About this Blog

Welcome! Thanks for checking out On Food Stamps.

I created this blog in 2009 when I began working at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. My work at this organization opened my eyes to food justice issues in America, and I had a strong desire to better understand the difficulties many people face when trying to access healthy food on a limited budget. So, I embarked on my own Food Stamp Challenge, living on $31/week as a vegan. I used this blog to chronicle my experience.

While my Food Stamp Challenge project has come to an end, you can see what I learned from it by reading the Greatest Hits posts linked to the right side of the page. Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.

Stay Hungry,


Thursday, August 6, 2009


The Diabetic On Food Stamps challenge is turning out to to be different from my month as a Vegan On Food Stamps in some surprising ways.

In the past few months I have developed skills that make last round's challenges less of an issue. For example, I have gotten very good at sourcing cheap, sustainable, and healthy food. I know where and when to shop. I have tons of tricks to save myself time. I have more experience cooking these new cheap foods, and now that I have certain recipes memorized my cooking goes faster. On the last round, time and money were the biggest barrier issues, but I have now moved beyond that. (Stay tuned for a wrap up post with all of my best practices.)

I have found, however, that thinking about my food in portions is quite challenging. When I did the Vegan on Food Stamps experiment, I thought about food in terms of rationing. It was "How much can I eat of this and still have enough for lunch tomorrow?" My portions were based on stretching food to last the week, on maximum possible food intake, and not on how much I should really be eating.

Actually, I was kind of obsessed with the whole rationing thing. At the beginning of each week I felt like a squirrel storing up acorns for winter; I would eat small amounts, hording food for myself to eat at a later date. I was always worried I would be hungry or run out of food, so I developed a mildly unhealthy preoccupation with eating. When the end of the week came, and I realized I had enough food left, I would find myself overeating. It was a weird cycle of deprivation and overindulgence. Apparently, this is pretty true to real life on food stamps. Many food stamp recipients experience the same type of cycle. When benefits arrive at the beginning of the month, it is feast time. When they dry up after a few weeks and the money for food is scarce, it is famine. Really, this is not a healthy way to eat.

Now that I have some practice, I am not afraid anymore that I will run out of food. I know I have plenty to last me through the week. I feel I can eat as much of my healthy and sustainable food as I want. But in reality, I can't - not as a "Diabetic" at least.

The portion control thing is hard. I now feel deprived on TWO levels instead of one. Before, I just had to say "no" to myself when I was at the market buying food. Now, I have to say "no" to myself at the market, and while I'm cooking, and when I want a snack, and when someone offers me free unhealthy food, and at the table when I sit down to eat.

I have a feeling that if I really stuck with this for a few more weeks it would get easier, too. I would get used to the smaller portion sizes just as I got used to the tighter budget. But for now, eating is more stressful than it is joyful.

And there is one thing that I don't think I'd ever get over - how all of this rationing and limiting and deprivation affects my social life. Don't get me wrong, most of my friends are young and broke too. We are all used to saving money, ordering PBR and Tecate instead of Martinis. Cheap is ok when you can be cheap in the company of others. Cheap and unable to go out at all leads to a lot of isolation. It is lonely when you can't eat with anyone because your diet is super restrictive. Again, eating just isn't as fun for me right now.

The truth is, I think eating is supposed to be fun. It is supposed to be fulfilling in more than just a physical sense. Eating is about nuturance, sharing, pleasure, and good company. It is supposed to bring us joy and leave us feeling good afterwards. It is supposed to be relaxing and joyful.

In my experience, eating on a Food Stamp budget hasn't been joyful at all. First, it is lonely. My dietary restrictions isolate me because few people want to partake in what seems to them like militantly healthy cuisine. Eating feels full of NO's, and it would probably stay that way until I get used to a new pattern.

I found that after 1 month of eating as a vegan on $31/week, the whole thing did get easier. It felt less and less like deprivation and more and more like my reality. In fact, in between now and the end of that challenge months ago I did continue to eat for close to $35/month. I'd gotten used to it. It wasn't all that hard. And, once I recalibrated my expectations about food I was able to find fulfillment within that budget and my normal vegetarian diet guidelines.

The hardest part was the beginning. I am in that space now with the Diabetic challenge, and I am reminded of just how hard it is. What I am realizing is that this exact period, the month or so that it takes to recalibrate your food habits and expectations, turns out to be a real barrier. Changing one's diet isn't too hard once you get used to it, but the initial commitment is very painful. Again, I am sure I'd get used to these measured portions after a month and it would get easier. Right now it feels like I've sucked all the joy out of eating.

What I have to do is shift what types of joy I expect to get from food. I used to seek out the taste-bud kind of joy. The immediate gratification of salty, sugary, or otherwise tongue-pleasing foods. Now I am more in tune with how I feel after I finish eating, and through this Diabetes challenge I am learning to stop equating the freedom to eat until I am stuffed with joy. I look at measured Diabetes-friendly portions as restrictive, but they are probably just about right. The fact that I can't keep eating until I am absolutely full seem like a crime to me- a real deprivation- when in reality the portions I am measuring out allow me to consume plenty of food.

I am beginning to realize what a major barrier changing the way we think about joy and enjoyment of food really is. It takes awhile to internalize a change in what we consider to be an enjoyable food experience. One has to work pretty hard to go from feeling that eating an entire carton on ice cream is a guilty yet joyful pleasure, to feeling that eating a moderate portion of kale salad and feeling rejuvenated and healthy afterwards is a joyful pleasure.

There is a critical period when dietary restrictions go from feeling like rules to feeling like a comfortable habit or familiar pattern. Until the new habit takes, dietary change is very difficult. As far as portion control is concerned, I guess I'm still stuck in food joy purgatory.

1 comment:

  1. Julie -- This was a very fascinating and important post of yours. I really appreciate how you directly confronted emotional attachment to food and the overall emotional experience while consuming food. "Joy," I believe, is a word that certainly fits what food can make people feel. Other words that stick out to me are also "pleasure" and "guilt." When it comes to portion control, especially in America where portion control is truly ridiculous, can a person completely feel joy towards food without a slight brush of guilt? It's an interesting cocktail of emotions when one sits down to a huge feast. This post also made me question how in tune we are with our bodies as we eat. Yes, we all can determine if a meal tastes delicious, but what about that connection with our bodies that tells us to eat slowly, enjoy flavors, and stop eating when we're full? I feel we all have cut ourselves away from that simple, basic, mind/body connection. Thanks for bringing up these thoughts and questions for me. Rock on.