published Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Chattanooga's $4.40 a day challenge reveals what it's like to live on food stamps

  • photo
    Mayor Andy Berke eats lunch with3-year-olds Torren Parker, far left, and Piper Baker and their classmates at the YFD Child Care on Tuesday in Chattanooga. Berke is eating on $4.40, the average amount of food stamps a person in the SNAP program in Tennessee gets, for the next week to raise awareness of food insecurity. For lunch Berke had a turkey and cheese sandwich, chips, a banana and an apple, while the kids munched on meatloaf, mashed potatoes, greens and rolls.
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
    enlarge photo

Poll
Could you eat on $4.40 a day?

AT A GLANCE

About food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program:

• Number of people participating: 48 million, or 1 in 7 Americans

• Average monthly benefit: $275 per household nationally

• Program's cost: $80 billion a year

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

ONE WAY TO DO IT

SNAP Challenge sample menu for 1 person:

Monday

Breakfast: Oatmeal singles, banana, milk

Lunch: Tuna sandwich, 1/2 orange

Dinner: Pasta w/sauce, boiled baby carrots

Tuesday

Breakfast: Oatmeal singles, banana, milk

Lunch: Peanut butter sandwich, apple

Dinner: Buttered pasta with tuna, peppered green beans

Wednesday

Breakfast: Oatmeal singles, banana, milk

Lunch: Tuna sandwich, 1/2 orange

Dinner: Pasta with sauce, boiled baby carrots

Thursday

Breakfast: Oatmeal singles, banana, milk

Lunch: Peanut butter sandwich, apple

Dinner: Buttered pasta with tuna, peppered green beans

Friday

Breakfast: Oatmeal singles, banana, milk

Lunch: Tuna sandwich, 1/2 orange

Dinner: Pasta with sauce; boiled baby carrots

Saturday

Breakfast: Oatmeal singles, banana, milk

Lunch: Peanut butter sandwich, apple

Dinner: Buttered pasta with tuna; peppered green beans

Sunday

Breakfast: Oatmeal singles, banana, milk

Lunch: Tuna sandwich, 1/2 orange

Dinner: Pasta with sauce, boiled baby carrots

Purchases

1 box oatmeal singles $3

1 quart whole milk $2.19

1 loaf multigrain bread $2.99

1 16.3-oz. jar peanut butter $2

4 cans tuna fish $4.59

2 lbs. baby carrots $2.99

2 lbs. green beans $2.99

3 apples $3.13

2 oranges $2.61

7 bananas $1.90

3 16-oz. boxes pasta $2.67

1 26-oz. jar pasta sauce $1.67

Total: $32.73*

*This amount is based on the national average of $4.80 a day, though in Tennessee only $4.40 a day is allowed

Having just $4.40 a day to spend on food changes things. Angela Ballard thinks about food a lot more now.

Normally she pays no mind to cupcakes in the break room, but now that she's on a limited budget, "it's all I can think about," she said.

Kelley Nave can't afford her usual two cups of coffee a day. "You know it's bad when you get up and you're excited about going to work in the morning because you know there is free coffee," Nave said.

And Mayor Andy Berke is eating pasta, a lot of pasta. "Pasta and red sauce has done well in the mayor's office this week," he said. "We've all spent a lot of time eating pasta and red sauce."

The three are among more than two dozen local employees and elected officials throughout the city voluntarily limiting themselves to spending no more than $4.40 a day on food, the average amount a person in Tennessee gets for food stamps.

Local participants in the mayor's office, the United Way, Chattanooga Area Food Bank and Junior League of Chattanooga are among people across the nation participating in the seven-day challenge.

"By living off of $4.40 a day I want to highlight the struggles that so many people face," Berke said. "If we can highlight that and show people that this is the reality, then we can talk about how to change it."

Participants are asked to calculate their weekly grocery budget and donate what they normally would spend beyond the $4.40 a day to the Chattanooga Food Bank.

The purpose of the challenge is to give participants a first-hand view of what it's like for the 1.3 million people in Tennessee who receive food stamps. That's about 20 percent of the state population. In Georgia, more than 1.9 million people, about 19 percent of the population, receive food stamps.

There seems to be a group out there that thinks having food stamps is a luxury, but nobody is living luxuriously on food stamps, said Nave, the United Way of Greater Chattanooga's director of public relations.

Berke and his wife are both participating in the challenge, and he said the thing he has noticed most is all of the planning and preparation required.

Berke ate lunch with a group of 3-year-olds at the Youth and Family Development Center on Tuesday to highlight the fact that half of the people on food stamps are children. Instead of stopping somewhere to grab a sandwich as he usually does, he had a sack lunch consisting of a turkey sandwich, potato chips, a banana and an apple.

This is the first time that a Chattanooga mayor has participated in the SNAP Challenge, but it is not the first time a SNAP Challenge has been held in Chattanooga, said Berke spokeswoman Lacie Stone.

Junior League participants are taking the challenge even further by shopping for the challenge in the city's food deserts, or communities with no or few grocery stores.

Ballard shopped at the Dollar General store at the corner of Willow Street and McCallie Avenue.

The task was even more daunting for her because she is a pescaterian. Normally she has lots of seafood choices at area supermarkets, but for $4.40 for food a day, the only seafood in the store that she could afford was canned tuna.

"The interesting thing for me is how much meal planning I've done," she said. "I can tell you what I'm going to have for lunch on Sunday because I've planned it out."

Ballard said she also gave more thought this week to celebrating her husband's birthday. Without the challenge, she wouldn't have given a second thought to cooking his favorite meal -- steak with all the trimmings -- but with the challenge she's more aware of the sacrifice that requires.

Nave said working at United Way makes her aware of some of the struggles that come with not having enough money, but the SNAP Challenge makes her appreciate the intricacies of the problems all the more.

She is doing the challenge on a diet that calls for her to eat a certain amount of fruit and protein daily. She wanted to have an apple a day, but seven apples can cost $6. Instead, she bought 21 bananas for $4.17.

And she preferred getting Sara Lee's wheat bread, but that sold for $5 for two loaves while two loaves of whole grain white bread was $3.39, she said.

"Normally, I'm not a bread eater, but you've got to look at what you can afford," she said. "So I'm having a sandwich for lunch every day."

The challenge isn't for everyone.

Nave is the only person at her United Way office taking the challenge. She said her husband isn't taking the challenge either.

"My husband took one look at me and said no," she said.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

about Yolanda Putman...

Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...

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