Reporter Chris O'Connell's Week On Food Stamps
Could you live on $5 a day? That's the average allowance given to people who are living on food stamps.
Chris will provide daily updates on what life is like living on $5 a day below.
In the Philadelphia five-county area, there are nearly 700,000 people who are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
It's not just in the inner city.
The biggest increase in food assistance comes from those living in the suburbs.
FOX 29 reporter Chris O'Connell is spending a week living on a food stamp budget to show the difficult choices some people have to make when they go to a grocery store.
After paying for housing, energy and health care expenses, some households have little or no money to spend on food.
You can watch Part 1 of Chris' story in the video above as he goes food shopping on a food stamp budget.
On Monday, February 18, see part 2 of Chris' story on how he spent his week and hear from some people who live on food assistance full time.
Day 7, Feb 17:
Today marks one week that I started my social experiment of living on a food stamp budget of $5 a day.
I went shopping with $35 in my pocket for a grocery list that should have lasted 7 days. The goal was to experience what the nearly 700,000 people in the Philadelphia area are doing for real every day, and that's living on food stamps or SNAP. (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)
Eating on a budget was actually easier than I thought it would be by preparing and cooking meals ahead of time. I was only really hungry a couple times during the week. Although I probably could have done a better job shopping at different stores and clipping more coupons, I think I did pretty well. For the most part, this week was a lesson on hunger.
I learned how important planning is before a shopping trip. I learned that eating healthy is more expensive than eating unhealthy. I learned it's difficult not being able to eat what I want when I want. I learned the people on food stamps are not just the jobless, homeless or helpless. I learned I waste a lot of food. I learned hunger exists everywhere. I learned most of us take food for granted.
I will have a full report on my experiences as I talk to some of the people who live on food assistance every day coming up Monday at 10 p.m. on FOX 29 News.
Day 6, Feb 16:
It looks like I'll have enough food to make it through the week although most of the good stuff is gone. My breakfast foods like yogurt, apples, bananas didn't quite last me through the week. Today's menu was hot dogs and macaroni and cheese for lunch. And baked chicken drumsticks with canned corn and buttered bread. Nothing fancy but I wasn't expecting Le Bec Fin this week.
In full disclosure, I did eat a few handfuls of blueberries that were offered to me that I did not buy with my allotted $35 dollars. I'm realizing food budgeting is tough. I can't imagine doing this all the time.
Food stamps or SNAP even by it's own definition is a supplemental program. But for many recipients the food benefit is the only way their families can afford to eat. Who are the people on food stamps? You may be surprised. A 27 year old college student from Center City whose parents died in a car accident 10 years ago. A 76 year old disabled woman with no family from Chester County. A drug addicted mother of 7 living in Kensington. A father of 4 and unemployed banker from Downingtown who made $135,000 a year 3 years ago.
If there is one thing I have learned from hearing many of your stories is that hunger doesn't discriminate. Tomorrow is my last day of my food stamp challenge. I will have a full report on Monday night on the Fox 29 News at 10pm.
Day 4, Feb. 14:
I am more than half way through my week on living on a food stamp budget and I have to say I think I'm doing pretty good. Although I have to admit I am growing tired of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I think I've had 12 in four days.
I've gotten a lot of response from people about my "social experiment" of living on a food stamp budget of $5 a day for a week. Your comments have started a great discussion about the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the modern day name for food stamps. Most of the responses are about how people have seen people on food stamps buy junk food, soda or non-essential things.
I can tell you the government puts few restrictions on what people can buy with food stamps.
Prepared foods, diapers and cigarettes are among the prohibited items, but it's wide open after that. The question is should the government be in the business of telling people they are allowed to eat lettuce but not a cookie? Should we prevent people on food stamps from buying potato chips? Should we limit public assistance to only healthy or organic foods? It's a tough question with no easy answer.
I can tell you I have gained a huge appreciation for those who are on SNAP. It's not easy budgeting you food for a week. 3 more days to go.....
Day 3, Feb. 13:
Last night I went to bed hungry. I can't ever remember a time that has happened. In a small way I am beginning to understand real hunger. Wanting to eat but not having the means.
This morning I had an apple and another container of yogurt which has been my standard daily breakfast during my week on a food stamp budget.
Today I took inventory of my remaining food left for the week and I am coming to realize I may not have enough breakfast food to last. Only three bananas and two containers of yogurt are left in my fridge. Again, a real reminder of the challenges people on food stamps go through while budgeting food for their family. Lunch for the third day in a row was peanut butter and jelly. Dinner will be chicken drumsticks, green beans and macaroni and cheese.
Another strange thing I noticed after just three days of eating on modest means - my sense of smell is off the charts. Today I could smell a Wendy's from 3 blocks away. The beautiful smell of bacon wafting through the neighborhood from a local diner. I know it's completely psychological but it's something about wanting something you can't have. Which brings me to my little breakdown today. During my shopping trip, I made sure to keep a few dollars left over for a couple cups of coffee during the week. Well, I lasted 3 days and broke down and went to Dunkin Donuts for coffee today. I have enough for one more stop between now and Sunday.
So far the food stamp challenge is going well. Better than I expected actually. Still 4 days to go....
Day 2, Feb. 12:
I have received an overwhelming response to our initial story of living on food stamps. (For those who didn't see the original story go to the video at the top of the page) In an effort to highlight the growing issue of hunger in our community I am taking the Food Stamp Challenge. It means living on a food stamp budget of $5 a day.
In my first story, I went food shopping at a local supermarket for my week's worth of groceries. I used coupons, a bonus card and only bought what was on sale.
Since the segment ran, my mailbox has filled up with responses and comments.
Many of you have been giving me some great ideas on how to save even more money, like shopping at a cheaper store or using double coupons. The goal of the story was not to find the cheapest food but to find the cheapest food I had access to in my neighborhood. We want to show the challenges people on food assistance face every day including finding cheaper stores to shop. It's easy to say "you should have shopped at Wal-Mart." But many people on the SNAP program do not own cars, so taking a bus to a local supermarket is not cost effective. Not to mention trying to carry grocery bags home. So those who live in so-called "food deserts" rely on neighborhood corner stores to do their shopping. Unfortunately, these stores rarely sell healthier foods like fruits and vegetables.
I also heard a lot of people who want us to expose the fraud and waste with the SNAP program. Although there is a history of food stamp abuse, according to the Philadelphia based "Coalition Against Hunger," the number of fraud cases in the food stamp program has been cut by 75 percent since the use of "Electronic Debit Transfer" or "ACCESS" cards. And most of the abuse cases now are on the retail level.
I can tell you we are looking into this as a future story.
So far, my second day was a lot like my first. Fruit and yogurt for breakfast. PB and J for lunch. And as of 9:15pm I have not had dinner. Probably pasta when I get home.
Thanks for all of your comments. I'll be posting every day here and be sure to watch out for part 2 of my story on Monday night, Feb. 18 at 10 p.m.
Day 1, Feb. 11:
This week will be my third time living on a food stamp budget. The goal is to raise awareness for a hunger problem that is growing every year. If offers others a glimpse into what life is like for many low-income Americans.
First of all, food stamps aren't called food stamps anymore. The program is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. The old paper coupons are now electronic debit type cards issued to those who have applied and have been accepted into the program.
Once approved, the average benefit is about $5 a day per person. That is what I will live on for the next week.
With my $35 in hand and a shopping list, I set out for the Giant Supermarket in Springfield, Delaware County. If there's one thing I've learned from doing this before, it's that preparation is key. I made sure I scouted out the store circular, got a bonus shopper card for extra discounts and clipped coupons.
All things I normally don't do when I go shopping.
I tried to shop for healthy things like fruits and vegetables, but my budget wouldn't allow too much of the good stuff.
Steak for dinner? No I'm having chicken drumsticks this week. Lunch at a moderate restaurant? No. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all week. And the hardest part?? No Starbucks. Did I mention no Starbucks?
My shopping included apples, bananas, 5 containers of yogurt, white bread, peanut butter, grape jelly, pasta, a jar of sauce, chicken drumsticks, 1 box of macaroni and cheese, 3 canned vegetables, a bag of Oreos (I had to), and a half-gallon of milk.
Grand total: $31.07. I even have a few dollars left if I want to treat myself to a coffee later this week. (I will need it)
The hard part now is to eat only what I bought. No office snacks. No free coffee. No raiding the fridge when I get home from work.
Right now it's about 20 hours into Day 1. Yes, I am already hungry.