« Existing on food stamps: Reporter Sarah Barr joins Chris Van Hollen in learning how to live on the bare minimum | Main

October 30, 2007



I just wanted to take a moment to do the math on that $21 thing. If you look at the eligibility for food stamps page, you'll know that the maximum monthly allotment for a family of 4 is $543. That comes out to about $30 per person per week.

It is also far more economical on a per-person basis to feed 4 people the same meal than one person. The one-person-only allotment is $36 per week.

The way to get less money from the government food stamp program is to make more money, which means more money to spend on food, which means that, if the average person gets $21 from the food stamp program, it is because the average person in the program makes too much money to be considered for the maximum allotment. The program doesn't expect anyone to spend only $21 per person per week on food.

Now, $36 per person is still not a great deal of food. But it is alot more than $21. Let's just keep the math honest.


Really, $21 a week is just a phony number used to make the benefits seem far more draconian than they really are. The maximum monthly benefit a single person can get is $162, which means $5.23 a day (for a 31 day month) and $37.38 a week (taking $162 x 12 / 52). I don't know about you, but if I were to buy all my food from grocery stores, watch my budget, and prepare the food (instead of going to a deli or restaurant) I'd have more than enough food on just $37.38 per week. Sure, I couldn't get my weekly NY Strip, but that's only because I would have made the choice not to get job and thereby not receive an income.

And the premise of this ridiculous $21-a-week-challenge implicitly carries a false assumption -- that the money awarded in food stamps amounts to the only dollars that the recipient has to put towards food.

Using an 'average' food stamp benefit number is dishonest (and you obviously know that) because its a need-based award. Of course there's a ton of recipients that don't get the full award precisely because they don't need it. Using your logic (or rather, dishonesty) it would conversely be fair to say that no one in the US could possibly be in poverty because the 'average' household income is $60K (or whatever it is).


This is a fantastic project. I also wish every member of Congress would see Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days living on the minimum wage.


Most people on foodstamps have jobs. However, many do not have any spare money for food because all their money is taken up with rent, utilities, child care, transportation, and health care. Food stamps also don't cover a lot of necessities like toilet paper and soap. Also, the way the program is administered varies by state, so the dollar amount you get varies--as of course does the cost of living. Where I live in upstate NY, the food costs are very high because of the low population demand and high transportation costs, and $5 a day would not even go very far.


I find it odd that people hate food-assistance programs so much (based on weird ideological arguments about 'taking away' peoples' independence), yet never... ever... raise the issue that for every dollar we spend in taxes, approximately 52 cents goes to military spending.

Hate taxes? OK. Inclined to complain that your tax dollars are buying someone else food? Fair enough, I guess.

Have a look at what we're doing with all that military spending sometime.

Scale back our international military footprint and there'd be plenty left to feed the poor with. Problem solved.


hi im hear to say that getting 150 a month for one in food stamps is not easy to live o. i get ssi of 660 a month an the 150 in food stamps. theres no extra cash to buy food from the 660 because you have to buy laundry soap t.p. shampoo toothpaste asperins meds from pharmacy even with a copay doctors visit.. gas to get to doctor an the pharmacy an the food store.. pay rent, electric, phone,the price of food is getting way out of hand cant even buy eggs for 69 cents anymore pay 2 dollars for that now. an the food stamps get is the same now as it was when eggs were 69 cents so how does that help. i need a raise in ssi an food stamps just to reach below poverty level..the rich get richer an the poor get heartache..



Good luck. Americans suck.


What ever became of this project? I get $637/month from SSI and about $500 of that goes to housing expenses (mortgage + utilities), leaving less than $150 to cover medical, dental, transportation, home + car maintenance, laundry, credit card payments and everything else. But according to the food stamp program I am only eligible for $113/month, which works out to about $3.75/day - which *almost* covers the cost of one main meal per day *if* I eat the cheapest foods I can find. I've been living on one meal/day for many years!

Jeff Kimball

I think this would be a perfect way to educate my 12 year old on how much food actually costs and start to expose him to the challenges of feeding a society. $36.00 a week seems reasonable to start with and build a plan and see what happens. My idea is to change the direction of the country by changing how our kids look at things. This would give me a good chance to create awareness to a very important topic.

Cindy Sue Causey


Circumstances were such that I missed the opportunity to help publicize this a little back when it was really active.. Doesn't make it any less pertinent today, and, in fact, the way prices have leaped and bounded just the last twelve months since, makes it more so..

Just finished leaving a quick email to Lyndsey Layton who wrote the Washington Post article, "FOOD STAMP CHALLENGE: Lawmakers Find $21 a Week Doesn't Buy a Lot of Groceries" that brought me to your cyber doorstep.. Have asked if there was any way of possibly doing a one year later followup with how drastically prices have changed in that very little time, you know..?

Thank you so much for having gone to this extent.. Human nature being what it is along with the Mind's wonderful ability to cipher out the less pleasurable, people often don't "get it" unless they walk in the same Shoes as those who live it each and every day.. This $21.00 or even $36.00 weekly food budget is one great way to do so..

Peace and best wishes from North Georgia..

Cindy Sue
Six. Almost Seven..
Talking Rock

1 to 2 pouches of ramen noodles, 1 can of store-opening bought peas, and a chicken leg quarter ~$1.00 to $1.25/day plus coffee.........

People are actually out here living like this.. Each and every day.. To those who aren't, please treasure that you don't..

For tomorrow, through some wild act of Fate, you might have to..............

Jonathan F

I am an actuary and make a lot of money; I enjoy a nice quality of life. I have a wife and 3 children who are all big eaters and we eat well. In 2007 my average grocery bill was $400 a month.

$21 per per per week results in $455 a month (4.3 weeks per month) . That's more than I volunatarily spend on a my groceries. Don't tell me you can't live off that allocation - that's bunk.

I have little sympathy for those who spend more than I do and get less. If someone can't spend money wisely, that's not an excuse to give them more. It isn't the size of the money that's the problem, it's the choices in how it is spent.

Martin Tip

Just found your site by accident doing a search for something completely unrelated. I very much like what i have seen so far! Added your RSS feed to my rss reader, looking forward to reading more. thanks

Jessica Lema

I understand what you're trying to do...and I give you a small amount of credit for actually partaking in that "positively crazy" idea someone in the office had. Seriously, you're a good sport! However, what you must understand is that you can't apply blanket terms, or numbers, to the poverty situation in America.

Also, you simply cannot get a feel for a lifestyle change in a mere 7 days. To be perfectly honest your "reflection" on your time spent in the nutritional dumps was, to say the least, the most insincere, poorly written, and emotionless banter I've heard or read ALL day. You don't know what you're talking about and this experience seems more like a publicity stunt than a genuine thirst for knowledge.

I consider myself a 19-year-old analytical expert on the subject. I've spent a lot of time with my mind on poverty. For the last 8 years I have been emotionally and financially supporting myself in my parent's absence.

Please, think about that for a second.

Who were you when you were 11 years old?
Maybe you know a child around that age.
How would either one of you handle that.

You're way too young to get a job.
You're sleeping where ever you can at night.
Eating when you can afford to.
Going through the awkward junior high years.
You're trapped in the upper-middle class suburbs
because it's the only place you know how to get around.
There are no youth shelters, food stamps, or government assistance in a place like that.

Poverty, pain, and suffering come in a lot of forms Mr. Van Hollen. It's too easy to cast stereotypes and numbers. When will the "astute lawmakers" realize that you can't turn so much gray into black and white...or brown, yellow, red, you know what I mean.

When ATTEMPTING to calculate what "the little guy" is really going through you have to consider the following environmental variables, let's assume for argument's sake that the average dollar amount in food stamps for an individual was $21 per week:


Where are you spending the money?
Obviously, you won't be going to the pricey organic grocer. Perhaps, one of the local chain stores? maybe, if somethings on sale.
Odds are if you have, per week, what some people spend in a day you're either going to starve or you're going to find the nearest Mexican grocery store.

That might sound silly, or even racist, to someone from a place like Kensington, Maryland, but that's why you don't know what you're talking about. Your commuter suburb home town has a 4.64% Hispanic population...YOU are part of the 89.96% of the white people there. I'm sure any Mexicans living in your town don't have or need a Mexican grocery store.

Mexican grocery stores have the best prices on produce, meat, bread, and sometimes dairy. Everything that doesn't have a popular brand on it is cheaper there and they accept link cards and food stamps because they know their demographic. They are usually found in neighborhoods that look and feel just a little too shady. That's where the poor people are Chris, in a place you wouldn't drive through in daylight. You'd feel unsafe because the second they saw that suit of yours that fancy car your driving would be stolen. They're hungry there...in many ways and the local Mexican grocery store is keeping them alive.

For $21 at one of these grocers you can get (all numbers are rough estimates based on experience):
1 bag of generic cereal $1.25
1 1/2 gallon milk $1.89
2 lbs of apples $2.15
2 lbs of oranges $1.89
1 loaf of made-in-store French bread $.99
1 lb of carrots (not the cut, clean, baby carrots...straight from the ground to the store CARROTS) $.99
1 can of peas $.89
1 can of green beans $.89
2 15 oz. containers of rice pudding $3
2 bags of instant microwave mashed potatoes $2
1 lb ground beef or 1 lb lunch meat $3.50

(You might have to pay some tax, but hey nothing is free, right?)

The point I'm trying to make is that people are going to survive on the scraps they're given. There is a chance for them to move up, but other circumstances will provide a glass ceiling. That is the system we have here and the system is flawed.

Nothing is solved or understood from you doing that. Spend a month or three in one of our nations ghettos, truly struggling for survival and then you'll get an idea...but the thought of doing that is just positively crazy, isn't it?

It's 3:45 am and I didn't expect to write this much. I'm going to have a cold slice of 3 day old pizza that was bought this week with some of my hard earned (not given) $26 meal budget, take a shower with a garden hose because I’m filthy from working on my 1982 Buick Regal, I’m going to clean up the mess I made, listen to some records, and get to bed. No sir, I'm not at all kidding. I'm making major sacrifices in my life and to my health to be able to go to college and I'm doing it because I understand how the system works and one day I will I make it better.

The next time you look at Anna, Nick, or Alex you tell me how you'd feel about them living like this just to get through college...I guarantee they'll never have to, and thank goodness for that, but entertain the idea of your children suffering for survival at 11 or 19 years old. Everyday that they wake up safe and healthy is another day that plenty of other innocent children in the good ole U S of A will starve. Myself included.

It's a problem in this country. So let's stop making a mockery of it and get down to business on a solution.

I'll see you in Washington Mr. Van Hollen!
One day you'll GET IT :)

-Jessica Lema


re Jonathan F.'s family food intake

$400 a month for 5 people works out to $2.63 a day per person, or 87.6 cents a meal. Assuming 2000 calories a day, Jonathan and his family are buying an astounding 760 calories per dollar spent, which suggests they are consuming a diet very high in fat and sugar.

I worked out a rough daily diet based on recommended servings of vegetables, fruits, dairy, whole grains, and protein. With the prices available to me poking through my kitchen at midnight, I've reached $2.14 for 1,052 calories' worth of produce and grains. This leaves me with 52 cents to spend on 948 calories in dairy and meats. A 3-ounce lean beef patty is 185 calories, and lean ground beef is, what, $3.00 a pound? That's 56 cents for one naked burger.

(all calorie counts from Joy of Cooking)

Perhaps Jonathan F and his family buy some of their meals out, an expenditure he is not accounting for in his monthly grocery bill.


Oops. 49 cents to spend on 948 calories.


check this..Judging how much rice or pasta to cook can be difficult as it expands during cooking. Place dry rice (or pasta) on a side plate i.e. a smaller plate than usually used for your meal, until the quantity looks right. Then boil as usual. The cooked rice will fill the larger dinner plate to the same extent. Just do this for each portion required, works whether cooking for one or twenty-one



Some people work 40+ hours a week and do not recieve foodstamps..and they also only have $36 a week to spend on food. It isn't fair to anyone.


The United States ARMY on gets 283 a month for a 4 person family.


I must admit that I agree with you, however I can see things changing pretty soon!


I think one thing we can do as individuals is teach our young peopls. I am a single mother. I applied for food stamp assistanc about a year and a half ago when my child support was abruptly shut off. My ex had an accident at work and was off work due to his injuries. I thought that surely I would qualify for assistance. I turned in the application, went in for the interview, presented all of my information and was TRUTHFUL. The caseworker told me that I qualified for 378 a month in food stamp benefits and issued me a "Lone star card" which is what we use in Texas. About a week later I recieve a letter that I didn't qualify for food stamp benefits. I was working as a waitress at a country club earning about 1200 a month in tips and wages. I had to get another job but me and my family got selected as a partner family for Habitat for Humanity. I found this out the day after I slipped on the ice and injured my neck. I had to work full time not making enough money, not qualifing for any assistance although I had been informed that I would get assistance, and I had to start working on "sweat equity" This is volunteer work that you do and once you get 100 hours, you and volunteers start building your house. I didn't want our local Habitat for Humanity affiliate to find out that my income had changed so I just kept my mouth shut and went on. I had to pinch every penny and there were no extras. In August of 2007, I got a second job. By this time I was getting some child support but it wasn't consistent because of how my ex was paid by workmans comp. I started my second job working as a teaching assistant at our local Jr. High. I kept my waitress job at night at the Country Club. Soon after, I found out that Pizza Hut needed delivery drivers and they were making more than what I was making at the Country club so the nights that I didn't work at the country club, I worked as a pizza delivery driver. Eventually, I left my job at the country club and worked as the driver at night. I have 3 kids and the only words they know is "Mom, do you have any money?" I have lived in poverty since my divorce. I would like to share that if we can convience people that going to school and finishing school and either learning a skill, trade or getting a degree and a decent job that pays well, people may do better. If you earn money you need to know how to manage money. I have learned so many things the hard way but it seems like those who finish highschool, college, get a good job and then BUY not rent their home BEFORE they start having children, they don't struggle as much. If we can develop new habits as a society I believe it would make a difference. This could hopefully free more funds to help the grandparents who are raising grand children or the mentally and physically disabled people get better benefits. Have a great day!


I'd like some who think all people are feeding off the system to get off their high horse. I use to feel like some of you only months ago. Life can change quickly. I am 30 years old, college educated, with a strong employment history. All of that end quickly. I faced no food, unable to keep the home I worked hard for, no phone, no eating out, no car insurance, nothing at all. I swallowed my pride after eating some canned food I had left in the cupboards and after losing 30lbs and applied for assistance. I can tell you there are many people like me. I don't want to live like this and don't intend to. But I'm thankful for having some help to get me through. To those who complain about what they are getting for help, be happy for some help. People around the world are dying everyday. Be thankful for what you do have, it's more than what many others have.


I am in a family of 4, and receive almost $600 a month in food stamps. I go to the grochery store and purchase nearly 2 carts full of food, and I mean nice food, salmon, steaks, chicken breast, tons of fresh fruits and vegetables, snacks, drinks, milk eggs...I spend about 300 on most of my grocheries, and have almost 2 carts full again...Then I have almost $300 more to spend on parishable items that I may need through the month. My fridge is ALWAYS full of good stuff, and my kids are NEVER hungry(3 meals plus snacks daily)

I dont see how people can say they dont make enough in food stamps per month to live off of? Maybe if you werent trading your food for money or drugs, or you laid off filet mignon, or prime rib daily, youd have plenty of the good stuff! Ive NEVER starved, and if I ever DID run out, Id go to the store and buy whatever I needed, considering I receive almost $600 a month in food stamps, I dont ever have to spend a dime on food out of my pocket, so when the time comes up, its not a big deal!!

PS I even go to butcher shops, and purchase premium meat by the quantity, and stick it in a freezer, and let me tell you, its SOOOO much better then crappy expensive store brand meats! I even purchase deli meats, cheeses, and sides..even frog legs!!

Josh Neumann

Since when is it the government's responsiblity to provide food for people anyway?


thanks a lot,very good

Older Than Dirt

I am a low-income Senior with Medicare, Medicade and Food Stamps. Shortly, I hope to apply for a job at $40 a week, $160 a month, $1920 a year (less taxes of course) Will this increase in income make me ineligible or decrease my Medicade and Food Stamp benefits ?

The comments to this entry are closed.