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Eating While Homeless Is Not Easy

Gwyneth Paltrow_ TIFF 2012Recently, actor Gwyneth Paltrow made news by taking part in a publicity stunt designed to raise awareness and empathy by challenging celebrities and others to live on the $29-per-week food allowance given by SNAP (aka food stamps). Her choices included one lime for every day of the week, which will surely keep scurvy at bay. Also, her menu excluded meat.

Illinois blogger Rebecca Vipond Brink put together a more plausible list, with all amounts and prices noted, comprising the following items: potatoes, eggs, frozen chicken breasts, cheese, milk, apples, oatmeal, celery, peanut butter, raisins, fresh carrots, and rice. Brink points out that she did not have to attempt the challenge in a food desert:

I lived it in a suburb that was safe. I lived it with a car, even if it was a car that was on its last legs.

Let’s imagine a homeless person who follows Brink’s lead. $2 is cheap for 5 pounds of potatoes—except you have to carry them around with you. Chicken at $1 per pound is a screamin’ deal, but after eating part of it, you’re still stuck with a few pounds of meat that needs to be stored in a refrigerator. So do the eggs and cheese; and so does the milk, which may be available for $2.50 per gallon, but who carries a container of souring milk around? Unfortunately, milk in the more practical pint cartons costs more per ounce.

Unrefrigerated celery and carrots tend to go unappealingly limp rather quickly. While 4 pounds of apples may be $3, buying them individually would cost more. At $2, a 16-ounce jar of peanut butter is quite a deal—but then, like a soldier in the field, you have to hump it. Raisins are tasty and need no preparation, but they are one of the fruits most likely to retain hideous amounts of pesticides, and the organic variety costs considerably more.

More Obstacles to Eating Well

A 3-pound bag of dry oatmeal might not be too weighty a burden, but how to prepare it? With a saucepan, and clean water, and a source of heat capable of first boiling the water and then moderating to a simmer. Same goes for the rice, and the pot definitely needs a lid for the steaming process to work correctly. Neither potatoes nor eggs should be eaten raw, and cooking the chicken is another challenge.

Brink did not stock up on dried beans, one of the cheapest foods available, which are often mentioned in connection with food banks and government handouts. They really need to be soaked in water overnight before cooking, and to avoid the flatulent effects, they should be rinsed and the water replaced several times. For this fancy maneuver, a person would need to carry around a strainer or colander. And dried beans have to cook for quite some time before they soften enough to eat. Throw in some catsup pilfered from a fast food joint, and you’ve got yourself a meal. Maybe you are even lucky enough to have a little paper packet of salt, if it didn’t melt when the rain soaked through your backpack.

You’d have to carry around, at bare minimum, a bowl, a fork and/or spoon, and a cooking pot. You’d need a can opener, and luckily the GI model is tiny and lightweight. Also easy to lose, and useless to a homeless person with arthritis in her hands. To cut a melon in half, or cut a free loaf of unsliced bread, or section an apple, you’d need a nice sharp knife. Which is also, technically, a weapon—the possession of which can get a street person into a world of trouble.

SNAP Regulations

Under the rules, SNAP benefits can’t be used to buy alcohol or cigarettes, or non-food items like toilet paper, a toothbrush, or soap. Nor can they be used to buy vitamin supplements, which is puzzling. Most inexplicable of all is the prohibition against hot foods, or even cold foods, if consumable on the spot, like potato salad from the deli counter. If a food stamp recipient wants to enter a convenience store and buy an embalmed hot dog from the rolling grill, why on earth should that be forbidden? It would protect public safety more efficiently than making the customer buy cold wieners to cook over a little blaze in the park. Citizens are always upset to hear that an empty house or a sector of wooded land has burned, but it’s a miracle there are not more runaway fires. And it isn’t just the homeless, as this Reddit commentator points out:

You can have a home but not a stove or other appliances. Where do you think poor urban families are going to get logs and coal from if they can’t afford basic gas and electricity? They’re going to steal it or try to build fire with illegal/dangerous materials in an illegal/dangerous way.

The federal SNAP rules allow restaurant meals for the elderly, disabled, and homeless—but that program is implemented in only two states, and parts of three others. In addition, people themselves have built-in limitations—like an allergy to peanut butter, or one of any number of other edible substances. A person might need to carefully follow an anti-diabetes diet, or might have teeth too damaged and painful to chew with, or no teeth at all. And in many places, people experiencing homelessness have to use up a portion of their SNAP benefits just to obtain drinkable water.

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Source: “What $29 A Week For Food Looks Like For Actual Low-Income People (And Not Gwyneth Paltrow),” TheFrisky.com, 04/10/15
Source: “SNAP Challenge raises awareness for hunger, can you eat for $4.50 per day?,” Reddit.com, 2014
Image by Michael Mayer