I Am Hungry!

Gnawing challenge affects 1,900 Rim Country residents weekly

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As I sit writing, my stomach growls noisily. The handful of peanut butter crackers from breakfast cannot assuage the hunger pangs.

For the last week, I have lived on a $29 food budget — the amount the average Arizona resident on food stamps receives. That works out to $4 a day or $1.37 per meal.

I get to resume eating on Tuesday: Food stamp recipients stay on the plan an average of 10 months. I can’t imagine how.

The non-profit Arizona Community Action Association (ACAA) talked me into taking the challenge to live on a food stamp budget through the SNAP Ex­perience. From Sept. 3-9, participants agreed to dine on the weekly budget of a typical SNAP (Sup­plemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participant.

More than 1.1 million Arizonans collect food stamps, including 1,900 in Rim Country, according to the local Department of Economic Security.

“While this experience cannot give us a true sense of living in deep or prolonged poverty, it can provide insight into some of the challenges families confront,” said Angela Schultz, ACAA outreach and community development manager. SNAP is supposed to just supplement monthly food budgets, but many households rely solely on the program due to the cost of utilities, rent, childcare and medical expenses, according to the ACAA.

The experiment seemed simple enough.

I searched through my purse and set aside $29 in cash and change for a week’s worth of food. Holding the crumpled dollars and dimes in one hand, the weight of the challenge set in. This is my weekly Subway sandwich budget: How could it cover 28 meals?

Being a journalist, I immediately did a Web search, confident I could map out a budget that blended frugality and nutrition. I didn’t want to load up on dollar store items and leave out fruits and vegetables.

I found stacks of statistical information, graphs, government guidelines and a Web site with affordable recipes, but I could not find a, “Hey, buy this stuff if you are poor and want to get the most bang for your buck!” list.

But on a handout detailing 10 tips to eating better on a budget I did find a list: beans, carrots, greens or potatoes, apples and bananas.

Off I trundled to Walmart and grabbed what I could carry in two hands. No cart, no possibility of overspending.

Hunger in Arizona

• Arizona ranks 14th nationally in the percentage of citizens who didn’t have enough money to buy groceries in the past year.

• Arizona ranks 7th when it comes to food hardship for children.

• More than 20 percent of Americans struggle with hunger.

• In 2010, 29 percent of Arizona households with children experienced food hardship.

• Established in 1939, the program covers more than 49 million Americans.

I planned down to the penny, although I know most people go to the store with a rough list and buy as cheap as they can.

Turns out, food’s expensive. An avocado? More than a dollar. Way outside of the budget. So instead I picked the cheapest loaf of bread, sliced ham, provolone cheese (a small luxury) and a head of iceberg lettuce. I figured sandwiches could last me through the week. Add a bag of frozen vegetables and frozen fish, to respect SNAP’s fish-once-a-week recommendation.

First shopping trip: $17.

That left me $12 for the other half of the week. Clearly, I needed some creative mongering. Thankfully, I am a couponer (the result of another story). No, not the crazy couponers you see on TV, but I typically save 50 percent on my groceries.

I headed to my three favorite coupon sites (Krazy Coupon Lady, the Cents’able Shoppin and Hip2Save) and nailed down several free items at Safeway and Walmart (lifesavers I would come to find out).

I picked up dried rice and beans, a few fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, spaghetti noodles and sauce. At the checkout line, I forked over the rest of my money — and mentioned to the bagger I was living on food stamps.

She promptly recalled how she’d lived off noodles for months and told me where to get a food box. She sent me off with kindly words of encouragement.

The next day at work, I mentioned my project to several people. One coworker said she made too much for food stamps, but could barely cover her food costs. She helps support her daughter and two grandchildren who receive assistance. Still, the family just barely scrapes by.

Besides my now constant hunger, I was shocked by how many people I talked to were living meal to meal.

More than 1 in 7 Americans rely on food stamps and 14.5 percent (or 17.6 million households) have difficulty providing enough food for their family.

All around me, people were quietly suffering. I had never known or bothered to ask.

Unfortunately, things will likely get worse in November.

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s temporary boosted SNAP funding comes to an end Nov. 1, food stamp allotments will drop by about 5 percent.

For a single household, the maximum benefit will go from $200 to $189, said Debbie Jones, Payson DES office manager.

And in September, the House Republican leadership has vowed to cut $40 billion from SNAP, which will force 150,000 Arizonans off the program, according to the ACAA.

USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has opposed the benefit cut. “Food insecurity remains a very real challenge for millions of Americans,” he said. “As the recovery continues and families turn to USDA nutrition programs for help to put good food on the table, this is not the time for cuts to the SNAP program that would disqualify millions of Americans and threaten a rise in food insecurity.

As I prepared yet another ham sandwich with a smidgen of frozen vegetables for lunch Monday, I realized I had not a single thing left to eat.

Could I do it with even less money? I don’t even want to try.

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