Please upgrade your browser for the best Refinery29 experience. Read more.

Saved! Access Favorites in your account profile. Removed from my favorites

What It's Like To Feed A Family For Less Than $20 A Day

comments
Photographed by Cait Opperman.
Olivia knows there won’t be enough food. She spoons white rice onto her family’s plates, leaving hers empty, and tops them with beef guisado stew, steeped in the flavors of peppers, tomatoes and a blend of Goya spices from the cabinet. Her three children sit eagerly at the dinner table. She hands them their plates, grabs a banana for herself, and joins them. She can see the Empire State building from the window. That night, she’ll wake up with hunger pains and go to the kitchen to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before heading back to sleep. “There was one year of my life,” Olivia tells me, “when I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner from home. I was 5 years old.” The rest of her childhood meals came from school lunches, her friends' plates in the cafeteria, or dinners at their homes.

Olivia is one of the 13.5 million young adults living in poverty in the United States. That’s one in five 18-to-34-year-olds. She feeds her four-person family with $500 in food stamps each month — roughly $1.40 per meal per person — provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The SNAP funds are meant to supplement additional income, but in Olivia’s case, it’s nearly all the money she has to rely on, leaving her and her family food insecure. In 2014, an estimated 14% of American households were food insecure, meaning they “lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members," according to USDA research.

Yet in many ways, Olivia is a shining example of this program: She uses the government support to help her pursue a degree in psychology (she will be the first woman in her family to graduate from college). She’s an active member of her school; other students approach her in the halls to ask about the next meeting of her club that focuses on youth justice. On days off from school, she’s an intern with a nonprofit that helps ex-convicts apply for and succeed in college. Government programs and some money from her boyfriend cover the rent.​

'I wanted to be pregnant,' she confesses. 'This was going to be my way out.'

Born to a single mother who had emigrated from Ecuador, Olivia grew up largely on her own in NYC and found herself in the throes of an abusive, unstable home life. At 17, she decided that she wanted to fix her family by starting one of her own. “I wanted to be pregnant,” she confesses. “This was going to be my way out.” A decade later, she lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her three kids: Jesse, age 10, Corey, age 9, and Annie, age 5. She has been a single parent since just after Corey was born, but gets support today from her boyfriend, Annie’s father. School certificates that boast good behavior and high test scores are arranged between family photos on the walls of her home.

Olivia coaxes the kids out of bed around 6:45 a.m., as the sun is just creeping over the Bronx high-rises. Each day, her makeup is done to perfection: eyebrows trimmed and shaded in; her ombre hair curled in loose twists. In front of the bathroom mirror, Corey, stout and timid, and Jesse, lanky and boisterous, grab globs of gel and form pyramids with their black, straight hair. Annie throws on tights and a jean jacket and decides between a headband or pigtails. If there’s time, the kids devour bowls of cereal — Kix or Fruit Loops are preferred. If they’re out of milk, two pieces of white bread are microwaved with a slice of cheese. Sometimes, Olivia confesses, breakfast doesn’t happen.
If they get to school on time, breakfast is provided, and later lunch. But, the kids say, sometimes that’s not even worth eating. Summers when the kids aren’t in school are when Olivia relies, discreetly, on food pantries, or starts to sell Herbalife products part-time to bring in more cash. “They have a new long cheese bread thing at school,” Corey told me, crinkling his nose, tugging at his slim, blue tracksuit. “It’s disgusting.” I asked the kids what they’d eaten the day before. “Cereal, a banana, milk, and lots of water,” Jesse said, clutching the graphic novel The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod as he thought back on his day. And then, he noted, sometimes there’s a snack at aftercare: Capri Sun, Cheez-Its, granola bars, or cookies.

“I finished my friend’s bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich,” Corey told me with delight.

“You did?” Jesse asked with envy, and Corey nodded.

“And then I had some Airheads around lunch and water, and Mom gave us arroz con pollo with olives at night.”

For Annie? She only had bread, cheese, and water, plus a snack at aftercare to make it from morning to dinnertime, around 7 p.m. Their mother subsists on much of the same — sometimes a smoothie in the morning that she fortifies with flax seeds and oatmeal, then a salad at the college cafeteria purchased with a voucher, and then, if there’s enough, dinner.

“Do you get hungry?” I ask her children. Corey nods and creates a circle with his arms that frames his stomach. “I think I do,” he says. “My stomach always gets all gurgly."
According to the ad agency BBDO, half of millennials today identify as “foodies.” We ask ourselves if our food is organic, non-GMO; who farmed it, and whether it was raised without antibiotics. But Olivia — a member of that same demographic — asks herself where her next meal is coming from, whether there will be enough for her and her family tonight at dinner. While food culture across the United States explodes — food trucks, farm-to-table restaurants, food apps, websites, TV shows, magazines and more proliferating like popcorn on high heat — hunger rates have simultaneously risen in the U.S. The words “cronut,” “Momofuku” and “kimchi,” raise eyebrows of confusion from Olivia.

“I know Western Beef, Ssips juice, and Mama Tere,” she says.

“Anthony Bourdain?” I offer.

“Never heard of him,” she replies.

I talk to Olivia about the food craze — young people taking pictures of their meals and rating restaurants online. “It would be cool to eat at restaurants,” she says. “At my internship, they took us out to have Nepalese and Thai food. It was delicious. I had never had that.”
And what about organic? I ask her.

“There was this guy, a chef or something,” Olivia tells me about a food and education event that she attended, “and he was talking about the importance of vegetables with names I barely pronounce because no one buys them out here,” she says in reference to her Bronx neighborhood, “and how he feeds his kids organic. And I was just rolling my eyes thinking, That’s because you have money… Those organic things are too expensive, so of course we’re going to buy the junk food. Of course people are going to be overweight out here,” she says again in reference to the Bronx, “because that’s the cheap food.”

The Bronx has some of the highest rates of hunger in the United States, and also sky-high rates of obesity and diabetes. While this may seem contradictory, it’s in fact directly correlated. Doctor have informed Olivia that Corey’s weight is of concern; while he looks to be a normal pre-pubescent-pudgy, he is actually obese. That is a common tale among SNAP recipients: Many of the nearly 50 million participants in the program primarily receive their calories from high-sugar, high-fat foods.
Nutrition is front-of-mind for Olivia. But, she confesses, there’s a disconnect with what people say she should feed herself and her family, and what she actually has the resources for. A year ago, Jesse took a trip upstate with a non-profit summer camp where he visited a farm and tasted milk straight from a cow. “He came home asking me to make jam from scratch and he started eating peppers like apples — raw. He asked me to give him sliced peppers to take to school. I didn’t even know you could eat peppers without cooking them.” But, Olivia admits, she didn’t have the money or time to keep up with Jesse’s new interest in farm-fresh ingredients.
“I buy anything that’s microwavable, cans,” she says emphatically. “That’s what’s on sale out here. Ten for $10 Chef Boyardee, Hot Pockets, sodas, juices. You can stock those up. I try to avoid those products — I know they’re not healthy — but when I buy healthier goods, I end up running out of money. Real food is expensive. When my son wants a smoothie that’s $8, that could be a [package] of meat, so I can’t get it for him. ”
Why are cans of Chef Boyardee a fraction of the cost of organic pasta and tomato sauce? Why does the juice in Olivia’s fridge — with one serving boasting 32 grams of sugar, exceeding an entire day’s worth of recommended sugar intake — cost a fraction of an organic smoothie? It all comes down to the Farm Bill: the laws that dictate what kind of farm products the government subsidizes.

The U.S. government provides insurance and subsidies to commodity crop farmers (think: corn and soybeans). As a result, between 1995 and 2010, $16.9 billion in tax dollars subsidized corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch, and soy oils. These subsidies allow the corn and soybean products (a.k.a. junk food) to be sold at a much lower price. On the flip side, very few subsidies are offered to organic or alternative grain, vegetable, or fruit farmers. In the grocery store, we observe this difference as we compare the price of organic versus non-organic, or Tostitos to kale chips. As long as the Farm Bill continues to provide subsidies for corn and soybean crops, low-income families will remain stuck with products laced with high-fructose corn syrup and refined sugars.
But that’s not where the challenge ends — cost is just one factor. “I need to use the money I have to make my kids full,” Olivia reasoned. “Fruits and vegetables aren’t going to do that. Rice is.” With limited money to spend, her goal is to keep Jesse, Corey, and Annie satiated through the night and reserve every bit of money for the meals ahead.

Another problem, she notes, is time. For a single parent like Olivia, the idea of always cooking meals also puts a strain on her hours. As is, she’s only getting about five hours of sleep a night. Wouldn’t it be nice if those affordable, prepared meals were actually healthy? Then, there’s also the issue of geographic accessibility. Even if Olivia wanted to start cooking with new ingredients, many of them are simply not sold nearby. Neighborhoods lacking such access are known as “food deserts,” and the Bronx is full of them.
With all the attention paid today to food, it surprises me how little conversation there is among millennials around food policy. This summer, I published a book about the age group and its food culture, titled A Taste of Generation Yum. I wanted to better understand why the 50% of this generation who claim to be “foodies” are using their discretionary income on things like Chemex coffee and DinnerLab; why the new social currency of our generation is embodied in organic quinoa bowls and pork belly bao that glisten on Instagram. But, as I was doing my research, I continued to remind myself that a disparate millennial food culture simmered at the sideline: the growing number of young Americans with no idea where their next meal is going to come from. I kept asking myself, shouldn’t we be able to feed everyone before we wage a war against gluten? It may not be the sexiest or most obvious voter issue for 2016, but spending time with Olivia drove home the idea the Farm Bill should be a key voting issue.

Young people may not realize it, but they have immense sway on world markets. Today, we’re seeing that power on display in Big Food’s attempts to please our shifting palettes, and venture capital money bubbling over at food delivery apps and agricultural technology companies. So while the Millennial impact motivates McDonald’s to go cage-free and Kraft to swap yellow dye for turmeric, we can also get our government officials to continue funding SNAP and to make organic, healthy crops more affordable for all.
“The most important thing that Millennials can do is to advocate and speak out on behalf of these programs,” says Lucy Melcher, Associate Director of Advocacy at Share Our Strength, about SNAP, “and educate themselves on why these programs are so essential. Making sure that every family and child has access to the healthy foods they need doesn’t just help those individuals, it helps all those around them.”

In this already chaotic and entertaining 2016 run, the presidential candidates have yet to be pushed to define their stances on feeding America. For those of us who care about where our food comes from, who want to feed ourselves and our children the best food possible, and want to raise our children in a high-performing, healthy society, one of the most basic and obvious ways to implement change is food policy. If we want the organic, whole grain pasta with local tomato sauce to ever rival Chef Boyardee for families like Olivia’s, if we want rates of obesity and diabetes to drop, and if we want fewer hungry children in our classrooms, then this generation of food fanatics has to take our sustainable, locavore and pesticide-free minds to the polls. Good food is not just about a delicious recipe, a hot new restaurant, or sharable moment on Instagram, it’s about creating a future where healthy, enjoyable eating is accessible to all. And we can do that with our votes.
The subject of this article has chosen to stay anonymous. Some details and names have been changed in order to protect her family's privacy.
SHARE
TWEET
EMAIL