I’ve Lived On Ramen, But I Failed The $4.50-A-Day Food Challenge

Commissioner Monahan comparing the price per pound for her weekly supplies, something she says she never does during her normal shopping routine. (Photo: Jared Bennett/WBUR)

Commissioner Stacey Monahan comparing the price per pound for her weekly supplies, something she says she never does during her normal shopping routine. (Photo: Jared Bennett/WBUR)

Could you live on $4.50 worth of food per day?

This past week I learned: I can’t.

Starting today, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Services, John Polanowicz, and the commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), Stacey Monahan, are taking on the “SNAP challenge” — to eat on a budget of $31.50 a week, the average weekly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit in Massachusetts. They’re doing it to make several points: to better understand what it’s like to live on public assistance, to become a better advocate and, of course, to get attention.

According to the DTA, more than 800,000 people in Massachusetts receive federal SNAP benefits. Recipients qualify based on income and household size.

SNAP benefits — totaling about $81 billion a year nationally — have been in political hot water. Multiple budget plans debated in Congress propose spending cuts to the program. They include a plan to cut $20 billion from SNAP specifically and a plan by the House Agriculture Committee to reduce the farm and food bill, which SNAP falls under, by $3.5 billion a year.

At the Massachusetts level, the experiment comes just after a recent state auditor’s report controversially raised questions about abuse and wastefulness in the program.

As Polanowicz, Monahan and U.S. Rep. James McGovern start their challenge, I will be ending my own week-long experiment in thrifty eating. I began the SNAP challenge last Wednesday, and ended up spending $33.40 for the week, even with some help along the way.

As a graduate student, I thought I was pretty well versed in stretching a buck. I’ve lived on the Ramen diet. But the SNAP program prioritizes nutritious eating rather than stacks of empty calories.

I shopped for a week of groceries last Wednesday at the Stop & Shop in my Dorchester neighborhood. My plan was to buy supplies for the entire week in one shot, trying to stay as health-conscious as I could within budget, and aiming to have some money left over should I need it before seven days was up. I bought two pounds of chicken, rice, a mix of vegetables and tomatoes for a total of $27.80. That left me with $3.20 and a pretty bland menu for the week.

That night, I cooked up three days’ worth of food. I’ve never been known as a chef, so this in itself was a learning experience. Having those meals prepared saved me some time in the morning, and really did save some money.

I learned that healthy, price-minded eating takes a lot of planning. I rarely spend much time near my apartment, and after eating what I packed for Sunday, I was hungry enough later that night to spend some of my remaining money for a mini-sized burrito at Boloco. Between that and feeding what I’m ashamed to admit is a soda addiction, I broke the $31.50 threshold.

Toby Fisher, the executive director at the Massachusetts Public Health Association, advocates for healthy eating and says demonstrations like the SNAP challenge are important because they show not only the importance of food assistance programs, but where they fall short.

“Our concern with this benefit is that it is a low amount,” Fisher said. “You can eat healthy for that amount, but you really need to work at it and that often can be difficult for low-income families. If you go to the supermarket, the cheap foods — the Ramen noodles, the pastas — are often not the healthiest. One can eat healthy, but you have to be educated, you have to read your facts, it’s something that you have to pay attention to.”

SNAP benefits aren’t accepted at restaurants or vending machines, so emergency Boloco trips aren’t an option for those who need the assistance the most. With few exceptions, most SNAP recipients must meet work requirements, so it’s not hard to imagine this problem as fairly common.

Proper planning could have prevented it for me, but when you can only buy food from designated locations, what happens when you’re stuck away from home for hours? Most of our foods these days are based on convenience; we’re almost trained to think of food in terms of convenience.

“We are entering a heightened health care crisis from eating so many processed foods and sugary sweet beverages,” Fisher said. “And it’s very economical and easy to go eat at a drive through. We are conditioned to find the easier route, which is often not the healthiest route.”

Commissioner Monahan's bill (Jared Bennett/WBUR)

Commissioner Monahan’s bill. (Jared Bennett/WBUR)

Commissioner Monahan bought her supplies for the week at the Market Basket in Chelsea on Wednesday. It was exactly that reliance on convenience that had her worried as she shopped. She spent a lot of time comparing prices on items, something she admitted she didn’t normally do.

“I don’t prepare a lot of meals at home because of my schedule,” she said.

Monahan said she had to make choices while she was shopping to get the most out of her allowance, like buying just two bananas instead of a whole bundle. Making these choices, and coming up just 3 cents shy of $31.50 at checkout, Monahan said the experience already gave her a sense of the anxiety of food insecurity and the relief of stretching a dollar or finding a deal.

Secretary Polanowicz told the State House News Service that while the week-long demonstration is meant to raise awareness and highlight the difficulties facing the recipients of income supplements, it doesn’t compare with living off them for an extended period of time.

“To be clear, while Stacey and I will be doing this for a week, we understand that doing this for a week can’t come close to the struggles low-income families have week after week,” he said.

Fisher says those extra difficulties illustrate why we should be looking at more ways to help low-income families instead of considering spending cuts.

“Poorer and working-class families are often disadvantaged because they have more responsibilities, often less discretionary time and lack of transportation, so it’s one more challenge upon them,” he said. “This is why we need to keep the SNAP benefits and provide more educational opportunities.”

That $31.50 fed me for five days, but it could have gone further with better planning and some experience. For example, Monahan paid 30 cents for yeast that she planned on using in an overnight bread recipe she crowdsourced from a friend.

Based on my own week on the SNAP challenge, I’d say that cutting benefits has the possibility of making an already difficult situation worse.

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  • The facts nothing but facts

    If you can not eat on 4.50 per day you are out of touch. Our family has been doing it for years.

    • Tynkyr Belle

      Yeah, but not everyone is a Dirt Eater from the deep south.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    i spent a few years on a $50 a week food budget and i ate really well. i usually came in under budget. to save more money i probably could have switched to non organic foods but that is more expensive in the long run.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    i would like jim mcgovern to do an experiment where he actually lives in the house he claims to live in in worcester instead of where he actually lives.

    i thought the S in SNAP stood for supplemental. perhaps these people should look that up.

    • Tynkyr Belle

      Yeah, and I thought all Republiturds were boasting they were the “PARTY OF CHRIST”.
      Guess Precious Holy Jeebus likes his followers to be on the very thin side, eh? Oh wait – is THAT why all those Jews were so skinny during WWII???

  • SnarkyEyeCanBe

    It’s not easy, but, it’s not impossible. As an immigrant to the U. S. I am blessed with a wealth of knowledge about CHEAP, GOURMET STYLE FOOD. But, it takes ingenuity, time, and effort, thing most Americans don’t have (ingenuity) or choose to spend (time) or are willing to make (effort). And, by the way, restaurants and coffee shops are out of the question, but, not great pastry or coffee. You just have to make them yourself. And they are CHEAP…really cheap for the calories they bring.

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      i was in line behind an individual from another country with several children. he had a huge bag of rice a huge bag of beans and a huge hunk of a cheap cut of pork. we are just spoiled and lazy here and its not a matter of not enough handouts

  • E

    So I live in Dorchester and calculated what I spent over the last month on food. It came out to $4.62 per day. Am I living a luxurious life of wining and dining at the greatest restaurants in Boston, no. But I’m also not starving or on any sort of Ramen noodle diet. It all comes down to the choices you make at the grocery store.

  • tybo

    jared stinks

  • Virginia

    Many of us have forgotten how to eat cheaply. Chickens are much cheaper when purchased whole rather than by the pound. Beans and rice are highly nutritious when combined, and a can of tomato sauce is cheaper than fresh tomatoes. Tuna noodle casserole is dirt cheap and tasty. Oatmeal can be eaten any time of day for pennies. We can grow our own lettuces and collards as well as peppers to make food taste good. No one should be hungry, but education is the key to maximizing those dollars provided on SNAP.

    • mumtothree

      We are in danger of forgetting how to cook, and two generations have grown up thinking that every meal has to have the labor built in. How hard is it to keep milk in the house and eat Cheerios for breakfast? Is the drive-through really faster? I hate to sound like an old fogey but eating out was a rare occurrence, and my parents were not poor. My mother worked only part-time and had both the knowledge and the incentive to cook meals. She stretched Dad’s paycheck. With a few pots and pans and select appliances (especially a slow-cooker), a little practice, and judiciously purchased foods, even a full-time single parent could put nutritious, economical meals on the table.

      • SAnderson

        Yes, those things are possible, but as you mention, your mother only worked part-time, and she was not a single parent. Many of those on SNAP benefits are the working poor. For many, the day starts with getting children to school or daycare, then work, then picking up children from after-school. This generation also has an overall longer commute time than prior generations did, and is less likely to have family members who care for children either during the workweek or on weekends. It all adds up to more stress and less time, and takeout or premade food is a tempting option.

        • Virginia

          SAnderson, if the working poor are getting children to school or camp, then the children are getting subsidized lunches and, in my city, breakfasts. Barbara, many apartments have a balcony; I grow collards, herbs, lettuces, and cherry tomatoes on mine. People make their own choices in life, and living in small towns would minimize commutes. A mother’s main job is keeping her children fed; our mothers worked several hours a day preparing healthy meals within extremely limited budgets. There was no such thing as a drive-thru.

          • gringa

            You obviously are unfamiliar with the money and time that are necessary to accomplish your proposed “solution.” If a mother’s “main job is keeping her children fed,” where is a single mother going to get the money to buy said food? Or even money for seeds, potting soil, pots, fertilizer, etc, not to mention the time to water plants every day and treat them for bugs? I also tried to grow things on my city balcony, and the harsh sun killed everything except basil and parsley. Bugs ate all my lettuce and spinach. I spent tons of time trying to deal with that issue. Most other things just withered and died even when I did water them daily. What about winter time? Oh, and if she isn’t working, how is she going to pay for that apartment with the balcony? I’m pretty sure that subsidized housing units don’t come with a lot of perks like balconies.

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          not to mention the free lunch and breakfast at school

      • bethie

        God forbid they should teach Home Economics in school anymore. Where, you know, we USED to learn how to budget, balance a checkbook, cook some simple, nutritious meals, and mend your clothes. It is no wonder that people have trouble with this stuff, especially if they have lower-to poverty-level incomes.

    • Barbara D Holtzman

      Can of tuna = $2. Can of mushroom soup = $1. Bag of noodles = $1. If you’re lucky. That’s $4 for enough to feed two adults and two children, they can drink tap water, certainly they can use water for the casserole, although I’ve always used milk. No vegetables, no fruit, not even juice with this meal.

      You’re right, you can eat only oatmeal, made with water, don’t even add sugar to it and it’s really cheap. I haven’t done a nutrient analysis as to why a diet of only oatmeal wouldn’t be a good one, but it doesn’t soudn as though it would be.

      I live in an apartment, no place to “grow [my] own lettuces and collards as well as peppers,” or tomatoes. If you don’t move fast or the person managing the community garden doesn’t like you, you don’t get a small plot there, either -there are only about 60 plots for 28,000 residents where I live.

      By the way, even whole chickens are sold “by the pound.” Perhaps you meant whole chickens are cheaper than chicken pieces?

      • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

        you should hit up the dollar store

        • Tynkyr Belle

          You should stop being such an inhumane Christian hypocrite.
          Yes, silly, I know that’s impossible. Christians HAVE to be hypocrites – it’s coded into their genetics.

    • Lawrence

      We are just too dammed lazy.

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      it seems like if they are working they can spend a little of their money on food and if they are not then they have plenty of time to learn home economics

      • bethie

        They don’t teach home economics in school anymore. Budget cuts, don’t ya know. You need to get your head out of the sand, buddy.

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          I was just today thinking what a tragedy it was that home ec was cut. its absurd. do they think none of the kids will ever need to eat or buy groceries or that being able to sew a button might be handy? I would like if the standardized tests were for home ec. if people had learned home ec they would not have a probem getting by on $30-40 of food a week

    • Tynkyr Belle

      I’d like to see you and others that keep yammering away their LIES and FALSE WITNESS eat beans and rice 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

  • John

    Don’t forget that living cheaply requires a stove, pots and pans, tupperware, and a fridge. Those sound like basic things but if you are trying to feed yourself on $31.50 a week it might not be a given that you have them, and they are very expensive to get if you don’t.

    • Marie

      And you cannot have a garden (as one person suggested) if you live in public housing towers without a yard or good sunlight.

    • Barbara D Holtzman

      Completely agree.

      One of the posts said, “With a few pots and pans and select appliances (especially a slow-cooker), a little practice, and judiciously purchased foods, even a full-time single parent could put nutritious, economical meals on the table.” As a full-time single parent (at one time, my children are grown) with a 60 mile commute for 6 years, those kind of comments just make me laugh at how out-of-touch most people are. I’m shocked at the number of self-righteous, know-it-all, if-only-these-poor-people-were-willing-to-learn-to-cook-and-garden-they-would-be-just-fine, twits on this thread. The whole point to the article was to show that no matter who tries, they discover that you CAN’T live on the little we think we can give people for food.

      • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

        yet all the people in the article came pretty close. on their first attempt too

        • bethie

          For a WEEK. What happens when they have to buy more milk?

          • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

            they get another payment the next week

          • bethie

            So they have to go for four days without milk, then.

            http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/starvation

            After all, a gallon of milk is almost SIX DOLLARS. That is almost a quarter of SNAP benefits for the week. And a gallon of milk doesn’t last long if you have a kid or two.

          • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

            not very good planning, good thingtheir kids get free milk at breakfast and lunch. if they drink it all they can hit up the food bank for some powdered milk

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      stoves come with the apartment. around here fridges do as well. pots and pans can be second hand or from walmart. tupperware is very expensive gladware or just reused containers are very cheap.

      • bethie

        Apartments are not required to come with any appliances. If you get them you are lucky.

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          in MA they are. i rented a place in another state with no fridge once, i got a used one pretty cheap

          • bethie

            Um, actually, no, they are not required to in MA. I have friends who are landlords here, and I know this for a fact.. I also rented an apartment with no appliances and had to purchase them myself. And they were cheap if I bought them used, but they sucked up the electricity which I also had to pay for. Which made it cost more in the long run.

          • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

            410.100: Kitchen Facilities

            (A) Every dwelling unit, and every rooming house where common cooking facilities are provided, shall contain suitable space to store, prepare and serve foods in a sanitary manner. The owner shall provide within this space:

            (1) A kitchen sink of sufficient size and capacity for washing dishes and kitchen utensils; and

            (2) a stove and oven in good repair (see 105 CMR 410.351) except and to the extent the occupant is required to do so under a written letting agreement; and

            (3) space and proper facilities for the installation of a refrigerator.

            (B) The facilities required in 105 CMR 410.100(A) shall have smooth and impervious surfaces and be free from defects that make them difficult to keep clean, or creates an accident hazard.
            stoves and sinks for all apartments, I have yet to see one in MA that does not come with a fridge and poor people get section 8 housing which contains this provision
            HQS Requirements:

  • roadrep

    This program is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Think about what SUPPLEMENTAL means. It is NOT supposed to pay for all of your food. YOU have to pay for some of your food. You get that money by going to work and earning a pay check. You premise is insulting to both the taxpayers, and the benefit recipients who are trying to get their lives back on track and get off public assistance. To the career public assistance recipients who intend to say on public assistance for life…..eat less!

  • Russ Hannagan

    This is sad…people are starving to death and we’re arguing over how little we can give them

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      no one is starving to death in america

      • bethie

        Um, what? What America do YOU live in?

      • 12345

        what are you talking about? over privileged white person here.

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          yes some over privileged white girls do starve from anorexia but I don’t consider that to be from a lack of availability.

  • Da Mamma

    The program does do that. When you enroll you declare your average monthly income – including child support, alimony and other government benefits. The problem comes when you have a lot of prior debt (like college debt, or divorcing an abusive spouse in my case). I can’t declare bankruptcy, so the lions share of what I get is put to that debt. But I get a whopping $85/moth to feed three, two of which are teenage boys. If I didn’t shop at Walmart, pick through clearance bins of all kinds, and recycle/repurpose everything I own, I’d never make it past the first 10 days of the month.

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      thank god for walmart

  • Argentus

    If you live on whole wheat bread, peanut butter, and vitamins, it’s possible. Nobody said it would be a joyful life, though.

    • Sarah Morison

      Vitamins are expensive!

      • davan7

        And in the case of most Americans who take them, flushed down the toilet with little or no nutritional benefit.

        • Argentus

          Source or it didn’t happen.

      • Argentus

        Not compared to healthy food, they aren’t. They’re a hella lot cheaper. Yes, one bottle of a comprehensive multi-vitamin/mineral is expensive, but you can get a year’s supply for less than $20, easily. Combine that with the complete protein + concentrated energy created by combining a legume (peanut butter) and a grain (wheat bread) for a few sandwiches per day, and you can survive. Try doing that with meat and fresh veggies.

        Of course, your comment makes me think that you totally neglected that I said it wasn’t any way to live. It’s a downright lousy way to live, as a matter of fact, but it’ll keep you alive and healthy enough, all other factors being equal, for a long time.

    • jefe68

      Go ahead and do that. Vitamins are expensive and they wont make up for the nutrition that food provides.
      You do realize that in the 60′s rickets was still common in low income folks and children especially.

      What is wrong with you people. We live one of the wealthiest nations on the planet and you have the nerve to deny people in need food.

      • Barbara D Holtzman

        I’m embarrassed by many of these comments. You want to know why the world thinks we’re a bunch of selfish monsters? Plenty of evidence here.

        • Virginia

          I really don’t think I am a monster. I gave $1,500 to the food bank last year to develop community gardens in the inner city and to identify vulnerable elderly clients. I also deliver Meals on Wheels to 18 amputees and shut-ins.

          • bethie

            Food banks are not all they are cracked up to be. But you sound like you try, so I’ll give you that.

      • Virginia

        Rickets is a disease that can be eliminated through education by the pediatrician if a child is breastfed: “The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that all dark-skinned infants be given a supplement of 200 IU of vitamin D per day. This dosing recommendation is especially true if the infant is breastfed as, traditionally, the supply of vitamin D needed is not sufficiently found in breast milk.” The WIC program provides plenty of nutrition for infants and formula preparations include Vitamin D. Our forebears avoided the problem by giving all children cod-liver oil. Nowadays, we know how to make sure no black children are Vitamin-D deficient. Education is the answer.

        (http://voices.yahoo.com/rickets-dark-skinned-infant-importance-vitamin-460863.html?cat=68)

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          i thought not breastfeeding was an issue in the black community

      • Argentus

        Nothing is wrong with me. What’s wrong with you? I said it was possible. Not that it should happen. Sheesh.

  • Cabanator

    I have to say that I don’t quite understand the point of this challenge. It’s obvious that trying to live on a food budget of $31.50 per week would be very challenging. However, since when is SNAP supposed to pay for all the food one consumes? The acronym itself, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program implies otherwise. The benefit is a supplement to one’s food budget, not the entire budget. If, as stated in this piece, there is a work requirement for SNAP in almost all cases, I would think that the program assumes beneficiaries will spend some of their own income on food as well. I applaud those who are trying to understand the challenges low-income families face, but it would be more useful to look at the whole picture–income + assistance from state and federal programs vs. total expenses.

    • jefe68

      May I remind you, that Nearly 72 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children. There are about 46.2 million people in poverty. The poverty rate and child poverty reached record high levels in the U.S with 16.7 million children living in food insecure households. The US has the highest level of child poverty in industrial/developed nations.

      A nation as wealthy as ours can well afford to feed those who are in need.

      • Lawrence

        How can we “well afford” to feed those in need when we give millions to corporations who don’t pay a cent in taxes, waste precious tax money for shopping malls, sports stadiums, and other private enterprises? That’s not to mention the $10 Million Mayor Menino “gave” to the W hotel.

        With all of the fraud, waste and abuse of our hard earned taxes that are forced to pay, it’s no wonder we can’t afford anything else.

        • jefe68

          I see your point, but you are not getting mine.

      • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

        we can and do

      • ohlingerm25

        I agree that we can help those in need, however, I don’t think that subsidizing it through the government is the way. I know many corporations give through Operation Feed and groups like United Way, AND, more importantly, many churches give to or even run soup kitchens and food pantries.

    • Barbara D Holtzman

      No. It’s a misnomer. many, if not most, recipients don’t get enough in other assistance to meet their needs, let alone have extra cash for food that the SNAP program then supplements.

      Sorry, I had to stop and laugh at the term “extra cash” when it comes to most poor people. Laughing at the absurdity of it, not the struggle itself.

      if you are an adult, and you are not the happy owner of the 1 job for every 3 people who need one, you can live in a shelter, and go to a soup kitchen if you are still hungry. if you are lucky enough to have someone who will house you – as a single, able-bodied adult, you won’t get any cash assistance to pay for anything like a place to live – you can then pick up items from a food pantry and “supplement” that with $135 a month in food stamps. You might also be able to get Medicaid, which will give you access to generic drugs, nothing fancy, and will also allow you to get your teeth cleaned, drilled into, and removed if they are too bad to fix minimally.

      By the way, 26 weeks of unemployment if you lose your job. No more extended or emergency. As someone unemployed, you are unlikely to be that 1-in-3 who gets a job, oh, as because you are getting unemployment, you probably make more than enough to disqualify you for SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid. In New York, that amount is $908.