Food Stamp Challenge – Challenging and Mortifying

By United Way of King County, on March 19, 2014 | In Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

 Jordan McKerney Guest blogger Jordan McKerney  is the Senior Communications Specialist at Russell Investment and also volunteers at United Way in the Emerging Leader Marketing Committee.

Usually when I am at the checkout stand at the grocery store, I glance at my total bill and think “Oh, that’s a bit more or less than I was expecting,” and then I grab my bags and head for the door.

In taking the Food Stamp Challenge, I got a taste of a very different feeling that millions of Americans likely experience at the checkout: anxiety. My husband and I committed to living for three days on a total food budget of $34.50 – just $5.75 per person per day. As we watched the checker ring up our items and our total slowly creep up, we both kept glancing at each other nervously. What would we do if our total went over our budget? Could we actually handle the shame of asking to put an item back?

cheap food Before we even got to the checkout stand, the challenge of shopping on a tight budget revealed things in the grocery store that I have never really noticed. Like the fact that you have to look on the very bottom and top shelves for the lowest prices. That it is nearly impossible to purchase organic produce or dairy on a budget of $11.50 per day for two people. That many of the best deals that catch your eye – the bright yellow “10 for $10” stickers – are some of the unhealthiest, most processed options.

We did our best to pick items we thought could generate dinners and leftovers we could take to work for lunch. We picked out the things that seemed cheapest and most versatile – bread, pasta, tuna, oatmeal, apples and bananas. We made choices we normally wouldn’t have – picking the most inexpensive brand of ground beef instead of the organic ground turkey that was triple the price.

I am embarrassed to admit that committing to three days of packing breakfast and lunch was one of the parts I struggled with the most. Most days I buy breakfast and lunch from a café in my office or restaurants nearby. My usual $11 lunch is quick and convenient. Making sandwiches and packing leftovers for lunch is not hard – many people do it. But it was definitely an adjustment for me to trade convenience and variety for cost savings.

The Food Stamp Challenge was an eye-opening experience– it was challenging and at times, a bit mortifying.

The experience made me realize just how lucky I am to base my grocery shopping on recipes I want to try – not a strict, checkout-panic-causing budget.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Washington state struggle with hunger and food instability. 47.7 million Americans rely on food stamps. In support of United Way’s Hunger Action Week, I challenge you to think about – or even try for yourself—living on $6.30 a day for food. I promise it will be an experience that will stick with you.


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