Participants were limited to spending only $4.20 for a day’s worth of food.
Participants were limited to spending only $4.20 for a day’s worth of food.
Rochel Burstyn
By Rochel Burstyn

Here’s something to chew over: The daily SNAP (aka food stamps) allocation in Michigan is $4.20 per person per day.

The good folks at Yad Ezra, the Berkley-based kosher food pantry, asked: How far does $4.20 worth of groceries really get you?

I thought it might be fun to see if I could shop for groceries on such a limited budget, but what I didn’t realize was that the challenge involved eating exclusively those few measly groceries for the next 24 hours as well.

I wasn’t going to chicken out once I realized; but let’s just say that if I had known what I was in for, I would have made sure to eat a double portion of dinner that evening before I headed out on our communal shopping trip to Meijer on May 23.

So how did I do on Yad Ezra’s annual food stamps diet challenge?

For starters, I don’t think I’ve ever spent so long shopping for so little; I spent ages roaming the aisles, studying the sale prices. Some of the other participants banded together to double their “allowance.” Others, like me, who did it alone suddenly had to decide how to divvy up such a small amount over the course of a day. $1.40 per meal, no snacks? Eat only twice in the day? So many choices. But you know what wasn’t a choice anymore? Pizza. Eating out. Most of my favorite foods. The good-looking cookies that someone had put on the wrong shelf that I got excited about until I scanned them …

Keeping kosher made the challenge even harder. But then again, who doesn’t have dietary restrictions? There are plenty of folks who are diabetic, low-sodium, have allergies, etc., and sometimes those restrictions mean their food costs triple the usual price (helloooo, gluten-free aisle!) so I reckon the “added” kosher challenge kept things authentic.

Then there’s the matter of fruits and veggies. They are generally so much more expensive than cookies and chips. I mean, it’s a shame that folks on food stamps can’t afford healthier options too often, but I suppose they’re also likely getting government health insurance. I wonder how much of it covers illnesses due to bad food choices? (And is it really considered a “choice” if they couldn’t afford anything healthier in the first place?)

At the risk of boring the pants off you like any inspired new dieter who wants to tell you about her food in painstaking detail, I will tell you what I purchased: one box of macaroni (on sale! 89 cents!), one dozen eggs (the half-dozen wasn’t available), a single corn on the cob (woo-hoo! A metziyah at 10 cents!) and one tube of barbecue Pringles.

I know the challenge isn’t an exact portrayal of the way the system works. Families really get their allotted food stamps in one monthly swoop and it’s likely they already have some staples, spices, oil, etc. (part of the challenge was not to use what we already had at home …) Still, close enough.

I left Meijer feeling like I was preparing for Yom Kippur (albeit without all the repenting). I kept thinking, “I’ll be fine; it’s only 24 hours and then I can eat normally again.”

I was super aware that I had very little food for the next day. So that night, every time I heard footsteps and creaking floor boards, I yelled out to whichever kid was out of bed, “You better not be touching my Pringles!”

In the end, I actually fared OK. It wasn’t fun. I didn’t like my food much (besides the Pringles), but I didn’t starve, which I suppose is the goal of the Powers That Be who get to decide exactly how much to allocate for the hungry in Michigan. But is it really enough?

Granted, I only ate like this for one day. Eating this way for much longer would get stale fast.

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