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Family Tastes Life on Food Assistance


A record number of Americans - 47 million people, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture - rely on government assistance to keep from going hungry.

The US government provides a small stipend for food, but warding off hunger can be challenging on such a tight budget.

Laura Kahn recently got a taste of what it's like to live on food assistance, after volunteering to take the Hunger Challenge.

Kahn, who loves to cook, prepared meals for herself and her husband for about $4 each per day. That’s the average government food aid benefit. It’s less than half of what the typical American couple spends daily on food.

And that’s the point of the Hunger Challenge, says Charles Meng, executive director of the Arlington Food Assistance Center, a nearby food bank.

“All of a sudden you can understand those tradeoffs that our families make on a daily basis,” Meng says.

Tradeoffs like giving up most fresh fruits and vegetables for canned.

"A fresh apple might be five cents or 10 cents more expensive than the applesauce that's already canned," Kahn says, "which doesn't sound like a lot, but when you're on $4.03 a day, three cents here, 10 cents here, it all adds up."

Even brand-name canned foods had to go and so did the flavors she liked.

“[There is a] tremendous flavor difference," Kahn says. "You almost have to add some sort of spice to the store-brand tomatoes in order to make them taste the same.”

Most red meat had to go, too, so their protein often came from beans.

“I’ve got black beans, red beans," Kahn says, "got our pinto beans, got our lentils.”

After conducting a great deal of research to keep her recipes on budget, she drew up detailed charts listing the per-serving cost of every ingredient.

“It was a lot of work," Kahn says. "I enjoy it because I enjoy numbers, but your average person is probably not going to do this.”

But it helped her come up with meals which were healthy, tasty, filling and cheap. One recent dinner, a potato-zucchini-egg frittata, cost about a dollar per serving.

“Yeah, it’s really good,” says Kahn's husband, Aaron, who adds they've not sacrificed on taste. But, "I’ve also seen all the work that Laura put into it. And I can’t believe the amount of effort it takes to eat on such a tight budget.”

And Laura Kahn says it was an eye-opening experience for her, too.

“I’ve never had to think about where my next meal comes from and I think that it can be a tremendous amount of stress on people," she says. "And I think I realize that more by having lived it.”

After a week of low-budget cooking, Kahn ended the challenge with greater respect for those who have to live on government food assistance, people who face the hunger challenge all year round.
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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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