According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans spend as much as $101.88 per week on food per person. But for those who live in poverty and rely on the food stamps to get by, that amount drops to just $28 per week, or $4 per person per day. Plenty of politicians have spent a week or so trying to see what it's like to live on so little, but when a regular family does it to raise awareness about hunger and poverty issues, the impact can last a lifetime.
"I was surprised by a lot," said Nova Biro, the co-director of Open Circle, a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, told Yahoo! Shine. Her family of four tried the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) challenge earlier in March, limiting their food intake to what they could buy for $4 per person per day to support Nova's work with LeadBoston, an executive leadership program aimed at exploring equity issues in Boston.
"I was surprised by how hard it is to fit into the diet the fruits and vegetables that our family is used to eating," she told Yahoo! Shine. "That was probably the most striking shift for us."
"I was really surprised by is how curious the kids were about it," her husband, Peter Biro, an entrepreneur who has worked in the technology and restaurant industries, told Yahoo! Shine. "They wanted to learn more. If they experience something, they really internalize it."
Peter quickly learned that certain regular grocery purchases became impossible. The family still ate proper meals -- no one went to hungry -- but while beans, rice, vegetable-laden stews, and homemade pizza were inexpensive and easy to prepare ("Especially if you skimp on the cheese," he says) other family favorites -- like raspberries, seafood, slow-cooked brisket, special desserts, and anything with a brand name -- were out.
"I don't think I ever really stepped back and thought, 'How much does the food on my plate actually cost?'" he told Yahoo! Shine. Checking daily sales at local supermarkets helped him stretch his grocery dollars, and buying in bulk at Costco and cooking from scratch helped him save even more, but he recognizes that the working poor wouldn't have the time or money to do either.
"Eating more cheaply is very time consuming," he told Yahoo! Shine. "I became really aware of how much time it takes to prepare food if you want to be both on a budget and be healthy."
"A family living at the poverty level couldn't get to Costco or afford to buy in bulk," Nova points out. "People who live at the poverty level barely have time to prepare food."
"Even doing our SNAP challenge and reducing our budget, we still had a car, had easy access to grocery stores, had access to a fully equipped kitchen, which many people don't have," she added. "So even as challenging as it was for us, we had far fewer challenges than most people face."
School lunches for their 9-year-old twin girls, Sophie and Lily, had to come out of that $16 a day budget as well, though Nova notes that children who are actually living at the poverty level would probably qualify for free school lunches. The girls ended up packing their lunch boxes with cheap pasta and leftovers and, instead of complaining, they got creative in order to satisfy their cravings.
At school, "One of my daughters figured out that she could trade her granola bar for fresh fruit, which we were rationing much more tightly at home because it was expensive," Nova told Yahoo! Shine. Out-of-season apples cost about $1.33 each, compared to granola bars from Costco, which are a bargain at about 10 cents apiece.
Peter's morning cappuccino was no longer an option at $4.25 a cup, and he found that his weekly father-daughter treat was also affected by the SNAP challenge. That $4 per person per day had to cover food eaten outside of the home as well.
"My daughter Sophie and I typically spend Tuesday afternoons together and share a piece of cake ($4) and bring one home for my wife and other daughter ($4)," he wrote in an essay for LeadBoston. "We knew this had to go. So, last week, Sophie and I split a mini-cupcake for $1."
"She was very resilient about it," he told Yahoo! Shine. "She told me, 'That’s OK dad, I don’t need the big piece anyway'.”
"They're 9 years old, but they understood that there were treats that they usually get here or there that, under this budget, we couldn't afford to provide," Nova says. But they also understood that their experience was vastly different from that of people who struggle with poverty and hunger in real life.
"It's hard to miss something that much when you know you can go back to it a week later," she adds.
The family made their fully stocked pantry off-limits once their daily budget had been used up. "On $4 a day, when the pantry is closed, the pantry is closed," Peter says. "No grabbing a bunch of stuff from the cabinet when you've gone through your money for the day. That was a big adjustment for the kids." And Peter admitted that he felt anxious after his daily $4 had been used up. When you're on SNAP, every dollar makes a difference.
"I don’t know what happens to the economy if the minimum wage goes up $1," he wrote. "I do know that an extra $1 equals $40 per week and would increase the food budget of a family of four by almost 35 percent. A huge impact."
The family is planning on doing the SNAP Challenge again at some point, Peter told Yahoo! Shine, and donating the difference between the SNAP budget and what they usually spend on food to a local charity. They're urging others to consider doing the same, to raise awareness about hunger and poverty issues. (For more information, check out Four Dollar Challenge on Facebook.)
"My wife and I know how to improvise in the kitchen, and the convenience of leftovers makes them a way of life for us already, so fitting different ingredients into this model didn’t jar us," Peter wrote in his essay for LeadBoston. "For Sophie and me to go without our usual dessert was not that big of a deal either, because in truth, we knew we could resume it next week. It was temporary. But poverty is rarely temporary. And on the best day, you can either have a cup of coffee yourself, or give your child a treat, but never both."
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