Monday, Jan. 30, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Try eating on $3.39 a day.
Some Las Vegans learned last week that it’s doable but difficult. Luckily for them it was just a one-week experiment, whereas for hundreds of thousands of our neighbors, it’s an ongoing challenge.
According to a 2011 report from the Food Research and Action Center, Nevada ranked sixth in “food hardship”; nearly 30 percent of families with children didn’t have enough money at some point in the past year to buy food.
The portion of Clark County schoolchildren receiving free or reduced-priced lunch increased from 39 percent to more than 50 percent in recent years.
Many families turn to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP and commonly known as “food stamps.” More than 350,000 Nevadans were receiving food benefits in November, up 10 percent from the previous year after several years of larger increases.
Even with food stamps, however, families still struggle with hunger.
To show the difficulty of living on a meager food budget, Three Square, a local food bank, offered a challenge to see if people could live on a food stamp budget.
(Before we go on, let’s make a deal: I’ll agree that hungry Americans have it better than hungry Haitians and that there is some (small) percentage of recipients who don’t need food stamps but get them anyway or who are obese but get food stamps if you’ll promise to share your outrage about said issues with your brother-in-law instead of my voicemail or email inbox. Deal? Cool.)
I went to Walmart on Fort Apache and Tropicana with Brian Hoying, who is a techie at Zappos. He and his wife have two boys, so for the challenge Three Square allotted him $67.80 for five days of food. That’s $3.39 per day per person. Luckily, the boys are 2 and 3, so they don’t eat much.
Hoying tells me they usually spend $80 to $100 per week and eat out once or twice per week.
Hoying’s wife Larissa, who usually does the shopping, prepared a spreadsheet for Brian, which takes away some of the suspense.
“Our big challenge is whether we can afford coffee,” he says.
He’s surprised by the high cost of cereals and settles on a smaller, cheaper box of Cheerios, but that is more expensive per ounce, thus illustrating a common problem encountered by the poor: They can’t buy in bulk because they can’t afford memberships at places such as Costco and often only have a small amount to spend per week.
Brian grew up in Las Vegas. His dad was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base.
“We thought it was cool when we had pancakes for dinner,” only realizing later that his parents were stretching paychecks, he says.
Before getting to the produce area, he works his calculator: $42.39. He’s on track. He weighs his bananas and goes with iceberg lettuce instead of the pricier romaine. Looks like there’s money for coffee.
In the end, he comes in $5 under and walks away with egg noodle pasta, ground beef, eggs, cheese, bacon, canned soups, peanut butter and jelly, among other items. As Brian notes, he was blessed with advantages, including plenty of time to comparison shop, a car to hit the cheapest store and a wife to do some research.
Food prices have risen in recent years due to growing demand in developing nations and speculative shenanigans in the commodities markets, but food in America is still cheap.
As Michael Pollan noted in The New York Review of Books, President Richard Nixon reacted to a spike in food prices in the early 1970s by shifting policy from supporting price stability for farmers to increasing output of a few crops such as corn and soy (this explains why there’s corn and soy in everything). As a result of this policy shift and technological gains that have increased productivity per acre, Americans spend less on food as a percentage of their income — slightly less than 10 percent — than at any time in modern history.
Hunger persisted, however, because at the same time the cost of housing increased markedly, which left people with less money for food. Thankfully, the cost of housing in Las Vegas decreased with the housing bust. Still, hunger persists, though now it’s because people can’t find work or their income is swallowed up by medical costs.
At Macedonia Outreach on Clayton Street in North Las Vegas, people are lined up well before the food bank opens at 3 p.m. Lottie Robinson, a volunteer and member of the church, tells me when they started the food bank in 2010 they served about 80 or 100 families and are now up to 190. They’re busier at the end of the month, when people’s food stamps run out.
Nancy Forman, who says she is disabled with a chronic lung infection and was recently diagnosed with diabetes, receives $46 per month.
“By the time you get a can of coffee, meat, bread, eggs, that’s it,” she says.
Richelle Hardiman is a classic case of how many people are one medical event away from poverty. She says she was an account manager at Comp USA when she had a stroke.
“My left side doesn’t listen to me,” she says. She drowned her sorrows for a decade — “The beer told me it was OK to live out there on the streets,” — until getting clean three years ago.
Now she receives a $906 monthly disability check. Her rent is $550. Throw in utilities, and she’s not left with much. Still, because of that income, she receives the minimum in food stamps, which is about $16 a month. She buys food for needy friends because people helped her when she needed it, Hardiman says.
Now I’m back at the Walmart in the west valley, this time with Stephanie Deppensmith and Alex Karvounis and their daughter Harper. Their budget is $54.45, which is about half their usual food budget. They also usually eat out once a week. Stephanie is a stay-at-home mom, though, so money is tighter since Harper was born.
Alex and Stephanie met as performers in “Jubilee” at Bally’s, and they have an endearing chemistry. Their approach, however, is a bit more chaotic than the Hoyings, and they’re more anxious about whether they can meet the challenge.
Like a lot of kids, little Harper, who is 22 months, has some food pet peeves. She likes her applesauce, for instance, from a GoGo SqueeZ, a fun squeezable pouch, which is five times more expensive per ounce than a simple jar. Alex wonders if this will be the week when Harper figures out that applesauce is applesauce.
Stephanie’s big item is coffee, plus flavored creamer. Alex goes along with it, but he loves his ketchup and wants the brand name.
“That’s my coffee!” he says.
He loses that battle, plus another one when Stephanie slides some peanut butter cups in the cart.
In the meat aisle, Alex confides, “It’s frustrating seeing the meats. I’m hungry, and I know I’m not going to get any.”
At the checkout aisle, Alex jokes, “We still got the chocolate in there. If this means we can’t get chicken, we’re gonna have words.”
Finished at Walmart, they head to Vons and Albertsons to finish their shopping, acknowledging they have the luxury of time and reliable transportation to get the best deals at three stores.
When I reach the Hoyings and Stephanie a few days later, they say it’s been a learning experience living on less.
“It was definitely tough,” Brian says.
He and his wife went without snacks or dessert and noticed the difference in the quality of their cheaper foods. He says they rationed their meats over several days and wasted less.
Stephanie blogged about her family’s experience. Her writing is reflective, and she seems poised to change her family’s relationship with food and maybe even all material things. The experience got her thinking deeply about what we take for granted: “Having enough is a concept I know we struggle with as a family. We always have enough, more than enough, in our pantry, in our fridge, in our freezer.”