Every day in this country, 47 million people use food stamps to feed themselves and their families. Fifteen percent of the U.S. is on food stamps; during the recession, that number rose as high as 20 percent.
Yet media sources like FOX News only talk about “wealthfare cheats” who abuse the system to buy anything from liquor and cigarettes to extravagant meals. I’ve listened to pundits go on and on about how people on welfare live “luxuriously” off of other people’s tax dollars. They even once brought on a man who claimed he ate lobster off of food stamps.
I wanted to find out for myself what it’s like to live off of welfare. I did some research and found out that the average welfare recipient in Kansas receives $124.68 a month, $8.39 below the national average to try to encourage people to work. A little quick division, and I realized that for a week, I’d be living off of $4.16 per day worth of food.
My eyes actually widened when I calculated that. $4.16 a day. Two pieces of pizza and a water bottle at lunch costs $5. And I was going to be living off less than that every day for a week. If I hadn’t already agreed to do this story, I think I would’ve backed out there.
But the next night, I was rolling a shopping cart through the aisles of Price Chopper, looking past the name brands I’m used to, trying to find the Best Choice and Price Chopper brand deals.
With a calculator and list, I carefully made note of everything I bought and how much it cost as my cart slowly filled up. A two pound bag of All Savings’ Raisin Bran, a gallon of Price Chopper skim milk, two packs of Oscar Meyer turkey bologna, Price Chopper whole wheat bread, two Zappems’ frozen meals, five Michelina’s frozen meals, two Nissin dehydrated noodle packs and two boxes of Nature Valley granola bars. Before tax it totalled $29.82. Under $30 worth of food for the next week.
It wasn’t a healthy diet. I wasn’t eating nearly the calories I should have been and I couldn’t afford to buy any vegetables or fruits. They were just too expensive.
Day one honestly wasn’t too bad. For breakfast, the Raisin Rran wasn’t terrible. I grabbed the cereal with the highest protein I could so it would last me as deep into the day as possible. At lunch, I discovered bologna really wasn’t as bad as I remembered it being when I was little.
When I got to dinner, the frozen meals were small, but weren’t awful and coupled with a second bologna sandwich, they made a decent dinner. I wasn’t going to go to bed completely full, but I wouldn’t be starving either.
Day two, I got sick. The plus of being sick though, was it killed most of my appetite, letting me save a bit of food. But at the same time, it cut out the fundamental sick food: chicken soup. I hadn’t thought about buying any, and now, when I wanted it, I didn’t have the money for it. So instead of eating a steaming, soothing bowl of broth, I crunched on cold, dry raisin bran as I sat wrapped up in a blanket in my basement.
From there, everything started going slowly down hill. Remember when I said bologna tasted better than I remember? I lied. Blatantly. I ate it twice a day. By day four, that slimy, rubbery “meat” was the last thing I wanted to eat, but it was all I had. So I kept on eating it.
Gradually, I started getting hungrier too. It was like sleep deprivation. It’s not one late night that kills you, but after a few days of late nights, it starts wearing you down. A bowl of soggy bran flakes with a splash of skim milk just wouldn’t last me. By 10:20 a.m., when the bell rang to end third hour, my stomach would already be rumbling with it.
But by then the hunger wasn’t the worst part. It was the repetition. There was no variety. There was just raisin bran, bologna sandwiches and frozen meals. Over and over again, every single day.
To be honest, I missed vegetables. Every single thing I ate was processed and usually frozen. I wanted something natural and maybe even a little healthy.
For seven days, I ate the exact same, cheap, manufactured food. I don’t want to do it again. It wasn’t healthy, and it definitely wasn’t luxurious. For anyone who thinks it’s easy to live off of welfare, it’s not. One week was rough for me. It’s given me more respect for the people who have to live off of it.
I’m not going to claim I know what it’s like to live off of food stamps just because I did this little experiment. I can’t imagine trying to do this for a month, two months, a year or even longer. All I know is that there is no luxury in it. It’s a last resort and it’s not something someone can easily live off.
After a week of eating off less than five dollars a day, my Thanksgiving feast on day eight was one of the best of my life. Everything on that table was fresh, steaming and delicious. I couldn’t help but find myself appreciating it a lot more than one of my frozen dinners.