This year, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs launched the Food Stamp Challenge, an experiential event to draw hearts and minds to the millions of people in the United States who live on what used to be called “food stamps.” The benefit is exactly $31.50 per person per week, or about $1.50 per meal. The challenge is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to live on this budget when you don’t have to, to donate the money you don’t spend to hunger relief and awareness building.
Each of us sets up a page for individual donations. Here’s mine — I hope you can spare at least a few dollars!
Approaching Day 1
The circle gathered outside the entrance to an Aldi store in University City. It was time to go shopping — on a budget of $31.50 per person for a week. Our guide on this excursion, a staff member from a nonprofit serving the food-insecure, couldn’t make it, so it was just a dozen or so of us with Rabbi Susan.
I haven’t shopped at an Aldi since the early nineties when I was studying in Germany, where the chain originated. It has the same reputation over there — dirt cheap, low quality. It was where homeless people would go after a decent haul from panhandling.
I could be wrong, but I think there was a widespread sense of awkwardness. I think most of us haven’t had to live on a food budget since college. I’d even wager that a lot of us spend $31.50 a week just on high-end coffee and artisan bread. It’s uncomfortable to admit this, but most of my thoughts in the days leading up to today have focused on how much I’m going to miss my favorite, way-out-of-budget condiments and spices.
In the meantime, tips have been coming in from friends who have lived or are living on a budget close to that of the Food Stamp Challenge.
One night’s menu: pinto beans, cornbread, fried potatoes, spinach (either in a can or a frozen block). I’m pretty sure that will come in at under $3. Breakfast menus are easier … eggs and toast, oatmeal, pancakes, waffles .. all those are going to be well under $1.50 per person
I feel like such a clod, even more when I remember that to this day, my father won’t touch beans or peanut butter, because when he was growing up, that’s all his family could afford.
In the circle, Rabbi Susan tells us about the film, Food Stamped, we’ll be watching together at the end of our weeklong exploration. After a while, a middle-aged security guard approaches and asks us to disperse. If he lets us gather in a big group, he says to Jen, then he’d have to let everyone gather in a big group. The racial overtone is hard to miss. We disperse and go in.
It’s a small store, but the products don’t look half bad. Some of us have lists and menus, but Brian and I are doing it all on the fly, with just a calculator and some scrap paper. I’m thinking low-budget vegetarian staples — rice, dried beans, root vegetables, peanut butter. You can get a lot of prepared, boxed foods — Including macaroni and cheese for 45 cents a box, a 20-pack of ramen noodles for $2.19. Hard to pass up a bargain like that.
The produce selection is pretty good — broccoli crowns and a nice acorn squash for 99 cents each. Altogether, we ended up spending $31.40 at Aldi. Later, we hit an international market in our neighborhood, a food hub for many immigrant communities, and pick up a mess of dried beans, lentils, brown rice, and a big bag of carrots. I splurge on some nicer low-budget coffee.
As we unpacked the groceries, I felt like we did pretty well, but there’s no telling how soon we’ll start running out of things.
Breakfast: 2 eggs each, two pieces of toast, and coffee
Lunch: Lentil soup and grilled cheese
Dinner: Elbow macaroni in marinara sauce, 3 carrots each
We bought two loaves of bread, and we’re already halfway through the first one. Plenty of leftover lentil soup and pasta for lunch on Day 2. We figured out we left our one jar of peanut butter at Aldi’s, and it will take about a third of our remaining budget to replace it.