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CNN Blog "Living on Food Stamps"


This CNN guy has decide to live on $176 for the month of February. He's acquired a debit card and loaded with $176 and will use it exclusively for his food purchases throughout the month. He's posting about it every couple of days. I think the feedback he's getting from people who email with their advice and experiences is pretty interesting.



  1. Michigan's governor tried this a few months ago--said she ended up eating a lot of macaroni and cheese.

    11 Replies
    1. re: coney with everything

      Yup - I could see packing on the pounds with that kind of budget...Lots of mac & Cheese and spam!

      1. re: coney with everything

        Interesting, since packaged/brand name products tend to be more expensive, unless you can get them on sale.


        1. re: The Dairy Queen

          I totally agree. For the price of a can of Spam you out probably get 1.5x the quantity of fresh protein.

          1. re: The Dairy Queen

            What - I find eating healthy to be incredibly expensive!
            Fresh Fruit, veg, tofu, fresh fish and meat...

            I could save half my grocery bill is I didnt care what went into my body!

            (Although I have no idea how much Spam cost - I have never bought it!!)

            1. re: NellyNel

              By my comment above that "packaged/brand name products tend to be more expensive" I meant that I would have thought it would have been cheaper to buy an offbrand of dried pasta and make a meal of that somehow (maybe making a sauce from a couple of cans of tomatoes) than cook up a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese.


              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                Oh - I see what you mean.

                Well it is a fantasy of mine to eat Kraft mac & cheese everyday!!
                Actually, Shoprite brand is even better!!!

                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                  considering I bought target brand mac and cheese for .68/box the other day, I doubt very much I could make a homemade equivalent for the same price, even with the small additional cost of milk and butter. So that i don't feel like a totally neglectful mother, I throw frozen peas and carrots into the boiling pasta water :)

                  A box of kraft mac n cheese was 1.09.

                  1. re: puddin head

                    It's hard to argue with 68 cents! Personally, I still think you could do better nutritionally and budgetarily by choosing plain pasta, plus the frozen peas and carrots. And/or a can of tuna.


                2. re: NellyNel

                  check out ethnic grocery stores in your area -- fresh produce will usually be far less expensive (perhaps not as pretty -- but it won't affect flavor -- as we say down here in Florida -- it's the ugly oranges that taste the sweetest). I went to one of my local latino groceries yesterday and for $5 I purchased: 15 oranges (very juicy and sweet), 2 lemons, a large tomato, a large green bell pepper, 4 bananas, a bunch of scallions, a large bunch of fresh cilantro and 2 large bottles of italian sparkling water ( Pangea). I know I couldn't duplicate it at that price at Publix.

                  1. re: karmalaw

                    Where are you shopping? 5 dollars is incredible.

                    1. re: TampaAurora

                      El Presidente -- while I won't buy the meat there, many of the staples are significantly cheaper than the major chains and the produce is always a bargain.

                      I often use other smaller independent markets in the area for meat, including El Nuevo Siglo (which also has great deals on wine and many Argentine foods that I like to purchase).

                      I shop winn-dixie and publix mostly for their specials (or to use my coupons)-- not routinely AND I get great bargains at amazon.com (i.e. a case -- 12 cans - of baby artichoke hearts arrived today that cost me $11 and change -- shipped).

            2. Last year a number of Members of Congress did this. They called it the Food Stamp Challenge. I know a number of food and nutrition organizations encouraged members to do this. They have a website and everything: http://foodstampchallenge.typepad.com/

              From what I understand, it was a pretty powerful teaching tool

              1. $176 is for a whole family or 1 guy?

                1 Reply
                1. re: Ericandblueboy

                  $176 for one person. He's gone into a little discussion about that.


                2. Good timing. Our own rworange has taken on a similar challenge:


                  But Krys is limiting herself to $3 a day, which is less than half of what Sean Callebs is spending. And she's consuming fewer peanut butter sandwiches, too.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: alanbarnes

                    rwo did something similar about a year ago, too. She's a trailblazer in this arena (as well as in other chow arenas, of course). :) Did she say how she calc'd the $3 a day? It seems unnecessarily restrictive, if the CNN guy says you can get about $6/day for one person.

                    Of course, the amount you can get in food stamps depends on your circumstances and on where you live. According to this blogger (and I haven't indepently verfied his facts, but he does work for CNN. it would seem he would have adequate researching capabilities to figure something like this out), he would be entitled to about $176 per month for himself if he were on food stamps, which calcs out to just under $6 a day. If you were a person on food stamps, I don't see the point in spending less than you're alloted in food stamps, unless, of course, $3 a day is really all you want/need to spend on food.


                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                      I wonder if he is starting from scratch, or if he has a "panrty" he started with.

                      1. re: PattiCakes

                        He says he isn't cooking out of his pantry.


                      2. re: The Dairy Queen

                        I wonder how he came up with the $176/month/$6 per day? Even the "Food Stamp Challenge" Elyssa linked above used the $3/day.

                        EDIT: Ah, I see, by reading more into the link Elyssa provided,--the "average" that people get on food stamps works out to about $3 per person per day. But, that's not the MOST you can receive from food stamps. The MOST works out to about $6 per person per day, but, you'd pretty much have to be in a situation where you had almost no other resources to get "the most" from food stamps.


                        1. re: The Dairy Queen


                          My sister is unemployed and she is a single adult recieving the full $176...it might seem a little excessive, but with NO other income, she is in pretty dire straits. They (the govt) says food stamps are only meant to supplement, but when you dont make any thing else, the $176 becomes your sole budget for food and then it doesnt look quite so cushy.

                          1. re: asiansensation007

                            Oh, I'm not at all saying $176 a month for one person is excessive ...I'm just wondering why some people who are trying to do a "food stamp challenge" (like rworange and the folks in the link Elyssa provided) are limiting themselves to $3 a day when it seems you could get about $6 a day... It seemed arbitrary to me [it turns out, as I mentioned in my "edit" above that the equivalent of $3 is what the average recipient of food stamps gets,whereas the equivalent of $6 per day is the maximum a recipient can get.] . And, you're right, those people who are getting the "average" equivalent of $3 are assumed to have other sources of income and, therefore, the $3 or so that they're getting in food stamps is just to "supplement" their food budget. If you're receiving the full $176 per month or $6 per day it's because the government assumes you have no other sources of income and you are relying on the food stamps pretty much exclusively.

                            I definitely wouldn't call $6 a day cushy. The real question is is it enough? That's why the CNN guy is doing the challenge, because there's been some discussion in Congress about increasing the allotment. And, in order to really put yourself in the shoes of someone receiving food stamps, you have to factor in other things, too. For instance, if you're a person receiving the full allotment of food stamps of $176 a month (or whatever it is for your region), then you're possibly also without transportation, which makes it difficult to shop, etc. You're possibly without a newspaper subscription to clip coupons and shop for sales/price compare. You're possibly without an internet connection or computer to do research. Yes, you could go to the library, but there's that issue of transportation again. It's a complex problem.

                            I'm sorry to learn your sister is in such a tight bind right now. Sadly, she is not alone. Times are tough for many people and many families. I hope things turn for the better soon, for your sister, and others.


                            1. re: The Dairy Queen

                              I don't think the $3/day people are really supplementing anything else. At least from what I've seen, if people are on disability or receiving other types of payments, those payments usually go to utilities and covering any medical bills/medicine that medicaid won't cover. In my area, people tend to have their own transport because taking a bus just isn't feasible. There's too much snow and the sidewalks are never cleared, so they end up buying older cars and keep them going for years and years. I think you have to take into account the specific area and what expenses are normal. For instance, where I am, utilities are outrageously expensive, even if you are on a levelized plan. Since this has been an exceptionally cold winter, those who pay month to month are really struggling. I normally pay $70 in the winter for gas and last month it was $250.

                              1. re: queencru

                                I'm afraid you are right, but to be honest, I don't really have enough facts or background to know one way or the other. According to the CNN guy, "the head of family support for the state [I don't know which state that is, but it can vary by state], told [him] the most a single person can qualify for each month, is $176."

                                If you read some of the information in the link Elyssa provided the national "average" per person one gets in food stamps works out to about $3 per day, and there are all kinds of factors that go into calculating that, including the person's assets and income and so on. I'm not saying it works or that I agree with it or that I like it, just that those are the facts as I understand them. Clearly, many people believe the system is broken, which is why there continues to be this ongoing debate about the program. Currently, there is a discussion to raise the food stamp benefits by about 13%. I don't know if that's across the board or on average or what.


                    2. My niece and her boyfriend live in San Fran and the food budget for the two of them per month is around $90. Needless to say, the boyfriend is very excited when they come out for the holidays to visit.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: roro1831

                        Four boxes of angel food is 120 ---30 each and according to their site
                        "Generally, one box of Angel Food assists in feeding a family of four for about one week or a single senior citizen for almost a month"


                      2. Been thinking about this thread and Sean Callebs' challenge a lot over the last couple of days. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but it seems as though Americans have forgotten how to eat like poor people.

                        All around the world, people survive on $1 per person per day or less. A balanced diet is difficult and variety nearly impossible to achieve for so little money, but six times that daily allowance opens up some real possibilities.

                        Sure, $6 per day isn't going to get you a dinner of a Wagyu ribeye with asparagus flown in from Peru and organic microgreens dressed with imported extra-virgin olive oil and gold-cap balsamic vinegar. But you can nevertheless eat very well.

                        The key thing is to use animal products sparingly, treat meat as a luxury, and avoid processed foods altogether. And to remember that some foods are staples for a reason: a dollar will buy more than enough legumes and/or rice (around 3,000 calories) to meet the daily needs of all but the largest and most active adults. If the first food dollar assures that basic caloric needs are met, there's $5 left for things like green vegetables, dairy products, eggs, sweets and treats, and, yes, a little meat.

                        There were times when I was a kid that my family had to scrape by, but we never went hungry because the first priority was to make sure there were staples in the pantry. When I first went out on my own, I never had to worry about food security because the first things I bought were big bags of beans and rice.

                        Most people in the world would recognize these purchasing and eating behaviors, but the thread seems to have been lost by most Americans. Now when people think of eating inexpensively, they think of highly processed food from a box, a discounted TV dinner, or some value menu items from a drive through. Not only are these foods more expensive, they tend to be unhealthy. What went wrong?

                        I'm reminded of the character Teresina in Steinbeck's "Tortilla Flat." She raises nine healthy children on nothing but beans and tortillas, but when the paisanos of the neighborhood decide to help her out by giving her some "luxury" foods, the kids get sick until a couple hundred pounds of beans miraculously appear on her doorstep. Okay, the author has a clear agenda, and the book isn't overburdened by realism, but there's a nugget of truth in there, too.

                        9 Replies
                        1. re: alanbarnes

                          I've been thinking about this as well. The whole concept pulled me up short and made me realize how wasteful I have gotten. I'm using it as an impetus to try to make do more with what I have, go shopping in my freezer more instead of making whatever strikes my fancy at the moment. I wonder if it would help some families to be gifted with a pressure cooker.

                          1. re: alanbarnes

                            I see your point, but in many places in this country, it's very hard to eat on "a dollar a day"...or even $6/day. There are things beyond simply purchasing the food that contribute to Americans' food insecurity.

                            I did a food stamp challenge organized by a community group in the impoverished Baton Rouge neighborhood in which I lived. At the time (2002), there were 2 of us in my household, and we would have qualified for $289/mo (max). We were given a fake Louisiana Purchase card (the debit card used in place of "food stamps"), so that we could experience pulling it out in stores. We were also told some interesting facts, such as 65% of people receiving the max assistance have no form of personal transportation and 45% lack a working refrigerator, stove, and/or oven. We didn't need to necessarily avoid using these things, but were encouraged to think about how much more difficult things would be if we couldn't.

                            Here's how it panned out for us:
                            We opted NOT to use our car for any food purchases. That meant that I could either spend hours using public transportation (which is terrible in Baton Rouge) to get the nearest Super Walmart or large grocery store, or just walk almost a mile to my local Piggly-Wiggly. The Piggly-Wiggly had really terrible food offerings - rotting or overly expensive produce, freezers that didn't quite keep the food frozen, emphasis on processed foods. And try getting your bags of groceries back on foot in a LA summer!

                            My neighborhood had one dollar store accessible by foot or short bus ride, but it certainly did NOT have offerings like rworange is finding at her dollar store! Whoa...I was lucky to find a can of soup not made in China. I didn't end up going there...there wasn't much of anything offered.

                            We ended up eating rice and beans...a lot. Since produce wasn't reliable or available, it was what I missed the most (and suddenly it made sense that my students snatched up the oranges and apples faster than donuts on treat days). I don't think we ate any meat other than one night of fried chicken. I had the luxury of being off work (summer break), so I could prepare the food. But one other point the community group made was that MOST people who receive food stamps DO have jobs, so they a) get less assistance and b) are working jobs and relying on public transportation, so they have less time to dedicate to preparing meals. Also, many of these people do not have a lot of cooking skills (the organization was doing this whole thing in an attempt to get funding for a cooking class program). It was a really difficult month, and for the working poor in our country, I'm not sure that just telling them to eat like the rest of the poor world is the answer.

                            1. re: RosemaryHoney

                              First off, props for taking the food stamp challenge - it's a whole lot easier to theorize about eating on a limited budget than to actually try to do it. And your comment on the absence of cooking facilities is something I hadn't considered - it sure would make things a lot more difficult.

                              But please know that I'm not "just telling [people] to eat like the rest of the poor world." I do not underestimate the hardships involved in being poor in America, and there's no way I'm going to tell anybody who's barely getting along how to eat. My observation was more a comment on social norms, common misperceptions, and public policy.

                              My complaint is not that poor people should know better; it's that the food processing industry is doing its best to undermined whatever knowledge is there, and nobody seems to be doing anything about it. In most places, it's easier to find mac'n'cheese by the case than pinto beans in 50# bags. While there's plenty of advertising for Happy Meals, there's none for spinach. And as you observed, people in poor neighborhoods (and the rural poor, too, to an even greater extent) have to overcome an additional set of obstacles to get enough healthy food to eat.

                              It's bad enough that middle-class Americans are eating overpiced crap. At least they can afford plenty of it. But I find it disturbing that we as a society have forgotten the basics that allow hundreds of millions - or even billions - of people worldwide to survive.

                              As the economic situation worsens and more people fall into poverty, I think it would be a worthwhile public policy goal to not only give those folks a few dollars a day to live on, but also to make quality foods more readily available and to provide resources that help them make the most of their food dollars.

                              1. re: alanbarnes

                                That's a great point. People go on and on about how it's unacceptable that so many Americans don't eat fresh produce, but if you're getting $3 a day for food and can only get to a store via public transport in an area with limited public transport, what other options do you have? It's likely you'll make it to the store once every other week and need to make what you can by last. You're not going to by produce that may last a few days before going bad, because you can't afford to have any food go bad.

                              2. re: RosemaryHoney

                                "That meant that I could either spend hours using public transportation (which is terrible in Baton Rouge) to get the nearest Super Walmart or large grocery store, or just walk almost a mile to my local Piggly-Wiggly."

                                What's wrong with that? I figure if you're living on welfare and food stamps, you likely have plenty of time on your hands for things like, um, walking. Plus, you'll save a bundle on a gym membership.

                                Am I the only person who is troubled by the fact that so many people spend SO much time trying to live the "food stamp diet?" Seriously, food stamps are welfare and should be used as a safety net, not a way of life. A paying job is something that can likely get you more than $176 a month, so let's be a little realistic here. You could seriously get a part time job at Chik-Fila, make some lunch money and probably get to eat a free meal. Where are all the people blogging about the "get a job" diet?

                                Excuse me while I go take a shower and get ready for work...

                                1. re: UptownKevin

                                  Wow! What amazing lack of compassion! Such an absolute absence of feeling for one's fellow human beings is rare. Coupled with your complete ignorance and insufferable arrogance, it's like hitting the trifecta!

                                  If you actually read RH's post, you'd know that she has a job. She's a teacher. She was doing the "food stamp diet" to appreciate the challenges faced by people who actually have to live within that food budget.

                                  And if you actually knew anything about food stamp policy, you'd know that most recipients are the working poor. Yeah, that single mom who works three minimum-wage jobs to shelter and clothe her kids has plenty of time for "things like, um, walking." Right.

                                  As far as the "get a job" diet you recommend, have you even looked at a newspaper in the last two years? If it were that easy to get a job, we wouldn't have double-digit unemployment. People who've worked hard their entire lives are suddenly laid off and unable to find a source of income. Do you really believe that tens of millions of Americans suddenly developed terminal cases of laziness? Or is it possible - just possible - that there aren't enough jobs out there?

                                  Seriously, the opinion that you've voiced here not only lacks any basis in fact, it's mean-spirited in the extreme. I hope that you never have to deal with the challenges faced by the typical food stamp recipient, and you sound extremely confident in your assumption that you won't. But keep in mind that 5% of the working population probably felt the same way in 2007 and is singing a different tune now. And presumably those folks now have a far greater understanding of and appreciation for the difficulties presented by economic instability than you, in your infinite wisdom, have voiced today.

                                  1. re: UptownKevin

                                    I suggest you read "Nickle and Dimed." You sorely need educating about what life is like for the working poor.

                                    1. re: UptownKevin

                                      I would guess you have not lived among or worked with the poor.

                                      1. re: UptownKevin

                                        Sad. I deal a lot w/ rural poor, but they fish, have large gardens and "jackin' deer" (illegal hunting) gives them a lot of meat.
                                        I can't imagine trying to live as the urban working poor. As Pika stated, read Nickel and Dimed" Barbara wrote it trying to live on min. wage jobs, in Portland, Maine, a relative small prosperous city.
                                        We have 5 college educated children. Two found work overseas. One, who graduated from the Univ. of Maine Honors College, with a degree in sociology has spent the last 13 months delivering pizzas (which give him a certain amount of food) while looking for work in Washington, DC. Entry level jobs are clogged w/ Phd's and he is stll looking.This is a very straight kid, not a party animal in the least. We still need to help him out financially.
                                        Me thinks, Kevin, that perhaps you have been Uptown too long and have lost your sense of humility.

                                  2. Folks, this thread is already going off the rails and getting personal and flamey. We're going to lock it.