This week, several members of The Women’s Foundation staff are participating in the Food Stamp Challenge, an exercise organized by D.C. Hunger Solutions that educates the public and raises awareness of the benefits of food stamps and the challenges recipients face while eating on a very limited budget. The staff will be sharing their experiences on this blog.
Today I officially start the Food Stamp Challenge, but my week-long journey began last night with my trip to the grocery store to purchase my food. On a budget of $30 for the week (the average weekly food stamp benefit in the District of Columbia), I armed myself with a list of what I thought I could reasonably buy for $30. My complicating factors are that I’m a vegetarian, and I have a number of food allergies. Also, I have a small addiction to Mountain Dew (my only vice, my source of caffeine every morning), but I was pretty sure that my budget would not allow for this luxury.
My younger daughter (age 9) accompanied me to the grocery store. Her task: keep me on budget by adding everything up on the calculator. We started in the fruits and vegetables section at our local Giant. Because of my allergies, I have always purchased only organic fruits and vegetables, but I knew that would not be possible on my budget.
I carefully searched through the produce. I knew that I wanted to get some things to make fresh salads throughout the week. At roughly $4.00, my usual organic baby spinach was out of the question. Instead I purchased two bags of “Veggie Medley” lettuce that included shredded carrots and radishes, thinking that the “extra” veggies might come in handy. Additionally, they were on sale—buy one get one free!
It took me substantially longer to make my way through the produce section because I had to weigh and calculate the price of every fruit and vegetable that I picked up. Sometimes I had to put things back (like the single yellow pepper that was $2.51), and sometimes I could add a little more (another broccoli crown because they were on sale). Luckily, the electronic scales made calculating the weight and price very easy. However, human error caused another delay when my daughter made a mistake in entering a price in the calculator so we had to take everything out, reweigh and recalculate the price.
After finishing with my produce shopping, I then added pasta, rice, chickpeas, and spaghetti sauce to my cart. Each time, I was looking for the cheapest price. I was pleasantly surprised that one of my favorite spaghetti sauces was on sale so I was able to get something that I knew that I liked and tasted good.
I had really wanted to get some milk and cheese, but I also wanted veggie burgers to add some protein and “heft” to a few of my meals. At $4.19, the veggie burgers took me very close to my total budget. It took me a few minutes to make a decision, staring at the food in my cart and trying to calculate how this was going to work. In the end, I opted to forgo the milk and get the veggie burgers instead.
My final tally in the check-out line was $27.55. I had $2.45 to spare. My daughter asked if I wanted to go back and get something else. In a split second, I couldn’t decide what that final item would be and then I worried about whether that one extra item would put me over. I decided to stick with my purchases, and save the $2.45 for an emergency. Cans of Mountain Dew are only 75 cents from the woman on the street corner by my office. I might be able to purchase a couple for those moments when I’m desperate…
Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat is vice president of The Women’s Foundation.