Hunger in America: A Week on Food Stamps

November 26th

Two weeks ago, I attended a conference in Washington DC for hunger leaders in America. I participated with the Arizona delegation — and by delegation I mean me and one other person. We represented Arizona’s voice for the upcoming funding of the Farm Bill, among other things. We met with our state representatives’ staff members and discussed hunger in our state.
Until one year ago, I rolled my eyes when I’d hear public health workers discuss hunger in America. Hunger? Hunger in a country where 65% of the general population is significantly overweight? “Ha! As if!” I thought, ignorantly.
Research shows poverty leads to obesity in the United States. Go figure. Cheap food is bad food. You can get a Burger King Whopper for $2 in most US cities. A salad at any fast food restaurant will cost you at least $4. Eating healthy isn’t inexpensive — this I know. As a single person, who has recently been eating a vegetarian diet and thereby not purchasing expensive meats — I still spend on average $45 on groceries a week. This does not include my morning $4 habit at the bagel shop, my Friday night happy hour with friends, or any weekend eating, which probably adds at least an additional $50 to my weekly food total.
There are 35 million Americans who are currently hungry — skipping at least one meal a day because they do not have enough resources. Many of these people are children and the elderly. But there is a wide swath of Americans who are living in poverty — working minimum wage jobs and barely getting by — who simply cannot afford to eat healthy foods. In Arizona, if you are a single person making less than $16,000 per year, you qualify for the food stamp program. {This is a misnomer. The stamps have long since been replaced by a debit card that reboots each month.} For a family of 4, the limit to qualify for food stamps is $26,000. You must be a citizen to qualify. There are other limitations. With all this in mind, there are 800,000 Arizonans who are living in “hunger.”
We are a state of just 4 million people and 800,000 are not getting enough to eat! That is shocking to me. We are not a poor state, even though there are certainly pockets. We are a booming state — one whose population is going gangbusters and whose real estate market has helped keep the economy afloat during the last five years. It was absolutely shocking to me there are so many people in my own community who are not getting enough to eat.

In turn, I’m conducting an experiment of sorts. This week, I’m living on a food stamp budget. As a single person, I qualify for about $25 per week in groceries. Food stamps can be used solely for food or garden seeds; no toiletries, or other necessities can be purchased with this card. This all equates to about $1.25 per meal. I have just returned from the grocery and more than ever I understand why the poor are often those who suffer from ill health. This week isn’t going to be pretty, but it certainly is going to be eye opening. And I have a feeling it is going to be a great way to shed any Thanksgiving weight gain.


Posted in
Arizona, Journal, Public Health
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38 Responses

  1. Kelli,
    I did 2 terms (4-6 months each) with the Student Conservation Association working in national parks right out of college. This was before SCA and Americorps were more closely intertwined, and there was no educational benefit to the shorter-term jobs (less than a year). (It’s been quite a few years now, so I may be mistaken about SCA and Americorps being connected now.) Anyway, the internships were unpaid (no salary) and only provided housing and food money. Even then we got $50 per week for food! Even then it was frequently difficult to eat on that budget, since we didn’t have a lot of staples or cooking equipment! Good luck with your experiment. 🙂

  2. Rice, vegetables, fruits, and one-a-day vitamins. I wonder if I could do it… I know I’d be better off if I tried.

  3. Kelli, such sad statistics. You are an inspiration…

  4. i’m looking forward to the results of your experiment. i’m sure it will be an eye opener for all.

  5. Welcome back and I’m interested to see how you’re week is going. Give us come progess reports.

  6. what a fantastic experiment. i also qualified for food assistance when i was an americorps member and got, i think, $125 per month (in wisconsin). it’s humbling, to say the least, to pull out that debit card and watch the cashier judge the quality of your purchases.

    don’t forget oatmeal — the poor girl’s companion!

  7. I know this is a serious & terrible problem in America. However, I must say it aggravates me to see people using their gov’t issued debit card to purchase all name brand items such as chips, sodas, etc. I try to buy as many generic products as possible b/c I am on a strict budget seeing as how I depend solely on my one income. I have also volunteered at a local shelter serving meals. It is a heart-breaking & humbling experience to see elderly & children who otherwise would not have a hot meal. But it is also a place full of picky people. That blew my mind! I generally spend about $30 per week on groceries, so I guess I’ve been doing your experiment all along! 🙂

  8. This is a very well written, and very thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing some of the fruits of your research…

    I am very interested in learning more about your week long experiment…

    Good luck!

  9. I happened to have been standing in line with a woman using food stamps, not too long ago. She was trying to buy lowfat milk and lowfat relatively healthy cheese for her kids. She couldn’t buy either because the “food stamps” were restricted to the full fat, name brand versions. She had to exchange the healthy versions for the higher fat/higher calorie versions.

    I heard later that the program is pretty restrictive about what you can buy with the “stamps”. Kind of odd that someone trying to be healthy is forced to be unhealthy… I’d be interested to know more about how that program works.

  10. Interesting. There’s a girl I work with who pretty much survives on Cheerios. I know when I moved to another city and I had taken a paycut…I was living on peanut butter and crackers. The price of shelter, especially here in California, is just too unnaturally high. I make a decent wage, yet I see no possibility of ever acheiving the American Dream of being a home owner. And with more and more jobs being taken up by China, India, etc, the hope is ever fading.

  11. This will be humbling, I’m sure.

    I’ve worked in grocery stores as a teen. I’ve worked in the social work industry since graduating from college. I’ve witnessed folks who use their public assistance with almost scientific planning. I also have seen my share of those who splurge for things they – shouldn’t.

    I think longitudinally it would be a more attainable goal to live on this allotment per week – with bulk purchases. But, you aren’t ready for a long-term experiment, huh? (I sure wouldn’t be…sad to say).

    Can’t wait to hear your findings.

  12. Who were these “hunger leaders”? And what was the goal of this conference?

  13. Ramen noodles and no wine?

  14. We are a family of 5 and our main spending is for groceries. I try to buy locally and reduce costs and packaging by buying directly from farmers wherever possible (dairy, meats and grains). I find it very sad that people with less money are restricted to buying less healthy foods and that in such a wealthy country like the USA, people are hungry.

  15. Ten years ago going out for groceries’ shopping wasn’t a nightmare. Now we are forced to buy some things in a very big supermarket (and I try to buy only their own brand – less expensive) and other things in a big discount. Our habits haven’t changed in these years, it’s the cost of everything that’s so much higher than before (damn Euro!!). Here in Italy there’s a financial crisis going on for many years now, there’s lots of old people on retirement and not enough young people working to pay their retirement checks. So many workers are on not permanent jobs, they call it “contratti a progetto” (one-project-only contracts, usually a few months each time) so they can’t make plans for the future and without job you have no money. We are fortunate enough to have two jobs and only one daughter. We have no brothers or sisters, so our parents could afford to help us buying our home 11 years ago, so now we don’t have to pay a rent anymore. But we know a lot of people who have only one income in the family, and a rent to pay, and children at school, and for them there’s no pizza with friends on saturday night, or vacations in summer or so many gifts under the tree at Christmas.
    Ten years ago I never thought about my country as a poor country, now I have to re-think about it, and the saddest part is, I don’t think our political leaders are good enough to solve the problem.

  16. When we lived in England and my man was laid off his (very lucrative) job as a computer engineer, and after using *all* our savings up, we had to live on social security for a couple of months.

    We got 70 british pounds a week for a family of four that was meant to cover everything including utilities etc. We had about 25 a week left for groceries and we got milk coupons for the kids.

    My tricks to make it stretch: buy whole foods and vegetables and cheap fruit (whatever is on special offer regardless if you don’t like it!)

    No canned goods, no prepared foods, no sodas, no chips.

    Our weekly grocery shop included stuff like potatoes, rice, flour, frozen veg (cheaper than fresh), milk, cheese and bacon. Meat was much too expensive and I won’t eat that processed crap that passes itself off as hamburgers etc (even if it is cheap).

    The funny thing is that not much has changed, except now we buy organic vegetables and do occasionally eat chicken and meat. We only get chips and soda for special occasions. I guess being frugal becomes a way of life.

  17. Americans tend to be overweight yet we still have hungry people….hmmmmm This is sad. I will be reading your blog all week! This is a great way to highlight the problem. No one in our country should go to bed hungry!

  18. Groceries are expensive. I am amazed at how much I spend on food, and I am by no means an extravagant shopper. I usually buy store brands, shop at the cheapest store, and don’t buy a lot of ‘pre-packaged’ items. I do wonder how some families do it. I am very interested to see how your experiment goes.

  19. I’m interested to hear how the week goes…

  20. My family in Indonesia are experts at eating cheaply. Rice. Tofu. Sambal. Steamed spinach.
    Then you can make fried rice, with a fried egg on top. Or “splurge” on a lb boneless skinless chicken thighs, a can of coconut milk and a spice packet for Opor Ayam (Total cost of all ingredients? $5) and eat that for a few meals.

    Go to Lee Lee. You’ll eat great for the next month. I promise.

  21. As always, you are inspiring.

    My mom has been in social service, helping people qualify, live and eventually get off of welfare and aid for over 20 years and has seen the changes in the process through a number of presidential administrations. Some definitely better than others.

    As she explains it to me, there are some alternative resources out there for those in need and on welfare – including food banks and kitchens – that try to provide a little more in the way of groceries and hot meals to help those on stamps and aid stretch their budgets. Her office also gathers food to give to people who come in hungry, or with hungry kids.

    $25 a week is definitely hard to do, but her suggestion for someone in this situation would be to buy bulk items like rice, beans, cheese and as many fresh fruits and veg as possible and then see if you can’t visit a food bank to get canned goods to supplement.

    Of course, growing your own vegetables from seed is another way to add to your fruit/veg ratio at home, if you’re in a climate that allows for it and you have any space in which to sow a row of spinach or carrots.

    Good luck!

  22. What an interesting post, and a great discussion that followed it. I have thought many times about the sort of catch-22 of welfare and how often times it seems as if there is no way out for people who are on the brink of poverty–in minimum wage jobs, without health insurance or many other things that middle-class income people take for granted, a simple car repair or doctor visit can put these people back in the red, like a quicksand hole that just keeps sucking them back down. Eva’s comment about the woman being forced to buy full fat is shocking and illogical to me…why is a rule like that in place? Sigh. Such a battle. I feel helpless in front of things like this.

  23. Each Thanksgiving a few friends of mine get together and collect food and cook turkeys for those less fortunate. This year we collected 38 COMPLETE dinners for those that may have gone without. We get the names of families from a friend that teaches elementary school in one of the poorest school districts in town. When the meals are delivered, it is heartbreaking to see people with absolutely nothing. Most are so thankful — and sure there are those that don’t really seem to need it, but that is not for us to judge. Even though we may not live our lives in luxury, we all have plenty and are thankful every day that we are not hungry.

  24. wow! i’ve been gone from bloggin’ for a couple of days so i started with this post first. isn’t it amazing and terrifying that so many people are living on such little amounts of money. and you’re right. we are an overweight country b/c the healthy food is *so* much more expensive. i mean, i can get a box of little debbies for a buck, but if i wanted to get some bran muffins, i’d prolly have to pay three times that amount.

    why is it that way?

  25. one of the wealthiest countries and a very unhealthy country we are. this is sad. yes, unfortunately many poor are overweight. eating terrible foods…i would not even consider it food.
    i was at the airport last week and there was a passenger waiting for a flight, probably someone paid for his ticket to go home for some emergency, he looked so unhealthy and not well. i wanted so much to purchase a meal for him and i am embarrassed to say it never happened. i just did not know how to approach him.

  26. when i pray, i always include the hungry and homeless. i haven’t known hunger, but i know it exists, and i especially hate to hear children or elderly starving. it’s terrible. we have such abundance as a nation, yet our past and future are in such poor shape!

  27. Kelli…I’m so impressed……on the read the other entries………

  28. Kelli–I’m moved to near tears reading your hunger entries at this time of year. Thanks for shedding light on this issue. I have already done my giving to Heifer International for the year, but my local food bank will get some holiday cheer as well.

  29. What a great experiment. It really lets you see how pathetic our social support system is. I imagine you’ll also discover why obesity disproportionately affects the poor – produce is so much more expensive than pre-packaged foods. I’m looking forward to your blog entries!

  30. Great Post! I see a book,documentary along the lines of Supersize Me. I think this should be spotlighted to the media..if I only knew how…I’ve been talking about your project all week.

  31. TraciSue December 9, 2006

    For $2, you can buy a burger. For $2.80, you can feed two people a small, but complete meal.

    One can of tuna and one of peas, 50 cents each one package of Ramen noodles, 50 cents, combine. Toss in two bananas, 40 cents and because everyone needs indulgence however small, a 2 liter of store brand soda for 80 cent. $2.70 feeds two people a small meal, including the soda as an indulgence or $2 to buy one person a singular sandwich. Nutritionally speaking, the tuna, noodle dish and bananas are denser in what the body needs.

    Foods that provide more nutrition may cost more, but provide more bang for the buck so you need less.

    I have seen the same thing Jessica has. We have always lived in lower income areas, mostly by choice. With the same amount of money spent, we always have more food and healthier food than our neighbors.

    Eva, what you saw was someone on WIC; Women, Infant and Children. The milk is intended for an infant that has weaned from either the breast or bottle. Infants and younger toddlers need the fuller fat to meet their daily nutritional needs according to the WIC guide lines. Food stamps can be used on any food except premade foods, meaning no Burger King or pre-cooked chickens from the deli.

    Shelly understands one of the most prevalent problems with welfare and food stamps. If you do anything to earn any money what so ever while on welfare and they find out, you will be in big trouble. You are expected to better yourself, but are given very few resources to do so. I don’t think I could work in social services. I would be bald.

  32. Wow. Living in Zambia, hunger has a very different meaning than it does in the US. Hunger means there is no food at all, and no way to get any. With our rains so poor this year, we are all waiting for the heart-breaking rush in a few more months where lines of aid trucks head into the bush. But of course there is never enough, and some people are too distant. There are issues here, too. Last year was a major surplus, and yet none of it was held over for this year– it was all sold off.

    Before moving here, though, we lived in Virginia with two small children. Our family of four qualified for WIC, although we never used it. On my husband’s grad-student salary, we managed to eat well, cover rent and car payments, and live relatively comfortably. However, it was not easy, and in order to eat well, I really had to WANT to, and be creative with it. And any unexpected expenses could become crises, especially medical ones. Coming from Canada, I found (still find) this appalling.

    The whole welfare system is flawed, and seems to be more concerned with legality than actual assistance. On the one hand you have peole who milk it and take advantage of it, and on the other individuals who can not manage to break out of it because of lack of alternative resources.

    In my experience, there seems to be lack of hope and pride more than anything else. The way I was treated in government clinics and by people there to “help me” was one of the most disheartening things I’ve ever been through. How can we expect people to care and want change when they feel like they are not meaningful parts of society?

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  34. As I’ve been starting to wake up about the problem of food insecurity in America myself I’m realizing the same things you wrote about almost 2 years ago. From everything I can tell the problem is only getting worse. The rising price of food and worldwide demand have resulted in a borderline crisis in our food bank system. At the same time the cost of gas, living and other aspects of our straining economy has driven the local demand for food assistance higher each year.

    I’ve long been aware of the correlation between cheap food and obesity – I call it the Little Debby effect: the idea being that a society’s health is inversely correlated to the price of a common unhealthy snack food. When foods lose quality and become more available at the same time the result is a negative impact on peoples’ health.

    I really like your writing and I’m glad I found it this morning. I think I’ll try and register and see what you’re up to. If you’re interested, please check out my new site I’m trying to get people to trade frivolity for meaning through minor lifestyle adjustments. Seeing as meeting one’s basic physiological needs (food, water, sleep) is the first step towards being a successful participant in society, it follows that as a group we should focus our meaningful efforts in that direction.