My breakfast on Day One of "The Food Stamp Challenge" cost 81 cents. It included two factory-farm eggs (fried, sunny-side-up), at 20 cents each; two slices of white bread toast, 7 cents a piece; and a cup of Stop & Shop's own Crunchy Raisin Bran cereal, 27 cents.
Organized by the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition as part of a national effort to call attention to the federal nutrition program, the challenge asked people who don't use food stamps to eat for one week on what recipients get, an average of $31.50 per person, or $1.50 a meal.
A lot of Rhode Islanders don't need to experiment. That's because 167,472 children and adults are receiving some help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP as the program is now known. That's 16 percent of the state's population.
This is more than double the number of Rhode Islanders who received food stamps five years ago, before the national recession shredded the economy, hitting Rhode Island especially hard with high unemployment and housing foreclosures.
About 50 people signed up for the one-week challenge, according to the religious groups that organized the event. Participants included Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, who told a press conference at the Rhode Island Community Food Bank on October 26 that the exercise would give the participants at least "a sense" of what impoverished families go through.
Roberts touched on my initial objection: this "challenge" seemed a bit of poverty tourism, with the haves briefly visiting the have-nots, then scooting safely home, never really knowing the long-term peril and tedium of being poor.
But the counter-argument is that even a gesture seems worthwhile during an ugly time in American politics, when once unthinkable steps like denying health care to the dying and food stamps to the hungry are one election away from becoming national creed.
So I was off to four stores over two days, shopping for 21 meals for two on a $63 budget. This seemed very doable until I hit the aisles, puzzling over whether the 10-for-$10 special beat the house brand, and whether slices of "cheese product" are equivalent to a bar of Monterey Jack.
I got a plump chicken for 99-cents-a-pound, bags of frozen broccoli and spinach, canned peaches, a gallon of 1% milk, a tiny jar of "natural" peanut butter and forty slices of white bread. But no desserts; no juices; no tea or coffee; no jelly; no fresh vegetables, except for eight skinny carrots.
I was left with 71 cents. Whether that fat chicken would yield its planned four meals, whether 40 slices of bread would last the week and whether black bean soup would be a big hit for Day Seven supper remained a worry.
But unlike actual Food Stamp families, while we skated briefly at the edge of food insecurity, our house remained toasty warm, with the utility bills paid in full; prescriptions were filled promptly; both cars started; and the dog and the cat, ineligible for SNAP, ate like princesses.