National Food Stamp Challenge Reminds Dhr Employees What Life Is Like On ‘Other Side Of Counter’

BALTIMORE – Several employees from the Maryland Department of Human Resources (DHR) participated in the national Food Stamp Challenge. The challenge aims to raise awareness of the relatively small amount of money available to families who enrolled in the federal Food Supplement Program (FSP) to help them purchase healthy food. Participants are challenged to live for one week on the same amount of money that a food stamp recipient receives. On average, the monthly benefit from FSP is $130 per person or $4.35 per day ($1.45 per meal). Our staff shared their experiences and insights.

Karen Butler Director, Charles County Department of Social Services Karen did the Food Stamp Challenge with her elementary school-aged son. At first, she was hesitant to include him. “He was excited about it at first, but I’m not sure he totally understood what we were going to be doing,” explained Butler. “He wanted to know what we would win if we won ‘the challenge.’”


His dreams of prizes and toys soon dissipated when he learned a life lesson on how some families have to pick and choose what they eat because they only have a certain amount of money – and how it feels to have to limit food choices when a family has little discretionary income. “Initially, my son didn’t understand that he couldn’t just go into his snack cabinet and grab something when he was hungry,” said Butler. “I think this experience really highlighted how fortunate he is because his family does have options and resources. It was an important lesson for him.” Constance Carter Administrative Assistant, Prince George’s County Department of Social Services Constance was determined to stay within her budget, and to save money while still getting what she needed. Her strategy was to prepare her meals using off-brand products that cost a little less. She took the time to really look on the shelves to find bargains.


While at the grocery store, she decided to put back a medium-sized onion to get a smaller one because it would cost less – not a lot less – but enough to make her think about how she was allocating her limited resources. She also started questioning whether she usually buys the amount of food she actually needed or was she purchasing more just because she could.
“I was really surprised at how many times I had to eat the same thing,” said Carter. “I only had three food items for the entire week and drank water – nothing else.” Carter said she decided against buying green vegetables because they were too expensive. After budgeting her money, Constance still had to monitor the amount of food she ate at each meal to ensure she would have enough for the week. “From this experience, I know that $30 a week is not enough money to eat nutritionally for a family of one,” said Carter.

Rosemary Malone
Interim Executive Director Family Investment Administration
“The challenge points out how difficult it is to manage with so little money for food; you must have time to cook because $30 does not go very far if you buy a $5 frozen pizza or $3 TV dinners,” said Malone. She spent more than 25 percent of her budget for the week on a package of chicken and a gallon of milk. She purchased vegetables and fruit at the farmers market and a package of chicken legs and thighs, eight ounces of cheddar cheese, a dozen eggs, a bag of brown rice, and a loaf of bread.

Her daily menu consisted of a breakfast of one scrambled egg on toast, lunch was a cup of soup and a cheese slice, an apple or banana for a snack, and chicken/rice casserole for dinner.
“My meals certainly lacked excitement, but they were nutritious,” said Malone. “I did lose two pounds during the week because I had no money for dessert.”

Carolyn Owens
Quality Control Bureau Chief, Family Investment Administration Carolyn’s normal food expenditures equal the same amount as a monthly three-person food stamp allotment, which is $526. She thought the challenge would be easy since she was already managing with the same level of resources. Just before taking part in the challenge, Carolyn faced the unexpected: a family situation resulted in her immediate family of three becoming a family of five. She now faced the challenge of making her food purchases stretch for five. She shops at a generic supermarket where the prices for milk, potatoes, cheese, can goods, and lunchmeat are lower. She said, “My children are accustomed to seeing off-brand products.” Her experience demonstrates how even small unexpected events such as guests for dinner and higher produce prices can be major budget busters.


Leah Hinson Senior Program Analyst, Family Investment Administration
Her breakfast was routine consisting of home fries, turkey sausage, and hot tea. She skipped lunch, but was able to vary her dinner meal. One evening, she cooked lima beans all day in a crock-pot with leftover ham. This was a highly unusual selection because Hinson was not used to consuming beans.
“I was not raised on beans, but they came out really good,” she said. “I would make them again.”
 Over the last five years, food assistance enrollment has increased over 110 percent rising from 305,204 individuals in 2005 to 643,651 in December 2010.

More than 11 percent of Maryland households face a constant struggle against hunger.

Across America, 14.7 percent of households reduced or disrupted their eating patterns at some time during 2009 because the household lacked money and other resources for food.
Children and the elderly suffer greatest from the lack of food.
We will make our staff available for telephone or in-person interviews.

Filed in: Economic Assistance

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