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Being hungry in America is complicated by many factors.  One is that so many people live in food deserts - places where real food is far away - sometimes towns,miles, or bus routes away. Another is that so many people are nearly homeless - couch-surfing at a friends, living out of their car, living in places that lack working kitchens, and maybe living without electricity because they cant afford the utility bill - that they have nowhere to store food or to prepare it.

Others are the working poor - they have a place to live, and earn an income, but they have so little left over for food.  The SNAP guidelines say 30% of your income should be set aside for food.  Most people who earn less than $12 an hour have 10-15% of their income available for food - the rest is taken by rent, utilities, transportation to work, and essential repairs.

It's rough, being poor.  Sure, you may have things, but things, cheap, roadside-reject, thrift store, garage-sale things, won't fill your belly with healthy, nutritious food.

I've seen people take the "food stamp" challenge, and try to live for a week on food stamps - and the ambitious ones try for a whole month.

But what about the people who don't qualify for food stamps, yet can't afford much for food, or who won't apply for one reason or the other? What about those who are among the increasing homeless population who still need to eat? They need food for more than just Thanksgiving and Christmas. Food is a year round need.

Hunger in America exists for over 50 million people. That is 1 in 6 of the U.S. population, including more than 1 in 5 children. This group exists to raise awareness of the complexities of the issue, to consider solutions, and to advocate for change.

In Oklahoma, you really need a car, our public transport system is pathetic, expensive, and it doesn't take you anywhere you really need to go in anything close to a timely fashion. If you're lucky, you live within a mile of a bus stop and that bus actually takes you places you need to go, like work or the grocery store, in a timely manner, but chances are, it can take an hour or more to get to a store by bus and you'll probably walk at least 2 miles and more often closer to 5.  That's not so bad if the weather is pleasant, but in rain, or ice, or in Oklahoma's brutal heat, that's just not doable. Especially not in our heat - food would spoil before you got it home even using thermal shopping bags.

So you shop close to home, and here in the OKC area, that means shopping at 7-11 or Walgreen's. Our 7-11s carry bananas and apples for 50¢ each, 1 pound bags of flour for $1.50 and 1 pound bags of sugar for $2.69 (but you can buy a 2 pound box of sugar packets for $1.89), instant oatmeal packets for $1.25 each or 6 packets for $3.99 a box and pop tarts for $1.25 a packaged pair - or a box of 4 pairs for $3.00.

Made up sandwiches are $3.99 each, but you can buy a package of lunch meat for $2.50 and a loaf of bread for $1.50 (town talk bread, both white and whole wheat) and a jar of mustard for $1.00 and make 8 sandwiches for under $5.00.  An 8 ounce jar of peanut butter is $3.00, so you could make 8 peanut butter sandwiches for $4.50.  You save $20.00 making your own sandwiches.

Hot dogs are $4.00 a package of 10, but 7-11 buns are expensive so you use slices of bread - 10 hot dogs for $5.50 is cheaper than paying $1.65 per hot dog at the gas stations that sell cooked hot dogs, you save $11.00.

Canned soup is $1.50 and stews or chili are $3.00. A can of tuna is $1.45. An ounce packet of cheese or a pint of milk or a pint of orange juice costs $1.35. A 66 ounce cup of soda costs $1.00, but if you've sprung for a refillable cup ($3.00), the refill is 89¢. A can of pork and beans is $1.00. A box of saltines is $2.50.

They also carry beef jerky ($4.00 for a 1.7 ounce  bag), Slim Jims ($2.00 a stick), snack cakes and cookies ($1.45 and up), chips ($1.89 and up), and individual ice creams, donuts, and "gourmet" cupcakes  and muffins ($2.00 each). Peanuts are $1.00 for a snack pack - that's your best bargain, because a snack pack can be 3 servings.

There are no carrots, celery, potatoes, radishes, lettuces, greens, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, berries, cucumbers, melons, squashes, cauliflower, broccoli, grapes, or green beans. The only meats are sliced lunch meats or hot dogs.

At Walgreen's you can find rice (1 pound for $1.99), dried stuffing mixes (8 ounce box for $2.00), and hamburger helper ($2.99), but no ground beef. The canned goods are a bit more extensive - you can find canned peaches ($1.50) and fruit cocktail ($1.50), canned salmon ($2.99), canned chicken ($2.00), spam ($3.99), and more canned beans than just pork and beans. You can also find bags of spaghetti noodles ($1.99) and cans of spaghetti sauce ($1.89). You can get milk in gallon jugs for $3.75, packets of Kool-aid (3 for $1.00), boxes of tea bags ($2.89), and bulk containers of Country Time Lemonade (19 ounces for $2.89). They carry ice cream and frozen TV dinners. You can also get small storage containers so when you open a can, you can save the left overs for the next meal.

Still no fresh veggies and the only fruit are the apples and bananas at 7-11.

If you are homeless and have $25.00 a week (part of this will go for taxes as in Oklahoma, we pay taxes on our food), you can make some meals off the food you can find at a 7-11 or Walgreen's. If you've splurged on a $3.00 refillable 44 ounce mug at 7-11, you can refill that from any water fountain for free as well as from the soda fountain at 7-11 for 89¢. A loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter will give you 8 sandwiches for $4.50.  That's 56¢ a sandwich.  Add a banana or an apple for another 50¢. A $3.00 box of pop tarts will give you 4 breakfasts (or 8 if you only eat half the package), a $3.99 box of instant oatmeal will get 6 breakfasts.

Your first week on $25.00 you get that refillable cup ($3.00), 2 loaves of whole wheat bread (3.00), 2 jars of peanut butter (6.00), 7 apples or bananas ($4.50), a box of pop tarts (3.00) or a box of instant oatmeal (3.99), and a box of saltines ($2.50).  This gives you a piece of fruit a day, oatmeal for 6 days, a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, a peanut butter sandwich for dinner, a snack of 1/4 packet of saltines, 44 ounces of soda to start the week off, and then all the water you can drink. You have 2 extra peanut butter sandwiches to eat and 1/4 packet of saltines. The rest of your money is spent in taxes because you pay taxes on food in Oklahoma.

Your 2nd week, you have that $3.00 from the refillable cup you bought and you should still have at least 2 packets of saltines left from the box of saltines, so you have that $2.50 as well, so you can add a small jar of mayonnaise so you can trade out a jar of peanut butter for a package of lunch meats (assuming you have a way to keep the meat from spoiling during the week). If you don't buy the lunch meats, you can still use the mustard or mayonnaise to make a tuna spread for the bread. 3 cans of tuna will give you 6 - 8 sandwiches. You get 2 loaves of bread, a jar of peanut butter, 3 cans of tuna, 7 bananas or apples, and 2 cans of beans.  You have 75¢ left over from your $25.00 after paying taxes.

By now, you're really hungry.  Your third week, you decide to forgo the bananas and apples and spend that money on beef jerky instead, and that's good for 2 days. You get the bread and peanut butter, and another box of saltines. You buy 2 cans of tuna and 1 can of beans. It's a bad decision because you have less to eat - those bananas and apples are filling, and 7-11 at least gives you good value for the fruit, they stock large ones.

By the 4th week, you're really tired of peanut butter sandwiches, but there really isn't anything you can trade off for and still eat the entire week without refrigeration. You sometimes skip the tuna and a can of beans to buy a canister of Country Time lemonade, because you can flavor the water with it - 1 teaspoon in 66 ounces of water gives it a slightly citrus flavor and the canister can last you a month or more. 2 loaves of bread, 2 jars of peanut butter, 2 cans of tuna, a canister of Country Time Lemonade, 7 bananas or apples. You still have half a box of saltines from the 3rd week. The occasional can of beans.  Sometimes, you treat yourself to an ounce of cheese (1.75).

One month, $100, and boy, are you hungry.

You eat some variation of this for as long as you can get $25 a week. If you have no wildcrafting skills, that's pretty much what you're going to be eating around here. If you luck into more than $25 in a week, you might splurge on washing your clothes.

If you're not homeless, you fare a bit better, because you can buy things you can cook, dried beans instead of canned beans and bags of rice. If you can get to a real grocery store instead of living off of 7-11, you can do quite a bit better, buying real meat (a $5 chicken can last you 2 weeks if you use it more as a condiment than as an entree, and it's cheaper than canned chicken by far). You might even be able to afford some veggies.

If you're not homeless, you can also grow some of your food in containers from seeds and bits of the food you buy - tomatoes, carrots, lettuces, microgreens, kale, chard, peppers, spinach, mustard green, turnips, cucumbers, peas and beans, radishes, and herbs. You might even be able to grow some berries if you have a sunny window or a patio.

Living on $100 a month for groceries under adverse conditions (no real grocery stores near, no way to cook food, no way to store food) is not easy.

Living on $100 a month for groceries even under decent circumstances can be daunting.

There are far too many people in America trying to live on $100 a month for food.

There's not a lot I, as one person, can do. I write diaries (like this one). I write legislators, I write to the convenience stores asking them to broaden their food choices (why 7-11 now carries the apples and bananas is because enough people wrote them and asked for them). I write grocery stores to ask them to open more stores in food deserts. I go where the hungry are and work with them to find more food and help them discover what foods to get that will be the most nutrition for their dollar.

I know a diet of peanut butter sandwiches with apples, bananas, oatmeal, crackers, beans, and tuna isn't really healthy, but it's the healthiest available when the only option is a convenience store at a gas station.

We need to change this.

Originally posted to Hunger in America on Fri Jan 18, 2013 at 08:12 AM PST.

Also republished by Income Inequality Kos.

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