Food Stamp Challenge Stories Offer Insight into Perils of Poverty

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in recent weeks, you’re well aware of the spectacle that was Gwyneth Paltrow attempting the Food Stamp Challenge. The actress received plenty of flack for her food choices when she accepted the challenge from chef Mario Batali to eat for a week on the budget of a SNAP food-stamp recipient. And while Paltrow ultimately failed the challenge, going off the $29 weekly food budget after just four days, she succeeded in bringing the challenge as well as the nutritional plight of poverty-ridden families into the spotlight.

While the purpose of the Food Stamp Challenge is to highlight just how difficult it is for American families to survive off of SNAP allowances, some have succeeded on eating on the equivalent of food stamps for a week. Atlanta Magazine’s Rebecca Burns accepted the Food Stamp Challenge with her husband, knowing it would be difficult, but believing she could complete the week within budget.

“After all, we figured, our situation embodies the best-case scenario USDA nutritionists have in mind when they produce brochures on healthy cooking tips,” Burns wrote. “We have time to cook, we have a well-equipped kitchen, and mostly importantly we have a car and thus can shop around for the good deals and quality foods.”

Not only did Burns have to trade out many of her nutritious staples, berries for raisins and brown sugar for honey, for example, but the only fresh vegetable she consumed all week was Bok Choy. She also had to cut back on most of her social activity since it tended to revolve around dining and food. By the end of the week, she found herself making meals out of mismatched ingredients she had leftover such as leftover beans on top of cauliflower.

“As the week wrapped up, my attitude about the challenge had changed,” Burns wrote. “Yes, it’s an artificial construct. But the exercise of living on this budget is a valuable one. It’s easy to brush aside the day-to-day lives of poor people, thinking, ‘Oh, we help with food and housing through taxes and benefits,’ without pausing to reflect on whether those benefits sustain even a basic standard of living.”

When Good Morning America’s Stefanie Tudor stepped up to the challenge, she armed herself knowing the mistakes Paltrow had made in her much-publicized attempt. Planning her meals for the week, Tudor determined to use her SNAP budget to purchase nutrious yet inexpensive foods such as oatmeal, eggs, peanut butter, bread, pretzels, hamburger, chicken, potatoes and vegetables.

“As someone with a big appetite, it was important to me to have not only enough nutrition, but also enough food, period,” Tudor wrote. “Joke was on me, though, when I found out I couldn’t afford much of what I wanted, leaving me reeling in the supermarket as I tried to rejigger my meal plan.”

Ultimately, Tudor ended up eating the same foods for each meal during the week of her challenge: Oatmeal for breakfast, a hard-boiled egg for a mid-morning snack, chicken, potatoes and green beans for lunch, and meatloaf, potatoes and green beans for dinner. By day four she was thankful the week was nearly over.

“Except, that wasn’t fair,” Tudor wrote. “I may have only had four more days of living off of a $29 for my week’s food budget, but for the 46.5 million Americans (one in seven!) who actually have to live off of SNAP, their Groundhog Week of eating starts over again when the seven days are up.”

Feeding America CEO Bob Aiken was one of the first to take the SNAP Challenge back in 2013. Aiken found obstacles to the challenge that had nothing to do with prices at the grocery store.

“On Monday of this week I forgot my lunch at home,” Aiken wrote. “This wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that I’m participating in the SNAP challenge this week, and to remain true to it, I could only eat what I’ve already purchased — my lunch back home.

In order to eat that day, Aiken had to make a 40-minute drive home to pick up his meal, knowing very well that millions of Americans on SNAP don’t have time for such a luxury as driving home.

“I’ve also found it difficult to concentrate at work,” Aiken wrote as the lack of nutritious food choices started to take its toll. “I’m tired, hungry and have a caffeine headache — not to mention I’ve caught myself dreaming of coffee and all of my favorite foods more than once. I’ve always known food insecurity impacts your ability to work and learn — but I’ve never felt that reality in such a tangible way.”

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by on June 4th, 2015