Even A Chef Can’t Make It On Food Stamps

Everyone’s quick to criticize people on food stamps. Whether it’s hurtling classist slurs like “welfare queen” or “parasite” or forwarding chain emails about the alleged extravagance of people living on OUR tax dollars (!!!), people on food stamps bear the brunt of blame when it comes to “what’s wrong with Amurrica today.”

When world-renowned chef Karl Wilder met with the San Francisco Food Bank to plan a canned goods drive, he was shocked to learn that the average person on food stamps in California has to make do with roughly $4 of food per day, or $1.33 per meal. He decided to spend two months living on the equivalent of a food stamp budget. Wilder has a top-of-the-line kitchen, years of culinary experience, professional knowledge of how to put a healthy meal together, and a garden in his backyard.  He calculated the cost of every meal, compared prices, bought things on sale, and came to an unsurprising conclusion: eating well — and living well — on food stamps is practically impossible.

On his blog, Wilder posted this image of percentages of people on food stamps by state.

Before embarking on his challenge, he looked into the process for applying for food stamps in California. He said the process was so intensive and convoluted that many eligible people give up and rely on food banks like the San Francisco Food Bank. Sadly, donations to food banks tend to go down in the summer before perking up around the holidays. Wilder told SF Weekly that “we tend to forget about hungry people in August.”

Almost immediately after beginning his experiment, he realized three things:

  1. Food is expensive,
  2. Hunger and budget stress give you serious fatigue,
  3. People hate people on food stamps.

He said he regularly received hate mail from readers who alleged that they saw a woman driving up to the grocery store in an expensive car, wearing fashionable clothing, and then pulling food stamps out of her high-end designer bag to buy lobster and steak. In case Chef Wilder hadn’t heard, someone somewhere is abusing the system and therefore the system is broken! Never mind that Wilder was actively documenting how he was skipping creamer in his coffee just to make ends meet.

On his first day, he overspent at breakfast: a small homemade pot of coffee, half a pomegranate, two slices of bread and a slice of cheese put him at $1.83, or 50 cents over budget. The Huffington Post published a few entries from his food diary. A sample:

8:30am, Aug 15: My breakfast is ready. I made dirty rice with chicken and fermented black beans with double fermented soy sauce. The cost was $0.92 but I only ate half the pot so with my small pot of coffee my cost was $0.76 for breakfast. I overspent a couple of days ago so I am making up a deficit now.

2:00pm, Aug 18: I made a toothsome and soul-satisfying spaghetti carbonara. Three slices of bacon (American bacon), 2 eggs, 1/2 cup frozen peas, two ounces of pasta. I feel so much better. I listened to Chef Anne Burrell when she said that this pasta loves black pepper. She is right, that girl can cook. $1.87.

9:00am, Aug 20: I slept a solid 10 hours. Woke up hungry. While making coffee I ate more tortilla chips. Salty and addictive. I mushed some of the rice and beans into a bowl and put cheese on top and set it in the oven to warm. I ate and had my coffee and went back to bed, just to lie down and quickly fell back asleep. Leftovers – so cost is cheese at $0.31.

During his two-month foray into false poverty, he had a lot of advantages that *actual* poor people never get. A fan recognized him at Trader Joe’s and bought him a thing of creamer for his coffee. Neighbors gave him extra bread. Friends invited him over for lavish dinners and pricey wine. Even with these advantages, Wilder was often hungry, tired, and stressed about his food budget.

Some people have criticized his experiment, pointing out that it must be a lot easier to live on food stamps when you have the space to grow vegetables, a kitchen full of gadgets, and professional cooking knowledge (not to mention the fans and friends who donated things). But that almost makes the experiment more poignant. With every possible advantage you can imagine, he barely scraped by on $4 per day. He accounted for oil and seasonings, and “charged” himself 10 cents for everything he took from his garden.

Chef Wilder did everything the Glenn Becks of the world encourage poor people to do: comparison shop! Grow your own food! Have potlucks with friends! Instead of criticizing him for not “really” living on food stamps, it seems like a good springboard for addressing food stamp benefits. “Look at this guy. If he can’t eat nutritious, filling meals on food stamps, who can?”

Wilder visited the doctor at the beginning and end of his experiment. Unsurprisingly, while he’d lost weight, his triglycerides, sugars, cholesterol and blood count were higher. His body fat percentage had increased 3%. And he was VERY happy to be done with the penny-pinching:

“I admit to being bored by it. I am sick of many of the foods that work in this budget. I am ready for it to be over,” Wilder wrote on Month 2, Day 2. “For many who live this way it may never be over. We have few jobs in the U.S. and the jobs we have often pay so little food is a luxury.”

So what can you do? Donate to your local food bank. It’s another couple of months until the holidays, so their shelves are close to empty. At the polls, vote for politicians who support increasing food stamp benefits.

And for god’s sake, stop letting the people around you blame our poorest citizens for being poor. Yes, some people abuse the system. But many, many more people rely on food stamps to make it from one day to the next. Prejudice is a huge issue facing poor people in our country, and it needs to end.


By STFUConservatives

Jess, the mastermind behind STFU Conservatives, is a bike-riding hippie liberal who lives in West Hollywood. Her favorite political issues are abortion, marijuana, health care, and class issues. Her favorite apolitical topics of conversation include small dogs, Diet Coke, and extensive TV viewing.

13 replies on “Even A Chef Can’t Make It On Food Stamps”

Food Stamps are intended to be “supplemental”, but when it’s considered how poor people/families have to be to qualify for them, often they are the only source of income for food.

My husband is dying of brain cancer. I don’t get paid for caring for him 24/7 nor can he work. For us, we have food stamps and a meal once a week with family. It is incredibly hard and stressful to live, to figure out how to eat, when, where to buy and what day of the week/month you can spend money. The amount we get each month doesn’t really cover his special dietary needs- he looses too much weight he goes to the hospital- but I have learned to spend the energy to try and make it work each month.

I recently got a job that pays me much more money than I used to make. I was never so poor that I had to live on $4 a day, but I was close. I hadn’t realized how stressed out I was about it until I went to the grocery store this weekend. I didn’t have to think so hard about my budget, and it was so liberating. I’m also eating so much better, with more fruit and vegetables, and meals that have more flavor since buying that extra jar of spices isn’t such a burden. Having to live on a strict food budget is really miserable. I’m really pleased this guy did this.

I was really happy when I heard about this guy. I’m glad someone is shedding some light on the plight of people in poverty in this country. Where I live in GA, people are extremely prejudiced about people who get food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, welfare, etc. I tire of seeing status updates on Facebook about mandatory drug testing for people who receive aid. I’ve even been told that people who get food stamps should have to work mandatory community service as ‘payment’ for their ‘free ride’.

I get food stamps. Not many, but some. It is not an easy process. It took me two years, five times applying at two different county offices, three months of back and forth with an agent, having to provide various documents ‘proving’ my eligibility and several visits to DCFS. I receive $230 a month, which may sound like a lot, but it really isn’t.

My husband and I always find ourselves really struggling in the summer months, and since he was laid off a couple of months ago we are especially broke these days. So we have been trying a little experiment for the past couple of months whereby we try to only buy food with food stamps, to see if we can really live off of $230 a month. It is not possible. Not even a little bit possible. For the past two months we’ve only bought the bare minimum. Necessity stuff. No bells and whistles, nothing extravagant, all generic, just the most basic of groceries. And both months we ended up with bare cabinets and an empty fridge by the three week mark. The fact that we have a hungry two year old definitely makes it harder – were it just us, we might could pull it off. I won’t allow him to go without, so we spend a lot on his necessities.

Luckily enough we are able to get by, and when we need something we can scramble to obtain it. But it has really opened my eyes and made me think about the families out there who do live solely off of food stamps. What happens when they run out of food, don’t have any money left on the card, and two weeks till they re-up? What if they have no transportation to get to the food bank, and no income to buy anything? I can’t imagine. And it DOES happen. Meanwhile people just assume that everybody on food stamps are free loading drug addicts riding around in Hummers and taking advantage of the system.

It’s just not the case.

I recently got into an argument with the mother of a friend of mine, and I got really heated, because she was saying that anybody who is on any kind of government aid should be forced to take mandatory drug tests and if they test positive even for marijuana they should be barred from ever receiving assistance again. When I asked what about the children who are unfairly punished in that case, and she was like, ‘Not my problem. It’s their unfortunate luck that their parents are bums.’

At that point I felt compelled to point out her hypocrisy, as she draws disability and smokes like a train and drinks like a fish. I asked if she thought it only fair that she should have to take mandatory tests to see what substances she spends her disability money on. And I also reminded her of how she used to smoke doobies with my parents back in high school.

Needless to say, she hates my guts.

Good for you for saying something.. I hate the hypocrisy of the right, how the tea-party types call these aid programs that people legitimately need “entitlements.” You know what’s a fucking entitlement, not taxing the rich.
I briefly (emphasis on the briefly!!!) dated a dude in my masters program who was a self professed tea-partier. He told me that government programs shouldn’t exist and the rich shouldn’t be taxed, rather, lower income people should depend on charity from the wealthy. To which I responded, “really, how much money have you given to charity in the last month?”
He didn’t and couldn’t respond.

I might be mistaken in reading that graph, but how is D.C. and Missouri the best? It seems to me that it’s saying those places have a greater amount of people eligible and receiving food stamps than the other places.

Addressing the article; that’s exactly it. Yes, there may be people who work the system, but they do not make up the majority, or even represent people who need aid. Everyone hates when the entire group is punished just because of one or two people. It’s kind of silly to demonize everyone who needs help for the same reason.

But (and I ask this totally free of snark) aren’t food stamps meant to supplement your food budget? Not to provide the entire budget? I was on them once in college a million years ago, and I got around $28 a month. I don’t think anyone expected me to live on that. I’d be curious to know the intention and the formula they use to figure out how much you receive and what they expect you to provide on your own.

I’m pretty sure that food stamps are given out based on total income + number of people in household, because when I was receiving food stamps with two people in my household, we received around $200 per month. But now that I am single, and they base it on my income (+ student loans), I get $16 a month.

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