This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
I've been craving something from the crisper for about six days.
After eating white food for days on end, I realized the fatal flaw of my Food Stamp Challenge menu pretty quickly: I didn't factor in snacks. Healthy snacks.
I don't mean chips and crackers, though forgetting to buy goldfish crackers for my son was a serious miscalculation. I've eaten enough starch - pancakes, pasta, Rice-a-Roni, egg noodles, potatoes - to last a lifetime. By the time the week of cheap carbs wrapped up, all I really wanted to eat was a Braeburn apple and a cheese stick.
I didn't start out this week intending to become a cliché. I fell into it with my wallet and eyes open.
On May 10, I set off on a lark - playing at being poor, a sort of "Survivor: Salt Lake City." I would put my family of three on a food-stamp diet, limiting each person's meal to an average of $1.05, or $69 for a week. And I dragged Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and his family along.
At the end of seven days, my smug is gone. We tried. But we failed. One week ended just in time.
The Huntsman family is breathing the same sigh of relief.
"We have an empty, empty refrigerator," said Mary Kaye Huntsman. "We learned a lot of great lessons this week."
But, "we're glad it's over," the governor chimed in.
That's what buying exactly what you need, planning meals a week in advance and gobbling up every last bit does to you. You realize how easily you could fall over the precarious edge of hunger.
"You think about it every time you sit down to a meal," Jon Huntsman Jr. said.
We ate mass-produced food for a week, and the novelty wore off quickly. I burned the Rice-a-Roni; we ate it anyway. The broccoli and strawberries were gone in three days. We choked down canned veggies and browning bananas. My husband foraged in the lawn for dandelion greens to put in a salad.
By the end of the week, our resolve was waning. We started rationing our lone gallon of milk. I admit, there were pantry raids - for ice cream, goldfish and another bag of Cheetos.
The Huntsmans tried to limit their independent teenagers' and college students' secret fast-food runs. One son's friends raided the cupboards last weekend, eating up $20 of the family's food stamp rations. With $40 of their $208 budget unspent, they went back to the store twice - for more milk, bread, peanut butter, chicken and some ice cream to go with a single brownie mix.
Virtually all of the food is gone. "Nothing went down the drain," Mary Kaye said. "We ate every bite."
Now, the Huntsmans and my family will go back to our more spontaneous, sometimes wasteful, more fiber-full diets. (They went out to Cafe Rio for dinner. I had that apple. And my husband ate a can of bean with bacon soup.) Our weeklong artificial experiment in struggling is over.
But 130,000 Utahns will continue stretching their grocery budgets day after day.
It's a federal issue, but Utah's governor has started reading policy papers and news stories about food stamps.
Others still are skeptical.
American Fork Republican Rep. John Dougall has taken on the Food Stamp Challenge to prove how "easy" it is to eat well on $22 a week. Armed with a spreadsheet, he has figured out the cost of everything from a cup of flour to a serving of frozen vegetables. He supplements his food stamp menu with staples from home - fudging the rules. His wife and children are not participating. He brags about eating homemade chocolate chip cookies each night.
"I'm probably eating healthier today than I did before," he said. "It's really easy to say you can't do it. The riddle is to say, 'Can I do it?' And, 'How did I do it?' I want to understand this."
Real food stamp recipients wonder if anyone can truly understand after just one week.
At a Mother's Day dinner, Marva Braun's grown children remembered eating dinners of tuna or jam on saltines with olives as a treat. A single mother of three from Salt Lake City, Braun was on food stamps for three years.
That was years ago, but the humiliation of standing in the checkout line with stamp books is close to the surface. That can't be duplicated in a week, Braun said. Neither can the uncertainty of not having a full pantry or bank account to fall back on when the stamps run out.
"Do it for one month," said Braun. "Most of the people that offered to do this probably have loads of food already at their house. They just have no idea what it is to lay awake at night wondering, 'How am I going to make ends meet?' "
She's right. A month would be more realistic. For one thing, a bigger budget would allow for frozen vegetables and flour and sugar.
But after a week, I can't contemplate another 21 days.
Launched by Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and advocates for low-income Americans, the Food Stamp Challenge is meant to raise awareness while Congress considers reauthorizing a program established with a farm relief bill at the tail end of the Great Depression. Nationwide, 26 million Americans use Food Stamps - 80 percent of those are families with children. Food stamp benefits have not been adjusted since 1996.