Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) is midway through his weeklong food stamp challenge, and readers are still writing in to tell us about their own experiences with federal food assistance. Here's another selection of your letters, including some of your thoughts on smart shopping, coping with illness, and food stamps as a social investment.
Some of you pointed out that people need more than just food to survive. A reader from Colorado told us:
I live on $765 Social Security per month. Of that, $525 must pay the rent. This leaves $240 for $270 worth of bills, not including food. My $57 of food stamps averages $1.90 per day for a 30-day month -- and, of course, does not cover shampoo, soap, bathroom tissue, and other items the government does not consider necessities. I'm making do, but with a $30 defecit per month, my paltry savings are disappearing quickly. Thank heavens I'm quite healthy for my age and do not need prescription drugs or regular medical care, as there is no way I could afford the copays for either. Food stamps should be renamed subsistence stamps.
A reader named Priscilla echoed these thoughts:
You can’t buy toilet paper, shampoo, soap, medicine, over the counter medicine, first aid supplies, detergent, etc. Don’t get me wrong, the food stamps help tremendously, but needs work. My grandmother gets $540 a month in Social Security. She gets $16 a month in food stamps because she owned her house, but they didn’t take into account the homeowners' insurance and taxes, maintenance, utilities, etc. What can a person do with $16 a month in food?
Have you been on food stamps? Would you like to share your story? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A reader from New Jersey told us about the inadequacy of food stamps in the face of her husband's sickness:
My husband was diagnosed with cancer in July of this year. It forced him to go on temporary disability ($248 a week). Without his normal income, we were forced to make a lot of financial choices, including letting our homeowner's insurance lapse, just so we could pay utilities. We applied for food stamps -- having him eat the right foods would be beneficial to his chemotherapy treatments. The great state of NJ says we can do that on $69 a month. What a joke! That barely covers the cost of his protein drinks. He has been forced to cut down on them as well. I only make $11 an hour (full-time); it doesn't leave any wiggle room for anything extra. Please don't say I should get another job, I work overnights so I can be home to care for my husband during the day, as well as all the household chores, repairs, yard work, etc. I already have 2 full-time jobs.
A reader from California told us about how she "survived on expired/rotten food" before turning to the government for help:
I grew up middle class, and we always had food on the table and a roof over my head [...] The only time I ever accepted government assistance was unemployment insurance. It was embarrassing to me. I supported myself throughout college. I usually had a full or part time job and a few freelance articles and projects on the side. In my late 50's I became ill with fibromyalgia and arthritis and could not find a job. I am now 63 and started collecting Social Security retirement benefits early at 62. I used to earn $35,000+ a year... now have to survive under $8,000. Am on food stamps.
It took me a couple of years of hunger to finally apply for the food stamps. I was very reluctant and thought that it would be too much bureaucracy, plus I was just not brought up to accept government aid. It was a stigma. But I was sick and hungry all the time. I went to churches and food banks and barely survived on expired/rotten food, and peanut butter, pasta, rice and tuna is not exactly a balanced diet. I had no fresh produce except at one food bank.
On food stamps, I cannot buy hot food from the deli. Food stamps lasted half the month when I got the maximum amount. Fifty dollars a week is not enough to sustain a person. I challenge anyone to try to eat healthy on fifty dollars or less a week. Now I only get $50 food stamps for the entire month which means half my retirement check goes to pay for food.
Some of you offered money-saving tips for people trying to cook on a budget. One reader told us:
Sorry, I'm not impressed with a one week trial. You can do anything for a week. Try it for 3 months. I'm 73 and have been using foodstamps for the past few years [...] Fresh fish and produce are expensive. Here are my ideas: Almost everything I buy is on sale which means no lamb (which I love) except for Xmas. [Booker] should cut back on meat to twice a week. Chicken is often on sale. Buy a whole one and skin & bone it yourself [...] Cut back on meat portion sizes so it's only 1/4 of your plate. Eat vegetarian a couple of times a week. Keep bread in the fridge or freezer. Cook from scratch, although canned beans are pretty cheap. Buy rice in large bags. I tried dried milk & couldn't bear it, but I sometimes use it for baking. Buy store brands -- they're almost always made by major brands. Carefully check unit prices on everything. Use coupons but only for something you would buy anyway.
But as Teresa from North Carolina noted, it's not always possible to make ends meet:
I found out how ultra-challenging it was to spend less than $5 a day on balanced meals for 18 weeks while I was unemployed 3 years ago. Lucky for me, I started my 18-week experience with a full pantry and had a decent paycheck just as it emptied. The most frustrating thing for me, a savvy shopper, [was that] I know the best deals are often bulk/family sized items, but on SNAP/food stamps I couldn't take advantage of those deals. Basically, I found it is nowhere near enough for those working poor, those with very low incomes 12 months out of the year, year after year.
Terri Duffy of Texas wrote to tell us about how food stamps helped her get to a more successful place:
I lived in Italy for 8 years, and then returned to Oregon in 1980 with my kids, four suitcases, and $20. I had plenty of job experience in Europe, but the recession was so deep in Eugene that 200 people lined up for a car wash job -- and my references were all overseas! To feed my family, we received food stamps for three years. During that time, I was working as hard as I could to earn enough money to stop needing assistance. There is a tipping point where you are bringing home enough to no longer qualify, but if you take those extra hours and then stop receiving food stamps, you will actually have less money.
It wasn't until I enrolled at University of Oregon and received financial aid - and then scholarships - that we were able to completely sever all ties with food stamps assistance and government cheese. After I earned my bachelor's degree, my earnings improved. In 2000, I received my master's degree in the middle of the 10 years that I worked for Microsoft. It is now 2012 and my earnings are still high. I guarantee you that the government has been paid back MANY TIMES OVER for the investment they made in me and my family! They should not cut this program. It changes lives and makes futures possible.
And a few readers, like the one below, told us that they managed to make it work even in highly trying circumstances:
I went on food stamps as a single parent with five children. While on food stamps, we had more money for food than I had ever been able to budget for food. We did not buy pop or other treats. We did eat "poor"--not a lot of meat and I did focus on having fresh fruit and vegetables. They were our biggest expense. Because of our overall income, the children were able to eat breakfast and lunch at school. We did not eat out but we got through the month sometimes with stamps left over. The working poor often have less money to spend on food than those on food stamps have to spend.
Editor's note: Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.