Can Houstonians Eat On $4 a Day? Food Stamp Recipients Do

Could you eat on four dollars a day? That's the question the Houston Food Bank is posing in response to proposed cuts to the federal food stamp program.

The food stamp program, now known as SNAP which stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, allocates an average of $4 a day per person, or $28 per week.

A few years ago Houston Food Bank President Brian Greene tried to eat on that budget for a week.

“I really did not like it the last time. I think we got too serious about making sure the nutrition was adequate rather than making sure that I could actually enjoy it. And I found out something, that if I don’t like something enough, yes I will go hungry and not eat it. So I ended up being really darn hungry and actually getting sick towards the end.”

Greene is trying the experiment again this week, with the help of a Food Bank dietician.

He’s choosing foods that he knows he’ll eat, but he also has to stick with foods that carry nutritional punch. His shopping list covers three meals a day for seven days and he can only spend $28.

“It is an unfortunate consequence of trying to live on a poverty income is that you must make compromises. And so a lot of those compromises will be towards product that is going to be higher fat, higher sugar, higher sodium. Also, having expert advice as you literally go shopping is not available to other people. So what I’m trying to see is with the best advice possible, what’s the best you can realistically do.”

receipt“Is it possible to get the Granny Smiths? Because I much prefer the Granny Smiths.”

Greene’s shopping list includes things like two bananas, chicken drumsticks, dried beans, eggs and half a gallon of milk. Registered Dietician Ann Sanchez is helping him plan his meals. Following him in the grocery store, you can tell he’s not thrilled with his options.

“And you’re going to season with a granulated garlic. I like when you don’t pay for the fancy packaging, you’re paying just for a simple, inexpensive — it’s 50 cents and that’s what you’ll be seasoning a lot.”

“Garlic? Really? Okay. I eat garlic … but …”

“You’ll want to season something.”


At the checkout counter, Greene goes over his $28 limit. He has to put back one can of tuna and his only cup of flavored yogurt.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering funding cuts to SNAP, which Greene says could kick as many as 65,000 people in the Houston area off the food stamp program.

“People assume that the charitable sector can make up the difference and to put it in perspective, if you took the entire distribution of every food bank in the country put together, it doesn’t equal the amount of SNAP in Texas alone. So this is very scary stuff.”

Greene says he’ll get by on $28 for food this week, but doesn’t know how he’d pull it off long term.  

Nearly 800,000 people in the Houston Food Bank’s service area participate in SNAP. More than half of them are children.


Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson


Laurie is a native Houstonian who started her career at Houston Public Media in 2002. Laurie has covered a wide variety of topics for HPM, including the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia, Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, and numerous elections. She is a frequent contributor to NPR and has been...

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