Mayor, congressman take challenge to live on $4.50 a day for food

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published June 19, 2013


FERNDALE — When Mayor Dave Coulter heads out to the grocery store, he said he strolls down every aisle and grabs what he needs and what he wants, not taking cost into consideration.

But, about a month ago, Coulter read about the proposed $20 million cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that would eliminate food assistance for nearly two million low-income people.

A little research also showed something that shocked Coulter — the average recipient of food assistance gets $1.50 a meal, or $4.50 per day and $31.50 a week to spend on food.

“I couldn’t imagine how you could get by on that kind of meal that cost $1.50,” Coulter said. “I saw there were over 130,000 recipients of food assistance in Oakland County in an average month, and I know there are some folks here in Ferndale. This is a very real issue in this neck of the woods.”

On June 10, Coulter and Democratic U.S. Congressman Sander Levin teamed up to take part in the SNAP Challenge, which challenges those not on food assistance to live on $4.50 a day for food. Coulter and Levin went shopping at Ferndale Foods to pick the groceries they would eat for a week from June 12-18.

Both men had to make cuts on things they usually would buy. For Coulter, he said he usually grabs a breakfast bar on the way out in the morning, but the price was too much, so he opted for a large container of off-brand oatmeal.

I thought about the single pack oatmeal, but it wasn’t as good of a deal,” Coulter said. “The other thing I have discovered is I have to get up earlier so I can make breakfast and I can make lunch. I had peanut butter and strawberry sandwiches the first two days for lunch and butter noodles for dinner.”

For Levin, a set amount of money meant he could not buy fresh fruit: something he purchases every week.

“I do a lot of shopping at home in Michigan, and my children and grandchildren kid me about the fruit I buy for the whole family, because I love fruit,” Levin said. “I couldn’t afford to buy any fruit, so I bought cereal and I have to eat that without the berries I love.”

Levin only spent $20.12 of his allowed budget in Ferndale, as he couldn’t take certain things on the plane back to Washington, D.C. In Washington, he purchased skim milk and peanut butter to go along with his pound of green beans and six cans of tuna, among other products.

On top of a small budget, Levin said he also had to make sure he didn’t eat too much at a time or waste anything.

“For lunch, I ate bread and peanut butter, but I didn’t do sandwiches because I would need two slices for that,” Levin said. “You can’t spill anything, because if I spill a bowl of pasta, I might run out of it. I talked to a person in Michigan who was in a wheelchair who said, on Saturdays and Sundays, she often has nothing to eat but bread.”

Nutrition and constant hunger is another thing affecting people on food assistance, Coulter said, and something he had to deal with the past week. While Coulter and Levin did have a nutritionist go shopping with them, the $31.50 could only go so far.

“It was far more difficult to stay under threshold and buy nutritious food because you can’t afford a lot of vegetables, produce and fruit on that budget,” Coulter said. “I try to get fruits and vegetables normally and tend to eat pretty healthy. On this budget, it is mostly carbohydrates, pasta, oatmeal and peanut better.

“Still, at the end of a work day, I am really hungry and realize one sandwich is not enough for lunch.”

Another cut Coulter had to make for the week was eating out. The mayor had already scheduled a dinner date with a friend, but instead of rescheduling, he went and watched his friend eat while he waited to go home and eat butter noodles and green beans.

Levin has been an advocate for food assistance programs for several years, but taking part in the SNAP Challenge has allowed him to see how tough it can be to rely on assistance, he said. The cuts would not only hurt adults, but also kids who can’t do anything but rely on the food programs.

“Everybody needs to get in the shoes of someone who needs assistance to understand what it means for stomachs and for the children,” Levin said. “We are talking about adequate nutrition to avoid hunger for kids and adults.”