12/07/2012 10:59 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

The Food Stamp Diet

I am one of the more than 46 million Americans who have received food stamps during the past few years. Being a "half-full glass" type of person, I thought that I might use this experience to really challenge myself to change my relationship with food and my health. With that in mind, I set out to manage a budget of $200 for a two-family home that included my toddler son and myself. My aim was eat food that would keep us functioning in health and well-being as we navigated this seemingly difficult period.

I started by acknowledging my addiction to sugar and baked goods. I can't explain it well, but there was a time when I could sit down before a batch of cookies or several bagels and within a couple of hours, they would all be gone. The first bite of sugar and bread would trigger the thought that I had to eat them all in order to feel satisfied. My decision to get free of sugar and flour was supported by my son's diagnosis of a wheat allergy. Moreover, sugar would become a pricey luxury, with my uncontrollable cravings, if we were going to live on $200 of food stamps each month. With the help of Food Addicts Anonymous (a great program that's free!), I was off sugar and flour and fitting into size 27 jeans. I was also learning to deal with the emotions that fueled my addiction to sugar, which typically plagued me during stressful times.

Grocery shopping shifted dramatically. I began purchasing our produce and eggs at the local farmers' market. I purchased organic and antibiotic-free meats, poultry and fish to assist our long-term health. A neighbor and I started a garden in which we grew some of the vegetables we use daily, like lettuce, kale, and tomatoes.

Shopping at the local farmers' market and gardening have given me a sense of connection to my community -- and to the planet -- that simply didn't exist before now. They also help me teach my son about where his food comes from. Preparing all our meals helps me be present and slower in my life. Slowly but surely, I'm beginning to include my son in food preparation so that he will learn to care for himself and others as he gets older. The best benefit is that my cholesterol numbers are much better, and I no longer run marathons to fight off the extra weight that often comes with aging. I'm healthy, my son is healthy, and I feel good and responsible.

Several amazing benefits of my food-stamp diet have changed my life. I understand healthy eating in a whole new way. Eliminating processed foods has also freed me from the digestive pains, constipation, gas, and bloating that I lived with daily. Not binge-eating sugar gives me the space to feel my feelings and face challenges head-on. Not to mention that my brain is no longer constantly telling me I'm hungry. After eating a plate of seasonal vegetables, a small serving of meat, poultry or fish and a hearty salad, I'm satisfied. Just the other day I visited my doctor for my annual check-up. It was wonderful to hear him say I have a perfect bill of health -- my weight is exactly where it should be, and my blood work couldn't be better.

I could never have imagined that something that initially seemed so humiliating would turn out to be one of the greatest teaching events of my life. Although my food stamp benefit itself will be ending soon because I no longer require assistance, the benefits to my lifestyle are not. I've learned not only how to eat better on less, but also that the actual benefits of public assistance programs cannot be evaluated in terms of the government dollars spent. When our society looks at the costs of assisting people in times of need, we might well be mindful of the many unexpected, unknown blessings that such assistance can bring.

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