Five Days On Food Stamps


*Editor’s Note: To read about my food stamp challenge, including my daily meal journal and ways you can get involved in the fight to end hunger, click here.

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“If you had a limited amount of money, you’re going to spend on the cheapest calories you can get — and that’s processed foods.”  — A Place at the Table

There are two spectrums to the human condition: on the one end, we seek to decrease pain, increase pleasure: Buy another beer. Hit the snooze button. Bypass the panhandler. The other end is one of empathy, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” This is harder, because it requires us to enter into the pain and suffering of another — to share in a friend’s tragedy, to weep for a loved one’s health. Empathy opens us up to things that we might otherwise choose to ignore.

I’ve found that every decision, every interaction puts me closer in one of those two directions.

Last month, I was in Los Angeles for the 2014 Justice Conference . During the film festival portion, I stepped out to lunch and bought a salad that I could eat while watching films. When I returned, the next film was A Place at the Table. I  quickly became absorbed in the stories of Americans living on food stamps. And just as quickly, I realized the irony of eating my $9 salad during that film.

You see, 47 million Americans (15 percent of the population) subsist on stamps, which comes out to $4, per person, per day. 

The issues of hunger and obesity are near and dear to my heart, both on a national and local scale: My previous employer worked to successfully re-authorize the Child Nutrition Act in 2010, which sought to establish USDA nutritional standards, and provide healthier school lunches. I also live in Southeast Washington, D.C., and serve in a neighborhood that is incredibly food-insecure:

This map shows the highest concentration of poverty and food deserts in Washington, D.C. (Image courtesy of Metrotrends.org)

This map shows the highest concentration of poverty and food deserts in Washington, D.C. (Image courtesy of Metrotrends.org)


  • Wards 7 and 8, which have the District’s highest poverty rates, also have the city’s highest obesity rates and are home to large “food deserts.”

  • Of the city’s 43 full-service grocery stores, only two are located in Ward 4, four in Ward 7, and three in Ward 8. By contrast, Ward 3 – the highest-income Ward – has eleven full-service stores.

A Place at the Table hit me hard. I could not imagine a diet lacking in fresh produce. I could not imagine having to rely on food stamps, soup kitchens or handouts. So I decided to try it: I would live on food stamps for five days.

My budget was $21.80, or $4.36 per day. As I shopped, and over the course of the week, I realized several inherent challenges to budgeting meals on food stamps:

  • Affordability and accessibility: Could I afford all the items I need for the week? Would the store have the items I need? For example, I was going to rely on bananas for my breakfast each day, but Safeway’s bananas were too green to eat. I opted for apples instead, but those were more expensive.
  • Quantity:  Would I have enough food to stay full throughout the week? How could I creatively make my food stretch? I found quickly that I had to repeat meals over and over again. That got old — really fast.

    Canned goods were a go-to item: cheap and high in protein.

    Canned goods were a go-to item: cheap and high in protein.

  • Nutritional:  Would I still be able to receive proper nutrients? Would I be able sustain myself and regular activities without feeling light-headed or lethargic? Most of my items were either processed food (turkey deli meat) or canned (beans, tomatoes). I tried to avoid over-exerting myself so I wouldn’t run out of energy.

To be sure, my five day experience is in no way a complete picture of living at the poverty line.  For one thing, I knew the end was in sight. I’m also grateful to have a stable job where I can afford rent, and indulge in a much more luxurious grocery budget.

But it’s hard to witness pain and suffering, and to remain silent. There is something about sharing that pain, though. I love this quote from a recently viral video on “empathy versus sympathy”:

“Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. Because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” – Dr. Breñe Brown

I didn’t do the food stamp challenge as part of a church thing, or to make a political statement. I didn’t do it for fun, either (it’s not what I would deem the most enjoyable experience). I did it because I wanted to know the feeling of hunger — and to sit with that feeling for a period of time.

Simply put, I wanted to better understand.

◊◊◊

What do you think? Could you take the Food Stamp Challenge? Find out how much you would have to live on.

Have another resource I should share? Leave it in the comments, and I’ll add it to my Food Insecurity pinboard

PS: There are some exciting innovations in the fight to end food insecurity, such as food packets in disaster relief zones overseas, and a mobile app to locate summer lunch programs in California.

PPS: Check out more resources and read my five-day food journal here.

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About Meg Biallas

Thoughts From A DC Intern Turned DCist. A twenty-something goes beyond traditional tourism to achieve Washingtonian authenticity.
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