Sunday, November 01, 2009

$7 bucks a day...

Can you cut your daily food budget to just $7?

By Julie Muhlstein
Herald Columnist / Everett, Wash.
October 28, 2009

Laura Pentz is used to eating on the cheap. In college, her food staples were pasta and baby carrots.

Now with AmeriCorps VISTA, the 21-year-old lives in a rented room on a modest monthly stipend, about $900. And she gets $166 per month in food stamps — about $5.50 per day for food.

The aim of the national service program is to fight poverty, and its volunteers get firsthand experience. “My stipend is about 105 percent of the poverty level in Washington,” said Pentz, a University of California Davis graduate who’s working this year with United Way of Snohomish County.

As the local United Way throws down a challenge to raise hunger awareness, Pentz is up to the task.

With its Hunger Challenge the week of Nov. 1-7, United Way of Snohomish County asks that people try spending no more than $7 per day per person for meals. That’s the maximum amount food stamp recipients in Washington’s Basic Food program get, said Deborah Squires, spokeswoman for the nonprofit agency.

“Try walking in someone else’s shoes for a week,” Squires said Tuesday. And $7 per person is more than what many on food stamps get. The state Basic Food program takes into consideration family size and other variables, Squires said.

Squires said the challenge is intended partly to bolster United Way donations to help the needy. “We want people who try it to give $10 and tell 10 people,” she said.

Pentz has signed on to try the Hunger Challenge, which is new to Snohomish County but has been tried in other places.

How does she do it, for not much more than $5 per day? Breakfast is oatmeal or some other cereal. She packs lunches, and doesn’t eat much meat. As thrifty as she is, Hunger Challenge rules will make meal planning even tougher.

Participants are asked not to use any groceries they already have. Except for salt and pepper, all seasonings, condiments, oils and other staples must be counted in a meal’s cost. Also, those who try it aren’t supposed to accept food from family or friends, or even munch on supermarket samples. Another goal is to include fresh produce and protein each day.

For the poor, the problem isn’t only financial. It’s also the lack of access to nutritious foods.

“Obesity tends to hit our low-income families hard. What are the cheapest things? And where are the grocery stores?” Squires said.

Peggy Kurtz, a member of the United Way Families Matter council, tried the Hunger Challenge about a month ago with her husband, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge David Kurtz.

A Spanish teacher at Kamiak High School, Peggy Kurtz said she heard about the challenge at a United Way breakfast. “The planning is really difficult,” she said. They made casseroles and chili, and ate leftovers. “You can’t have something different every day,” she said.

Little extras add up. Kurtz said her husband likes to snack on cashews, and likes raisins on cereal. Guests for dinner? That was out of the question.

They were unaware of the limits on spices, so they used what they had. One container of cinnamon could have easily blown a day’s budget.

At Trinity Lutheran College in downtown Everett, Betsi Little taught a class last year in nutrition and behavior. Little, the college’s dean of students and chairwoman of the psychology department, said students created meals from what’s available at 7-Eleven stores. They were assigned to make meals plans for poor families, budgeting $21 per week per person.

They visited affluent neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods in Seattle, comparing what foods were available. They saw why so many poor people eat at McDonald’s, Little said.

By the second to the last day of their Hunger Challenge, Peggy Kurtz said her husband was asking, “When do we get to start eating again?”

United Way hopes to make the point that for many people, “eating again” the way I take it for granted is not possible.

Will I take the Hunger Challenge? Truthfully, I don’t think so. I could live on scrambled eggs, yogurt and canned soup, but I don’t want my 11-year-old doing it. I don’t think I have the time or the culinary skills to keep him well fed for school and sports on $7 a day. I’m lucky. I have the choice.

“It’s meant to be an eye-opener,” Squires said. “Many people have to do it.”

Give it a try

United Way of Snohomish County is asking that people try spending just $7 per day per person for food Nov. 1-7 as part of its Hunger Challenge awareness campaign. To learn more:

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,
© 2009The Daily Herald Co., Everett, WA