KOKOMO — Jeff Newton stood in aisle eight at Kroger, carefully examining the selection of canned beans.
He picked up a 54-cent can of pork and beans — the cheapest he could find — and put it in his cart.
The Kokomo Urban Outreach director had only $30 to feed himself for a full week — the same amount the average person in Howard County who is on food stamps receives.
About 14,400 people in 6,500 homes in Howard County received food stamps in August. On average, each individual receives $4.34 a day, or $30.38 a week.
The government assistance is meant to serve only as a supplement, Newton said. But some people can’t afford food when the assistance is gone.
Newton sees an influx of hungry families at his food pantries at the end of the month when the food has run out and their food stamps are gone, he said. He could never imagine how that felt, but he wanted to know.
“I wanted to experience it for myself,” he said.
So last week, he headed to the grocery store to shop on a budget. He showed up at Kroger without any coupons and with no advertisements showing him what was on sale. Many people on food stamps can’t afford to buy the newspaper for its coupons and ads, he explained.
He had also decided he would shop at only one store even if there were better deals at others.
“Most people on food stamps can’t afford to go from store to store,” Newton said.
He wasn’t armed with a grocery list. He was just going to wing it.
Newton wrote in a blog that he tried to plan out his meals before going to the store.
How hard could it be? Newton said he always spends less than $30 when he shops for groceries.
“I sat down last Friday to make a menu and soon panicked,” he wrote. “I had only 5 days figured out with not much food each day and estimated it would cost $37 — over with two days to go. I decided to write down what I ate last week. What an epiphany! I eat out a lot. That is why I spend less than $30 at the grocery.”
On Tuesday, though, he managed to buy a small cart full of food and had money left over.
He started in the produce aisle. Newton said he was trying to choose healthy foods since he is diabetic. But fruits and fruits juices are bad for his blood sugar, so he tried to stay away from those.
His goal was to spend $12 on proteins, $10 on vegetables and $3 on carbohydrates. That would leave him $5 to use over the weekend to eat.
Shopping for produce on his budget, though, was harder than he had thought. He picked up a head of iceberg lettuce for 99 cents. He then grabbed a head of cauliflower but sat it back down when he realized it would eat up too much of his money too quickly. It was $3.
Most of his vegetables would have to come frozen or canned, he said.
He bought beans, macaroni noodles, eggs, soup, brown rice, green beans, wheat bread, peanut butter, cheese, turnip greens, tuna and cottage cheese. He also found milk on sale for 50 cents, ground turkey on closeout for $1.79 for a pound and a 5.5-pound chicken on clearance for $4.49.
His total was $24.18.
“That didn’t take too long,” he said afterward.
The real challenge was still ahead of him. He had to divide the food up to make 21 meals.
He adhered strictly to the suggested serving sizes so that one can of green beans was divided out to make side dishes for three meals.
“When I started portioning out the food to make 21 meals, it wasn’t much food,” he said.
In fact, on Tuesday he only consumed 960 calories. And nearly half of those calories came during dinner when he ate tuna, macaroni and cheese and a salad made of iceberg lettuce and mayonnaise.
Wednesday was only somewhat better. He upped his caloric intake to 1,164 by eating foods like chicken, brown rice, eggs, lima beans and toast.
He wrote a blog entry detailing his meals.
“Tried to add a few more calories today,” he wrote. “However, I am worried I will run out of food by the weekend by adding more food each meal. I will add more calories tomorrow. A bit tired today.”
He’s not eating enough to keep him fueled up and energized, he said. That’s been tough.
It’s probably better than the alternative, though. He said he could eat more now, but what happens if he runs out of food before the end of the week? He would go hungry for a day or two. Newton said he’s trying to prevent that.
He’s starting to understand the choices some families must make, he said.
He’s also starting to understand the importance of keeping the Kokomo Urban Outreach food pantries stocked.
Right now the organization is trying to collect 10,000 pounds of food before the end of the month to refill its shelves. It has just more than 4,000 pounds with less than two weeks to go.
He now knows what it feels like to be hungry, and he doesn’t want anyone in Kokomo feeling that way.
“When their food stamps run out, they come to us,” he said. “We want to make sure they’re eating.