Greg Stanton is the major of Phoenix, and he decided to take part in an empathy-building experiment sponsored by the Arizona Community Action Association (ACAA) designed to help elected leaders understand how their political decisions can affect people who are struggling. Stanton agreed to live of a weekly budget equivalent to that of a typical SNAP (food stamps) recipient in his area: $4.16 per day, or a total of $29 per week (that’s the limit for one person; a family of four allottment is $97 per week).
“This exercise is a great awareness tool to help us all understand how difficult it is for struggling families to get by during tough times, even with help,” Stanton said. ”The real challenge is creating healthy, balanced meals on such a tight budget, especially for growing children. Rising out of the recession takes all of us together as a city working toward a strong economic future for everyone.”
Katie Kahle, ACAA Outreach and Community Development Manager, said the SNAP Experience is designed to “help others understand the challenges too many of our neighbors face every day trying to feed their families. So many of these men and women are working two and three jobs to help make ends meet. It is not an easy time.”
Fresh fruit and vegetables are often luxuries for people who rely on SNAP benefits.
Jerry Brown at St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance bloggedabout Mayor Stanton’s experience:
Armed with a detailed shopping list and a calculator, the Mayor made his way through the store, choosing his items with care and avoiding the aisles that held food not included on his shopping list. [...] Even with the calculator at hand, he was relying on the store’s savings card to bring his total under $29.
[Mayor Stanton said:] “I’m already to the point where I’ve had to skip meals, and I know that’s not a healthy thing to do. I’m blessed to be in a position to do it by choice. So many people have no other option. Healthy living means three healthy meals and even under the best of conditions, you can see it’s a very difficult on this budget…SNAP is an important program for the livelihoods of people, those who are going through difficult periods in their lives and hopefully a transition period as they are able to pull out of it. These are real human beings, they are the real base of our community and they need support. We have to be mindful of that.”
Milk is a semi-affordable staple for people on food stamps…unless they are lactose-intolerant.
Mayor Stanton shared his experiences on his Facebook page:
Day 1: “In thinking about this exercise, I did some homework. In July of this year, there were 1.1 million Arizonans on SNAP, [...] 1 in 4 Arizona kids are food insecure, and 1 in 5 households in Arizona struggled to put food on the table last year. [...] We’ve got a lot of families fighting to get by here.”
Day 2: “Part of this challenge is to try and eat healthy, not just survive. I looked at the USDA’s recipe book [...] but not all the meals look healthy to me, especially for kids. One suggested breakfast was orange juice, hash brown potatoes, and biscuits with margarine. [...] There’s no protein in that meal and the “fruit” is juice — that’s not going to stick with you. Kids have to be well nourished to pay attention in school; I’m concerned about struggling families being able to send their kids to school well-fed…”
Day 3: “I wonder how folks with health problems get by on SNAP. An individual with diabetes has got to stay away from too many simple carbs, and have protein at every meal to maintain level blood sugar. By far the cheapest food items are potatoes, noodles, tortillas and white bread. But these are empty calories that fill you up without really nourishing you. And they send your blood sugar spiraling if you don’t have something more substantial along with them, like meat, fish, eggs or peanut butter. A colleague taking this challenge cannot eat grains or dairy. She’s getting by, but it’s difficult since starches and milk are the bargains and fresh fruits and vegetables are the “splurge” items on this budget.”"
Day 4: “[R]an out the door today with no time to scramble eggs or even make a sandwich. So I’m surviving on an apple and handful of peanuts, and the coffee I took to the office until dinner. I’m tired, and it’s hard to focus. I can’t go buy a sandwich because that would be cheating — even the dollar menu at Taco Bell is cheating. You can’t use SNAP benefits at any restaurants, fast food or otherwise. I’m facing a long, hungry day and an even longer night getting dinner on the table [...] It’s only for a week, so I’ve got a decent attitude. If I were doing this with no end in sight, I probably wouldn’t be so pleasant.”
Day 5: “By walking in the shoes of those who depend on the SNAP program, I certainly feel like I’ve gained critical perspective as a policymaker. From a broader perspective, I’m starting to think about all the other challenges families on food stamps (SNAP) must face at the same time they are stretching their food benefit. [...] The best “program” for any struggling family is a job that pays a living wage.”
Mayor Stanton was able to keep his grocery bill at $28.30…70 cents under budget for the week.
Chef Ed‘s report: “Found myself a little wobbly this morning and afternoon. Feel I am eating enough but maybe not the right stuff. Had the snack of peanut butter and crackers in the AM and that helped. PM was a bit rougher and I really was sleepy mid-afternoon. [...] Some of my co-workers commented on my different lunch menu yesterday. “What – no ham and cheese sandwich?” I briefly explained about the SNAP experience but they were really not interested. One person said, “Well, some people eat on only $16.00 a week” and the other one just said, “Oh.” I did not comment and just continued eating.”
“This week was not easy – staying within my $33 food budget (the average weekly SNAP benefit in D.C.) had proven challenging –- but it seemed do-able because I’d had the game-changing advantage of a flexible non-food budget. [...] As the week wore on, I realized just how much energy it takes to resist dietary urges. The free Nutrigrain cereal bars at work and the smell of warm Quiznos on my walk home threatened my resolve. Homemade guacamole nearly broke me. At the same time, I enjoyed virtually no flexibility to choose among the foods I’d purchased for the week. So strictly portioned were my meals that I ate the same thing, in the same quantity, for breakfast and lunch every day for seven days. For dinner, I had my choice of fish and green beans (two days) or spaghetti and salad (five days). By mid-week, I felt deeply tired from denying all those food cravings, and I desperately wanted to splurge, to feel renewed control over my spending and my choices. [...]
SNAP users are living in or near poverty, and are forced to restrict spending in all areas. [...] People living in poverty and receiving SNAP benefits [find] that spending more on food means there’s less money left for rent, utilities, child care, transportation, health care, and a host of other necessities. The endless task of considering those much more complex trade-offs is exhausting. Difficult budgetary decisions tire people out, and—as we know after our own SNAP Experience—choosing among cheap and often unappetizing foods is a little dehumanizing, too.”
Mayor Stanton shares more insights: “I have to admit that not ever being able to eat out is driving me crazy. I don’t mean steak and lobster! Some days you want or even need to eat out with a workmate, or some nights a pizza or Boston Market looks like a great idea: to bring home dinner and just be done with it. But that’s not allowed, no matter how inexpensive the restaurant or takeout meal is. It strikes me that this program was designed in an era of stay-at-home moms in two parent families. With both parents working, or only one parent around, it seems a little unfair to me not to have the flexibility of getting prepared food sometimes. Modern families, even those who watch their money, sometimes need that grab-and-go convenience.”
Jennyvi‘s report: “Doing the challenge last year and again this year, I thought I would have already learned what I needed to about “living on food stamps.” I say “living on food stamps,” like I actually know how it is to live on food stamps, but I know that a whole week doesn’t amount to the hardship people face when dealing with a severely low-budget to live on a day-to-day basis. What do you tell people when you get invited to events that is outside your budget? Why is there a sense of shame when you know you’re on food stamps or on a low-budget for food?”
If you are interested in The Arizona SNAP Experience, you can register as a participant, too. Of course, you could be like many of us, desperately looking for work and already relying on SNAP benefits just to survive. If so, you already know the real misery of feeling hungry, tired and ashamed all day every day.
Here’s a video of Mayor Stanton shopping at Safeway and discussing his SNAP experience: