NEW ORLEANS -- Nearly 1 million people in Louisiana receive food stamps and many people receiving the assistance are working or children.
In fact, three out four people in the state who have full-time jobs in the fast food restaurants need some type of public assistance just to get by.
Lynette is not the typical person most people would think needs food stamps. At the age of 54, she decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in social work so she could earn more money.
So she picked up and moved across three states to New Orleans, where she plans to stay and make a difference once she finishes school at Tulane University.
“I had to let go of my pride,” said Lynette. “It was scary but I had to have faith.”
To do that, she had to give up everything, including her full-time job.
“I have to budget for all the household expenses and I have to live within my means,” Lynette said.
These days Lynette says that’s even tougher to do since both of her grown children are also full-time college students.
“College is very expensive … so basically every nickel and dime is going towards our education,” she said.
With most of her budget going towards education, there’s little left over for food. So Lynette applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. The additional help makes the difference between her eating healthy or not.
But the assistance is usually not enough for the thousands of people who depend on it just to put food on the table.
“With the Nov. 1 cuts, the average benefit amount is a $1.40 per meal,” said Mike Kantor, director of public affairs for 2nd Harvest Food Bank. “Imagine trying to go to the grocery store and trying to pick out a meal for $1.40.”
So I wanted to see if I could do it. A single adult on food stamps get less than $47 a week. So I went shopping and picked up staples such as eggs, bread, chicken and some frozen vegetables. You can find a list of what I bought below.
At the checkout, I came in under budget by about $2. However, three days into the week I was quickly running out of options, especially healthy ones.
Julie Fortenberry, a dietician at Touro Infirmary Hospital, said eating healthy doesn’t have to mean spending more. She said you just have to shop smart.
First, she said start with buying fruits and vegetables that are in season and make better choices at the meat counter.
“Boneless chicken, without the skin, is $4.49 a pound and this one over here, where you would take the skin off yourself, is $2.69 a pound,” said Fortenberry. “That’s almost half the difference.”
The reason boneless skinless chicken is more expensive is because they’re doing the work for you.
“If you bake the chicken and pull the skin off yourself, you’re going to save yourself a lot of money per pound,” Fortenberry advised.
“Chicken should be a staple for anyone on a budget," said Fortenberry. "The thing about chick that I love is it's going to keep your family full and it's usually pretty lean."
She also offers the following tips for people who want to eat healthy on a budget:
- Pair chicken with a cheap, healthy carbohydrate such as brown rice or wheat pasta and a fresh vegetable that's in season – and you've got a fairly cheap meal that's very healthy.
- Stock up on items when they’re on sale. Frozen vegetables often go on sale “10 for $10.” Not only is this good deal but they also last a long time in the freezer. Just make sure the frozen veggies are not high in sodium.
- When you crave a vegetable or fruit when it’s not in season, try buying it in the frozen food section as a less expensive option.
- It's okay to spend more money on something you eat almost every day, especially if it's a healthier option. For example, if you like to eat turkey sandwiches several times a week, spend a little more and buy the fresh turkey breast from the deli instead of the processed meats found in the grocery’s cold cuts section.
- If your family drinks whole milk, slowly start to wean them off of whole milk to skim. Try switching to 2 percent for a few weeks, then go to 1 percent before switching over completely to skim.
Since food stamps are only intended to supplement a family’s food needs, many people turn to food banks when their food runs out. For more and more Americans this has become their reality.
“The core of the U.S. economy is shifting towards low wage work even as these employers in these industries are making billions of dollars a year,” said Jack Temple, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.
Here in Louisiana, 73 percent of fast food workers receive some form of public assistance just to make ends meet.
“What that means is taxpayers in the state are paying $71 million every year to basically subsidize the fast food industry,” Temple said.
Those on the frontlines say the face of hunger has changed drastically.
Nearly half of all Americans who qualify to receive food stamps are also working.
“There seems to be a very damaging discourse in our country right now that folks are may be getting something they don't deserve,” Kantor said. “That they are taking advantage of a program or not using it the right way.”
But that’s simply not the case, according to Kantor. In fact, less than 1 percent of the people who receive food stamps – abuse or de-fraud the system.
Yet, many people still want Congress to cut funding to the program.
Lynette knows firsthand just how important these programs are.
“Without them people would be left on the street, destitute and starving,” said Lynette. “So it really is important to support these types of organizations.”
Once she graduates with her master’s degree in social work, she hopes to help make policy changes that won’t leave millions of American with nowhere to turn.
Here is Jaclyn's grocery list:
-Eggs (Large, white, store brand)
-Bread (nature's choice whole wheat)
-Sandwich meat - not from deli (turkey breast)
-Cheese slices (Kraft - Monterey Jack)
-Box of maple and brown sugar oatmeal (that come in the pre-made packs)
-2 chicken noodle canned soup (progresso /light)
-Pack of fresh boneless, skinless chicken breast (3 in pack)
-2 bags of Frozen steamable veggies
-Lays Kettle Cooked Jalapeno chips
-Ragu original marina sauce for spaghetti
-Pack of Diet Coke