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Cooking Matters Michigan

Empowering families with the skills, confidence and knowledge to prepare healthy and affordable meals

Thoughts on doing the Food Stamp Challenge

dorothy hernandez

In the documentary “Food Stamped,” nutrition educator Shira Potash goes grocery shopping with a man who is on food assistance. He prides himself on being a budget shopper but the foods he chose during this particular trip were far from nutritious: ramen noodles, pork and beans and other processed foods that were very cheap but not very nutrient-dense. The Food Stamp Challenge is typically a weeklong undertaking that puts people in the shoes of those who rely on SNAP funds. Over the past couple years, food stamp use has increased

After doing the Food Stamp Challenge for a few days, I could see why people on a fixed budget go for foods such as the ones the man was putting in his cart: they are cheap and they are quick, and when you’re juggling work (sometimes two jobs) with family, making meals from scratch is not a priority. The week I did the challenge was particularly tough on me as I had evening classes on three nights and then worked late the other two at my other job; juggling two jobs is something I only do once in a while but for low-income families that’s the reality if they want to be able to pay the bills and put food on the table. I could see why many participants at the beginning of CM classes say that they don't have time to cook; neither did I.

I also found myself grabbing some candy that was set out at my other job for Halloween; I almost never go for sweets. If I had been eating like I normally do, I would’ve easily passed them by because I would not crave them. But it was toward the end of the challenge when my food was running a bit low so I only had a sandwich and apple for lunch. When I saw the candy I didn’t hesitate to grab a handful of empty calories.

I have to admit that I came up short. I'm pretty sure I had a calorie deficit on some of the days (except for the candy binge). I ended up paying for dinner one night because I felt bad making my friend pay and then once I got to Chicago, where I was visiting my family over the weekend, my challenge ended.

But for five days I stuck to it as much as I could. Other than the food we made in our classes, dinner on Wednesday at a friend’s and two lunches that other friends bought for me I lived off the food I bought on Sunday.

There was a part in “Food Stamped” when the filmmakers, Shira and her husband, in the grocery store trying to figure out what to buy and they decide to forgo coffee for a week because it wasn’t in the budget. Shira's husband says that things that they thought of as staples were now luxuries. There’s also a part where they go dumpster diving for bread and making sure to find as many free samples as possible. One of the free samples they snagged was cheese, which they rationed for a special treat at the end of the week.

Their ground rules were:

    Whole grains, protein, vegetables and fruits at every meal
    To buy as many organic foods as possible and very little processed food
    To submit their menu for a nutrition evaluation

I was impressed by their ambitions to buy organic as possible because I know that wasn’t a consideration for me because here, you pay a premium for organic. I was trying to stay within budget. And they wanted to have protein at every single meal yet the only animal products that I could see that they bought were eggs and a can of tuna. Everything else was beans and peanut butter. From what I saw in the movie, it looked like they were sticking to their menus but turned into the Bickersons toward the end of the week, edgy because of the stresses of the challenge, no doubt. They did manage to save some of their best ingredients for last, capping off their week with a dinner of salad and frittata for their friends.

In comparison, I did not do as well as they did. I think it is doable to live off $31.50 a week and have nutritious meals but it's tough. You need to:

    You plan every meal and snack and make a list; there is no way you can wing it at the store and stay within your budget.
    You opt for non-animal, economical sources of protein; during my week I got enough turkey for five sandwiches, 3 chicken breasts and a dozen eggs. I could’ve gotten more fruits and vegetables had I just gotten beans and peanut butter for my sandwiches.
    Buy seasonal produce (especially important in ensuring you eat enough fruits, I only had four apples and 2 bananas so that came out to only one serving of fruit a day and it wasn’t even enough for the week)

Even though it wasn’t varied or met the recommended amounts for optimal nutrition, I felt like I had just barely enough food. But what about families of four? The rice and beans I made wouldn’t last a family a whole week, maybe 2 days.

Did you do the challenge? What were your thoughts? Share them with us!