It’s one thing to eat on $5 a day. It’s another thing to eat healthy on $5 a day.
This week, about 300 people in Montgomery County are attempting to raise awareness of poverty by spending no more than $25 on food for five weekdays as part of the SNAP the Silence Challenge.
The biggest obstacle to eating a healthy diet on just $5 a day might not be money, said Jenna Umbriac, nutrition educator for Manna Food Center, Montgomery County’s food bank.
“Time is one of the biggest obstacles,” she said. “If someone has a pretty robust food budget, they can afford to purchase healthy foods that are also convenient.”
Time is a privilege, said C. Marie Henderson, executive director of Interfaith Works.
“People struggling and living on the edge don’t have the privilege of time,” she said. “I have time if I make it, time to plan and to figure out my meals. But it is a privilege many people don’t have.”
As Umbriac prepared to take the challenge this week, she planned meals, identified foods to buy and looked through grocery ads for the best prices.
Individuals or families with what Umbriac calls robust food budgets tend to have fewer stressors in their lives and can prepare as she did. Many who rely on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, do not have that privilege.
“If you are in a position where you do not know where your next meal is coming from, and you have rent to worry about, utility bills to worry about, children who have to get to school, it’s not feasible to think you would also have time to sit down, make a meal plan, then have time to shop for the best prices,” she said.
But to eat healthy on a $5 daily budget and get the most for the money requires planning. Henderson said Interfaith Works advises clients to plan meals before they go to the grocery store.
Healthy eating on a budget also requires purchasing whole foods, like a whole chicken, versus one that has been cut up. As with planning, preparing whole foods takes more time, she said.
Henderson said she bought a whole chicken with her SNAP challenge budget, intending to make multiple meals out of it.
But coming home from work late on Monday meant she didn’t get to cook the bird until after 8 p.m. and didn’t get to eat until after 10 p.m., she said.
Often those living on SNAP assistance work long hours, odd hours or multiple jobs, she said.
Coming home after a long day, no one wants to spend hours cooking.
Ramen noodles, while not healthy, are much easier and take less time, she said.
As a result, there is a known link between poverty and obesity.
“Many of our folks living in the shelter are overweight or obese because of a number of things,” Henderson said. “They do not have money to buy healthier choices. They have not had the education about what is healthier. Poverty is cyclical. If you grew up in a house where ramen noodles were standard, you will continue to eat ramen noodles.”
As Manna Food Center’s nutrition educator, Umbriac said her goal in taking the challenge was to better understand healthy eating on a limited budget so she could pass her knowledge to her clients.
“My whole mission here (Manna) is to get healthier food out to those Montgomery County residents who can’t afford it,” she said.
Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, who organized the challenge, said it is not just about raising awareness of poverty in the county, but also about understanding what those who depend on SNAP endure.
Those who participated in the challenge will continue eating on the budget through Friday evening.