What is it Like to Live on Food Stamps?

Bloomfield volunteers took the challenge to see what it feels like and what $31.50 can buy at a local supermarket


This past month, the Food Bank of New Jersey invited residents to participate in a very unusual challenge: See if you can live on food stamps for a week.

“The average benefit is $120 per person per month,” explained Diane Riley, Director of Advocacy at the Food Bank of New Jersey.  “That comes to $31.50 for the week.” 

If you think that sounds like an impossible task, you may be right.  But for millions of people in America today, this is their reality.

Riley decided to try it herself when the food-stamp challenge was introduced in late November.  The purpose of the challenge was to increase awareness of the plight of people nationwide who are living with “food insecurity,” -- i.e., not having enough to eat.

Riley was not alone in taking the challenge; over a period of several weeks, many people accepted the challenge, including bloggers, journalists and several members of Congress. Their results have been documented in numerous news reports and testimonials (see list below.) 

During that same week, Riley found time to to talk to Patch about her experience. Visiting the Brookdale ShopRite in Bloomfield, Riley was accompanied by two Bloomfield residents, Ann Koehler, Rector of Christ Church, and Bruce Turnbull, Director of the food pantry at Bloomfield Presbyterian Church on the Green.  Both had volunteered go shopping as “test studies” for this article.

As Koehler and Turnbull set off down the aisles with their empty shopping cart, Riley outlined the rudiments of the SNAP program (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps.)

Eligibility, she explained, is based on the number of people in a family and their household income.  A qualifying family of four must have an annual income of $41,364 or less.  Participants in the program are given an electronic benefit card, or “EBT card,” which they can use at the cash register like a debit card.

Over the past two years there has been a 40% increase in participation of the SNAP program, according to the NJ FoodBank website.  According to NJ.com, “As of this fall, nearly 822,000 people were enrolled in the food stamp program, meaning nearly one out of every 10 New Jersey residents receive assistance, according to state statistics. About half of all recipients are children."

As Koehler and Turnbull navigated the aisles at ShopRite, they were increasingly struck by how difficult the challenge was.  With every item that went into the cart, they had to make tough decisions.

For instance Turnbull, who realized the meat he wanted was too expensive to buy opted for a package of bony chickenbacks. (The term “Manager’s Special” gave him pause, especially as the label recommended it be cooked the next day.)  He put the chickenbacks in the cart but could not afford the jar of gravy to go with it.  He did some mental calculations and reluctantly put it back on the shelf.

Koehler couldn’t buy a box of her favorite breakfast cereal.  “This is the kind of cereal I would normally buy its $4.79.  There are eight servings.  But this box of generic cornflakes is only $1.49 and it has 12 servings,” she observed, placing the cornflakes in the cart.

“I was thinking about crackers but they’re a buck seventeen,” noted Turnbull.  

Koehler nodded. “Crackers are a luxury.” 


At the end of the shopping challenge, the cart contained:

four apples

half a gallon of orange juice

one box of pasta

one loaf of bread

a dozen eggs

a half gallon of milk

two cans of black beans

five cans of mixed vegetables

one package of cheddar cheese

one jar of peanut butter

one box of cornflakes

1 package of chicken backs

five packages of Ramen noodles

one package of rice 


Despite being naturally frugal, the shoppers were dismayed to realize that the groceries totaled about $37.00.  Several items would have to be put back on the shelves. 

“You can’t have fresh vegetables [on $31.50 a week],” noted Kohler, clearly sobered by the experience.  “I have two kids.”

“It was enlightening,” Turnbull observed.  “It's harder than I thought.  It makes you realize what it's like if you're up against it.”

Riley stressed that the SNAP program is not intended to provide 100% of a person's dietary needs.  Still, when one considers that the program also does not cover prepared foods or pet food, or essential non-food items such as medicine, diapers or cleaning supplies, it starts to beome clear how much of a struggle living the program could potentially be.

For instance, Koehler reflected that the program didn’t address some common, practical life circumstances.

“I imagine anything could throw you off that rhythm -- visiting relatives, or maybe you want to do something special for your kid on his birthday.  But you don't have that flexibility.”  She wondered out loud, “How do you not run out of money at the end of the week?”

Riley admitted she still had a few days left of her own Food Stamp Challenge and was all too aware of how difficult it was to stick to it.  

“I literally got about 12 things when I went shopping,” she said.  “Milk, eggs, cereal, a little bit of meat, bread.  I have to admit I did buy coffee --really cheap coffee -- because I didn't think I could live without it.”

She added thoughtfully, “I have 10 slices of bread left and three days left to go.”

In fact, the testimonials of people who have taken the challenge often include reports of being actually hungry on the program.

“Right now, in an uncomfortable way, food occupies my mind all the time,” wrote Rabbi Steve Gutow, President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, whose Huffington Post blog chronicled his 7-day experience.  “I kept thinking and thinking of what I would eat when I arrived back at my home . . . Now I have 8 cents remaining and some lentils, rice and a few other food items left. This is going to be a slow race to the finish on Thursday and I am not enjoying it.”

Riley, who kept food journal during her week on the program, wrote: 

". . . Every day I was faced with the decision, eat more today to alleviate that hungry feeling or save the food for tomorrow so you will have enough to not feel even hungrier. Once or twice I surrendered to the former and regretted it later. I could make that decision because I was responsible for myself [but] what if my child came to me and asked for more food?  What would be the responsible parental response?  These are the things I continue to think about and learn from . . .”

“SUZZ” wrote this response to an article published in Street Sense, a Washington DC newspaper that addresses homelessness and poverty:

“We receive SNAP benefits and are only given $169.00 per month for a family of three. I forgo eating many meals to give to my family . . . I have seen many people waiting for the exact moment the snap benefits are dropped onto the card so they can eat. It is so very sad that we live in an age where people either have food and are wasteful or they like me struggle and struggle and never see the end." -- ( November 30, 2011) 

“Over forty million people live this way fifty-one weeks more than I will have [to]-- just because they are poor,” stated Gutow in his blog. "We need to . . .  stand up and say loud and clear that this is no way to be a decent country.”


Related content

FOX 5 video: www.dioceseofnewark.org/content/video-diane-riley-community-food-bank-new-jersey-fox-5-ny




Community Food Bank on FaceBook

Huffington Post blogger Rabbi Steve Gutow, President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. www.jewishpublicaffairs.org  Follow @theJCPA on Twitter. 


Click HERE to make a tax deductible donation to the NJ FoodBank.

 For every dollar of their operating budget, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey is able to distribute $9.59 worth of food and groceries. 

Donating online is an instant and easy way to support the FoodBank.  The Community FoodBank of New Jersey is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization (EIN# 222423882) and all donations are tax deductible.

Linda Federico-O'Murchu December 21, 2011 at 02:41 AM
Yes, Allison, the article might even scare people from taking the challenge! Incredible how many people are living this way, isn't it?
Kristin December 22, 2011 at 10:03 PM
This is a really wonderful piece. It's important for reality checks sometimes to encourage empathy and action. Also, donations to the NJ FoodBank are a great idea for last-minute gift or stocking stuffer.
Theia December 23, 2011 at 02:23 AM
I am a single mother of one teenage son I have not been able to work at all since 08.I have had one back surgry, a neck surgery Tripple fussin, a surgery on my breast, need 2 surgeries on my feet, and eep getting turned down for disability. I am very blessed to have friends whom allow me a place to lie.The food situation I eat only one meal a day so I am able to e sure my son has what he needs.I always remember it could be worse.
Yelena January 10, 2012 at 12:38 AM
While I am am sympathetic to people who's circumstances land them on food stamps, I have to question the idea you can't live on 31 dollars per week for food per person. Much like the poster above (dontaskmeagain) I would recommend shopping on a bi-weekly basis. Is it fun? No, but it doesn't have to be truly awful either. Instead of a loaf of bread, buy 5lbs of flour. Instead of Coffee, buy 100 generic tea bags. Instead of orange juice, get a bottle of lemon juice, which will flavor food as well as give tap water a nice tang. Where are the dried beans? Whole chickens or cheep bone in cuts of chicken that can be made into a soup? Frozen veggies, or fresh, older veggies work fantastic in soups. Why buy a box of cereal even at $1.50 when you can get a large canister of oatmeal and easily flavored in a variety of ways for the same price. What about TVP or tofu which are both affordable and easily prepared as a source of protien? I would like to see people given instruction in cooking along with the food stamps. If you know your way around the kitchen, you can make a whole lot more from scratch. Granted, this won't work for anybody, I'd imagine the disabled lady (Theia) might have a lot of trouble doing this, but a lot of people who receive foodstamps are not disabled.
Linda Federico-O'Murchu January 10, 2012 at 02:44 AM
Yelena, I think the point you're making actually supports, not refutes, the experience of people who took the Food Stamp Challenge. In my article, the Rector Ann Koehler found that incorporating a food plan that forbids prepared foods and doesn't allow for flexibility of circumstances can make it nearly impossible to follow. Imagine a single mother who comes home to four hungry kids at night; is she going to start preparing a soup from scratch? Is a father working two or three jobs really going to bake bread on his day off? The point of taking the food stamp challenge is not to see what a thrifty money manager you are but to see what it feels like to live within the built-in restraints of the program. I think the challenge is more about judging the merits of the program than the merits of the clients.


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