My Five Days on Food Stamps

Tortilla Espanola, one of my favorite meals from the week
Tortilla Espanola, one of my favorite meals from the week

At a grocery store somewhere in Queens, I stood wedged in between the cheese refrigerator and a massive barrel of pickles scowling at the paltry contents of my shopping basket. “This food stamps challenge is really stressing me out!” I texted my husband.

As part of my Community Nutrition Education class, I was assigned to plan and execute five days worth of meals on $4.25 per day, or the budget of a person receiving benefits as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (AKA food stamps).

I was stressed because I lacked a plan. I generally avoid meal planning because it stifles my creativity in the kitchen. But, it became clear that planning my meals was necessary to survival on a food stamp budget. Before I could even plan my meals, I needed a grasp on what I could afford. I quickly realized that cornerstones of my current diet—organic chicken, Greek yogurt and my precious Starbucks coffee—were beyond the scope of this girl’s purse.

I didn’t want to eat low quality meat or dairy if I could help it, so after thumbing through my vegetarian cookbooks for inspiration, I drafted a rough meal plan for the week that centered around plant based proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and small amounts of high quality dairy. I decided to ditch the coffee and make a dent in our tea collection. I headed back to the market enthusiastic about a week’s worth of meals that balanced my palette with my food stamp-ed wallet. Below are photos of some of my meals.

My food stamps meal plan was required to meet the Key Recommendations of 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  You can read more about that here, but essentially, the Key Recommendations emphasize intake of lots of fruits and vegatables, low fat dairy, lean protein from a variety of sources, and whole grains while reducing processed sugar and saturated fat intake.  In order to meet these requirements, I bought almost three pounds of perfectly imperfect, colorful fruits and vegetables for less than $2.00 in the discount section of my produce market. I baked my own whole wheat bread and granola which not only made it economically feasible for me to eat my favorite grain based foods, but also allowed me to meet the Key Recommendations for whole grains. Batch cooking a variety of legumes and beans—most of which I found already calling out for some love in a forgotten corner of my pantry—placed me within the parameters of the protein Key Recommendations. I eschewed the dairy Key Recommendations in favor of full fat milk and cheese because they are more nutrient dense than their low fat counterparts. I’m a runner but I did not go to the gym during the five days because I was worried that I would not have enough food to satisfy the hunger that usually accompanies my cardio workouts. I did, however, maintain my 10,000 step per day goal.

My career and personal interests revolve around food in many ways. Some days, I’m thinking about dinner before I’ve even eaten breakfast. “Don’t worry, you won’t starve,” my husband responded to my frantic text. Suddenly—as bright as the fluorescent light of the freezer section—a light shown on my privilege. I realized how luxurious my obsession with food is compared to someone whose means are severely limited.

I had many advantages in the food stamps challenge that others may not. I don’t have any dependents (no children, no elderly parents to care for). I don’t work full time.  I have the financial benefits of marriage. I am healthy and don’t have any health based dietary restrictions. I am able bodied enough to carry groceries up the stairs. I live in extremely close proximity to reasonably priced grocery stores. I am educated and can (relatively) easily understand nutrition labels which happen to be written in my native language. I work in the food industry so not only do I like to cook, but I occasionally go home with leftovers. I have access to the internet so I can look up recipes (like this fabulous $4/day cookbook by Leanne Brown).

I think you get the idea, right?

I knew this assignment would be a reflection of my privilege, but I didn’t expect to learn so much about my own relationship with food by experiencing someone else’s reality. More on that to come…




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