Sarah Bogan of Fort Bragg is on a mission to prove that poverty is no excuse to eat poorly.
Bogan, a chef who offers private cooking lessons in Fayetteville and across the Triangle, said she began to notice while in college that families living on food stamps were eating fatty and nutrient-poor foods and were also more likely to be overweight than those who were not on governmental assistance.
Bogan, who has had apprenticeships with chefs around the world, believes there needn’t be such a strong relationship between poverty and obesity.
“I saw that a lot of people thought that it was really expensive to eat healthy,” she said. “When I looked into it, I realized that it was just a common misconception.”
To test her theory, Bogan challenged herself to shop and live on a food stamps allowance for 30 days. Her goal was to prove that people on a very limited budget can afford healthy, fresh food and that preparing the food requires very little time and expertise.
According to calculations from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Bogan would need $196.42 (including $27.23 out-of-pocket; SNAP would hypothetically provide the rest) to spend on groceries for a month. She kept a blog called “Surviving on Stamps” throughout her challenge, where she posted her budget, a list of her meals and recipes and details about the struggles of living on a food stamps-esque budget.
Not only did she succeed in purchasing healthy food for three meals a day for a month with less than $200, but she had $25.27 left over on day 30.
Bogan, who originally wanted to write a book detailing her experience, decided she could reach more people through TV. So she approached David Schifter, a film producer in Wilmington, with an idea for a reality show.
Though the show has not been picked up by a network, Schifter, who produced and directed the program, is confident about getting the footage out there, whether through a TV program, a documentary or an online stream.
Chris and Candace Moore of Hickory found the show’s casting call online and asked Bogan for help.
Chris, 32, a full-time master’s student and aspiring actor, has an LDL cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL and a fatty liver. Candace, also a full-time master’s student, weighs 340 pounds and has diabetes. She was hospitalized on the day of filming for bulging disks caused by her weight.
“I was hoping that it would be like an intervention for me,” Chris said. “Sort of like, ‘Show me the right path so I can take it.’ ”
Surprising shopping lesson
Bogan started out by assessing the family’s pantry and eating habits. For breakfast, she noticed the couple’s 6-year-old son eating pizza. Their 1-year-old slurped down sugary juice for most of his meals.
Then she took them shopping. At the grocery store, the Moores took one cart and Bogan another. They parted ways at the store’s entrance and met later to compare their selections based on the family’s monthly food budget.
“Hers was way different than mine,” Chris said. “She bought all this healthy food like rabbits would eat.”
Bogan learned that the family picked out its food by looking at the labels. That is, the brand label with the colorful picture, not the nutritional information label.
“I was really quite shocked that (Chris) bought food based on pictures on the package, not based on the nutrition labels,” Bogan said. “He didn’t know really how to read it.”
Chris was also shocked by how little he knew about what he was putting in his body. He described the experience as a “culture shock.”
Studies show that there is an inverse relationship between level of income and weight.
Gary Bennett, director of the Duke Obesity Prevention Program, thinks Bogan’s experiment was a great demonstration of how to manage SNAP benefits. However, SNAP beneficiaries, often single parents and people working multiple jobs, don’t always have time to buy and prepare meals like Bogan did.
“Our experience is they don’t have the resources to drive the long distances, and they don’t have the time to spend procuring and preparing healthy food,” he said. “One of the things I think is important to know is when you don’t have very much money or time, you choose food that doesn’t cost very much money or time. It’s a rational decision.”
Get active, buy local
Bennett also stressed the importance of physical activity, a factor of obesity not closely addressed in “Surviving on Stamps.”
“The problem for people in poor communities is there aren’t many options for people to exercise safely and inexpensively,” he said. “We recommend people get out and walk. For weight loss, people need to be physically active 60 minutes a day. We try to encourage 30 minutes a day of physical activity and changing diet.”
As for finding inexpensive, healthy food options, Bennett suggests purchasing canned foods and going local.
“The best options are farmers markets,” he said. “Fortunately the increasing excitement about local foods means that we have farmers markets in most counties in our state. Most take SNAP benefits. I think that’s the best place where people can get introduced to reasonably priced fruits and vegetables that are locally grown.”
Making small changes
Since the visit, Bogan has been sending Chris emails with recipes and more cooking tips. Due to Candace’s continuing back problems, Bogan says the family has had difficulty staying on track.
“They have made a few changes, such as eating breakfast, making eggs for breakfast, and eating more chicken for dinner,” Bogan said. “The adjustments are slight, so I’m hoping they will be more drastic once things settle down with the back problems.”
Since the consultation with Bogan, Chris said the family is making small changes to its sedentary lifestyle every day. He and Candace have joined a gym, cutting back on soda and trying to avoid fried foods.
Those are the types of changes Bogan is hoping to inspire on a larger scale.
“My goal is to get Americans in (the Moores’) shoes back on track,” Bogan said. “My goal is to inspire people in similar situations to be wiser consumers and hopefully make a difference in some people’s weight and budget.”