Posted Friday, April 27, 2012 by Team Northwoods

Two Northwoodians Take the Food Stamp Challenge

Could you eat on $23 a week? Two Northwoodians took the Ohio Community Action Food Stamp Challenge to find out.

The Challenge

The goal of the Food Stamp Challenge is to increase awareness around poverty and hunger in Ohio. Participants agree to limit their total food purchases to the weekly budget of a typical food stamp recipient: $23 for five days.

The Participants

After reading about the Food Stamp Challenge in the Columbus Dispatch two Northwoods employees decided to accept the challenge. Starting April 27, they will share their experiences on this blog and from their personal Twitter accounts. Lisa and Dan will also share pictures on a Northwoods Pinterest board, “Food Stamp Challenge.”

lisa-w    Lisa Walsh

Product Research Specialist
Food Vice:Caffeine

Daniel-Unsdorfer    Dan Unsdorfer

Associate Trainer
Food Vice:Snacks

May 2, 2012 - Lunch vs Lunch

Editor's note: Lisa and Dan compared their lunches with other Northwoodians' lunches on May 2 to see how they stacked up on price, quantity and nutrition. Lisa and Dan's lunches were considerably less expensive, but not vastly different in quantity. There may be some nutritional discrepancies (namely salad vs. Cocoa Puffs). Since a picture is worth 1,000 words, take a look:


Dan's pasta, Cocoa Puffs, and water lunch cost 90 cents, compared to Northwoodian 1's tuna and cheese sandwich, red pepper and hummus, and Panera cookie for approximately $4.


Dan's lunch is much different than Northwoodian 2's, which is an approximately $5.50 spinach salad with tuna, tomatoes, avocado and pineapple.


Lisa's pasta, tuna, and broccoli meal, costing only 76 cents, is much less expensive than Northwoodian 2's salad, but has fewer vegetables.


Lisa's lunch is more than $3 less expensive than Northwoodian 1's lunch, which would have been more cost-effective without that cookie.

Lisa Walsh

May 3, 2012 – Final Thoughts

Here is the question I’ve been asked the most.

Were you able to eat on the food stamp budget?

The short answer is, yes. I stayed within forty cents of the budget and I was able to feed myself for five days. I also learned a lot and gained just a little insight into the lives of people who use food stamps.

But, I also made a lot of mistakes. I spent my whole budget at the very beginning so I had no room to make adjustments. I selected food based on assumptions about what was economical without considering any other variables. I bought rice and beans, pasta, and frozen vegetables – all good choices. But, I skimped on fresh produce because it seemed expensive. I made a pot of rice and beans, which was good for more meals than the two or three I planned. Instead of the pasta and the English muffins, I could have bought a head of lettuce and a few carrots and gotten several salads. Oatmeal for breakfast each day was great, and very affordable, so that was my best choice. But, I didn’t use all of the pasta, the rice, or the bread, so these could be available into the next weeks. If I were managing a month-long budget, I could buy rice during week one and pasta during week two.

Bottom line, I may have outsmarted myself by choosing a number for shelf-stable staple items and not giving myself any fresh fruit. I was out of balance in that regard. This is yet another example of how difficult it is to manage inside the confines of a budget for people relying on food stamps for most of their food budget.

May 2, 2012 - An Artificial Challenge?

A lot of people have commented that the Food Stamp Challenge is an artificial one. I have heard more than one person (in a blog or in person) express concern that somehow participating in the challenge makes light of the actual experience of people who use food stamp benefits. I can see both of these positions. I agree that it is artificial; I can go back to my eating habits when it is over. Someone taking the challenge who is able to manage their five-day budget might come to the conclusion that it really isn’t that hard. But my experience does not support that position.

In these five short days I have gotten a good sense of how exhausting and difficult it is to manage food on a very tight budget. While I think I have managed my budget and meal planning successfully, it hasn’t been easy or all that much fun. My choices are limited, there is no wiggle room, and if I make a choice I don’t like, tough. And I have minimal obstacles. I have my own transportation so I have shopping options. I have a regular work schedule. I don’t have kids. And, I have a kitchen full of cooking tools, like a Crock-Pot and reliable refrigeration to store leftovers.

So, yes it is just an exercise and it is always easy to judge other people’s decisions, but going through this has been more than an exercise for me. While I supported programs like SNAP before the challenge, I have a much different understanding now of why they matter.

May 1, 2012 - A Few Days in...

I started the challenge over the weekend, so I am a few days in so far. The biggest change for me is the need to plan meals and cook the food. Usually, if there is nothing handy in the fridge (Read: leftovers from dinner out the night before), I just go out. Now, I have to make dinner and then figure out lunch too. My plan involves making filling dinners of more than one serving and using the leftovers as lunch.

Monday I had to drive to a meeting a couple of hours away. When I was thinking about what to plan for the week, I did not think about a “travel lunch.” I also hadn’t left myself any wiggle room for changing my mind or dealing with contingencies. So, what was I to do? I couldn’t really take leftovers since I don’t have a microwave in my car, and it might be messy. I did have hard-boiled eggs and some English muffins. So, I made an egg sandwich (not egg salad, just egg) and cut up a few stalks of celery. It worked out just great. It was filling and easy to pack and eat while travelling. The bonus was I had extra time to find a small park near my meeting and enjoyed sitting at a picnic table while I ate. I would not have taken the time for that if I had run through a drive-through as I normally do.

After a few days it still feels like I have plenty of food, not a great selection (more on the choices I wish I’d made in a later post), but plenty of food. One thing I noticed is I have a lot more anxiety about wasting food, or “losing” it. Usually I would grumble when food was wasted, but now I actively worry about it before it might happen. Dan almost having jars break would have been terrible!

When I made a rice and beans dish, I used a recipe I had never used before. I blithely started the process in the Crock-Pot, and then about an hour later I walked by and noticed that the spices were still lying on top. Should I have stirred them in? I started to worry that I wouldn’t like the meal and began to fret that I should not have used an untried recipe because if it did not turn out, I would have wasted the food I had planned for about three meals… It turned out very well, if I must say so myself, but not before I worried myself into a minor frenzy.

April 28, 2012 - Shopping

After I agreed to take the challenge, I spent a lot of time thinking about my strategy and what I would plan to eat for the five days. I planned my menu and then went shopping in my pantry. I didn’t want to add to the pile of staples that are usually neglected because I don’t really cook. I put all of those items (with brand names) on my shopping list so I could include the price I’d pay if I’d been buying them. Then, off to the store I went.

Lisa's grocery trip purchases

Armed with a list and pen, I decided I should check out the prices of what I had on hand and get the dry goods first. That would let me determine how much money I had remaining to purchase produce. That is exactly the opposite route I usually take. I got the prices for what I had on hand and picked up the other items I had on my list. I was lucky that several items on my list were on sale, which gave me hope that I’d be able to get some extras. Unfortunately, because a couple of things I had on hand were brand name items, I ended up spending more of my budget than I would have if I’d chosen anther brand, especially the store brand. But, in good news, I discovered that the items I buy in bulk, like rice and popcorn, really are cheaper even if you are buying a smaller amount.

Then I decided to see what I would be able to do about caffeine, and that is when I realized I’d have to make some adjustments. I thought about it and realized that the reason I drink coffee is really because I get a coffee confection. I like the flavored, steamed, fancy drinks. The other times I drink coffee is just to get my caffeine fix. So, I checked out the price of tea bags and will break my coffee habit in the next week.


Lisa's list. She only went 40 cents over budget!

Here is my shopping list – with prices. I went 40 cents over the $23 limit.

It took me a lot longer to shop today than usual, and I spent significantly less than I usually do. I also stuck to my list a lot more closely than usual. It is a good thing that I didn’t have to purchase condiments and spices though. And, I didn’t get any cheese or dairy. I won’t miss the milk (don’t tell my mom), but I suspect I am going to wish I’d allocated some funding for cheese.

April 27, 2012

So, I agreed to take the Food Stamp Challenge. It has been an interesting day or so since I agreed to do this. As I do with many things, I have gone through multiple stages in my thought process about how I am going to tackle this challenge.

Stage one: I began with a smug belief that this should be interesting and not too bad. I don’t eat meat. I am a thoughtful shopper and make good choices.

Stage two: Let’s make this interesting... I will try new recipes and cooking techniques.

Stage three: Reality sets in. I realized that I don’t cook much, eat out a lot, and don’t go to the grocery store often enough to really know what the price of many ingredients are.

Stage four: A flurry of recipe searches and meal planning to identify a few affordable ingredients that are very versatile, as well as options to provide multiple meals from a single recipe.

Stage five: I realized (with great angst) that I would need to accommodate my caffeine addiction while foregoing my usual snobby taste in coffee and tea.

Stage six: Complications! As I told people that I was doing the challenge, they started raising a whole host of new issues to consider, like “can you eat healthy for that amount per day?” and “but you’re doing it alone, so you don’t get to use bulk purchasing.” And the inevitable reminders from friends and family that I don’t cook.

Stage seven: It's just setting in that this is called a challenge for a reason. I just hope I’m up to meeting it.

Clearly the purpose of the challenge is to create an opportunity to “walk a mile in someone else's moccasin,” and even before I get started, I am thinking differently about role of food and planning for meals. In fact, I have put more time and thought into shopping, meal planning, and budgeting for food in the last 24 hours than I have in the last 2-3 years. So, I am preparing to put on those moccasins and walk this path knowing that I will look at many things differently in a few short days.

Dan Unsdorfer

May 3, 2012 – Final Thoughts

Today’s lunch: Instant mashed potatoes…blech! I tried my best to spice them up with salt, pepper, and some household seasonings but still…blech! I’d trade the whole dry, flakey box for my jelly sandwich lunch from day three.

At least it’s the last day of the challenge for me (I am running the half marathon on Saturday, so I started the challenge Sunday in order to carb-load tomorrow), allowing me to use my remaining $1.63. I went with a coworker to Potbelly’s for lunch and purchased a cookie for $1.25. It was amazing. I was asked this morning my best meal of the week, and that cookie was it by far.

Overall, the challenge has opened my eyes about all the time that it takes planning meals when you are on a limited budget. I could no longer grab and go. I had to be thinking about the bigger picture – how is this meal choice going to affect the rest of my options for the week?

I have also been overwhelmed by all of my friends and coworkers who wanted to give or buy me food. They all wanted to help me get through this and I have appreciated everyone’s support, questions, comments, and suggestions!

May 2, 2012 - Energy Crash

Thunk – the metaphorical sound of my head hitting the keyboard. That’s what I felt like yesterday. The combination of a not-too-exciting work project, no coffee, and running out of Cocoa Puffs snacks had my eyes glazing over and created a struggle for me to focus. This whole challenge had not been too hard until yesterday, but it finally hit.

Normally, I’ll get up and get a snack or refill my coffee cup, but I couldn’t afford (and wasn’t allowed) to do that yesterday. I tried to push through but it was difficult. I’ve found it to be true that a small snack can provide a big mental boost. I took a few walks around the office and tried to get my blood flowing a little better, but the relief didn’t last too long.

I ended up having a coworker “accidentally” drop a few pretzels on the table and offered to save them from the trash (thanks, Colleen!). So yeah, I technically cheated a little bit. But I didn’t want those pretzels to go to waste!

April 29, 2012 - Shopping

Like Lisa, I also spent more time shopping than normal. It was kind of hard to pass by all the nice, expensive stuff I normally buy, but in a way, also liberating.


The result of Dan's shopping trip. Nice to see those jars in tact!

I did feel a little funny walking around with all the generic stuff in my basket. I mean, I don’t judge people on what they buy, but I did feel slightly self-conscious about people judging me.

Overall, I went with quick and easy things. I’m not one to do a lot of cooking and preparing. If I had to do this week in and week out, I know I would get tired of the lack of variety, but for this week I will be fine.

My grocery list:

- Half-gallon of 2% Milk – necessary for some recipes, also for cereal – $1.77
- Cereal (Cocoa Crunchies) – my breakfast and snacking material for the week – $3.39
- Ramen Noodles – in the bag – 2 x 0.19 – $0.38
- Ramen Noodle cup – $0.29
- Instant Mashed Potatoes – $2.49
- Can of gravy – on sale! – $0.99
- Pasta – there were cheaper options but I went with the whole wheat – on sale! – $1.25
- Pasta sauce – $1.37
- Wheat Bread – on sale! – $1
- Jelly – couldn’t afford the peanut butter to go with it – $2.88
- Baby spinach – for salad – a little more than I wanted to spend – $3.29

Total spent = $21.37
Leftover = $2.63

I wanted to leave a little bit of money for later in the week if I needed to buy something else. When I was unloading the bags out of my car, the handle on the bag with the two glass jars (of pasta sauce and jelly) broke and the life of my food for the week flashed before my eyes. Luckily, nothing was lost but it really put this in perspective. Had either jar broken, I would have been pretty screwed.

April 27, 2012

I have to admit I have a somewhat-ulterior motive for participating in this Food Stamp Challenge: I know I spend too much on food. Inspired by a fellow Northwoodian (thanks Todd!), this month I created a spreadsheet to keep track of my expenses. For food I budgeted $270 for the month, which is roughly $10 per day.

Well, I went over budget.

On the 14th day of the month.

Full disclosure, I live with my brother and cousin (who likes to cook) and we do group meals a lot. I buy, my cousin cooks, everyone is happy (especially my brother). But I’m also an impulse shopper. You know how they say don’t go shopping when you’re hungry? Yeah, I do that. A lot.

As a result, I’m looking forward to this being a test of my discipline: the discipline to go to the store only once this coming week. To do this I’ll need to make a plan for each meal and stick to it.

The biggest challenge I think I’m going to face is the fact that I am a huge snacker and generally just eat when I feel like it. So far my plan for that is to buy one of those giant, off-brand bags of cereal and divvy it up into plastic bags for snacking purposes. The rest of my meals will have to be carefully planned. I normally just delete the deals-of-the-week email from Giant Eagle, but now I’m searching through my trash folder for it. I know I need to go in to the grocery store with a plan Sunday or I’m not going to make it.

I am not too far removed from being a poor college student when instant mashed potatoes and a stray Natty Light was a gourmet meal, so I know I can do this. I do my best to eat with my health in mind, so I am interested in seeing how hard that will be on a limited budget. I’m looking forward to sharing my experience with everyone so that we can all better understand what it’s like to live on a limited income.