If you’ve never heard of a SNAP Challenge, you might logically be thinking it’s some kind of competition where folks get together to see who has the best snapping skills. (“Good thumb strength, adequate form. I give it a 9.2.”) At least, that’s what I probably would have thought a few weeks ago. As it turns out, though, a SNAP Challenge involves taking a week to live on the same amount of grocery money as someone on food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). For this summer’s community nutrition rotation of my dietetic internship, as a way to identify with the low-income population I am serving, I was assigned to participate in this challenge. This meant trying to eat only what $31 could buy for seven days. And whoa. It was tough. But as a result, I learned more than I ever expected, from the basic experience of how difficult it is to stretch such a limited food budget to philosophical meditations on food and personal well-being. So here goes a bit about my week and a run-down of my thoughts post-SNAP.
The picture at the very top of this post shows my week’s haul for $29.90, as this receipt reflects. Before the week started, I did some pre-planning to make sure I had enough ingredients for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. (But holy crap, could I have bought any more carbs? Bread, tortillas, waffles, pasta, and brownies? After a week, you could break off a piece of me and it would crumble into flour. Looking back, I could have thought that through a little better. I also could have chosen some healthier items than chips and brownies. Caught red-handed!) There were some guidelines I established for myself, too, which an outside observer might call “all the ways Sarah cheated.” I figured that, to be realistic, unless you’re a refugee from another country, fleeing a domestic violence situation, or outright homeless, many people on SNAP benefits have some basic pantry items at their disposal. With this assumption, I allowed myself a few small extras, up to about a half cup. This included some vegetable oil, some flour, some butter, and a few spices. I also chose not to include my morning coffee in the budget, for the sake of my sanity and the safety of my children. Lastly, I decided that if someone offered me free food, I would take it, because if I’m on food stamps, you better believe I’m taking free meals.
I started on a Sunday at lunchtime and finished the following Sunday at breakfast, so as to do 21 meals. If you’re curious, here are the particulars of the meals I ended up eating:
Lunch: What a way to start off my week–I got ragingly sick! In a way, I guess you could say it was good timing…because I didn’t even end up eating lunch on this day, thereby saving the food I would have eaten. Lucky me?
Dinner: Peanut butter on toast. (Still sick.)
Breakfast: 2 toaster waffles with Greek yogurt and strawberries.
Lunch: Unexpectedly got a free lunch at my internship–score!
Dinner: Ate the lunch I had packed for work that day: an egg and cheese sandwich, potato chips, and grapes.
Breakfast: Bless me, SNAP Challenge, for I have sinned–I cheated already. (Minus 5,000 points!!) I foolishly made one of my favorite breakfasts for my family–peach almond baked oatmeal–and failed to resist the temptation. I did calculate, however, that the portion I ate cost 87 cents, so you can add that to my grocery bill of $29.90 and I still squeak in under the $31 mark.
Lunch: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chips, grapes.
Dinner: Chili and some cheese curds I got for free at a Dairy Council presentation that evening.
Breakfast: 2 waffles, Greek yogurt, strawberries.
Lunch: Leftover chili topped with cheese, grapes, brownie.
Dinner: Spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce using tomatoes and basil from our garden.
Breakfast: Toast with grape jelly.
Lunch: 2 open-faced egg sandwiches with cheese, strawberries, banana.
Dinner: I was literally about to dig in to my third bowl of chili in three days when my son piped up next to me, “I love chili! Can I trade with you?” Call it cheating if you will, but I said yes and ate his chicken, roasted potatoes, and carrots while he ate my chili.
Breakfast: Waffles with yogurt.
Lunch: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fruit, brownie.
Snack: Smoothie of Greek yogurt, banana, and strawberries.
Dinner: Zucchini cheddar fritters, roasted potatoes.
Breakfast: Toast with cinnamon sugar (one of the extras I allowed myself–my guess is I used 25 cents’ worth).
Mid-morning: Cheated and had a tall Starbucks coffee.
Lunch: Leftover zucchini fritters and potatoes.
Dinner: A friend bought me dinner this evening–yep, I’ll take it!
Breakfast: Toast with grape jelly, eggs with cheese.
Here’s what was left at the end of the experiment. I didn’t use the tortillas at all (fed them to my kids instead) or the black beans and had portions of all these other items left. I’d guess I used all but about $6-7 worth of my original $31:
WHAT I LEARNED………..
As I reflect on the past week, I can’t help but think of an analogy from childbirth. When I had my first baby, I remember approaching labor and delivery thinking, “I’d like to do it naturally! Maybe I’ll just give it a try and see what happens!” HA. HA. Like every other woman who has ever said that, I was pretty much a GET ME THAT EPIDURAL NOOOOOOOWWWWW hot mess immediately after contractions started. By my third child, however, I realized that doing natural childbirth successfully requires lots of preparation. For months I meditated, made an ambient playlist, and established a headspace that allowed me to go drug-free for my daughter’s birth. A SNAP Challenge is a lot like that. If you go into it blindly, like, “Hey, I’ll just get creative! Maybe this’ll be fun!” it’s not gonna happen. To actually eat on $31 for a week takes extreme preparedness and forethought (if you don’t want to be eating THIS twice a day):
As an individual on SNAP, you also have to plan for things like fresh berries going bad faster than you can eat them, or how you’re going to use leftover odds and ends to make the most of your supply. Which leads me to…
2. STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Having done this experiment on my own, I can guarantee you it would have been easier if I could have included my family in my meal planning. Grocery store items–well, cheap grocery store items–are not ideally suited for one-person meals for one week. There’s no way I was going to get through an entire container of grape jelly in a week, for example, but if I wanted it for PBJs, I had to buy the whole thing. Also, as someone who got married right out of college, I am at a loss as for how to cook for just myself. So that was tricky.
Life on food stamps is undoubtedly monotonous. Chili several times in a week? Check. Peanut butter and jelly comin’ atcha again? Check. Variety costs money.
4. FOOD AS UTILITY
When it’s Saturday lunch of a food stamp week that started on Sunday, that meal is not about what you want to eat, it’s about what you have to eat. This experiment really put me in touch with the visceral sense of food as fuel, rather than food as pleasure. Only in the last century and a half or so have we become affluent enough and time-surplus-ed enough to cultivate our modern perception of food as a fun hobby. Cookbooks only began to gain popularity in the 1800s. Cause you couldn’t be a foodie caveman, you know? And you certainly couldn’t be a food blogger cavewoman. Rough lesson for a foodie like me, but an intriguing concept about the privilege we enjoy in our culture.
5. FOOD AS PERSONAL WELL-BEING
Food is an opportunity for choice–for most of us, at least three times a day. And choice gives us a feeling of freedom, and a feeling of freedom contributes to our sense of personal well-being. During my SNAP Challenge, I was shocked at how sorry for myself I felt looking at all the food my family got to eat without me, knowing it was off limits. I also came to realize that not permitting myself to eat out at all really affected my sense of personal comfort. Apparently, I get a lot out of my bi-weekly coffee shop runs. I found myself thinking things like, If I could only have one little coffee from Starbucks, I’d feel so much better. And once I cheated and did have a Starbucks coffee, that $2 indulgence meant so much to me.
All in all, I have to say I’m really glad my SNAP Challenge week is over. It was no walk in the park. I freely admit my upper middle class weenie-ness when it comes to eating on such a tight budget, and I absolutely have new-found respect for people who make it work. I would love to learn more about how to do so more healthily and help others do the same.