and be healthier.

America’s Food Stamp Program also needs to be revamped so that the average benefit is more than $1 a meal. Most American’s spend more than that on their morning cup of coffee. Opponents of food stamp programs argue that food stamps only encourage the poor to be indigent and lazy. When I was living off $1 a meal, I was tired and distracted by my constant hunger. If I spent my life in that state, I would feel “lazy” too.

I set out on this challenge because I needed a final project for my Psychology, Biology, and Politics of Food class. From reading about other’s experiences on the Food Stamp Challenge, I thought I knew what to expect – smaller portions and wistful glances at other’s meals – but I really had to live it to appreciate just how difficult it is to live with hunger.

Most Americans have been fortunate enough to be unharmed by rising food costs. They may have had to cut back on buying organic fruits and vegetables or have had to cook more and eat out less, but they haven’t had to go hungry. If you’re in that lucky group, I issue you my own challenge: take the Food Stamp Challenge for a week, and donate the money you saved on groceries to a local food pantry or soup kitchen.


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Day 7

I must admit, I ended the challenge a bit earlier than planned. We had a senior event last night, and I had a drink at about 11-ish. Fun fact: booze goes a lot further when you haven’t been eating much.

I am so glad to be done. I think in these next few days, I will gorge myself on everything that I’ve been missing – fruit, meat, chocolate. In fact, I’ve already had a giant breakfast (cereal and milk and fruit and chocolate) and feel rather ill. I should pace myself better. Either way, I think I’ll easily and quickly regain the three/four pounds I dropped while on the challenge. Being poor is a pretty effective weight loss tool, for me at least, but not one that I would recommend.

You may think it strange that I lost weight while on this challenge when it’s a pretty commonly made argument that being poor in America is correlated with obesity. I was smart and lucky – I have access to a grocery store (many poor urbanites only have convenience stores with processed foods), and I chose healthy foods while sticking to my budget. Now is a good time to revisit my grocery list.

See my refusal to buy the much bigger and cheaper jar of high fructose corn syrup grape jelly? My decision to buy a bag of fresh apples? And my choice of whole grain bread? As a commenter pointed out, I could’ve taken my $21 and bought a ton of cheap, processed food. $21 buys about 80 packages of Ramen. Had I done that, I wouldn’t have gone hungry, but I  would’ve finished the week bloated, greasy, and probably hypertensive with a touch of scurvy.

But if I were also trying to feed my hungry children, or I were doing this long term, I probably would soon start making that trade-off between health and bulk/convenience.

I actually didn’t finish everything I bought, partly because I didn’t have the experience necessary to accurately parcel out my food, and partly because I just got sick of eating the same things over and over again. Things that didn’t taste all that great in the first place. I think it’ll be a while before I decide to have another peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

This will probably be my second-to-last post. Expect one more academic-y post to provide “supporting text (length to be negotiated) to describe what was done and why, how the project was conceptualized, where the project fits in the larger scheme of changing the world’s diet and health, and how the project’s impact might be evaluated.”

Day 7 food log

8:30 AM breakfast: 1/2 cup oatmeal ($0.08), 1 tbsp brown sugar ($0.02), 1 slice toast ($0.15), 1 tbsp strawberry preserves ($0.10)

10:45 AM snack: 0.75 oz peanut butter ($0.06), 1/2 apple ($0.17)

1:00 PM lunch: 2 slices toast ($0.30), 0.75 oz. peanut butter ($0.06), 2 tbsp strawberry preserves ($0.20), 1 apple ($0.33)

4:00 pm snack: 1/2 cup oatmeal ($0.08), 1 tbsp brown sugar ($0.02)

7:00 pm dinner: 4 eggs ($0.60), 1/3 bag of corn ($0.33), 2 carrots ($0.60)

Day 7 total: $3.10

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Day 6

Just one more day. Thank goodness. I’m tired of eating the same cheap foods all the time. I’m tired of not getting to eat until I feel sated (not even full; just sated). I’m tired of eating straight peanut butter because there’s nothing else I can afford to casually snack on. I’m tired of thinking about what I’m eating all the time. And I’m tired of being hungry. Our lecture on hunger used the term “food insecure” to refer to people who don’t get enough to eat, who go to bed hungry, who can’t be sure that there will be food on the table tomorrow.

And it really is this overwhelming sense of insecurity. What can I eat? What will be left at the end of the week? If I eat now, does it mean I have to go hungry later? This week, food has gone from something that I usually enjoy and only moderately stress out about (when I don’t have time to go grocery shopping or when I put on weight or something along those lines) to something that I constantly think about. And it sucks to have to have that kind of relationship with food, where nothing is taken for granted.

Just to clarify, I think a big part of America’s current obesity crisis is that we too often take food for granted. We don’t appreciate or truly think about what we’re putting in our bodies or where it came from, and we don’t enjoy food or the experience of eating. But the other extreme, where every bite is scrutinized, is also bad.

Now that I’m nearly done, I have a clear idea of how much food I have left and how much I can afford to eat. I was too sparing at the beginning of the week, so I can eat more now, and today, I did. Yet I still had gnawing hunger pangs.

One more day. My end is in sight. Yet for so many people, there is no clear end in sight.

Day 6 food log

8:30 AM breakfast: 3 eggs, scrambled ($0.45), 1/2 cup oatmeal ($0.08), 1 tbsp brown sugar ($0.02), 0.75 oz. peanut butter ($0.06)

12:00 PM lunch: 2 slices toast ($0.30), 0.75 oz. peanut butter ($0.06), 2 tbsp strawberry preserves ($0.20) and 1 apple ($0.33)

2:30 PM snack: 1 slice toast ($0.15), 1 tbsp strawberry preserves ($0.10), 1 apple ($0.33)

6:30 PM dinner: ~2/7 box of pasta ($0.36), ~1/5 jar of tomato sauce ($0.50), 1 apple ($0.33)

9:00 PM still hungry meal: 1/3 bag of corn ($0.33), 0.75 oz. peanut butter ($0.06)

Day 6 total: $3.66

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Day 5

Today, I went back to calculating every bite I eat. Yay…

I had my kickboxing class this afternoon, and as I do every week, I stayed in the gym after kickboxing was over for some light strength training. I got home with some serious food cravings because I needed to refuel after my workout. Normally, I start cooking while munching on a snack to quell my ravenousness. This week, I didn’t have anything that I could afford to snack on (I have four apples left and two days to stretch them over) and had to wait for my egg soup to cook.

By the way, when you’re hot, sweaty, and hungry, egg soup doesn’t exactly hit the spot. But I was short on time (had a meeting to get to), and I could let the egg soup cook unattended while I showered. I was still hungry after my egg soup, but I had to wait until after my meeting to eat more, as I didn’t buy anything substantial that didn’t need cooking.

I think that if I hadn’t had the break in my Food Stamp Challenge, I wouldn’t have made it through my workout today, as I may not have had the calories to spare on jumping around. Unsuprisingly, I’ve lost a few pounds in the past few days, but this is so not the way to diet.

I’ve never been a deprivation dieter. When I notice that I’m putting on weight, I try to work out more, snack less, and eat healthier, but I never let myself be physically hungry. If real “dieting,” of the appetite ignoring type, is like this, it’s no wonder people can’t stick to their diets – it requires tremendous willpower to ignore a gnawing stomach, and I can’t wait for the next two days to be over. On the plus side, because I ate so sparingly at the beginning of the week, I should have plenty of food left and can eat more these next two days. And by eat more, I mean eat more oatmeal, brown sugar, and eggs.

Day 5 food log

8:30 AM breakfast – 1/2 cup oatmeal ($0.08) with 1 tbsp brown sugar ($0.02) and a sprinkle of cinnamon (not counted); 0.75 oz peanut butter ($0.06) eaten straight.

11:00 AM snack: 1 slice of toast ($0.15) with 1 tbsp strawberry preserves ($0.10), 1 apple ($0.33)

1:00 PM lunch: 2 slices toast ($0.30), 0.75 oz. peanut butter ($0.06), 2 tbsp strawberry preserves ($0.20) and 1 apple ($0.33)

6:00 PM pre-meeting dinner: 2 eggs ($0.30), salt and pepper to taste (not counted), 1 carrot ($0.30)

7:45 PM post-meeting dinner: ~1/3 pkg frozen sweet corn ($0.33), ~1/7 box pasta ($0.18), ~1/5 jar of sauce ($0.50)

Day 5 total: $3.24

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Day off/Day 4.2

Breakfast was oatmeal as usual, which was easy because I knew I had lunch to look forward to.

Lunch was pretty good. A group of friends and I went to Bentara for New Haven Restaurant week. I had organized this outing weeks ago, and I didn’t want to renege on my friends. I had the Roti Chanai, Two Soy Chicken (meat!), and the lemon sorbet. $16.38 pre-tax and tip, so $21 total.

Dinner will be back to a PB&J, but I don’t care, as I’m still sated from lunch.

I’m not looking forward to tomorrow, but it helps that I’ve already done a three day stretch on the Food Stamp diet, so I know a second three day stretch is totally manageable. I can’t stress enough how I really cheated the challenge by cutting it in two – I don’t think my food challenge log will garner me any press, but it’s definitely given me fodder for my final project.

Day 4.2 food log

9:30 AM breakfast: 1/2 cup oatmeal ($0.08), 1 tbsp brown sugar ($0.02).

1:00 PM lunch: Bentara Restaurant Week meal ($21)

7:30 PM dinner: 2 slices toast ($0.30), 0.75 oz. peanut butter ($0.06), 2 tbsp strawberry preserves ($0.20)

Day 4.2 total: $21.66

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Day off/Day 4.1

We won! I completely ignored my challenge today and ate sooooo much fruit. Like at least three pears, two apples, and plates of fruit salad. It was glorious.

Breakfast was Food Stamp Diet-y: my usual half cup of oatmeal with a tablespoon of brown sugar. But then I ate normally and snacked and totally cheated. Football games are so tiring, and this week especially so because we were away, so we had to be extra loud to make up for lacking a home crowd. I know I couldn’t have made it today eating what I had been eating for the past three days.

I had planned to eat a Food Stamp dinner, but that didn’t really work out too well, as I needed to eat after the game ended at 4:30-ish. It was a different hunger from the “I haven’t eaten much all day” hunger. Instead, it was a “I just spent the last four hours jumping up and down, waving my arms around, and yelling my brains out, and I need fuel NOW” need for food.

So tomorrow, the break continues through lunch. And we go back to sparseness with dinner and run through Wednesday.

Having stopped, I hate the prospect of going back on the Food Stamp Challenge. Just the thought of it makes me sad.

Day 4.1 food log:

Breakfast: 6:30 AM breakfast: 1/2 cup oatmeal ($0.08), 1 tbsp brown sugar ($0.02).

Lunch with the band – fruit fruit fruit, turkey, granola bar, Oreos, more fruit (“free”)

Snacking all day with the band – more fruit, granola bars, random cookies and graham crackers (“free”)

Day 4.1 total: $0.10

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Day 3

Today actually wasn’t that bad. I’m not sure if it’s my body/stomach compensating or the fact that I had time to cook and make something potentially more substantial – Rosa’s cheap version of Chana Masala. Here’s how it goes.


  1. Dice 1/3 of 1/2 of a sweet onion. Saute in pan for a few minutes.
  2. Add entire contents of 15.5 oz can of chick peas. Do not drain.
  3. Sprinkle liberally with curry powder, red pepper powder, and salt.
  4. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally until the liquid is almost entirely gone.
  5. Enjoy your $0.86 dish! ($0.69 for the chickpeas, $0.17 for the sixth onion)

It turned out quite tastily, and I plan to make it again, maybe with more onion and a bit of garlic, when I’m done with the challenge. Cheap, easy, and yummy!

I had a lunch meeting at a pizza place and watched my friends eat pizza while I ate half of my chickpeas and half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was a little jealous then. Then I went to a dining hall for dinner to hang out and use their microwave to heat up my leftover chickpeas. That’s where my jealousy got a little more extreme.

ajs-dinnerThat was my friend AJ’s delectable looking dinner. Look at all the colors! And compare that to the blandness of the oatmeal and bread and ungarnished eggs I’ve been living off of.

I miss fresh fruits and vegetables so much. I’m usually a huge fruit eater. And when I saw another friend carrying a plate full of fresh red pepper slices… it was so hard not to cheat and steal one.

I’m so excited about getting to eat fruit tomorrow. I feel guilty about going back on my regular diet for a day, as it’s totally cheating, but it means I get to eat FRUIT! It’s a bit frightening how much I’m looking forward to it. I’m trying to assuage my guilt by pointing out that it’ll be hard to go fully back on the challenge for Monday, and that I may have hunger pains again on Tuesday after I unacclimate my stomach this weekend. Still, it’s really unfair that I get to turn this Food Stamp thing on and off, while others  just have to live it.

I bought a homeless woman a cup of tea today. She asked me for money to buy a cup of coffee, and I told her I wouldn’t give her money, but I would go down to the corner Dunkin’ Donuts with her and buy her a cup. She decided she wanted a cup of tea, so to Dunkin’ Donuts we went. Any guesses as to how much her tea cost?

$1.95. For hot water and a tea bag. That’s what I spent on a day’s worth of food on Day 1! Also, I miss tea, and I’d wish I’d thought to budget it into my week, as it’s a great tummy filler. And I wish I’d bought more cans of chick peas, as they were yummy and pretty filling.

Day 3 food log

8:30 AM breakfast: 1/2 cup oatmeal ($0.08), 1 tbsp brown sugar ($0.02). And 0.75 oz. peanut butter ($0.06) eaten straight.

12:45 PM lunch: 1/2 of my chickpeas ($0.43), 1/2 a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – see previous days for description – ($0.28), 1 and 1/2 apple ($0.50)

3:00 PM snack: other 1/2 of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich ($0.28)

6:00 PM dinner: other 1/2 of chickpeas ($0.43)

8:00 PM still hungry snack: 1/2 cup oatmeal ($0.08), 1 tbsp brown sugar ($0.02)

Day 3 total: $2.18

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