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Blog: Getting by during the last week

By Sean Callebs
CNN
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Watch American Morning weekdays starting at 6 a.m. ET. And check back here for frequent updates from Sean about his experiences living on food stamps.

CNN's Sean Callebs reports on what it's like to live off food stamps for a month.

CNN's Sean Callebs reports on what it's like to live off food stamps for a month.

Email your questions and comments to AskSean@cnn.com

Sunday Mar. 1, 2009

6:46 PM ET - We did a live report Saturday evening on CNN, the last day of February. I made an omelet and some green beans. It was supposed to be my last meal on the food stamp budget but I decided to run though Monday March, 2nd since we will be doing some more stories on that day.

For the record, I have $3.24 left.

And... a wealth of knowledge.

I think the greatest lessons I am going to take away from this project have very little to do with the actual diet. I was amazed at how the social aspect of your life is turned upside down when you can't eat out. Secondly, I constantly found myself doing math, "how much can I spend at this trip?" and "If I eat this for dinner, what will I have tomorrow night?"

It is draining. And, mind you, I only have to fend for myself. I don't have to worry about putting food on a table for an entire family. I took this effort on to try to find out how 31-million Americans live each month. That's the number of people on food stamps.

Part of the recently approved stimulus package calls for increasing the amount of funding for people on food stamps. The increase is an effort to offset rising food prices, and help keep farmers, distributors, and grocers at work.

I really got much better acquainted with my kitchen. I rediscovered grilled cheese sandwiches, and I have to say for the most part the food I prepared was fine -- even pretty good at times. I did make a ton of mistakes shopping. The first time out I should have purchased a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables, and I should have stayed away from those pre-packaged items (especially instant mashed potatoes - what was I thinking.)

A lot of folks keep asking, "what did you miss the most? What are you going to eat first?"

I'll be honest, I really don't have a craving for anything. And I feel an obligation to build on what I learned. So, I think it's safe to say my eating habits have changed for the foreseeable future.

We had a lot of emails, again I have to apologize for not getting a blog out Friday. Still dealing with the pick-pocketing fiasco and spent the day at the DMV replacing my driver's license.

Jenni writes in and says as a teen her family was on food stamps and had very little insurance coverage. The series of stories hit home for her and brought back some pretty tough memories. Jenni writes, "We've done the whole dumpster diving thing getting deli sandwiches out of the dumpsters at the back of the groceries, we've taken handouts, we have never gone to Chucky Cheese's, we were lucky to get a fast food meal more than once every four months."

The juxtaposition of some emails was interesting as well. For example, Joe writes in saying he was "appalled" at the stories. He thought I made it look much tougher than it was. Joe says, "The reason I find this so upsetting is it is actually slightly more than I typically spend on food each month for my own consumption. Please note that I am a 6'3 215 pound boxer/body builder that burns many more calories than the average person."

He adds, "What has happened to our society? Are we so obsessed with sipping $8 lattes and chugging super sized diet sodas that we have overlooked the simple foundations of nutrition?"

Ok, then the very next email comes from S, in North Carolina who writes in, "I would like to know how someone can really survive on $176 a month when the food prices keep going up and you don't get a raise in your food stamps when food goes up...it is really hard to live like that."

Pretty polarizing views.

John wasn't happy with any aspect of the stories. He says, "I was outraged at your segment on CNN covering Food Stamps. $176 per month for one person to live off of is more than sufficient. Poor you. You actually had to live off what many middle class families live off everyday."

Well, at least he watched.

This final comment, from Bridget was interesting to me. Bridget writes in, "Your month is over, but as you say, the learning is forever. Now that the public experiment is over, what is the private Sean going to do, how is he going to be true to his fellow humans? You don't have to give anything to anyone - this blog is a pretty good legacy. But a blog is fleeting in the world of instant media and your work here isn't done."

A lot to chew on, and I hope I can build on these stories and do more stories in the future. Thanks for all the emails, it really was a great experience for me.

Thursday Feb. 26, 2009

11:38 AM ET: I am down to a handful of random cans of vegetables, one large can of clam chowder I bought for a dollar, some bread, lunchmeat, a couple of chicken breasts. In short, all the things I didn't eat at the start of the month. So, the menu the next few days is going to be... limited.

That said, I had a great day yesterday. I had cereal and yogurt for breakfast. Lunch was a can of veggie soup and some left over rice from the night before. For dinner, I made grilled chicken, rice, and green beans. Oh, I am almost out of milk, juice, and the little packets of knock-off Crystal Light that I have been using. I still have $16.10 left. I know I am going to have to buy more milk and perhaps a couple of other items to tide me over.

I will make it through the month. I actually feel pretty good about that. I know I have received a lot of email from people saying, $176 I started with was a lot of money for one person. But, I had to totally overhaul the way I have always eaten, and I will remind you the folks at the Department of Social Services here in Louisiana didn't think I would make it through the month. I will write more on my lessons learned in the final monthly blog.

I really must say the response has surprised me. I thought this would be an interesting topic, the fact 31-million Americans need food stamps to eat each month. But the emails have been somewhat overwhelming. People sharing their personal stories, how they went from a good job, a comfortable living to having to wait in line and apply for government assistance. I also appreciate the wealth of advice people have offered. Everything from recipe ideas, to meal plans, to recommendations about who I should profile for our various stories.

With that in mind, here are some more emails we just received.

Jean writes that she grew up poor, and remembers pulling an apple out of her lunch box, the same time other kids were retrieving much more tasty treats. Jean says, "We all take food for granted unless its not there and people on food stamps have to consider every penny they spend. I am glad you realized what a mom with kids goes thru trying to make things stretch, trying to give variety and nutrition. The fun extras are not there, treats are scarce as they are expensive and not necessarily the best value for the buck." She goes on to say she just lost her job, and in her words, "...I am not on food stamps...yet."

Sue has been following the blog this month. She's someone who has never had to worry about food stamps, or where the next meal will come from, but like so many people, she is shopping a bit differently these days. She writes in: "Thank you for taking the time and energy to give the rest of us a bit more of an awareness of side of life most Americans can't even begin to comprehend. I have had lean times in my life, but never have I felt the crushing burden of not knowing whether I would eat today, or whether I would be able to find shelter for myself on a cold night."

I got a kick out of this next response, in large part because of who it came from. Jessica, she says she is the oldest of three children and has an amazing awareness of her family's monthly budget. She says the family of five has a food budget of $440 each month. Jessica says, "At best, we each eat for $3 a day. I think it's awesome that you are showing people what much of the world is going through, and I hope that people are stirred to action, even if that action is only to save more of their own money for when things get tough for them!"

We have heard from a lot of folks who have had to tighten their belts, people who have had the bottom drop out.

This email really kind of jumped out at me. It comes from Michael. He says he and his wife both make a good income, so clearly food stamps have never been a concern. But, he did a little research. Michael writes, "I wanted to see how much we spent and tried to not change anything. On food stamps we would get $393 for the month and I wanted to know how close we would get to that. With just a couple days left we have spent $600 and some change on food for us two and our 9 month old."

A couple of notes. Our final segment will air on American Morning this coming Monday. We are also scheduled to do a couple of stories for Campbell Brown Friday night and then a segment on the weekend with Don Lemon. So, let me know what you think. It has been a very informative month for me.

Wednesday Feb. 25, 2009

12:20 PM ET - First, I want to apologize for not filing yesterday. I am a little bit lighter today. Not because of the diet, but because I was pick pocketed this weekend in the French Quarter. My own stupidity. Yesterday I had to stay home and wait for new credit cards to be shipped to me, and didn't have a laptop with me. Again, a rookie mistake.

Ok, on to life on a food stamp budget. I think for the first time, I am physically noticing I have been affected by the diet. I am not eating nearly as much meat or chicken and haven't had any fish this month. I was running between four and five miles several times a week. The last ten days, when I got to three miles I was just running out of gas.

I talked to a friend of mine who is a nurse and she said it is probably a combination of two things. One, eating carbs (rice, pasta, and such) will give me a blast of energy -- then it runs out. I am not getting as much protein as I had in past, and that she suspects, is having the negative impact. I know, I know, I could be eating beans, peanut butter, tofu, and other items --but like I said I am new at this and I made mistakes shopping.

A lot of people have said if I want to experience the hardship I need to extend the experiment. Try living on food stamps for two months, or three months.

There are so many things that have changed in the way I eat. I am constantly thinking about what I have left in the fridge and on the shelf. I think about how much money I have left. I think about ways of making my meals more diverse with the limited items I do have. In short, it just wears on you having to constantly worry there may not be enough, or it simply isn't what I want to eat. And mind you, I am just one person. I can't imagine how agonizing it must be for families to have to deal with this stress day in and day out worrying about how they are going to feed their children.

Remember, here in Louisiana one in six receives some kind of assistance in the form of food stamps. And, 31-million people across the country do the same.

A lot of emails built up over the last couple of days, I want to get to them.

Liz, a student in Maine says she has to be incredibly tight with her money to make ends meet. She says I am making a big mistake by not taking offers of food from friends, "handouts" as she calls it. Liz says, "Handouts are how we get by most weeks. Our breakfast comes from the leftover bagels from a local shop that would otherwise be thrown away because they are stale. Often lunch comes from presentations on campus that serve food to entice more students to attend. When mountains of food were being thrown away due to the salmonella in peanut butter scare, we were digging the unopened products out of the trash and taking it home. There hasn't been a day since that I haven't eaten at least one "contaminated" food item."

That is a bit scary.

Here is one from Beverly on a subject I should have brought up long before now. She writes, "I have not seen you mention the time spent on prep and clean up. Just the time alone cuts into your free time and most of those on food stamps don't have luxuries like dishwashers."

I was thinking of this last night. I cooked ground beef (I meant to thaw out chicken, but since I wrapped everything in foil I grabbed ground beef instead of chicken) rice, and corn. By the time I had everything all prepared and sat down to eat, it had taken 45 minutes or so. The dishwasher was full, so I washed the three pots, plate, utensils and such - taking another 15 minutes. It does take more time. It is just me, but I imagine if you have a hungry brood watching you that hour or so can be tough.

I thought this was a great idea by Nathan, "It would be nice to see communities and volunteers pick up Victory Gardens from years past.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victory_garden

It's rather minimal effort, and could help folks (that need it the most) to eat healthier. The wife and I are trying to find a suitable area in downtown Indianapolis for our effort."

Something like that would be great for New Orleans.

Here is another reply I sort of expected to receive. At the start of this experiment, Sam's and other big discount stores didn't accept food stamps. Wal-Mart, (parent company of Sam's) has since changed its policy. This email comes from Brenda, "thanks for getting Sam's club to accept the EBT cards, now find a way to afford the membership fee."

I don't think it was necessarily us that got Sam's to change to its mind, but it is nice. The company however has made it clear they aren't going to cave and eliminate the fee.

Only a few more days left on the diet. I think I am going to keep eating this way for a while. It has been quite eye opening.

Monday Feb. 23, 2009

12:13 PM ET - Less than a week to go and I am now down to $16.10. I am pretty sure I am going to be able to cruise through the next weekend without having to purchase anything.

I made a lot of mistakes shopping and preparing meals early on. I was convinced I wouldn't have enough money to make it through the month so I was very frugal the first ten days. I skipped having some kind of meat or chicken each day. Looking back, I don't think I needed to do that.

That isn't to say this has been easy. My lifestyle has always been one of eating lunch with colleagues, whether we are traveling or at home. Evenings usually are spent picking up something prepared and at best warming it up. I like the fact I have gotten into a routine and doing more cooking. I think I do have an appreciation for what millions of people go through daily.

As I look at the food I have for the remaining days, I realize it is the stuff I didn't want to eat early on. Or, as Karlena Allen said, in the story that ran on American Morning today, "odds and ends." Video

Early on in this project I received a lot of emails from people saying $176 was actually a lot of money to live on for a month. THOSE are people who know what hardship is. I think a lot of us working jobs we have had for a long time, who may be tightening the belt a little, should have a great appreciation for what so many people are dealing with.

The reason I started this project, is the fact there are now 31 million people in the United States on food stamps. That represents a big spike. At the same time part of the recently approved stimulus package calls for increasing benefits to food stamp recipients by 13%.

One thing that I have not had a lot of response about is the amount of fraud that goes on. I haven't touched on that in my stories, but when I spoke with Department of Social Service (DSS) representatives in Louisiana they told me fraud is big problem. It is one reason states began using the EBT card, instead of "stamps". The government knows where shopping is being done and what people are buying. For example, if someone in New Orleans suddenly starts using his or her card in Shreveport (hours north of Nola), state DSS workers will check to make sure everything is on the up and up.

In today's emails, German writes in wondering how to qualify for food stamps. You really need to check with a state agency, but the guidelines are pretty much carved in stone. If you are at 130% of the poverty level you qualify. German's story is like so many out there, saying, "I live in Rockland County, NY. I lost my job three months ago and still searching for a new one. I have extended my search to other states and willing to relocate, but nothing yet."

Gigi writes in and says, "some of our local supermarkets sell hot food made daily -- most close around 7 or 8 pm. They cannot sell the food the following day since everything is made fresh, so approximately 15 or 20 minutes before closing they put the leftover food on sale." Yea, it happens here in New Orleans too, or the food is donated to a food bank.


Sunday Feb. 22, 2009

6:00 PM ET - I am entering my last week in the food stamp experiment. I started out with $176. I am at work now and need to buy some milk, veggies and other items on the way home, so I figured that will leave me with about $20 until the month ends.

I went into a convenience store after running the other day and realized it was the first time in several weeks I had stepped inside one. In times past, I thought nothing about buying a cold drink and some kind of snack, tossing three dollars on the counter and walking out with a bit of change. This time I thought, "the three dollars is about half of what I spend every day on food right now." By the way, I needed toothpaste, so it didn't come out of my food stamp money.

I am making jambalaya tonight. It will be the first time I have ever tried to make it, so it could be an adventure. It also represents one of the many mistakes you readers have pointed out this month. I bought a pre-packaged mix. One thing I know if I want to save money (and to be honest, make food taste better) I need to avoid those prepackaged items. In my defense, I did it in case I was sent out of town on a story, so I would be able to pack up items and eat in the hotel.

Monday, the latest installment of our stories about food stamps will air on American Morning. I will talk about the mistakes I made, and how my food supply is dwindling as the end of February moves in.

I am also going to introduce you to the Allen's, who live just outside of Houma, Louisiana. Jimmy Allen works two jobs and makes about $500 dollars a week. The have four children of their own, and are the legal guardians of two of Jimmy's sister's children. They've been on food stamps for years and even receiving about $580 dollars in food stamps each month isn't enough. They use Angel Food Ministry. Tune in to watch.

A lot of email over the weekend, Lana writes in and asks if I am spending more on movies, clothes, workout gear - since I am not spending a lot on food. She says as a student, the economy makes her count every penny. Lana writes, "I guess the most depressing thing about it is watching money in every category: food, clothing, furniture, movies, etc. Again, thank you for doing this piece and showing everyone what it really is to struggle and still survive."

By the way, I am not spending more on those items.

From Tennessee, Julie is critical of the notion that food stamps are supposed to be a supplement. She says, "I read about food stamps supposed to be a 'supplemental' program and not the only way people buy food. That is a joke. People who truly need food stamps are using them as the ONLY means of food purchase (Unless they use food banks)."

We have heard that a lot over the past month. And this post, from Lee Ann who says she had a high-powered job at a college. Lee Ann says she had enough money to put her daughter through an expensive private school, and a private college. In her words "everything has changed."

Lee Ann writes, "As you (and I) near the end of the month we have two things going for us. Your life will once again be yours - and I have money to buy ahead, buy the sales so I can go on living on Six Bucks a Day." Very sobering.

I have thought a lot about what I am going to do at the end of the month. I don't think I will go back to spending like I did before, eating out whenever I felt like it, hitting up Whole Foods for simple things I can make. Lee Ann also says she went out to eat for the first time since December 2nd.

Some people have written in and asked me why I don't take food from friends, or grab a bite when there is free food floating around. I think since I took the maximum allowed for one person, I wanted to live this month as if I didn't have any income and so I made the pledge to just eat what I purchased. It's been a tremendous learning experience.

Thursday Feb. 19, 2009

3:47 PM ET - Getting ready for the weekend. Mardi Gras will be going full tilt in New Orleans. The parades run every day until Fat Tuesday. That means people lining the streets, grilling out, makeshift concession stands selling every kind of culinary treat known to the big easy.

I will watch... at a respectable distance. I am still doing well at not accepting items from friends, no matter how much I may want a piece of King Cake. If you don't know what King Cake is, now is a good time to google.

Last night I made a salad with tuna fish and had an apple and a banana. Pretty light dinner. I didn't get home until late and then went running so I really didn't feel like getting involved in the kitchen.

Tonight, I plan to have baked chicken, some red potatoes, and corn.

We are working on the third installment of our series. We are planning to go to a rural community and speak with people there to see how they are faring. It's estimated that 65-million Americans live in rural communities. Given the information the government has given us, that means about six-million people in rural areas depend on food stamps to help put food on the table.

That leads me to one email question we received. It's a very long, very thoughtful question/statement that comes from D'edra. She's a social science researcher with a Master's in Social Work who works for Rutgers University.

D'edra writes, "While I believe your primary endpoint to be essential, I am quite disappointed in the stereotypic images that have been portrayed in both of your video segments."

She points out we selected an urban area with a large African American population to do our story.

I have written about this before and I hear what D'edra is saying. I live in New Orleans, this is where we had planned to do the story all along. I reached out to a state representative Juan LaFonta, former head of the state black caucus and a gentleman I have done a number of stories with. I was trying to find someone to take me shopping who had lived on food stamps. It wasn't easy. As Juan said to me, "Sean, this might be a news flash for you but people on welfare don't like to talk about it."

That is how we found Arkesha, who took me shopping. By the way, it was noted in the story, she hasn't been on food stamps for several months now.

We then went to a food bank and Dynel wanted to talk to us. We are trying to show a slice of life in Louisiana. We are working to be fair to everyone AND sensitive to the fact a lot of people don't want to have their picture taken or talk about this issue.

D'edra also points out Hurricane Katrina may have led to a lot of people in Louisiana needing federal assistance for food stamps.

True, this area hasn't rebounded from Katrina, but it's actually Hurricane Gustav that caused somewhat of a spike in the number of people needing foodstamps. But, in talking to state DSS workers, the sluggishness of the economy and job loss are really forcing a lot of people who never thought they would need assistance to turn to the government.

D'edra included her phone number and we had a nice discussion about this issue. Her points were all good and the kind of questions I am sure a lot of people out there have been wondering.

I also got an email from someone asking how much I am spending on sugar, salt, condiments and such.

I haven't used any sugar. I have just skipped using ketchup and what not. I am using the salt that I have had around my house since I moved to Nola.

Again, I am down to less than $34. But I feel good about things. I have a lot of food and think I will be ok. I made a lot of mistakes, again, I will be talking about those in the next segment that will air on American Morning this Monday.

Went running last night and had a bit more energy. I am going to chalk up Tuesday's sluggishness to the fact I am old and was tired.

Wednesday Feb. 18, 2009

2:54 PM ET - Last night I went running and I had absolutely no energy. When I finished, I wondered if it was my diet. I didn't eat much at all on Sunday and Monday so I tried to get more protein. I had chicken and peanut butter and I am hopeful the run goes a bit better. Who knows.

It could be because I am getting older every day. I was talking on the phone with a friend of mine just before running and she said I sounded exhausted. I had an easy day at work so this is really the first time I wondered if it was a lack of calories or bad dietary decisions on my part that led to the rundown feeling. I will find out more tonight.

Looking at this month long project like a marathon, I would say I am hitting the wall. 10 more days to go. We are working on a couple of stories right now. One will air this coming Monday on CNN's American Morning.

We have gotten a lot of emails about Angel Food Ministries, a non-profit that delivers 100-million dollars worth of food to the needy every year. Well, it seems the FBI searched the Ministry office in Georgia last week. The FBI won't tell us why or what they were looking for. A spokesman for the Angel Food Ministries says the FBI was investigating an individual with ties to the ministry and maintains the non-profit entity is rock solid. AFM provides a box of food it sells through churches for $30 dollars each. Those boxes, Angel Food says, have enough food to last a family for a week. We will keep you updated on AFM.

I now have $33.96 left from the $176 I started the month with. I went shopping last night and really stocked up. Once again, I pull out the line a reader sent in..."the freezer is your friend." I have a lot of chicken, lean ground beef, apples, juice, lettuce, and of course pasta, rice, and beans. I think I am doing very well in terms of getting through the month. Some people have said there is a big difference buying food for 28 days, as in February, as opposed to the 31 days in other months. Point taken.

Now some emails. Amy from Rochester has this sobering message for people out there worried about the economy. She says, "With the focus on the middle class, and it needs to be for now, the poor are overlooked and forgotten. The thing is, from middle class the next stop down is poverty so people had better wake up and have some human compassion in our nation. Again I applaud you, and soup and beans are a large part of my diet and you seem to be doing a fine job for a novice." Yes, I am a novice and I made some mistakes the first go round when I was shopping.

Kelly writes in and says she and her husband have jobs and are very thankful for what they have. But, she says the series has made her look at shopping in a different light. Kelly says, "listening to how you've been able to manage on $176/month is very enlightening. I'm a lot more cognizant of food waste, watch the newspaper inserts every week, use coupons as much as possible."

Marg also weighs in on the fact that a lot of lower income folks don't have transportation so they are forced to buy whatever they can at convenient stores. She says, "I'm guessing a can of Chef Boyardee could be upwards of three bucks at your local Wawa or 7/11. That'll shoot the budget in no time. Nutrition is secondary if you're trying to fill your tummy - think trans fats, high sodium levels, empty calories, etc."

Some have been writing in, asking what I miss the most in terms of food and beverage and what do I look forward to once this over. I have thought a lot about that, and will tell you more in the coming days.

Tuesday Feb. 17, 2009

2:05 PM ET - I'm back in New Orleans, looking over my food stock. Things are going well. I have a lot of canned vegetables, pasta, jambalaya mix, a couple of large chicken breasts and half a pound of lean ground beef.

For breakfast, I had cereal and some tea. Lunch is one of the pre-packaged food items that I bought. I didn't spend a lot on it, it isn't very filling and if I had to do it over, I probably wouldn't invest the $2 or so in it again. I have $68 left.I think that is plenty of cash.

There have been a few inquiries from people wondering how I am doing on weekends and asking if I am accepting food when it is offered to me. On the weekends, I eat pretty much just like Monday through Friday. I try to get a somewhat filling breakfast, a light lunch, then eat pasta, rice and some chicken or other meat for dinner. I usually run at night, so that is when I find I am most hungry.

I haven't taken any offers of food so far and I have been offered a lot. Well, I take that back, I took my son to the movies last week and I did reach into his bag of popcorn three times or so. It is brutal to sit next to someone at a theater for two hours and have them snacking, sipping sodas and not think about eating.

New Orleans is in Mardi Gras fever right now. A week from today marks Fat Tuesday, which will mean something totally different to me this year. Believe me, it isn't hard to find people handing out drinks and food this time of year but I have resisted temptation. I will write more about that over the weekend. We will probably be shooting some Mardi Gras elements, so my self-restraint will be severely tested.

One thing people receiving government assistance for food should watch today is the signing of the stimulus package bill into law. It will mean billions and billions of dollars will be funneled into the food stamp program, raising allotments people receive by 13-percent. The argument is that it will help farmers, producers, wholesalers and grocery stores keep employment where it is at and offer much needed assistance to people struggling to put food on the table.

Now for some emails. Sue writes in from South Bend, Indiana saying, "I just want to thank you for reminding me how fortunate I am. I had been taking my blessings for granted. I read your blog every few days and have actually become more conscious of my food spending and more importantly food waste." I am right there with you. I am curious what this is going to be like for me once this project ends. I can't watch people walk in and out of Whole Foods without doing quick arithmetic in my head, "let's see broiled chicken, bread, energy drink, salad, oh, he's easily dropped $24."

Jodie suggests a new twist to my diet. "...I thought I might recommend tofu. Tofu is the cheapest form of protein per pound. It is also very versatile, so you can make it taste like anything."

Esther says she was skeptical of this program at first. She writes she's read up on a few other people who have entered a similar project. Esther says, "the worst one was a lady who bought salmon filets for her family on week three because her kids had been so deprived, but then complained about not having enough money left for the rest of the month."

Like I have said before, I think I can get through this month and have money left over. However, if it went on and on I seriously don't know how I would cope. I miss a lot of things and will write more about that in the final week.

Michele writes in with a different take on people who say they could easily live on $176 a month. She says, "I think if you grow up in a family that has for generations struggled financially, you just learn how to make the money stretch. For myself and my husband, $176 would be huge and we could live REALLY well off that much. We now eat much better than we both did growing up."

Monday Feb. 16, 2009

1:46 PM ET - I'm entering the third week of this food stamp project and my budget is holding up pretty well. I'm still running, maybe not as much, but that has more to do with the weather than my energy or my desire to get out and exercise.

I was on vacation and stopped by CNN's Atlanta headquarters on my way back to New Orleans. I got the usual questions, "Are you sticking to the diet?" "How do you feel?" "Are you gaining weight?" "Are you losing weight?" It's odd that this one month experiment has gone ok and really once you get into a groove, things seem to go relatively well. By that, I don't miss things now as much as I did early in the month.

Secondly, I have grown used to eating a certain portion of food at certain times of the day. BUT, I am only doing this for one month. There are times it hits me, and I think, "I don't know if I could do this for six months, a year, or longer.

I am still getting a lot of responses from people via email. I find it interesting the number of people who tell me that $176 for the month is actually plenty of money to buy food for one person. I wouldn't want to spend month after month doing this. In my mind, as I eat, I am always thinking about what else I have in the fridge, or in the cupboard. I have 70 or so dollars left. But, wait, before you say the month is only half over I still have a lot of food on hand.

People have asked if is there a place people can receive education or diet plans as they prepare to go on food stamps. Simple answer is yes. The USDA, which oversees the food stamp program, has a site "Eat Right When Money's Tight"

If you wonder if you qualify for food stamps, here is a link. The way it was explained to me, if your income is 130-percent of the poverty level or below, you qualify.

Here are some emails I've received in response to the project.. Stacee says in the summer you don't have to buy all your groceries. She recommends buying some seeds and trying to grow vegetables. Great idea, if you have a yard and some time to work there.

Also, Cathy writes in recently asking why I wrote that it stinks going to bed early. That was somewhat of an overstatement. Usually I have plenty to eat. I just didn't buy a lot of snack items. Cathy points out there are plenty of cheap snacks. I could also have some oatmeal or cereal. Good point.

The shame factor. Zach writes in saying he was working as an intern with urban youth and their families. He wound up on food stamps and said when he went to the store he "didn't want to look at anybody in the eye." Zach said, "I would have rather let myself starve .

Friday Feb 13, 2009

8:20 AM ET - Friday the 13th. Not a bad day to discuss the issue of temptation. People who know me often ask, "are you really trying to live on food stamp money for a month?" The second question they ask, "are you ever tempted to sneak something?"

Simple answer is absolutely. Firstly, I am not a small guy. 6'3" and recently 222 pounds. So, three meals a day is enough to live on but quite frequently I am hungry. Also, I have made no secret of the fact I like to snack and I like a diet coke.

In the spirit of trying to understand what it is like for first-timers on food stamps, I have stuck to my guns and really lived this well. The first few days were tough. I think out of sympathy the CNN photographer who works with me in New Orleans, Ken Tillis, decided he was going to live his month eating only the food left in his house. No shopping. No snacking.

Traveling makes it hard. I have been in New Jersey with my son this week and while my son eats what he would normally eat, I am living on what I brought up and the $30 worth of food I bought when I got here. Good news is I will be taking stuff home. I am not trying to make this sound easy; it isn't. And it stinks being hungry when you go to sleep.

One thing I want to re-visit. I did not actually get an EBT card, or food stamps. That would be fraud. I went to DSS in Louisiana, and officials there figured out the maximum amount I would qualify for was $176. So, I got a gift card and have been living off of that. That was for Abby, whose boss wants to know how a reporter gets food stamps.

In other e-mails, Bobbi an Extension Agent in South Dakota writes in saying yes it's true that food stamps are supposed to just be a supplement. However, she says a lot of people she deals with, "..are relying 100% on SNAP for food (SNAP is government name for food stamps.) Bobbi says there are a lot more of her neighbors in the Midwest who would qualify for assistance, but "...refuse to apply for pride."

Pat writes in saying income and putting food on the table isn't a concern right now but says "kudos" for the stories and the blog. Pat says, "Your blog has opened my eyes about how wasteful I am in general and with food specifically." Pat also is concerned about potential loss of community and writes "I spent an entire day with women from my son-in-law's side of the family, a family of Mexican descent. We made over 2,000 tamales. It took all day but we had fun." And Pat says it's enough to fill the freezer for some time.

Briana has some information for people critical of where and how people using food stamps shop at times. She points out some people living in "...poor urban centers like (parts) of Chicago live in so-called 'food deserts.'" Meaning there are no large grocery stores in a convenient distance so sometimes people shop where they must.

Early on I told you about Dennis who felt inspired to attempt to live on $176 after our story started. Dennis was over in week one, but now back on track. And, like me, he says his diet is carb heavy. Dennis says he burns off calories playing basketball two or three times a week. Keep it up and keep me informed.

Thursday Feb. 12, 2009

2:21 PM ET - For days now, we have been getting emails from people who tell us that some of the big discount stores don't honor food stamps, SNAP, EBT.

My producer, Jason Morris, called Wal-Mart headquarters the parent company of Sam's Club to find out if this was true.

He just heard back from Wal-Mart and we have some good news. Sam's Club is going to roll out a nationwide operation by mid-March and will start accepting food stamps.

Their press release states, "As a service to our members during the current economic environment, we have recently started accepting government issued EBT cards for the purchase of products within our clubs in select locations."

It goes on to say it's their intention to accept the EBT cards nationwide very soon. All I can say is... it's about time.

People still have to cough up $40 for the Sam's Club membership card. We have calls into other large discount stores, still waiting to hear back.

For the life of me I cannot understand why a store would not accept the EBT card. But, I applaud Wal-Mart for stepping up to the plate and doing this.

Maybe go one step further guys, if people are on food stamps, why not give them free membership for a year -- a little kindness could go a long way in this environment. Just a thought.

I received an email from a social worker, who works with low-income single parents. She's glad the stories started airing on American Morning and follows the blog.

Beth writes, "your blog has done a stellar job of bringing light to the issue surrounding poverty and hunger. You have touched on the social taboos, the challenges, and the logistic of living on food stamps."

I got this response from d. "I just find it ridiculous that for $176 for yourself, you're essentially living off peanut butter sandwiches and mac and cheese. I feel like anyone with some basic cooking skills (or internet connection to a few good recipe sites) can easily eat better." Come on dude. I haven't eaten peanut butter or mac and cheese in a week.

And this one from Paul, a psychology professor at Clemson who writes, "I discussed your experiment with my colleagues in the Psych dept. at Clemson, my students, even my personal trainer --none have thought they could would be able to eat an entire month on your budget."

He says, "it's amazing that a group of highly-educated people wouldn't be able to do what millions of Americans must --thanks for raising the issue." Paul, you guys could do it. Trust me. When this is over I should come up to Tiger country and chat with you guys.

I am getting emails asking how I am feeling. I feel fine, plenty of energy, sleep well. And wow, I am getting slammed about diet coke. I have more than two weeks to go, I will deal with diet coke on March 1.

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