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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008 12:57 am

The challenge of eating on $25 a week

Getting a taste of what life is like on food stamps


Kris Armour never realized how much she enjoyed spending her afternoon break strolling to Del's Popcorn Shop and ordering a vanilla-infused soda pop. The treat became such a habit that Armour bought a special Del's mug entitling her to discounted refills. With that mug, her cola fix cost a mere buck plus change.

Last week, however, she couldn't afford it. She couldn't go to Del's even once. Her food budget for the week dropped from whatever vague number that Armour and I and probably you, too, all carry around in our heads — you know, the one that's fairly frugal, except when we're in a hurry, too tired to cook, can't find anything good in the refrigerator, or we're celebrating some special occasion, such as the arrival of Friday? — all the way down to just $25.

Armour, a commercial lending specialist at the U.S. Bank downtown, was participating in the Illinois Food Bank Association's $25 Challenge — a campaign to give folks who don't need food stamps an idea of what life is like for folks who do.

"I didn't think it would be that bad," says Armour, who considers herself a penny-pincher. She clips coupons, goes to discount stores, buys store brands and generics, and orders off the value menu at McDonald's. She has an occasional lunch with co-workers, a "family night" out every weekend, and that special soda at Del's; other than those splurges, Armour, 36, doesn't spend much on food.

Still, living on government rations came as a shock.

That 50-cent bottle of water she had never thought twice about got nixed as a silly luxury when it represented more than 10 percent of her daily food allowance. The hotdog her 5-year-old son didn't touch at dinner made an encore appearance on her plate the following night. Other leftovers were scraped into small containers and squirreled away in the fridge for Armour's lunch the next day. She made patchwork meals from "a little splattering of this and a little splattering of that."

On Friday night — normally the night the family goes out for dinner at Cracker Barrel or Bakers Square — they stayed home and ate scrambled eggs with toast.

"You get creative," Armour says.

Certain staples of her diet were simply out of the question. Aside from a $1 zucchini she bought at the Farmer's Market, she was left craving food that was uncooked, unprocessed, un-mushified.

"A lot of fresh things cost a lot more than canned. That was a rude awakening," she says.

About halfway through the challenge, Armour discovered that she had run out of sandwich bread. Normally, she would've made an emergency run to the nearest Walgreens, where a loaf sells at the convenience price of about $3. Instead, she drove across town to a supermarket that sells its own brand of bread for a dollar per loaf. She didn't have to fret about the cost of the gasoline, or worry that she might get in trouble for being late to work. The fact that anybody truly reliant upon food stamps might not have the option of going to a different store nagged at her.

"I have the capability to drive to a store where it's cheaper," she says. "I'm blessed to have a vehicle and a flexible job."

Such little cheats kept cropping up. For example, Armour has a significant quantity of beef stashed in her freezer — the result of her family's tradition of pooling resources with friends every year to purchase an entire steer. She calculated the cost of the roast she prepared for dinner one night last week (with leftovers for the next night) and factored it into her faux-food-stamp budget, but knew in her heart that a for-real-food-stamp family couldn't have gotten in on such a sweet deal. Heck, they probably wouldn't have owned a freezer large enough to hold the meat.

Armour also got help from her relatives. One night, her father, visiting from out of town, took Armour and her husband and son out to Culver's for dinner. Another night, her mother took the family to Red Lobster, and Armour left with a doggy bag that went into her lunch bag the following day. Such kindnesses are routine family life for Armour, but she knows that a family on food stamps might not have the advantage of such prosperous relations.

There's a whole other ledger full of financial pressures Armour could ignore. The challenge applied only to her food budget — not housing, utilities, transportation, shoes and clothing, cable television, Internet access, or any of the myriad luxuries we tend to take for granted. Yet, even without those strains and with the full complement of middle-class accouterments — a reliable car, a steady job, an extra dollop of assistance from kith and kin — Armour says the $25 Challenge was difficult.

"It definitely opened my eyes, and I hope that they'll stay open," she says.

She plans to increase her annual donation to the food bank this year. She also plans to spend this week going out to lunch with friends. And if you happen to wander into Del's mid-afternoon, well, you just might bump into her there.

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