What it's really like to eat on a tight budget

Published: Nov. 21, 2019 at 3:02 PM EST
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National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week wraps up on Sunday. To show support, some people in Vermont have decided to take the 3SquaresVT Challenge.

The challenge is to eat on the average 3Squares benefit, formerly known as food stamps. For an individual, that's $36 per week, or about $5.14 a day or $1.71 per meal. For a family of four, it comes to $99 a week.

Hannah Harrington is taking on the challenge for the week. Our Olivia Lyons joined Harrington as she made her dinner.

"I figured out how much I need for lunch, breakfast and dinner for the week and there wasn't even $2 leftover. So it felt-- in that moment-- wow, a dozen eggs is really expensive," Harrington said.

Harrington works as the service coordinator at Feeding Chittenden, helping people enroll in 3Squares. She wants to better connect with those on a limited budget.

Hunger Free Vermont says the challenge is most importantly about people's access to the program and its overall welfare.

"The goal of the challenge is not to emulate the circumstances of our low-income neighbors but really to develop a better understanding of how important 3Squares Vermont is," said Phil Morin of Hunger Free Vermont. "There has to be another way for people to get food."

Harrington considers herself lucky with the challenge because she's doesn't have to cook for a family and has no dietary restrictions. Besides some sweet potatoes, she could only afford frozen vegetables.

"It's not only really stressful but really hard because pretty much everything is by pound and not individual unit, and so I found myself weighing everything out, seeing if I could afford to purchase that quantity of vegetable," Harrington said.

For many of us, if we forget our lunch or want a snack, we go and get one. But for about 70,000 Vermonters receiving benefits, that's not an option.

"Rice, beans and sweet potato, so the whole entire things cost $3.06," Harrington noted.

She first went to the store to write down prices before making an affordable shopping list. But Harrington worried what people thought of her.

"On my calculator, scrubbing down prices, maybe no one noticed, but I'm sure someone did. And what if I got to the register and was $4 over? I would have to put stuff back, I guess," she said. "You can think that you shop with a very small budget and you know how to get the deals and everything like that, but there is no experience like having $36 and having to get by with nothing else on that $36 for the week."

This year, Hunger Free Vermont is asking people to speak out against a proposed rule change from the federal government that would reduce the benefits of 26,000 Vermonters. That includes 80 percent of households with an older Vermonter or person with a disability.

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