Food Bank Challenges Residents to Use Food Stamp Budget


Community Food Bank of New Jersey Director of Advocacy Diane Riley uses a calculator at the Pathmark of Montclair to see if granola bars would fit into a weekly food budget of $31.50 as part of the Food Stamp Challenge. Photo by Michelle Sartor.

By Michelle Sartor

“Can you live on $4.50 a day for food?” That is the question the Community Food Bank of New Jersey asked residents this week. The group organized its first Food Stamp Challenge to raise awareness about the program and show people how difficult it can be to rely on the assistance.

The average New Jersey resident who qualifies for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, receives $31.50 per week to spend on food. A trip to the supermarket becomes more difficult with the limited budget, which can’t be used for all items in the store.

Community Food Bank of New Jersey Director of Advocacy Diane Riley explained that SNAP money can only be used on food and excludes essentials like toilet paper, toothpaste and medicine. Additionally, the funds cannot be used to buy any prepared food or hot food.

Taking a trip down supermarket aisles with a calculator, it quickly becomes obvious that having $31.50 per week for food is challenging. Buying in bulk, which tends to lower the unit price, is nearly possible with such a limited budget, making the task even more difficult.

Riley, who is participating in the challenge, said she had to make tough choices when purchasing food this week.

“I bought a little differently. I took out all the possible extras,” she said. “I really had to think about the fruit and see what was on sale and what I wanted to do.”

She added that she didn’t buy items that she typically has on hand in her home. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, when would I get the oil?’ That’s expensive,” Riley said.

Oftentimes, those who participate in SNAP don’t have enough money to feed themselves for the entire month. They may utilize food pantries, “especially toward the end of the month,” Riley said. She explained that food pantries are used in emergency situations and provide three to five days worth of food.

While SNAP funding has increased, particularly after the state received stimulus money from the federal government, Riley said the program is based on the most minimal food plan the U.S. Department of Agriculture has.

“Food prices have risen far faster than the benefits have risen,” she said.

Riley said the purpose of the Food Stamp Challenge is to raise awareness about the program that is essential for many New Jersey families.

“I think it makes everybody a little more empathetic or understanding of just how much money that is to a household,” she said.

One of the participants in the challenge is Department of Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez. She is chronicling her experience in a blog available on the department’s website and Facebook page and said she believes any campaign that raises awareness about the prevalence of food insecurity is important.

“I think this experience reinforces for me the value of the state’s public and private non-profit food assistance programs. Certainly, I’m far more mindful of food costs,” Velez said. “But I don’t begin to compare my week to what an estimated 2 million New Jersey residents do, every day, in the long term.”

Riley said she is hopeful that once the economy gets better fewer New Jerseyans will have to depend on SNAP. As of September (the most recent data available), 760,000 people in the state used the program, says Riley. Half of those are children. She said two years ago, about 550,000 residents used SNAP.

Riley believes the program is essential to helping those who fall on hard times, relaying a story about a colleague who used food stamps when she was younger and unemployed. The program is meant to provide relief for people in times of need, she explained.

“It’s a lifesaver,” Riley said.

  • Starving Mom and Family

    My husband and I are experiencing dire straits! I was working, lost my job & exhausted my unemployment benefits. Simultaneously, my husband suffered an injury on the rented property in which we currently reside. This injury caused him two (2) surgeries, extensive physical therapy & lives in pain every day! Not to mention, lost his job of 11 years which provided our family with a comfortable living plus: total health benefits, life insurance & a fully vested pension. This injury caused permanent disability to his leg and he has been awarded permanent disability this past summer. Income went from 120k to 28k. We have 2 children – one is of age who lives with us & unemployed & one under age, a full time high school student. We are in the throughs of an eviction because we are suing our landlords because of injury not to mention harassment from them as a result (neglect case). I have applied for NJSNAP which was working out well until I stopped receiving unemployment. When I reported loss of income change – I was told I had a new caseworker (previous caseworker was a DREAM! He was promoted). For almost three (3) months she did absolutely NOTHING! Endless phone calls, voicemail messages, faxes. When I did reach her – promised return phone calls that never came from her. The week ending before Christmas I called the Director of the NJSNAP program and received action within 48 hrs for we had NO FOOD….I went from $439.00 monthly in EBT Benefits to $114.00!! CAN YOU PLEASE EXPLAIN THIS? This caseworker is hot and cold, one minute apologizing for her extreme caseload and telling me how patient I’ve been, then nasty and too busy to talk, complaining of her “CASELOAD.” We reside in Essex County in a more affluent area; it is extremely hard for me to get to Newark to come see her – I would have to take two buses one way! My caseworker is of the attitude that because we live where we do, we don’t need assistance. Uhmm sounds like discrimination? I told her our issues w eviction and her answer was – move down Newark, there is plenty of affordable housing. Mind you, we don’t have a problem living in Newark, but its not where we want our daughter to finish high school. Caseworker has all necessary documents faxed to her..we need HELP! How are we supposed to feed a family of four on $114.00 monthly? Not to mention, 71% of my husband’s social security disability goes towards paying our rent! Can someone calculate here? We chose the area in which we live to have a better quality life for our children, for ourselves and all was going well for over 15 years…now this. We aren’t looking for handouts, we are in need of HELP! Better yet – ARE YOU HIRING? I am looking for employment. I definitely wouldn’t mind having my caseworker’s job; I would be very grateful for the “CASELOAD.” So disenchanted as to where our tax money went all these years!

    • Geraldine

      Hi my name is Geraldine and I understand exactly what your going through.I myself had a great job for 8 years at which the Doctor that I was employed by had went and hired a Management company to try to save money which 2 years later wasn’t very successful and which he had ended up getting rid of them in the long run ,but I’m the mean time they had gradually pushed me out the door and then while being on unemployment I had to have surgery which left me with not a dime for 3 months while waiting on a disability check and recently my unemployment benefits were cut off as if January 1 2013 which left me with 0 income and unable to find employment .While going through all these hard times my 13 year old daughter who I was unable to financially take care if had to go to live @ her grandparents house (on her fathers side) which became heart breaking for both of us and made out lives very depressing .I am currently staying with my sister who is a very heartless individual who at any moment will throw me out in the streets depending on her mood (past experiences with her)!!! I recently went to
      Apply for food stamps and was told that in order for me to receive any kind of cash assistance through the government I would have to complete 7 classes at the unemployment one stop career center .Si were talking about another 2-3 weeks to complete those classes and then I would have to wait to see if the cash assistance was approved and then I should eventually starting receiving maybe $30 a week to survive off of until I find employment at which isn’t even enough to cover my room & board ..I also had to go
      On depression medication because of this selfish greedy uncaring country that we live in .The rich r getting richer and the poor r getting poorer .Sometimes I get so depressed where I wish my life was over !!!

  • Rj

    Funny how she thinks she can live like us for two weeks then go right back to buying anything she wants!! And it’s such bullshit that the system is so unregulated that if you wanted to you could buy filet mignon and crab legs but YOU CAN’T BUY TOOTHPASTE!!!