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SNAP Outreach Coordinator Takes Part in Food Stamp Challenge

Each year, community members challenge themselves to live on a Food Stamp budget for a week. This year, from October 27-November 3, the RI Interfaith Coalition with Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts, Rev. Dr. Donald Anderson, Executive Minister, RI State Council of Churches, Rabbi PeterĀ  Stein, President, RI Board of Rabbis, and other community leaders will be asked to eat on $31.50 a week– the nationwide average weekly food stamp benefit for FY201, which is $4.50 a day, or $1.50 a meal.

This year, Maria Cimini, SNAP Outreach Coordinator is taking the challenge. Read about her experience below:

Challenge Accepted
by Maria Cimini on Friday, October 28, 2011

Several weeks ago I received an invitation from the Interfaith Poverty
Council of Rhode Island to participate in this year’s Food Stamp Challenge
where participants volunteer to live for a week on $31.50 worth of food, the
average weekly amount received by a Food Stamp recipient in the United
States. After some thought (mostly that I would miss out on eating
Halloween candy) I decided to participate. The rules are pretty simple, a
single person has $31.50 ($4.50 a day or $1.50 a meal) to spend on all their
food for the week. This year the challenge started on October 27 at 10 am
and runs through November 3 at 6 pm. Furthermore, you purchase all your
food with that amount rather than look at the food you already have an
estimate cost although you may use condiments and spices already purchased.

Though I was invited to take part some time in September and spent a lot of
time worrying about how this would impact my life, being the procrastinator
that I am, I didn’t actually begin the shopping list process until the
Tuesday before the challenge was to begin. I didn’t want to spend a lot of
time going up and down aisles in the grocery store pricing things out,
picking them up and putting them back, so I went first to Peapod to see what
I may be able to purchase. This was a sobering experience. Early on I
realized that meat or poultry would be out of the question and then I opted
to sacrifice nutrition by omitting fresh fruit for coffee. At the end of my
internet search I had a shopping list of coffee, milk, granola bars, yogurt,
cereal, tortillas, black beans, shredded cheese, brown rice, pasta, crushed
tomatoes, peanut butter, frozen broccoli, an onion, a head of garlic and the
staple of cheap eating – ramen noodles. This resulted in a grand total of

Then Thursday morning came, the day the challenge was to begin and I had not
yet purchased any food! So, I did something most low-income workers could
never do, I called my boss and said I would be late to work because I had to
go to the grocery store. It was a necessity since I would not be able to
purchase any prepared foods, like a Food Stamp recipient, and have limited
food options at URI where I work. I had decided earlier to start my
shopping at Price Rite where prices should be cheaper than most other
supermarkets. I went there at 7:30am to shop and found it closed. It
doesn’t open until 8. It was my first inkling that convenience would be
totally lost to me this week. When the store did open, I bought most of the
things on my list but couldn’t find everything so after purchasing $18.58
worth of food, I went down the road to Stop and Shop. There I purchased the
rest of the items on my list for just $7.68 (with the help of a savings
card) for a grand total of $26.26. That means I have $5.24 left to spend!
I was overjoyed and thought about going right back in to buy more food but
later decided to hold on to it for an emergency. I have never rationed out
my food like this before, so I’m a little scared about running out before
the end of the week.

I’ve survived one and a half days thus far. And, while I’ve known since I
accepted this challenge that it would be possible (I do coordinate the
State’s Food Stamp Outreach campaign afterall) it has already made me more
aware of struggles people face daily. I am not an extravagant person, but
food is something I haven’t had to worry about that much. I tend to eat
when I want and always have something available to me. Already I’m more
conscious of role food plays in my life and its place in society as well. I
suppose that’s part of the point. It isn’t to see who can get the best deal
at the supermarket but to feel, even in a short-term, contrived way, how
hundreds of thousands in RI and millions nationwide struggle and miss out on
things most of us take for granted.

I plan on writing every day during this experience. So, if you have any
questions about the challenge or Food Stamps or if you have any fantastic
recipes for black beans and rice, I’d be glad to have them.

Social Impact
by Maria Cimini on Saturday, October 29, 2011

When I first decided to take part in the Food Stamp Challenge I thought I
would miss eating the foods I wanted and maybe be a little hungry, but what
I’m learning as I eat my third dinner alone, is how socially isolating it
can be to not have means. I live alone so I eat alone, though I’ve never
mastered cooking a good meal for one. However, I live close to family, have
a phenomenal network of friends and, being an elected official, go to a lot
of social functions with food. So I don’t typically eat alone three days in
a row and if I were to it would likely be by choice. This has been much
different. I spent much of my day running errands with a friend. Any other
day of the year, we would have ended the day having dinner at home or at a
restaurant. This week that’s not an option. I can’t afford to eat out and
don’t have enough food to share unless maybe we each had a bowl of honey nut
toasted oats. Every Sunday morning my sister and I go out for breakfast.
She did graciously offer to get her pancakes to go so that we could still
eat together, but I don’t think it will be the same as usual.

It makes me think about when I was growing up. We were a family that
struggled financially at times. We didn’t go on vacation, didn’t eat at
restaurants and our car was so old that I once had set a life long goal of
one day owning a car made in the same decade I was living in. But we always
had food. In fact, my parents often fed my friends and their friends.
Eating was a social occasion. We ate dinner together at night and
celebrated with special dinners.

In my work when I make presentations about hunger I talk about how hunger
and food insecurity is so much more than the discomfort in your stomach when
you haven’t had enough to eat that day. It is about the impact on physical
and cognitive development in children. It is the psychic energy spent
trying to figure out where your next meal is coming from. It is the
senior citizen or person with an illness whose medication is not effective.
Then there is the social aspect. Tonight that is what I am missing, the
conversation over a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup on a cold, rainy,
October night.

And, if you’ll indulge me just a bit…tonight as I entered my warm home, I
couldn’t help but think of the passionate individuals sacrificing their
comfort for the cause of Occupy Providence. They are practicing democracy
and political action in a great way, protesting for the greater good of
economic justice for all. And, my heart goes out to all those always living
without comfort, the homeless who are often the victims of that economic
injustice. I pray we can find the political will to fulfill what I think is
a societal obligation to get them off the streets and into warm homes of
their own.

Eating Is Just One Part of Life

by Maria Cimini on Sunday, October 30, 2011

Today I’m going to provide a very wonky Food Stamp eligibility lesson because
I, for unknown reason, was reading some conservative blogs indicating that
living on $31.50 a week is not a problem – that this is a gimmick. I of
course fully expect that I will survive the week on just $31.50 worth of
food. I started thinking, however, of all the other expenses I have, all
the other facets of my life that are not being impacted by this challenge.
I wondered what is the likelihood that someone like me, a single, working,
adult who is neither elderly nor disabled, would actually be found eligible
for the $126 monthly benefit amount this challenge is based on. The range
of benefit amounts for single people is actually between $16-$200 a month.
That is true regardless of where you live in the continental US, your age or
health. So, because it is Sunday and I have some time on my hands, I did
some benefit determination calculations that I found to be very interesting.
All scenarios are based on single adults, whose income comes entirely from
employment, without dependents, who live in RI, are neither disabled nor
age 60 or older and pay some rent. Reminder – I coordinate the Food Stamp
Outreach campaign for the state, so this is actually something I know how to

First some Food Stamp eligibility basics.

** Non-elderly/disabled individuals generally have to meet both a gross
and net income test. The gross income amount is 185% of the federal poverty
level and the net is 100% of the federal poverty level. The net income test
does not mean post-taxes, DHS always looks at a pre-tax income, but rather,
post-deductions taken by DHS. Most households of one or two people only
have to meet the gross test to get benefits but a net test still exists due
to other eligibilty factors. Larger sized households must meet both income
guidelines to be eligible to receive benefits.
** An individual applying for Food Stamps who is not elderly or disabled
and does not have children, have an earned income deduction, a standard
deduction (a flat deduction awarded to everyone) and a shelter deduction (a
very complicated calculation of shelter expense as a percentage of income,
including a standard utility allowance, that is capped at $458) available to

Scenario 1 — The maximum gross income amount for FS eligibility an
individual meeting the criteria set forth can have is $1680 a month.

This person receives an earned income deduction of $336, a standard
deduction of $147 and a shelter deduction of $458. (It assumes a monthly
rent of $1057 if the person does not pay utilities and $480 if s/he does.)

Income $1680 = monthly benefit amount $16

Scenario 2 — This person works 40 hours a week at minimum wage, $7.40 an
hour, earning before taxes, $1281 a month.

This person receives an earned income deduction of $256, a standard
deduction of $147 and a shelter deduction of $458. (It assumes a monthly
rent of $897 if the person does not pay utilities and $321 if s/he does.)

Income $1281 = monthly benefit amount $74

Scenario 3 — This person earns the maximum net benefit amount of $908 a
month. (Remember this is 100% of the federal poverty guidelines. If you
make one penny more than this a month, according to the US government, you
are not poor.)

This person receives an earned income deduction of $181, a standard
deduction of $147 and a shelter deduction of $458. (It assumes a monthly
rent of $747 if the person does not pay utilities and $171 if s/he does.)

Income $908 = monthly benefit amount $163

Of course, if in any of these scenarios the income were not earned or the
rent were cheaper the benefits would be reduced.

So, yes, I probably could live on $126 worth of food in a month. I would
have to be more thoughtful about my food purchases than I am now, but I
would survive. But, what is the likelihood that I would even get that $126,
and if I did, how would I afford my rent, my electric bill, gas in my car,
etc. For people to say that folks living on Food Stamp benefits do not
struggle or are some how living large off the system is just wrong. Part of
my reason for doing this challenge, and writing about it, is to bring that
reality to light. I am very happy that we live in a society that has a
program in place to provide people struggling financially with assistance
for this most basic necessity. Living on it now – I only wish we could do

by Maria Cimini on Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween! I haven’t eaten any candy today and that makes me pretty
sad. Before the challenge started I purchased three-150 piece bags of candy
and my sister went out to buy some more mid-distribution. What a night! It
got me thinking about societal norms and how people living in poverty are
often excluded from what most of us would consider part of everyone’s
experience. As the Food Stamp Outreach coordinator, a couple of times a
year, I receive a call from someone complaining about a Food Stamp recipient
buying a birthday cake or candy with FS benefits. I always defend the
recipient’s actions. We all have birthdays and holidays, like Halloween,
occur regardless of our income bracket. I am not comfortable telling a
child who happened to be born into a low-income household that they can not
participate in the same celebrations that I was able to.

The rights of Food Stamp recipients to purchase any food items they choose
(except for hot foods which are restricted by the USDA) have been hotly
debated in recent years. There are many who would like to see Food Stamp
benefits limited to the purchase of “healthy” foods. I agree that Food
Stamps should be used to purchase good food, and in fact there is a program
through the USDA to educate Food Stamp recipients to make more nutritious
purchasing and preparation decisions. However, I am concerned about
restricting the options available to recipients. I worry about the
increased stigma that may occur when someone holds up a line at the grocery
store when they accidentally attempt to purchase non-approved items. I hate
the idea of families not being able to celebrate holidays like birthdays and
Halloween because they are low income. I question whether someone making
the “approved” foods list would take into consideration diverse ethnic
traditions. And I am uncomfortable with the idea that low-income people
can’t be trusted to make their own decisions.

If anything, I’d like to see incentives for the purchase of healthier
options. There is a new program taking place in Massachusetts called the
Healthy Incentives Pilot, which will increase a household’s Food Stamp
benefits whenever they purchase approved fruits and vegetables. Many
farmers’ markets in RI accept Food Stamp benefits and those markets
coordinated by Farm Fresh RI also provide additional coins to purchase
fruits and vegetables when Food Stamp benefits are used. These are two great
examples of how to improve nutrition without taking away personal options.

Tomorrow night my family is gathering for dinner in remembrance of the 39th
anniversary of my grandfather’s death. Just another reminder of the way
food plays a role in our rituals. My father is making dinner and has said
that a Food Stamp recipient would accept a free meal (especially if he was
making it). I don’t doubt it. I always accept a free meal and would be
especially inclined to do so if my budget and options were as limited as
what I am experiencing right now. Tomorrow, however, I will bring my own
food – not to be showy or to make anyone uncomfortable – but because I’m
sure that many low-income people have a week pass without anyone offering
them a meal. So this time, I’m going to pass. I get to eat whatever I want
in three more days. I’m one of the lucky ones.

Variety – There is no spice in my life
by Maria Cimini on Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The challenge is winding down and my food consumption has not suffered as
much as I had feared, but I desperately miss variety. For the last five
days I’ve had rice and beans or ramen noodles with broccoli for lunch and
dinner. I yearn for something else to eat. This weekend I was at Job Lot –
I love Job Lot almost as much as I love Bennys – and I was looking at their
food section. It was on Saturday and I was cold and I wanted soup or at
least something yummy. I picked up a can of yellow curry. It was $1.50 and
I was excited that it would be a nice change from beans and rice and I love
curry. But then I panicked. What if it was gross? If I didn’t like it,
what would I do? I would have spent a full $1.50, which usually wouldn’t
even cross my mind twice, but if I had bought it, then I would have to eat
it. I don’t like to eat things that are gross. So, I didn’t buy the curry.

It got me thinking though about the challenges of broadening your food
choices if you are low-income. Would I, if I were a low-income mother, ever
purchase something I wasn’t assured my children would like? Would I take a
chance on buying something healthier that my children had never tried,
especially if it were more expensive than macaroni and cheese? I imagine
these are very hard decisions. I don’t have children so I don’t know
firsthand the difficulty. But I do know that low-income mothers, like all
mothers, want their children to be healthy and thrive. They want to do what
is best for their child. But the ability to do that is hampered by economic
conditions. When the choice is healthier, fresh foods or buying diapers or
paying an electric bill, I can understand why the cheaper, processed food
may win out. It is when I think of those scenarios that I think about the
family struggling that has not yet found the Food Stamp Program. With all
its flaws – the complex application process, the benefit amount that doesn’t
go quite far enough – this Program is the first line of defense against
hunger for millions of Americans. I believe it is a good program, one that
can allow families to take a chance on something new, something healthier,
to increase their purchasing power and maybe add a little variety to their

Yogurt, Black Bean and Tortillas, Ramen
by Maria Cimini on Wednesday, November 2, 2011

It is Wednesday night, another day, the same meals. Last week at this time
I was worried about being hungry all week. I was worried about whether or
not I was going to run out of food. I was especially worried that I hadn’t
yet purchased my food for the week. Overall I would say the week has been a
success. I was able to stick to just the food I purchased for this
challenge. Thankfully I had money left over last Thursday because I did run
out of milk on Monday so it cost me $1.89 to purchase more. Then, I
splurged and purchased three-quarters of a pound of ground beef to made
American chop suey. It was pretty delicious. All in all I got through the
eating part okay.

I am really happy I took part in the challenge, not because I was able to do
it, but because I have such a greater appreciation now for how hard it
actually is. So, my last post while still participating in the challenge is
about the challenge of it for me and I think for many families – the lack of
convenience. Last Wednesday night, I got home after 10pm, not at all
uncommon for me. I could have gone to Stop and Shop, but I had really wanted
to do my initial shopping at Price Rite in order to save some money. Price
Rite is not open at that hour. Every morning this week I went to work and
made coffee. Now I know that most coffee drinking adults make their own
coffee every day, but I relish every moment in bed in the morning, so I
would typically drive to work and purchase a cup of coffee on the way. That
was a convenience I missed very much. Every day I made my lunch in the work
microwave. I refilled my water bottle several times a day. The hardest
part for me was dinner. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I eat out a
lot. After work most days I don’t go straight home. This week I had a
legislative hearing and a community meeting. These events had me getting
home well after 8:30pm. The only time my stomach growled this week was when
I was waiting for water to boil for rice or pasta. I would have very much
preferred to stop and pick up take out or to munch on something while I
waited for my dinner to be ready. But convenience went out the window this
week – on this budget. I could not afford to get take out. I could not
afford my usual ready-to-eat snack items like chips and salsa or almonds or
baby carrots. That was my greatest struggle this week – the loss of
convenience in my life. What I can’t imagine though, is how hard this is
for people with families. I was anxious waiting for water to boil and I’m
an adult, in control of my eating, in control of my schedule. I certainly
live a life that is busy, but I have a job where I can eat when I want to,
I’m not reliant on a certain break time like most low-income workers. I may
have been hungry when I didn’t plan my meal times well but I knew there was
food available when I got around to cooking it. I don’t know what I would
do if I were a mother rushing between multiple jobs, picking up children at
daycare, trying to get balanced meals in while worrying about bills that I
may not be able to pay.

So, convenience, that is what I missed. It was a small price to pay to skim
the surface of how other people live all the time. I hope this experience
will make me better at my job as the Food Stamp Outreach Coordinator and as
a State Legislator. I only wish more of us who make decisions about the
lives of others could have experienced it as well.

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