The $31.50 Food Stamp Challenge

Today on Twitter Ohio Representative Tim Ryan posted a note about the Congressional Food Stamp Challenge. The challenge is this:

Members of Congress are living on a food stamp budget for one week in order to raise visibility and understanding around the challenges that millions of low-income American’s face in obtaining a healthy diet under current food stamp benefit levels.

The Farm Bill, which includes the Food Stamp Program, is due to be reauthorized in Congress this year.

Representative Ryan tweeted about what he should buy with his $31.50, to which I responded with a question: if he could use coupons or not. After some back and forth with other folks on Twitter, blogger Elyssa K affirmed that coupons are in play, as well as store discount cards. And that got me thinking.

As a convert to coupons this year, I can attest that they are valuable when applied usefully, and a trap that can entice you to buy things you don’t really need simply because you’re “getting a good deal.” So I decided to see what I could get for $31.50.

I’d be shopping at Giant Eagle (it’s the nearest grocery store to my house) and using the store discount card to take advantage of sales. Here’s what I’d buy:

-there is a printable online coupon for a $1.00 off 10 cups of Yoplait yogurt. They’re currently on sale for 20 for $12 at Giant Eagle, which means buying the 10 will cost me $5. For me, seven of those ten yogurts are breakfast, three would be in lunches. That leaves me with $26.50.

-there is a printable online coupon for $1.00 off four cans of Progresso soup. They’re currently on sale 8 for $10 at Giant Eagle, which means buying the 8 will cost me $8. Those can be 8 of my 14 lunches or dinners, and leaves me with $18.50.

-frozen vegetables are better than canned (or no) vegetables, so I’m going to buy the Hanover Vegetables on sale 3 for $5 at Giant Eagle. That’s going to be sides for dinners, and leaves me with $13.50.

-I need six more lunches or dinners. I’m going to get some cold cuts for sandwiches. At Giant Eagles, Hard Salami is on sale for $5.99 a pound, so I’m getting half a pound for $3.00. Bologna is also on sale, $3.99 a pound. Again, half a pound for $2.00. That’s a total of $5.00, which leaves me with $8.50.

-And I’ll need bread for the sandwiches. I’m not going with fancy bread, just a generic loaf store brand bread for $1.89. That leaves me with $6.61.

-I can’t eat a plain sandwich, so I’m going to get some mustard. A 20 oz. bottle of mustard is $1.50. That leaves me with $5.11.

-I need something to drink. Despite what Ron Burgundy says, milk is a good choice. I’m getting a half gallon for $1.49. That leaves me with $3.62.

-For snacks, I’m going to buy Quaker Mini Rice Cakes, which are on sale at Giant Eagle 3 for $5. Only, I’m going to buy one. That will cost me $1.67, and leaves me with $1.95.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know if you have to pay taxes with food stamps. If so, that’s probably going to eat up my remaining $1.95. If not, I’d probably blow it on a 2-liter of diet pop.

Grand Total:
-10 cups of Yoplait yogurt
-8 cans of Progresso soup
-3 bags of frozen Hanover vegetables
-1/2 pound of Hard Salami
-1/2 pound of Bologna
-1 loaf of bread
-20 oz. bottle of mustard
-1/2 gallon of milk
-1 bag of Quaker Mini Rice Cakes

So, is that reasonable? I don’t think so. There are no fresh vegetables. Yes, I stayed away from cheap frozen dinners with little nutrition and empty calories, but having been unemployed at one point in my life, I know what it’s like to live off a tiny unemployment check.

You just can’t buy healthy food. I would have preferred turkey to salami or bologna, but that’s too expensive. I would have liked some fresh fish, but that’s out of the question.

Another issue is that I used online printable coupons to help reduce my cost. In fact, I saved $3.00, or almost 10% of my total allowance, by using coupons from places like coupons.com and smartsource. My guess is that if you’re using Food Stamps, having a computer and printer may be an obstacle. I guess you could go to the library, but printing probably costs a few cents because I can’t imagine it’s free. The other option is the Sunday paper, but again that costs money unless you want to dumpster dive at your local recycling drop-off.

Ultimately, the exercise proves that $31.50 is a paltry amount if you actually care about what you’re eating. There is no room for error, and no room for healthy choices. Surely, we can do better than this.

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