7 days on food stamps – Day 2

I skipped breakfast with no time to prepare it this morning. On my way, I saw a Marine recruiting bus with this logo on the side:


And I wished that the rules of my food stamps experiment could allow me to earn a breakfast from the McDonalds across the street. But $2.83 a day is all you get. There’s no way to earn extra credit.

After my meetings at the open gov hub in DC, I caught a bus home to work remotely. My stomach growled. I got to thinking about Nick’s suggestion that I buy a box of Wegmans 49 cent mac-n-cheese:

trader joe mac-n-cheese label mac-n-cheese

Unfortunately, you cannot buy a box of macaroni & cheese in DC anywhere for under $1.99. I looked in four shops and gave up. But I bought some popcorn because it has a wonderfully low unit cost. It will fill us both up after dinner for $0.25 a head.

I also noticed that a can of sardines is only $1.00 (affordable fish on foodstamps!) whereas the cheapest tunafish is $1.80, putting it above my food stamps limit. Now I understand why all the bitiks (village shops) in Gambia, West Africa carried awful sardines and refused to carry tunafish, no matter how hard I lobbied. Tuna is just too luxurious for the masses. Even a bottle of coke (300ml for 3D, or approx $0.20 at the time) was more affordable, which explains why Coke is sold in every country in the world, except North Korea. No other product is as global.

For lunch I had PB&J ($0.62) and a banana ($0.21) but was still hungry. So I boiled a serving of spaghetti ($0.14) and to save money, added a tablespoon of tomato paste, oregano, pepper, and dried basil with some drops of olive oil – rather than use real pasta sauce. This made my meal cost about $0.25 instead of $1.59 – and also explains why Gambian bitiks all sell tomato paste cans (for D3, or about $0.20) instead of tomato sauce. Most rural Gambians live on $1 a day and they simply cannot buy consumer “final” products when the starting materials are about 25% the cost.

At work, Christy had similar adventures. She arrived work hungry, though we’ve only been on food stamps for ONE DAY. Imagine if we had to wait 6 weeks for the paperwork to clear? We’d be totally messed up, nutritionally and psychologically. She drank the office coffee but it was so acidic that she got a stomach ache. She didn’t sleep well the night before. All she wanted was a glass of warm milk, but it wasn’t in our budget.

At lunch her coworker took pity on her and gave her some chocolates and a bag of trail mix – the kind with stale nuts that she would otherwise have refused – but instead today she jumped for joy and thanked him profusely.

“My first thought when he gave me the chocolates was, I wonder what I could barter this for!” Then she realized this isn’t school lunch. Even if she wanted something more nutritious, you get what you get.

“Then, I was surprised to see myself saving them to share with you tonight, Marc,” she explained when she got home. “I didn’t realize I’d put my family ahead of my hunger.”

She did, however, enjoy everything she could afford, eating her sandwich, apple, banana, then shamelessly hunting down some sweet tarts in a common area. An hour later, still hungry, she reheated the oatmeal she didn’t eat for breakfast (because she doesn’t like oatmeal; she’s just eating it to feel full). She added a creamer to it to fix the flavor. Then she just drank four more creamers straight, and felt very satisfied. That finally hit the spot. And it was the only way we could afford to add dairy to our diet while on food stamps.


For the past day she’s had no cravings for chips or junkfood whatsoever. She just wants a square meal.

And both of us are feeling a little sick, though it can’t possibly be due to missing a few calories. I did drink three of the vitamin-C packets my ex-socialworker coworker gave me yesterday. She must’ve known that people get sick when they go on food stamps.

Prison within a palace

We have both fasted many times before. I’ve done a half dozen Ramadan fasts (where you eat nothing from sunrise to Sunset (*which I define as 5pm mostly), and two hunger strikes for political reasons. Christy fasts 19 days every year as a Bahai. But both of us agree – living on food stamps is a very different, surprisingly harder experience.

We’re not sure why. Perhaps it’s a “prison within a palace” feeling. We’re surrounded by plenty, only it’s not available to us. We can’t do anything to “earn” more food. Unlike religious fasting, we don’t break our fast nightly to celebrate with community. This is more like a hunger strike. We remain committed to it not because of wanting to improve our self-image – like a diet – but because this is how people actually live in America. We owe it to ourselves to live with our eyes open to the larger reality.

Food stamps feel like a leaner diet than I ate in Africa. And later this week I’ll post a menu of what Heather has been eating in Kenya with this same budget.

Marc’s total food spent today: $2.24

Christy: banana, 1/2 oatmeal, apple, PB&J, pasta & sauce, spinach, carrot, onion, dressing = 

0.21 + 0.05 + 0.42 + 0.62 + 0.40 + 0.37 + 0.10 + 0.02 + 0.18 = $2.37

FREE: 2 coffees, 6 sweat tarts, 16 creamers, nuts.

Excuse us while we cook another 50 cents of popcorn and gorge ourselves.


Day 0: The Menu

Day 1: Squeezing every last penny out

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