Jewish Journal

The Food Stamp Challenge:  $21 for Seven Days

by Ryan Torok

April 9, 2010 | 5:36 pm

In 2008, at a food justice conference held by environmental advocacy organization Hazon, a rabbinical student from American Jewish University—Justin Goldstein—saw a documentary that resonated with him. The film, “Food Stamped,” followed a young, socially conscious Berkeley couple and their decision to only spend $21 on food to last seven days.

The couple aimed to show that $21 a week—$1 a meal—wasn’t enough for a healthy, balanced diet, though it’s what U.S. food stamp clients receive approximately.

Last month, rabbinical students from American Jewish University and Hebrew Union College engaged in a week of activities related to food justice, a growing movement in the Jewish community.

Goldstein proposed that students participate in what the documentary help popularize as “The food stamp challenge.”

“The awareness is being raised around the difficulty to eat healthfully while on such a low budget,” Goldstein wrote in an email to me at the beginning of the challenge.

Only a handful of students participated. My editor at the paper asked me if I wanted to do the challenge. I agreed. Although there is something obviously problematic with middle class and upper-middle class students and journalists pretending that they are poor for the week—when others live such lives permanently – I figured the week could only make me more empathetic with the plight of the food insecure. To simulate a more realistic experience, I would not be allowed to accept handouts.

I purchased my week’s worth of food at Vons. $18 bought five pieces of chicken, pasta, tomato sauce, three big oranges, a bag of carrots, wheat bread, a can of beans, butter, rice and coffee grounds.

I thought: ‘This is great. Look how far my money took me.’

By day five, I was ready for the challenge to be over. These are some notes I took in a journal during the week:

Day 1, the official start of the challenge, for breakfast I make a cup of black coffee and eat a carrot.

The carrot tastes like cement.

The next morning, day two, I have black coffee, a fourth of an orange and one piece of wheat bread, toasted with butter.

I miss bagels.

For lunch, at work, I ravage chicken from the night before.

Dinner tonight is the same as the prior night, but I also have rice with my chicken and beans.

After only three servings, I finish a can of beans, one of my tastier foods (that also has decent nutritional value).

This sucks.

The biggest change in lifestyle is not taking food “to go” from places. 

My sister’s boyfriend asks me if I want to go dumpster diving with a buddy of his.

It’s tempting, but I don’t go.

The bland, repetitive diet is making me moody. I tell Goldstein this via email.

“I too have been getting a little cranky,” Goldstein wrote back.

I buy a bag of dry peas off my editor for $1. I only have $2 left of my $21.

My final $2 goes to squash and a bag of mixed nuts from the farmer’s market in Century City.

A lot of people are impressed. I tell my friend I’m going out with my sister and my sister’s boyfriend, my sister’s boyfriend’s family and my parents to Katana, an upscale sushi place on Sunset, but that I’m not going to eat, even though the meal was going to be free. He tells me he never knew I had such willpower. “If you can do this, you can do a lot of things,” he says. “Sorry. I know you aren’t doing this for compliments.”

“No, by all means,” I say.

I cook white rice with squash. I ask my dad if he wants any.

“Oh yeah, rice and squash is exactly what I want at 11 at night instead of cookies and milk,” he says.

Conclusions: With $21 a week to spend on food, a person doesn’t starve. There’s not, however, any variation in your diet.  I had either chicken or pasta every night for dinner.

Organizations like the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Hazon, and Mazon have been tackling food justice issues. Visit their respective websites for more information.


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Ryan Torok is a staff writer and community reporter at the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, where he has spent the past four years covering everything from social justice...

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