Groceries aren’t cheap, even when you try to curb your spending.
Just take a look at the suggested food spending plans on the site loweryourspending.com-“low cost” for one male between the ages of 19-50 comes in at around $284 per month. Tighten the belt to squeeze into the “thrifty” bracket, and you’re still looking at around $219.
Dustin Hunter would not have even been able to afford that on his $200 per months in food stamp benefits, and now he will be receiving even less after $5 billion is eliminated from Federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) funding.
“The simple fact is, $189 will not last one month,” Hunter says. “It will barely even last half a month.”
Hunter is good at adapting to a thin budget. At one time he shared an apartment with three other roommates-struggling college students-in his native South Georgia. More often than not they would have to figure out how to feed themselves and the friends and girlfriends they let crash with them.
For him, the cramped living conditions haven’t changed much-he still shares a stuffy apartment with a group of friends he calls family, and he’s still finding ways to get more with less, but it hasn’t gotten any easier.
“Just means you have to pinch your panties even tighter,” Hunter says. “You’re not gonna go for Veveeta, but Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Look for deals. Collect coupons.”
But all the frugality in the world won’t prepare you for inflation.
“Most people will go and get peanut butter and jelly, because you don’t have to put anything else on it,” he says. “But now peanut butter and jelly’s going up.”
This is the struggle waged by 424,000 Connecticut residents-149,000 of which are children, and 102,000 of which are elderly.
“It really is a program that helps the most vulnerable,” said Mary Ingarra, Communications Director at the Connecticut Food Bank, which spearheads 650 local programs in 6 counties throughout the state.
A family of four will see $36 less per month, according to Ingarra.
“When you say $36, people don’t think it’s a lot, but it definitely has an impact,” Ingarra said during a phone interview.
What impact, exactly? Ingarra breaks it down into what that translates into on a typical grocery list.
“That’s a chicken breast, four potatoes, two boxes of spaghetti, sauce, deli ham, cheese, a loaf of bread, one gallon of low-fat milk, a box of cornflakes, and 8 bananas,” she said.
Hunter and his New Haven roommates might not technically be family, but they care for each other like one, but making sure that everyone is fed isn’t easy, considering the fact that none of the apartment’s four occupants are employed.
“Most of us are on it because we have no other alternative,” said Ashley Elizabeth Swain, one of the apartment’s occupants. “If I could, I’d be doing what I did when I was 20-working two jobs.”
Swain has been chronically unemployed for three years, and a laundry list of health conditions-she has bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, along with back and knee ailments-have made finding work difficult.
Even those who are not plagued by the ailments Swain has been dealing with have not had an easy time in the job market-Connecticut had an 8.1 unemployment rate as of August, according to the state’s Department of Labor. Since the rate hit 9.4 in 2010, it has gone down, but still dwarfs 2008’s 6.7.
In New Haven, a city with a downtown area that has been rebranded over the years by an influx of chain restaurants such as Subway, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and more recently, a Shake Shack, but when everyone is trying to spend less, employment opportunities are few and far between, Hunter says.
“We got two Starbucks, three Dunkin Donuts, two Blue State [Coffees], and two Subways,” he says. “And that’s all within blocks, so there’s plenty of places to work, but there are cutbacks.”
Through its local programs, the Connecticut Food Bank serves around 36 tons of food on a typical business day. Over the past three years, distribution has jumped by 25 percent, Ingarra said. And many of those people, she said, were not even unemployed.
“We have a lot of low-income, working families that may not qualify SNAP,” Ingarra said. “Now we’re going to have people that have SNAP, and they’re going to turn to the food bank for assistance as well.”
For Swain, social security guarantees $710 per month-and that’s a bump from the $698 she used to get-but after rent and medication costs related to another condition, irritable bowel syndrome, there isn’t much left to spare for her, let alone three others, in the way of food expenses.
“I’m supposed to be on a gluten free diet, and it’s too expensive to buy gluten free food,” Swain said. “I’m basically making every penny stretch, but I’m doing it because I have people depending on me.”