AJC reporter learns first-hand about living on SNAP

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AJC reporter learns first-hand about living on SNAP

Resources:

MyPlate: http://choosemyplate.gov/

USDA 10 Tips Nutrition Education Series:

http://www.choosemyplate.gov/healthy-eating-tips/ten-tips.html

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: http://www.eatright.org/Public/

HealthFinder: http://healthfinder.gov/

Community Farmers Markets http://www.farmatl.org/

Wholesome Wave Georgia: http://www.wholesomewavegeorgia.org/

Eating healthy

● Think: what foods are necessary in my diet and will provide the most nutrients? A healthy diet consists of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. Spend your food dollars on these items first.

● Choose canned or frozen fruits and vegetables. They are just as healthy as fresh produce if you choose products with no added sodium

(salt) or sugar.

● Buy fresh fruits and vegetables when they are in season.

● Plan ahead. Check store sales, plan out your weekly meals, and

make a grocery list.

● Purchase store brands. They are usually the same in quality and nutrient content but are less expensive than brand names.

● Some affordable, healthy meals include whole grain spaghetti with reduced-sodium pasta sauce; brown rice and black beans; a stir-fry using on-sale lean poultry, shrimp, or meat with frozen mixed vegetables and noodles; and homemade soups and stews.

● Some affordable, healthy snacks include a cooked egg; whole fruits such as bananas; celery or apples and peanut butter; whole grain crackers with cheese or canned tuna; and popcorn.

*Source: Lauren Badger, Georgia SNAP-Ed Program Specialist, Georgia Department of Human Services/Division of Family and Children Services

For one week, I pledged to live on a food budget of $33.98.

That’s a typical amount for individuals in Georgia who receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. I did it as part of the SNAP Challenge, organized by Community Farmers Markets and Wholesome Wave Georgia to dramatize the challenges faced by the 1.9 million Georgians who receive SNAP.

Here’s my story:

Sunday: I meet Eleanor Brownfield at the Grant Park Farmers Market during the challenge kick-off. Brownfield, 66, spent her career in the nonprofit world. She doesn’t have much by way of retirement. She lives on Social Security and money she earns cat-sitting, proofreading, editing and selling items she’s knitted.

Brownfield gets about $77 a month (about $18 a week) through SNAP. That’s $10 less than she used to get before recent cuts to the program.

The Grant Park market, along with 20 other Community Farmers Markets across Georgia, lets shoppers on SNAP double the amount they spend. “It’s a blessing to a lot of people,” Brownfield says.

She advises me to buy foods that provide proteins. She keeps a jar of peanut butter on hand. She buys rice, beans and other items that are filling and can stretch to multiple meals. She also has a garden in her front yard where she grows tomatoes, lettuce and herbs.

Despite her savvy, she acknowledged that she tends to spend more freely at the beginning of the month, “when my EBT card feels loaded.”

I’m determined that, even on a limited budget, I will eat healthy food. I spend $2 on sweet potatoes, then drive to the DeKalb farmer’s market and spend a a little over $10 on green and red lentils, white beans, more sweet potatoes and a pre-packaged bag of persimmons. I already have oatmeal on hand, purchased earlier for about $2.

Not a bad start. But I’m aware that not everyone has the luxury of driving from market to market to get the best deal.

For a late breakfast, I eat oatmeal with half a persimmon. Lunch/dinner is an al dente (not by choice) batch of green lentils. I’m eating with friends, who opt not to share my meal. It is torture to watch them bury their faces in fried chicken and ribs as I chew on crunchy lentils.

Monday: I think I have this nailed. More oatmeal for breakfast. Lentils for lunch. A slight gnawing in my stomach because I’m used to eating much more and snacking around deadline. I drink the free tea in the newsroom.

Tuesday: I’m not going to eat lentils again. I spent nearly $5 on two containers only to discover that I don’t like them. But then that voice inside reminds me that many people don’t enjoy the array of choices I do. I decide to give the lentils one more go.

I plan a visit to Kroger to pick up food to take me through the week. My shopping list: whole wheat spaghetti, brown rice, spaghetti sauce, mushrooms, eggs, mixed vegetables, soup, bread, ground turkey and carrots.

I hope I have enough left over to buy a whole chicken to bake toward the end of the week.

Before starting the challenge, I talked with Kathy Taylor, director of clinical nutritional services at Grady Health System. A lot of the clients she sees receive SNAP benefits. She suggested staying on the perimeter of the grocery store, where you traditionally find the fresh fruit and veggies, milk and meats. The inner aisles tend to have the processed foods that are high in starch and sugar.

I hit the discount cart first and snag two snack-size bags of hummus chips for 49 cents each. A customer service rep tells me that each day they put out bagged fruit that is very ripe, but not yet at the point it has to be thrown out. I get four apples and two oranges for 99 cents.

I go for the store-brand rice and spaghetti sauce, then hit my big splurge: a package of ground turkey for $3.49. The total comes to $13.88. I end up putting some items back. My chicken is in sight!

Wednesday: There must be a bear in my innards. I repeatedly apologize during an interview because my stomach keeps growling.

I buy a box of cornbread mix. A soda. I’ve spent nearly $33. Looks like the chicken is out. Maybe I’ll spend my last few cents for a piece of fruit on the last day.

I think about people who live like this all the time, people whose lives have been turned upside down by the economy. Do they know about the community farmers markets, the organizations that sell discounted boxes of food, the community gardens? Do they have transportation to get there?

Natasha Worthy manages the Healthy Start program at Atlanta’s Center for Black Women’s Wellness. Many of her clients don’t have jobs and use SNAP as the only source for food. They are young, between 17 and 24. “A lot of them do the best they can,” she says, but they eat a lot of Ramen Noodle Soup and pre-packaged pasta meals.

Worthy has mixed feelings about the SNAP Challenge. “How is it really going to help people who actually live off this?” she asks.

Thursday: I skip breakfast. Spaghetti for lunch, the last of the beans for dinner. I have more beans, but no time to cook them.

Came in to work, but I’m out-of-sorts for some reason. I’m tired, but not sure if its because of the challenge. I miss going to restaurants.

Friday: The end is in sight. I touch base with Brownfield to get her thoughts. She wants to know: Was I ever worried ?

I confess I was, even before the challenge began.

Why, she asks — but I know she already knows the answer.

I’m not a small woman. Clearly, I won’t starve in seven days. Still, I worried that I wouldn’t have enough money or food for the week.

I’ve managed to stick to my budget, but I’m used to spending at least three times as much, and I doubt that I could do this indefinitely.

“It’s easier to do anything when there is a finite end in sight,” Brownfield agrees.

Saturday: I made it. On the eve of my release, I ponder questions posed to challenge participants:

Do you plan on making any changes to your dietary routine after participating in the SNAP challenge?

Definitely. I can — and will — live on less. And I have a new understanding of what it’s like to live with so little in a nation that has so much.

After living on a limited food budget this week, how has your perspective changed about the decisions families facing hunger must make?

I don’t know if I would have participated had the challenge been a month or longer. My Saturday will come and go, but for many people their Saturdays will just turn into Sundays, Mondays, Tuesday and so on.

I can’t stop thinking about those who must choose between groceries, gas for the car and paying the light bill. It’s a decision far too many have to make.

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