Surviving the Food Stamp Challenge

Reporter Katie Evarts shops for groceries for the food stamp challenge. Evarts’ challenge was to spend only $36.50 on her food for one week.
Reporter Katie Evarts shops for groceries for the food stamp challenge. Evarts’ challenge was to spend only $36.50 on her food for one week.
Emilie Mutert//hungerincal.uscannenberg.org

Reporter Katie Evarts took the food stamp challenge for one week to see how effective the program is at keeping participants fed and healthy. She found one of the biggest challenges to be shopping for a week’s worth of groceries with only $36.50 to spend. During the week, she also recorded what she ate and how she was feeling.

Tossing a can of rotten lima beans into the trash is not something that would normally upset me. However, as I sniffed the beans, which I had planned to eat as part of dinner on day four of my Food Stamp Challenge, I felt a surge of frustration so powerful I wanted to hurl the can as hard as I could. I got a hold of myself after a moment and dropped the beans into the bin instead, defeated.

That was perhaps the most emotional moment I had during my weeklong attempt to glimpse what it is like to live on food stamps, but it was not the only one. The most powerful lesson I learned about living on food stamps is that it takes a certain skill set that I do not have. You have to be meticulous and smart about budgeting, cooking, planning and eating every bit of food in order to adequately feed yourself or your family.

I have always loved food. I enjoy experiencing new cuisines, sharing great meals with friends and trying my hand at new recipes. I have never had to worry about where my next meal would come from. During my week on food stamps, however, food became my enemy. It was a constant source of stress and worry. Living for a week with food always on my mind made me realize just how much I have taken it for granted.

Every meal seemed like an indulgence, and I constantly felt guilty, worried that I should be saving my supplies for later. I tried to find ways to make the low-quality food I had taste good, but became so discouraged by the results that by the end of the week I resorted to eating plain rice or noodles because it was easier.

Because much of the food I ate was less nutritious than I was used to, I felt lethargic, irritable and had a headache for most of the week. I found it difficult to focus and my work suffered as a result. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to work full-time feeling the way I did on a food stamp budget, especially trying to feed a family as opposed to just one person, as most people on food stamps do.

In California, almost three million people receive food stamps, and the number is growing. Despite this, California has the worst participation rate by those who are eligible of any state in the country: In 2007, about 50 percent of those eligible received benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Experts say there are many possible reasons for this, including: the stigma attached to receiving help from the government; a lack of information about who is eligible; a complicated application process; and quarterly reporting that is time consuming for participants.

The California Department of Social Services, which administers the food stamp program, acknowledges the need for improved participation rates. But the agency argues that the USDA’s method of calculating the participation rate discounts certain California residents who are receiving the equivalent of food stamps through a different program. The state has taken steps to improve outreach by joining forces with California food banks, which distribute information about food stamps, help pre-screen applicants and guide people through the application process.

Life on food stamps is a challenge for all involved

I started the challenge in good cheer, looking forward to an interesting, mostly innocuous experiment. I had $36.50 for a week’s worth of food, which did not seem unreasonable. That is a fourth of the monthly amount the average Californian on food stamps receives, said Matt Sharp of the California Food Policy Advocates, a public policy group.

Over the course of the week, I felt my spirits sink lower and lower as the weight of the experience settled in. The loss of the lima beans shook me up, because I could do nothing to fix it. I had planned my meals meticulously, and yet something had gone wrong anyway. The feeling of helplessness seeped into everything I did that week. By the end of the seven days, I felt relief that I would no longer have to worry about every bit of food I had in my kitchen. I also understood a little better how difficult it would be to struggle with food stamps constantly, not just a weeklong trial.

For Garden Grove, Calif., residents Elizabeth Echenique and her family, eating on food stamps is a way of life, something they have endured for “quite a few years,” Echenique said. They have become adept at planning their month’s food budget.

“We do one whole day to write out what we’re going to get at this store, what we’re going to get at that store,” she said.

Both Echenique, 26, and her partner, Robert Guerrero, 35, are hoping to find jobs that will allow them to get off food stamps. Guerrero got laid off from his retail job but is training for work as a security guard. Echenique is completing an externship in a medical office that she hopes will lead to employment as a medical assistant, perhaps at a nursing home.

“When that happens, we may make enough to be able to pay our rent, our utilities, buy our groceries,” Echenique said. “We might need a little help for four or five months just getting on our feet, but then I think we’ll be OK.”

Echenique and Guerrero have three sons and say that even though they now have their food planning and shopping routine “pretty much figured out,” there have been times when they went hungry.

“Yeah, when we were homeless, like four years ago,” Echenique said. “I was pregnant with my 3-year-old and we were on the street.”

During that time, the family slept in shelters and got food from charities and food kitchens.

“It was horrible,” she said. “There were churches that would give you food, but it would be like some burritos or some three-day-old milk and some rotten apples. …”

Around that time, Echenique and Guerrero got jobs. They now live in a one-bedroom apartment supplied by a nonprofit organization called Thomas House Temporary Shelter. Although they still use food stamps and a state cash assistance program, which helps low-income families with children, they say they are looking forward to the day when they will be able to support themselves.

“You have to want to try to get out of the slump you’re in,” Echenique said. “You can’t just expect a handout and think someone’s going to help you, because that’s not the way it works.”

There is a 20-hour work requirement to qualify for food stamps, but it has been waived temporarily because of the economic crisis and will likely remain waived in the next year, according to the California Department of Social Services.

Echenique has been using food stamps for a long time, but many people who are now using the program are not used to dealing with government aid programs.

Garden Grove resident Elizabeth Echenique and her family. Courtesy photo.

“The population that is needing food assistance is not the population that has historically been using the safety net,” said Cathy Hsu of California Food Policy Advocates.

Because of the economic crisis, middle class people who are unfamiliar with the safety net programs are finding themselves in need of help navigating the cumbersome application process.

“I’m getting calls saying ‘I’ve never used this, I don’t know about it, but I need some help right now,’” Hsu said.

Tiffani Kincaid, 27, never thought she would have to rely on food stamps to feed herself and her 8-year-old son. A year ago she had a good job with Marriott Hotels and a husband. Then, because of a personal tragedy, she had to leave her job and her husband.

“I had to go into protective custody and couldn’t find a job, so here I am,” Kincaid said. “Food stamps has just been there to help me.”

Still unemployed and looking for work, she says adjusting to food stamps has been a huge challenge.

“I can’t buy as much healthy food as I’d like to buy. It’s expensive,” Kincaid said. “I mean I can buy three weeks’ worth, but other than that you know we have to stick to cardboard boxes [of food] and Hamburger Helper, and all that kind of stuff.”

She also says there is still a stigma attached to using food stamps, despite the fact that they come on what looks like a normal debit card.

“It is discreet, but nevertheless it’s embarrassing because there is someone who knows, and it’s the cashier,” Kincaid said. “So you never know how their response is going to be, and I’ve gotten both positive and negative.”

So far, she has never been hungry, but says it has “come tight” several times.

“I will say what [the government provides] does not nearly cover the needs that we have,” Kincaid said. “However, you can’t be angry with assistance programs because even if it’s $20, it’s more than you had.”

She said she is doing everything she can to get a job and stop using food stamps.

“This is a very humbling experience. Certainly, I never had dreamed in a thousand years that I would be here with my son,” Kincaid said. “And I hope, you know, I keep saying before the holidays, before the holidays, but right now because the job market is so poor I can’t really rely on anything.”

Reporter Katie Evarts shops for groceries for the food stamp challenge. Evarts’ challenge was to spend only $36.50 on her food for one week. Photo by Emilie Mutert.

Hunger versus health

Another challenging aspect of life on food stamps is trying to eat healthfully. Before I started the Food Stamp Challenge I made a menu plan for each day based on a USDA publication from 2000 called “Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals.”

Along with suggestions on how to manage grocery shopping, pick cheap but healthy food, and store unused products for future use, this guide includes two weeklong menus meant for a family of four. I picked recipes I found appealing, cut down the portion sizes to work for one and made my grocery list from that.

I could not afford to get everything I wanted when I went shopping, so I had to cut down my menu even further from the USDA’s suggestions. However, I still tried to base my eating plan on their guide.

Mary Robinson, a nutritionist with 30 years of experience, looked at my plan and said it would not be a healthy diet.

“So much of the food in there is very refined: It’s had all the good stuff taken out of it,” Robinson said. “It’s talking about white rice, and white noodles, and bagels, which are extremely high carbohydrate content… there’s a whole lot about that that’s not healthy at all.”

She said the best way to make the most of food stamps would be to buy simple grains and vegetables.

“You have to always remember that you want to eat the food that your great-grandmother would recognize,” Robinson said. “They wouldn’t recognize anything that comes in a package or has a list of ingredients that’s as long as your thumb.”

Elizabeth Echenique says that she tries to buy healthy food for her family, although it is hard to keep fresh produce because they do all their shopping in one day for the entire month. She says the food stamp program does not do much to encourage healthy eating.

“You’re on your own, more or less,” she said. “It’s pretty much whatever you need to buy to feed your family, that’s what you use. It’s good, because then that way if you want fatty foods you can go ahead and buy it.”

She said she knows how to keep her family healthy because of her participation in the Women, Infants and Children program, which made much healthier food available to mothers and children starting in October 2009.

In the past, the program, commonly known as WIC, encouraged the purchase of higher calorie foods, such as juice, milk and cheese. These have been replaced by lower-fat items, such as fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains and soy products.

“Every time you go there, every month or two months, you have to take a class, and you discuss how the kids are eating, what’s healthy, what’s not, how to stay fit,” Echenique said. “Baking instead of fried, stuff like that. So, it helps, it helps a lot.”

Echenique did not know that some farmer’s markets now accept food stamps. She mostly shops at the 99 Cents Only Store.

For parents who have not taken classes through WIC, Echenique said that the government could do more to help food stamp participants learn about nutrition.

However, Echenique appreciates that she gets to decide what to buy with her food stamps. “If it’s cheaper, who cares, just get it,” she said. “That way if you want Coca Cola you have enough for Coca Cola.”

Tiffani Kincaid agrees that the government does not do much to help food stamp participants stay healthy.

“You walk into social services…it’s got posters on the wall of, you know, a cabbage chunk or a carrot, that’s about it,” she said. “No one really talks to you about how to eat healthy and what to cook and what’s appropriate for children.”

Despite her son being eligible for free meals, Kincaid also feels that the school lunch program fails to offer nutritious food.

“I notice a temperament change in my son when he eats school lunches,” Kincaid said. “I see that his skin is not clear, his eyes are not clear, he has trouble focusing, grades tend to fall.”

As a result, she took her son out of the lunch program.

“I am now packing my son’s lunches so they are healthy and nutritious for him, which now depletes my food stamp budget even more,” she said. “So it’s a constant battle to make sure he’s fed and healthy.”

KPCC.org and Hunger in the Golden State, a multimedia project from the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and California Watch, an initiative of the Center for Investigative Reporting.