Panic in the Grocery Store: My first day on food stamps

The heat in late September has been particularly brutal, even for San Diego where everyone expects warmth. As I walked into the cool, fresh air of the grocery store, I was expecting to feel relief, but instead panic set in: I was there to buy my groceries for one week of living on a food stamp budget, as part of the CalFresh Challenge, an awareness campaign my organization is running to shed light on issues surrounding food stamps for the hungry.

Erika's groceries for the week of the Challenge

Erika's groceries for the week of the Challenge

Even though I entered the grocery store ‘fully prepared’ with a menu for the week, I instantaneously started realizing that what I had planned did not match up with the mega sale items, and that I would need to rethink things. I recognized pretty quickly that planning the menu needed to go hand in hand with scanning the store’s weekly ad. As a married woman without any children and a full time job, this seems cumbersome. Imagine if you added children and grandparents and other mouths to feed into the equation. After spending an hour shopping for my week, some themes came to emerge:

  • The dissolution of choice

Instead of going around the store looking at what delighted my senses the most, I was instead drawn to the large orange sale tags underneath certain items. They became my focal point. If I had it in mind to buy spinach, but iceberg lettuce was on sale, then it was iceberg that was purchased. No longer was my meal based on nutrition or desire, it was based on what the weekly ad touted as the cheapest item.

  • Panicked decisions

I had planned a relatively nutritious menu for myself, but as I walked through the store, I started to feel like I was not getting enough, that I would be hungry, that I was staring down the barrel of famine. My purview changed from my usual feeling of excitement at the grocery store to sheer stress. I pictured myself on Thursday night feeling uneasy and voracious, so I began to buy “filler items” – foods that I knew would just satiate, and that had little nutritious value. This included 6 frozen burritos for $2.

  • Cheap food is cheap

Our government subsidizes farmers to grow corn and soy which are packed into billions of products with low nutritional value and low cost. There were tons of products I could buy at the store, but when it came to thinking through what would allow me to meet minimal governmental standards for nutrition, almost none of them fit the bill. Cheap food is cheap. So, while it may be filling and even fattening, it does not allow folks such as those on food stamps to lead an active, healthy life. Families often have to choose what will fill their childs’ bellies for the longest versus giving them something nutritious but leaving them hungry.

  • Repetition reigns

America is associated with variety and abundance and choice and freedom. When you’re living on $4/day, as millions of Americans are, all of that changes.  I will be eating the same thing for dinner, or some combination of the same ingredients, every night this week. Lunch and breakfast have a pretty similar look as well.

While I look forward to understanding what this reality is like for those that live it every day, I fully recognize that this snippet of time is in no way indicative of what this would be like to live on a food stamp budget year round. It would be an endless loop of stress, planning, anxiety, hunger, and malnourishment. Where food for so many is generally a source of pleasure, community-making, and fun, for those that stretch small amounts just to not go hungry, food is a source of anxiety and pain.