A week's worth of food

Philly resident Margaux Murphy is not a stranger to the trauma of chronic hunger.

As founder of the grassroots meal-supply nonprofit Sunday LOVE Project, she meets and befriends people dealing with it on a regular basis. And for about a year during Murphy’s childhood, her own mother relied on welfare benefits to feed her family.

Murphy’s mother referred to the time as “the most humiliating experience of her life.”

But it’s something that nearly two million Pennsylvanians deal with every day. That’s how many participated in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2017 — a number that includes almost 500,000 in Philadelphia alone.

So Murphy decided she wanted to understand how hard it actually is to feed yourself on food stamps these days.

At the beginning of February, she took on the SNAP Challenge.

To qualify for SNAP, a person must make less than $1,600 per month. In Pa., the program provides a single person with $194 per month for food, and that amount increases proportionally based on family size. (SNAP has come under fire recently: in October, President Donald Trump proposed a $150 billion cut to federal poverty programs, including SNAP, in his 2018 budget.)

On average, food stamps in Pennsylvania break down to a provision of a bit more than $6 per day.

The SNAP Challenge has a slightly lower budget. It encourages participants to live on a food budget of $135 per month — about $30 per week, or $4.50 per day — because that was the amount provided in Connecticut when the challenge first became popular.

The theory behind it: If you learn how difficult it is to live on food stamps, you’ll better understand the experience of the Americans who struggle with food insecurity.

‘All I could think about was food’

“It’s just been kind of eye-opening, not being able to have everything you want,” Murphy said. “All I could think about for the first two days was constantly food.”

Shopping on a budget, Murphy found herself shocked at how expensive produce could be. She’s been supplementing her diet with a ton of rice and pasta — what she called “starching herself to death” — because she couldn’t afford many vegetables.

Murphy said it took her two days into the challenge to have her first mental breakdown — she attributes it to caffeine withdrawal. She had $1.79 left in her budget after she went grocery shopping, and she spent 99 cents on a pack of instant coffee.

Normally a “coffee snob,” Murphy said she usually spends $5 on high-quality coffee every day. “Now, I can’t wait to get home and have a cup of instant,” she said.

“Those are the things that we take for granted, a simple cup of coffee,” Murphy added. “And I would kill someone for a salad.”

Meal planning as privilege

Over the past week, Murphy thinks she’s learned a couple best practices for eating healthy on a $4 daily budget:

  • Plan your meals at the beginning of the week. Murphy settled on oatmeal every morning and rice or pasta with cooked veggies for lunch and dinner.
  • Visit local markets for cheap produce (Murphy’s choice is the Italian Market on Ninth Street).

But she recognizes those tips show how lucky she is. Murphy has a car, so she can shop around for the best deals at local markets — and she’s not homeless, which means she has a kitchen she can use to cook meals in advance.

“It took a lot of planning,” Murphy said. “But that’s not a privilege that everybody enjoys.”

Only a glimpse

Living on the SNAP budget for one week, Murphy said she can feel that she’s barely scratching the surface: seven days isn’t nearly enough to understand what it’s like to be food insecure.

“This is like a glimpse,” Murphy said. “It’s not a real lifestyle change.”

After she wraps up this Tuesday, Murphy is planning to take a week off, then do the challenge again — this time for a month. She wants to better understand the experience and develop some more best practices that she can share with her clients at Sunday LOVE.

“I just wanted to speak with some knowledge on the matter,” Murphy explained. “Like, ‘I tried this, and this is what I got out of it. You can try it at home.’

Said Murphy: “I want to actually experience what I’m talking about.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...