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Eating healthy on a shoestring budget

  • Story Highlights
  • CNN's Sean Callebs talks about his month living on a food-stamp budget
  • He lost some weight but learned how to better cook, budget and bargain-hunt
  • Callebs cut out diet soda "treat" and experienced less acid reflux
  • Range of responses from readers, from "can't be done" to "welcome to my world"
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By Karen Denice
CNN Senior Medical Producer
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(CNN) -- CNN correspondent Sean Callebs has just finished a long assignment: living on food stamps during all of February. He tracked his experiences on the American Morning blog.

CNN's Sean Callebs with a meal he prepared living on a food-stamp budget.

CNN's Sean Callebs with a meal he prepared living on a food-stamp budget.

This meant no eating out, no food on the run while covering stories and no enjoying king cake and other New Orleans specialties during Mardi Gras.

The food stamp program, newly named the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is run by the Department of Agriculture and provides food to those in need. The latest numbers show 31 million Americans are relying on supplemental food assistance to get by every month.

Callebs is based in New Orleans, so he worked through the Louisiana Department of Social Services. The agency gave him a gift card worth $176, the maximum amount of assistance for which he was eligible, instead of an actual EBT card or food stamps.

This week, he reflected on what he learned in an interview with House Call.

House Call: Did living on a limited food budget have an impact on your health?

Callebs: I wouldn't say it had a big impact on my health. I think that towards the end, I wondered if having fewer calories than I normally eat and also not having as much meat and fish -- I wondered if that affected my energy levels. I was running maybe 4 to 5 miles and toward the end of this diet when I got to three miles I just got kind of winded. I don't know why that happened. Video Watch Sean Callebs talk about his experience »

House Call
Watch more on Sean Calleb's experience this weekend on House Call.
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HC: Were there also some benefits?

Callebs: I think I lost weight. I wouldn't say noticeable. It's not like I came out of this 30 days later and people were like "Wow, what happened to you?" but all my clothes are looser. I don't have a scale, but I can tell you my pants are much looser.

HC: You write in your blog about your love of diet soda and how you had to drop it.

Callebs: (Laughing) It's funny, because for the first 10 days it was really on my mind a lot. It was probably more than anything else I missed -- probably a sad commentary on my lifestyle. Then toward the end, I didn't even think about it and my photographer, as a joke the last day, he brought over two 20 ounce bottles of diet soda and said, "At midnight tonight you can have these," and I didn't drink them. I don't miss it as much and, I can't guarantee this is what caused it, but I've always had a problem with acid reflux and once I got started eating on the food stamp diet, it seemed to go away. I can't conclusively say that that was the cause, but I sleep better and I feel better.

HC: How does your $176 compare with the average food stamp allotment?

Callebs: I think it's difficult to say that there's an average food stamp allotment because it really breaks down to how many people you have in the family and to what degree you live at or below the poverty level. I went to the state, and I said, "I want to pretend I have no income so how much can I get?" and they said this is the maximum you can get: $176. I did get a lot of e-mails, A LOT of e-mails, from people who have lived with government assistance and they said, "Look, $176 is a ton of money to live on. So you think it's hard? You should put yourself in our shoes." That was sobering because I thought $6.28 a day -- that's basically a super-sized fast-food meal.

(According to SNAP, the average monthly stipend was about $96 per person and about $215 per household in 2007.)

HC: So, what did you learn?

Callebs: I think that I learned that you can stretch $176. It sounds intimidating if you've always had enough, but if you haven't had enough then you learn pretty quickly how to make ends meet. That's what I learned pretty quickly. Snacks went out the window, name brands went out the window but, all in all, I ate pretty healthy.

HC: Are you going to continue with this new way of living?

Callebs: I am. I just got back from the grocery store and I spent $27 and I got plenty of food to last me for a few days. I've already wrapped it up and put it in the freezer. I'm still buying the stuff I bought before. It's a diet I'm sure I'll stick to. I feel good.

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