I’m used to cabinets crammed with a variety of snacks, refrigerators filled with an abundance of fruits and vegetables, and my $4.50 venti skinny vanilla latte from Starbucks to begin my mornings. I consider my frequent trips to grocery stores and filling my cart to its brim more of an activity rather than a trip out of necessity. Moreover, I dine at certain restaurants not for their inexpensive prices, but for the quality of food they serve. Forty-five million other Americans, however, do not have the luxury of enjoying food the way I do (SNAP monthly data, 2011). Those who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for food aid and assistance equate food with survival and are grateful for what they’re able to obtain with such little money. After participating in the short-term Food Stamp Diet challenge, I realized that living on the edge of subsistence remarkably shapes the relationship and experience that one has with food.
I’ve been told countless times that “you are what you eat”, meaning how you appear physically is a reflection of the type of diet you have. Acknowledging that leaner cuts of meat, fresh and organic fruits and vegetables, and lower calorie foods tend to be more expensive than their “generic” counterparts, I wondered if lifelong users of food stamps could avoid becoming overweight and unhealthy.
A daily budget of $4.30 to spend towards food no longer provided me with a plethora of options to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Nor did it allow for discretionary eating at random hours of the night. With no specific strategy in mind, I embarked on a trip to Kroger with a meager $8.60 in my pocket to purchase food items for this two-day challenge. The venue alone was already a tremendous change for me: most of my food shopping is done at Whole Foods, a much pricier grocery store that primarily caters to a health-crazed demographic. To avoid frivolous spending, I steered clear of aisles carrying processed, packaged foods, which are generally marked up, the deli counter, and the pre-prepared foods section. There I was, in a place where succulent food was at my disposal, rejecting the items that always made it into my shopping cart.
I knew that I couldn’t be picky—that regardless of what brand tasted better than the other, I needed to pay closer attention to the prices and deals being offered. Because I’m predominantly a healthy eater, I disregarded the inexpensive boxes of macaroni and cheese and instead searched for affordable, nutritious foods that involve little to no preparation or cooking. I decided on two cans of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup for $3.00, two Granny Smith apples for $1.75, a dozen eggs for $1.89, and one Clif protein bar for $1.25. I ascertained that I would eat hard-boiled eggs for breakfast, an apple for lunch, a protein bar as my snack, and a can of soup for dinner. Though the foods I selected contained a decent amount of nutritional value, consisting of mostly fiber and protein, they in no way fulfilled the recommended dietary requirements for a person my age.
Only one day on this dull diet, and I was already beginning to feel restless and frustrated, especially in the presence of foods that I craved. Frequent visits to foodporndaily.com didn’t help my situation either. I had been eating, but it felt like my body wasn’t being fed. Such small portions of food were not able to curb my insatiable appetite, but it did solve my rationing problem. For example, had I purchased a box of pasta and consumed more servings than the suggested amount, there wouldn’t be a sufficient amount leftover for the next day. People who live off food stamps set limits to how much they can consume, which practically eliminates the possibility of obtaining “seconds” of a meal regardless of how hungry they are.
By the second day, my relationship with food had turned sour: I did not enjoy eating, nor did I look forward to my next meal. The problem was that the foods I chose seriously lacked appeal; they were virtually colorless, odorless, and tasteless. With respect to my dissatisfaction with the inexpensive and healthy products I bought, I could finally understand why people would prefer a tastier, filling meal at McDonalds. In the article, “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?” Mark Bittman singles out those who insist a meal at McDonalds is more economical than a healthier meal cooked at home, arguing that “most people can afford real food” (Bittman, 2011). While I did not resort to fast food under my financial constraints, I nevertheless had difficulties finding food under $5.00, unless they were loaded with grams of carbohydrates, sugars, and fats. Perhaps this can explain why the average food stamp user has a body mass index 1.15 higher than non-users (Vanderkam, 2010). Research also showed that those on food stamps were prone to higher BMI levels compared to when they were not, and that a direct correlation exists between the time spent using food stamps and BMI levels. Socioeconomic status, therefore, plays a large role in determining our health. Money enables you to try new foods, eat at the best restaurants, and consume larger quantities of food. These findings, however, shouldn’t be too surprising: how can you expect someone who uses food stamps to concern themselves with eating healthy when eating, itself, is a privilege?
Fortunately, SNAP has recognized the severity of this issue and recently established programs that offer economic incentives to purchase healthier foods. In their effort to promote healthier eating habits as well as thwart the obesity epidemic, SNAP created the “Double Value Coupon Program”, which doubles the value of food stamps at specific markets (Smith, 2010). Programs like these can encourage those on food stamps to abandon their junk food diets and help them come to the realization that fresh, healthy food can taste just as good, if not better.
My experience on the Food Stamp Diet barely came close to illustrating the realities of those who rely on food stamps for their daily consumption. It nevertheless gave me a better insight into how much food one could realistically buy on such a tight budget. How much, you ask? Pretty much close to nothing. And if we really are what we eat, I would both feel and look much unhealthier if I relied on food stamps to receive food.
SNAP monthly data. (2011, Sept 29). Retrieved from <http://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/34SNAPmonthly.htm>
Smith, J. (2010). Food Stamp Program Takes Steps to Encourage a Whole Foods Diet. Natural News. < http://www.naturalnews.com/027863_food_stamps_nutrition.html>
Vanderkam, Laura. (2010). Do food stamps feed obesity?. USA Today