Getting By

Posted Jan 23, 2013 by 2 Comments

Okay, I have a confession to make.

When I pictured food stamps I always pictured actual stamps. Little pieces of paper, kind of like WWII era ration cards.

And like rationing, I always pictured food stamps as something you could get by on. You had to tighten your belt a little, buckle down and stick to necessities, but if you were responsible you could get by just fine.

Working at Shepherd, I’ve discovered how totally wrong I was. My understanding of food stamps had quite a few holes.

So, assuming that you’re in the same boat as I was, here are a few tips I’ve discovered about using food stamps in urban Indy.

TIP #1: Do your shopping in 1970

First, you have to go to the food stamp office and apply. Assuming you qualify, they give you a swipe-able card that links to your account (unlike my visions of actual stamps). This account has money uploaded to it every month.

To figure out how much money you get, they use a complicated metric that takes into account things like your income, your rent, utilities, and size of household. The last meaningful update to this metric was in 1977, but home prices and cost of living hasn’t changed that much, right?

Tip #2: Ration your toilet paper

The largest amount an individual can get is $200 per month. This is assuming they are completely homeless and have no income whatsoever.

Shepherd distributes supplies that food stamps can’t pay for.

The first thing you need to do is make a shopping list. I started looking through my own purchases in this last month; pasta, vegetables, fruit, deodorant, toilet paper.

Oops! Gotta scratch those last two. Food stamps are for food only. I will have to find toilet paper somewhere else.

Tip #3: Say Goodbye to Frozen Pizza

Now that I have my shopping list of what I want, I can see how much I can afford. $200 a month is a little less than $7 a day. That means I want to buy bulk items, stock up on beans and rice and canned goods.

But wait! Where will I store them? I have $200 because I’m homeless. That means nothing that needs refrigeration, is too heavy to carry, or too big to hide wherever I’m staying. Also nothing fresh, it will spoil too fast if it doesn’t attract insects or animals first.

I also need to eliminate things that need cooking. I might have some access to a stove to boil water, but I can’t count on it. Same goes with microwaves.

That leaves me with… packaged foods like Pop Tarts and potato chips, small canned goods, and premade instant meals.

Tip #4: Enjoy the Little Things

I spoke with one woman who had given up smoking recently. She was also decreasing her caffeine intake. She allowed herself one cup of coffee and one pack of gum a day.

I know if I was without television, without warm meals or hot baths, without movies or games or any form of (legal) recreation, I would want some small pleasure to help me through the day.

Volunteers at Shepherd serve a much-appreciated breakfast on Sunday.

A cheap cup of coffee is $1.29. A small pack of gum is $.99, this comes to about $75 a month. The $200 is now $125 per month. That’s about $4.15 a day.

How much can you get in non-perishable, non-bulk, non-cooking grocery items for $4.15? I went to find out.

Tip #5: The Sales Don’t Apply to You

I walked through the aisles of a local grocery store. Any shopping has to be walking distance. Buses cost money.

After scouring the cheapest options, I put together my meals for the day:

One can of fruit $1.50

Canned pork & beans $0.95
Off-brand soup $0.68

Ramen noodles $1.00
Canned Vegetables $0.79

This comes to a total of $4.92, a little over my $4.15 per day (I’ll just imagine I got lucky and found some change). Not only would this tiny menu leave me hungry, but it contains over 4 grams of salt, more than 150% of your daily recommended intake. It’s no wonder that heart disease is one of the biggest killers in this neighborhood.

In the end, I opted for a bag of Clementine oranges for $3.99. Technically, it broke the perishable rule. But if that was my breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I figured I could finish them in a day. That, and I was really craving some fruit.

On a food-stamp budget, a fruit bowl can look like feast.

I brought them to the counter and they asked for my membership card. Without a permanent address or phone number, most homeless people can’t join super-saver clubs and the prices in the store are little more than wishful thinking.

The oranges rang up as $5.99.

Helping Ends Meet

I couldn’t make it a single day on the food allotments provided to the homeless population in Indianapolis. And I had it easy.

Those lacking proper documentation or citizenship, or who lack the education and training in budgeting and comparison shopping, face even greater obstacles.

This is why the work of Shepherd is so invaluable. On Saturdays, they distribute bags of food and supplies to help make ends meet. These bags are packed with every day essentials and food, but thanks to their personal relationship with the people they serve, the bags are also customized to meet each individuals’ needs and include toiletries and household products.

Saying Grace

On Sundays, Shepherd hosts three separate services and provides breakfast for each of them with the help of volunteers.

Today they served pancakes, sausages, and biscuits with jam. Spread out across the table was tray after tray of fresh fruit, pineapples, strawberries, bananas, and oranges.  After my adventures with a food stamp budget, I saw this in a whole new light.

I realized that the fruit display was a lot more than a free breakfast. It was an oasis of Grace in a world where everything costs something, and most things cost too much.

I now have a much greater appreciation for what it means to “live” off food stamps. As I watched men and women bow their heads over their meals, I gained a much greater appreciation for what it means to “say Grace” as well.

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Next Steps
    • You can experience this Grace firsthand! Volunteer at Shepherd to serve food on Sunday or help hand out bags on Saturday. Contact to Phil Merki at to find out how.
    • Shepherd is able to provide food and supplies thanks to donations. Consider donating food or supplies to help stock the pantry. Find a list of most needed goods here.
    • Think you can live off food stamps? Find out what you or your family’s allotment would be and try to live off it for one week. Check out these guidelines for a place to start. Don’t forget you can’t drive to the store! Most families have to walk and can only carry one or two bags of groceries.
    • There’s a lot of negative discussion and even stigma about food stamps and social welfare. After you’ve taken the food stamp challenge, invite your friends to as well. The best way to change a discussion is not with arguments, but experiences.
    • Next Steps

About the Author: Brad Miller is a year-long fellow with WND. A student of Psychology, Biology, and Theatre, he's worked as an actor, teacher, balloon artist and last-minute fill-in guy for any number of projects. He loves camping and tinkering with broken and discarded things. Brad's passion in life is to unleash the potential in others.

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  1. JimM said... 


    February 3rd, 2013 at 3:51 pm  

    Brad what an eye opener this is. It’s a great lesson on what it feels like to be at the most outer reaches of today’s urban community.

    When you are in standing in the shoes of the marginalized your “just get a job” mentality quickly gets refocused through the reality lens of life on the street.

    No matter how an individual finds there way there, and no matter where the journey started…the way home is largely oversimplified by all of us, and the struggle is completely unknown.

    This world is so broken that those who are able to hold the hand of someone in need often don’t know where to begin. Simply being present, and knowing how another soul exists is often the first step to understanding. Unfortunately to do so is messy, time consuming, and uncomfortable.

    Shepherd Community Center is another place where the Kingdom is breaking through into this world here and now.

    Thank you so much for showing us a small piece of the big picture.

  2. Tasha Simons said... 


    February 6th, 2013 at 7:52 am  

    Our family participated in the Food Stamp Challenge at Grace this past year. I agree that it’s really hard to live off 4.13 a day. I, too, realized that we had it easy compared to the many challenges others face. Thanks for writing about this as it increases awareness and compassion for those struggling in our community. May we all gain a better appreciation of what it means to “live” off food stamps and “say Grace.”.

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