TracyI was up for the Food Stamp Challenge – but after discussing the guidelines with some of the staff, we decided I’d make a few changes. The rules were simple enough – I would live on a self-imposed food budget of $31.50 for a week. However, I planned to incorporate natural parts of my life into the challenge. Rather than avoiding free food, I continued to use my Grandpa’s homemade maple syrup and the eggs I get from his chickens, the bread my Grandma sends home with me and the meals I eat from my weekend trips home to my parents. Gift cards, which were exactly that – a gift – were fair game. I also drank fresh coffee brewed in the kitchen at work each day, and, if there were treats on the table, I ate some of those, too.

While 42 people signed up through the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee to participate in the “Food Stamp Challenge” last fall, my challenge was to see if I could continue to eat healthy on that budget under my specific circumstances. The reason: Even if I needed financial help for food, from what is known as FoodShare in Wisconsin, I would still have been born into a family that eats dinners together on the weekends, whose Grandpa’s chickens provide eggs, where syrup is made and Grandma bakes.

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Food Stamp challenge means living on $1.50 per meal

I pushed aside the food in my cupboards and fridge that I couldn’t eat during the challenge, anything that didn’t come from my new budget, and deducted the cost of food that I planned to use instead of purchasing more: Oatmeal, spaghetti noodles, pasta sauce and peanut butter.

I shopped at Aldi on my lunch break on the first day of the challenge, where I spent $24.44 on: skim milk, cheese, frozen peas and corn, lettuce, acorn squash, vanilla yogurt, chicken broth, mushrooms, spaghetti sauce, baked beans, wheat bread, carrots, dill pickles, tomatoes, thin wheat crackers and apples.

As I shopped, I noted the cost of the items I had at home, which meant I would add $5.26 to my receipt bringing my total to $29.70. The money left over was used for hot chocolate, one of my favorite nighttime treats.

Like many, I have a budget determined by payments for rent, a car, gas, insurance policies, a cell phone, Internet service, electricity, groceries and school loans. I wanted to see if I could still eat healthy on this small budget and make it work in my unique circumstances – I have a cell phone and Internet, which make looking for deals easier, and I was able to hop in my car to make a trip to the store on my time, which may not be the case for families who must take the bus.

While I was a little hungry in between meals – snacking had to stop to make the food stretch throughout the week – I did it. Here’s how: I ate oatmeal with cinnamon, syrup and apple slices, for breakfast and sometimes dinner, because it kept me full longer.

I also ate eggs with cheese, mushrooms and tomatoes; egg sandwiches; peanut butter bread; cheese-mushroom-lettuce-pickle sandwiches; wheat crackers and apples with yogurt; soup that I made from chicken broth and vegetables; pasta; stir fries with vegetables. I had to be creative with the foods I had, using spices to make otherwise bland meals more exciting.

I craved turkey burgers and chicken, but decided to get protein through other, cheaper sources. I bought a variety of foods in smaller portions because bulk purchases that save money in the long run weren’t practical when I started from scratch. In reality, I had food left over and would be able to spend money on other items each time I shopped.

I spent more time creating a meal plan, rather than just wandering through the store aisles; I turned down Triple Berry Oats Cereal, because the $2.39 would have put me over my budget, used the milk faster and it wouldn’t have kept me full as long as oatmeal. I ran out of crackers pretty early, which I used as a filler in between meals, and I drank a lot of water and coffee.

I looked forward to purchasing the things I love that I cut out of my diet during the challenge – almonds, coffee, coffee creamer, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, pork roasts, chips and salsa, Yogi tea. I used what I had in my cupboards and found ways to make more with less, but I was able to eat healthy and, for the most part, enough. My struggle would be different from someone who has no job, car, phone, Internet, syrup and eggs from Grandpa, family meals … etc. The sad reality is that while I gladly said goodbye to my week of minor discomfort, families continue to struggle to put food on the table.