I'll tell you how: By living on food stamps. I did it, existing on a dollar-a-meal food-stamp allowance for a few days, and yeah, I lost a couple of pounds. But I don't advise it.
FOR THE RECORD:
Food stamps: Patt Morrison's May 24 column about taking the California Assn. of Food Banks' "food stamp challenge" used the wrong figure as the basis for the challenge's $3-a-day food allowance. The allowance is not based on a monthly food stamp allotment of $155, as the column indicated, but on a monthly allotment of $86. The maximum monthly food stamp allowance for an individual is $155; the average allotment for an individual is $86. —
Most e-mail come-ons I get invite me to split a dead man's unclaimed fortune in Nigeria, but this one, from the Bay Area-based California Assn. of Food Banks, offered me the "food stamp challenge." Could I tough it out eating on $3 a day? The association said 26 million Americans do — 1,327,000 of them California children.
Well, I wasn't going to have some little kid bust my chops.
Could it be that hard? My father climbed electric poles for a living. We were thrifty; my mother sometimes served "special treat" pancake suppers that I found out years later were "special" because there was nothing else to eat before payday.
Still, we had a garden, my grandparents had a farm and my grandmothers "put up" food. Now I'd be going it alone — cold Tofurkey. But Tofurkey is, what, $2 a package? That's two-thirds of a day's budget for soy lunch meat! Already my thinking was shifting.
Walk into a market with just $3 to spend for a day's menu and you'll shop with different eyes — and a different stomach. You veer away from the fresh and perishable to the filling and cheap, with a long shelf life. Letting anything spoil when you can't replace it is criminal — and unaffordable. As for staples, the bigger size almost always saves money but costs more up front. Anything organic or fresh or lower salt or lower fat almost certainly costs more than the processed stuff.
So I steered my cart past the produce — in some inner-city markets it's easier to find a bottle of beer than an apple — past the fresh juice and, with my mouth literally watering, stopped in front of bottled Asian sauces. Ordinarily I wouldn't look at them twice, but knowing they were off limits made them exotic and desirable. I also stopped at the glass freezer doors. They might as well have been museum cases for all that anyone could afford what was inside.
I did buy a little 3.25-ounce bottle of bacon-flavored soy bits for, I think, $1.29. At The Times' cafeteria I could get a tomato-and-spinach sandwich for 97 cents and sprinkle on the bits to make a faux BLT. With a glass of tap water, that's five lunches for a little over a buck each — I could skimp on dinner.
But not breakfast, my favorite meal. I found a loaf of the kind of bread that's mostly good for food fights — marked down from $2.19 to 99 cents. Yogurt, 10 for $5. Even on sale, organic cage-free eggs are $3 a dozen, $1 more than the house brand from caged, chemical-fed hens. I usually drink a couple of gallons a week of nonfat organic milk, but that's $10 — nearly half of my entire food allowance. Coffee was out of the question; a teabag, I could dip twice.
Two cans of high-protein, high-fiber black beans cost more than five of goopy, fatty refried beans. With corn tortillas and a pound of cheese — on sale for $3 — and 10 14.5-ounce cans of diced tomatoes for $10 (compared to $2.29 for 16 ounces for fresh), I could have tostadas. Every single night.
The alternative? Hormel single-serving mac and cheese, 25% saturated fat and 820 milligrams of sodium. Cup Noodles, 12 for $4, but nearly half a day's sodium allotment in one serving. On a diet like that, I'd turn into Lot's wife — Lot's very fat wife.
Several members of Congress took the food stamp challenge, and now two of them, a Missouri Republican and a Massachusetts Democrat, are trying to make the food stamp fund a little bigger and to guarantee that combat-zone pay doesn't knock military families off the food stamp eligibility list (yes, there are food stamp debit cards in the pockets of U.S. military uniforms).
Sulking, hungry, I was planning a trip to the 99¢ Only store when I had a Holly Golightly inspiration. I dressed like I belonged in 90210 and sallied off to a high-end gourmet market. I bought a cup of real coffee for $1.25, plus 10 cents tax — a little over my $1 breakfast budget. (But wait — as I poured in milk and sugar, I saw little packets of tartar sauce and mayonnaise and Grey Poupon mustard — hallelujah, free condiments!)
With coffee in hand, I slipped a basket over my arm, dropped in a couple of random items and began strolling the store. Try the new tapenades? Why, thanks. Gosh, I just don't know which is better — could I try them both again? I sampled my way through several cheeses — I preferred the Irish cheddar — some walnuts in honey, fresh pineapple, a flavored crispbread ($5.29 for 5.3 ounces, a dollar an ounce, if I'd purchased it).
I decided not to buy anything — I was too full. Finally.