The Vogrin family circa 1965: Bill Sr., Bill Jr., Joseph, Edward, Jim and Betty.

Published Sept. 14, 2013

Copyright by The Colorado Springs Gazette

Side Streets: Challenge to eat on $4.50 a day

By Bill Vogrin

For the next week, I’m going to survive on a food budget of just $4.50 a day.

That’s right, I’m going to limit my food purchases to what I typically spend on a tip for a fancy dinner. An estimated 55,000 people in the Pikes Peak region survive on that meager amount of food every day, and I’m going to experience it for myself.

Maybe you will join me.

I’m doing it in response to a challenge issued by the good folks at Care and Share, the food bank for southern Colorado. September is Hunger Action Month, and Care and Share is joining a nationwide effort to raise awareness of hunger in America and find ways to end it.

They figure if folks realize how hard it is for low-income Americans to survive on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more people will be motivated to donate to food banks and programs aimed at helping families in need.

SNAP was formerly known as food stamps. Most SNAP households – 76 percent – include a child or someone who is elderly or disabled.

Organizers also hope folks will be motivated to support an increase in SNAP benefits, which are set to drop Nov. 1 by about $25 a month for a family of three.

Another goal, said Shannon Coker of Care and Share, is to get those who are eligible for food assistance to apply for their benefits. She said of the 55,000 El Paso County residents eligible for assistance under SNAP, just 31,600 claim their benefits.

So today I’ll go shopping with my $22.50 and try to figure out how to stretch it five days.

The rules of the challenge are the same for typical SNAP beneficiaries. I can buy raw food items but no beer, wine, booze, tobacco products, soaps or anything that is hot and can be eaten in the store. That means no fast food joints or takeout Thai food.

Who could afford it anyway on $4.50 a day?

Going into the challenge, I figure I have an advantage.

I’m confident because of my background. I grew up in a family that likely would have qualified for food stamps, if my parents had dared apply.

My dad, Bill Vogrin Sr., was a working-class guy. He was a high school graduate and World War II veteran who returned from the Pacific theater, got out of the Army, married and started a family in the 1950s.

He took a job with the local utility company in Kansas City, Kan., called the Gas Service Co. Over the years, he did a little of everything but mostly sales of natural gas appliances.

I always liked it when he was reading meters and digging ditches because he’d drive around in a huge truck with all sorts of heavy equipment. My brothers and I fought to wear his hard hat, goggles and gloves.

Anyway, the money wasn’t great. My mother, Betty, took in laundry to supplement the household income. And all four boys delivered the local newspaper, mowed grass in summers and shoveled snow in winters to earn cash. A buddy and I even took orders for doughnuts on Saturday mornings, went down and bought them and pulled them home in a wagon, delivering door to door for a small fee.

Meals at our house were pretty predictable. Eggs and cereal for breakfast. Peanut butter and jelly or bologna for lunch. For dinner, lots of hamburger, macaroni and cheese, tuna, chicken and rice, spaghetti and potatoes.

And leftovers. We didn’t waste a thing. My mom would throw things together, call it hash and serve it. Or call it mush and fry it. Or bake together strange assortments of ingredients with mystery broths.

If you couldn’t stomach dinner, you went hungry. Period.

If we went out to eat, it was someone’s First Communion, confirmation or graduation. No pizza delivery driver ever rang our doorbell on purpose. And soda was rationed on Saturday night when we splurged on homemade pizza with hot dog toppings or made cheeseburgers.

My mother made bread and shopped at Save On in the warehouse district down by the Kaw River. She’d bring home expired, dented or damaged food because it saved money. It’s the same reason we all wore hand-me-downs and, for example, when I played soccer as a kid, I stuffed cardboard in my socks rather than fancy, store-bought shin guards.

As I’ve considered the Food Assistance Challenge, all these memories have flooded back.

I’ve tried to explain all these experiences to my kids to convince them how lucky we are that we can afford to dine out frequently.

It’s part of my lecture about the importance of studying hard, getting good grades so they can go to college as I did and make a better life for themselves. I point out that I made more money my first year out of college, working for The Associated Press, than my dad made in any year of his working life. I want the same for my kids.

I guess that’s why I think I’ll cruise through this challenge. I’ve been there, done that and I have never forgotten.

We’ll see if I’ve become soft in the 35-plus years since I left K.C.K.

Please consider joining me in the challenge. And let me know how you are surviving on $4.50 a day.

I promise I will not cheat. I won’t take freebies or sneak food off the newsroom “trough” where cookies and doughnuts are routinely shared.

Frankly, I’d be ashamed if I couldn’t last for five days. So many of our neighbors have no choice.