BALTIMORE, Maryland, Sept 30, 2011 (AFP) - A record 45 million Americans are now living on food stamps, a weekly stipend from the US government that helps them make ends meet in hard times.
For everyone else, there's the Food Stamp Challenge, thrown down by anti-hunger activists in the industrial port city of Baltimore to lay bare the reality of living on the poverty line.
Participants each get $30 -- the average food stamp benefit in the East Coast state -- to buy groceries for a week, after which they are invited to blog about their experience.
"The purpose is to raise awareness on the issue of hunger, the importance of this (food stamp) program and how critical it is that we continue to fund it, because so many people rely on it now in Maryland," said Cathy Demeroto, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, which organises the challenge.
Participating earlier this month, Demeroto set off for the supermarket with chili con carne -- a relatively cheap dish to prepare -- on her mind, "because I don't believe I'm going to have money to buy chicken."
"With a budget of $30 you really have to plan," she told AFP. "You cannot just go and pick things up."
Nearly one in six Americans draw food stamps from a scheme run by the Department of Agriculture that is officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Progam, or SNAP.
Its history goes back to the early 1940s and the introduction of the Food Stamp Program, which used real stamps which have since been replaced by an electronic bank card.
With the onset of recession, the ranks of beneficiaries have exploded from 28 million in 2008, and has leaped again by 10 percent since last year. The cost of the program has doubled since 2007 million to $68 billion.
The figures reflect those of the Census Bureau, another federal government agency, which found that 46.2 million Americans lived in poverty last year, or 15.1 percent of the population -- the highest level in 52 years.
Eligibility for food stamps depends on a household's income and savings, and the benefits can be used only at designated supermarkets like Santoni's in Baltimore, where Tiffany White was shopping the other day.
White, 21, is a part-time cashier whose 30-hour-a-week job earns her $900 a month, from which she spends about $150 to $160 on food. Without food stamps, she said, "it would be really hard to eat."
Depending on food stamps is especially tough for families.
Kelly Hicks, 31, who lives alone with two children in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, has been out of a job since June. She collects $288 a month in food stamps.
"I try to stretch my meals," she said. "If I do run out, I go to churches (which offer food banks). I don't know what I would do without food stamps. It would be so hard."
Blogging about her experience three days into the challenge, Demeroto wrote: "Not having the necessary funds for food not only negatively impacts on your mood and health, but also on your social life, and can lead to isolation."
She added: "It's important also to just have a better understanding of what our neighbours are experiencing. Doing it for a week is not even comparable to having to do it, like many people do, for weeks, for months, even for years."