Hunger Pains: 6 Million Americans Struggle to Eat

ColumnCould you eat on $4 a day?

There are more people on Food Stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), than ever before in the United States. As of May, 45,753,078 Americans were enrolled in SNAP, an increase of over 60% since the recession began in April 2008 and a jump of 12.1% over May 2010. That’s nearly 15% of the U.S. population, or around 1 in 7 people. Additional program data can be found here.

Though the program was designed to be supplemental, according to data collected by The New York Times, about 6 million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income.

Who relies on food stamps?

  • 49 percent of all participants are children (18 or younger), and 61 percent of them live in single-parent households. 33 percent of households with children were headed by a single parent.
  • 52 percent of SNAP households include children and 76 percent of benefits go to households with children.
  • 9 percent of all participants are elderly (age 60 or over).
  • The average gross monthly income per SNAP household is $673.
  • 43 percent of participants are white; 33 percent are African-American, non-Hispanic; 19 percent are Hispanic; 2 percent are Asian, 2 percent are Native American, and less than 1 percent are of unknown race or ethnicity.

What’s it like to rely primarily on food stamps to put food on the table?

The average amount food stamp recipients receive is $4 a day per person. In 2009 the amount was raised temporarily from $3 to $4, which makes a big difference. However this temporary increase was instituted as part of the economic recovery program and is due to expire in October 2013. To be eligible to receive any food stamps, gross income for a family of four must not exceed 130 percent or less of the Federal poverty guidelines ($2,389 per month/$28,668 per year for a family of four)

What can you buy for $4 a day?

You can buy a fair amount of cheap, processed, sugar-laden food. What you can’t buy is very much unprocessed, organic, responsibly raised fresh food. And you can forget about extras like coffee, wine, nice cheese, expensive fruit like peaches or berries, and welcome a whole lot of starch into your diet. Also, if you want to fulfill your caloric needs in a somewhat healthy way, you need to know how to cook and you need the time to do it. You’ll also need regular access to a kitchen and some basic kitchen utensils. Not everyone has those things.

For two years in a row I participated in the San Francisco Food Bank Hunger Challenge, which gave me a tiny snapshot of what it’s like to live on food stamps. After just one week, I was hungry, angry, bored, and tired. And that was with the luxury of time to cook, a well-stocked kitchen, and the lucky addition of a few extra items of fresh produce that would have been available to clients of the San Francisco Food Bank during that time.

During the 2009 Hunger Challenge I shopped for one week for 2 people and spent $41.08 out of a budget of $56.

My shopping list:

One Stick Butter  .88
Cooking Oil $2.59
1- Quart Milk $1.39
1 Organic Chicken  $8.85
Peanut Butter $2.99
Long Grain Rice from Bulk .75
1/2 pound Pinto Beans from Bulk .55
3/4 pound Ground Beef $2.47
Dozen Cage Free Eggs $2.85
1 Loaf Wheat Bread $2.49
Oatmeal from Bulk Bin $1.08
Corn Tortillas $2.39
Canned Tomato Sauce .79
Canned Enchilada Sauce $3.89
Monterey Jack Cheese $3.09
1 pound Sweet Potatoes $.54
1 piece fresh ginger .49
1 bunch cilantro $1
1 bunch green onions $1
1 bunch bok choy $1

Budget for Two: $56
Total Spent: $41.08

Cushion: $14.92

If you want to read in detail what I did with these items, read all the posts from my Hunger Challenge week in 2009. Other participating bloggers also blogged about their experiences in detail. Amy of Cooking with Amy made a new friend in oatmeal and learned that purchasing jam without high fructose corn syrup at a price she could afford was nearly impossible. Genie of The Inadvertent Gardener had an anxiety provoking shopping trip that had her choosing value over nutrition. Faith at Blog Appetite got creative with menus to help future challengers and food bank clients. Gayle at Been There Ate That notes that the Hunger Challenge is just a tedious, frustrating, eye-opening activity she does once a year, but for the 150,000 San Franciscans facing hunger every day it’s a way of life.

Find out for yourself what it’s like to live on food stamps in America and sign up for the Hunger Challenge this year. I promise you’ll learn something.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Images:JetheriotAJ Mexico, Andrea_44.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.