One Man’s Quest to Eat Healthy On a Food Stamp Budget

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As a college student at UC Irvine, I am no stranger to eating on a budget. However, after I recently decided to live a healthier lifestyle, I began to notice that eating more nutritious foods was taking a toll on my wallet.

This inspired me to take a closer look at the true cost of eating healthy and attempt to gain some perspective of what it takes for many low-income Americans to do the same.

According to the Food Research and Action Center, a little over 46 Million Americans are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps. They roughly have a maximum budget of $6.00 a day funded by the government.

My goal was to not only try to live on this allotment of $6.00 a day, but do so while eating healthy.

I only wanted to consume a diet of lean proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy carbohydrates. This meant avoiding any cheap carbohydrates, such as white breads, pastas and rice.

Since 90 percent of SNAP Benefits are redeemed by the third week of the month, according to Feeding America, I suspected going in that eating healthy on a food stamp budget was going to be rather difficult.

Day 1: Few Options

On my first day, my regular breakfast of a simple Greek yogurt with sliced almonds, a banana and an apple that I had purchased at my local Trader Joe’s in Tustin was going to cost me around $2.00. I now only had $4 left for the rest of the day and it was only 8:30 in the morning.

In search of a quick lunch later that day, I checked the Santa Ana Albertsons for “ready to go” lunch options. The best healthy option available was a pre-packed chicken salad that cost $3.99. That would have blown my budget for the entire day.

I was beginning to understand why many low-income families struggle with a healthy diet. Consider that I could have purchased two family-sized bags of potato chips for the price of one small salad.

I ended up skipping lunch that day.

It had become clear to me that shopping in my usual grocery store was no longer an option. Just a few of my favorite items — milk, coffee and almonds — would blow my budget in an instant.

Healthy Food in an Unexpected Place

I decided to check out the local 99 Cents Only Store in Santa Ana to see if I could find any affordable healthy foods for dinner. After passing the aisles and aisles stocked full of canned and packaged food, I hit the jackpot.

They had a large selection of fresh vegetables, fruits and even some pieces of frozen chicken and beef. I picked up a piece of frozen chicken breast, a package of whole wheat pasta, some vegetables and a can of pasta sauce all for the low price of $4.00.

After some research, I found out that other 99 Cents Only Stores have begun to stock a selection of affordable groceries, including a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, in their very no-frills environment.

Along with the 99 Cents Only Store, I found that big box retailers such as Wal-Mart offer a selection of groceries that can fit within the food stamp budget.

While shopping for groceries at the 99 Cents Only Store, I met Maria Cordova, who relies on food stamps. She described her attempts to buy more nutritious foods for her family.

“I do what I can, but sometimes cooking healthy can get expensive and the kids don’t want to eat it,” Cordova said. “I try to tell them not to eat too much candy. The school gives them lunches so that helps a little, but it can still get expensive.”

Another Hurdle

And for people in Cordova’s situation, finding less expensive stores is only half the battle –getting to these stores is also an issue.

For example, The 99 Cents Only Store and Cordova’s other preferred stores are miles away from her home in Santa Ana. Since her family has just one car, she can only go shopping on Tuesdays, her husband’s day off.

“I really don’t know how I would do it otherwise. I live next to a Stater Bros Market but it’s too expensive there. Ever since this store opened in the area it’s been a godsend,” Cordova said.

In just five days of living on a food stamp budget I gained a better understanding of the realities faced by Cordova and other low-income people. I also realized that if policymakers want create more healthful communities, they will have to do much more than just tell people to eat healthy.

Johan Moreno is a literary journalism student at UC Irvine. He was born and raised in Orange County and resides in Tustin.

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