The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of the only social safety nets left in our country for qualifying low-income individuals; most people simply refer to this program as “food stamps”. The program is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and receives mandatory funding from the federal government every year.
Sounds great, right? Unfortunately there are many individuals who still fall between the cracks, and income requirements actually end up diseensentivizing the pursuit of work outside the home. Even for those who qualify, staying within a monthly SNAP budget takes intense planning and price scrutiny, at the risk of running out of food at the end of the month (this is where individuals often rely on food pantries to get them through until their next check).
None of us are immune to- or protected from the lemons that life sometimes throws. We cannot say that we will never be in a situation to need food stamps, and in fact you may know someone who has benefitted from the federal program. J and I spent a week following the guidelines and budget for SNAP participants– our experience is below.
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BUDGET: $80 (SNAP budgets are calculated on a per-person basis and distributed monthly)
Before the Challenge
When I introduced the SNAP challenge to J, he graciously agreed to participate with me. We had just watched Food Stamped together and were quite interested to see what our own experience would be like. I didn’t think I would be dumpster diving for loaves of bread like the woman does in the documentary, but I had also never been in that kind of situation before. As we were preparing to start the challenge, J and I had many conversations about how we would approach the week. Numerous times I had to re-direct him towards the real goal of the “challenge”: to gain a better understanding of the challenges and barriers people face when they are forced to rely on food stamps; our “challenge” was not to beat the system. At first we talked about getting high-quality ingredients, but we would have to sacrifice quantity and variety and I was not interested in eating plain canned tuna the whole week. Ultimately, I came across the blog Plant Based on a Budget, and decided to try out one of her weekly meal plans. Although she estimated the price to be $38 for two people, I knew we would find that price hard to match in NYC. I fully recognize that we put more upfront planning into this process than most people who have to do this week after week. Although our conversations and strategizing took up time, I feel most of it was spent spinning our wheels without much substantive effort.
What we Ate
|Quaker Oats (conventional)||$5.79||Fairway|
|Diced Tomatoes (conventional)||2 15-oz. cans*||$3.98||Fairway|
|Tomato Paste (conventional)||1 can||$0.99||Fairway|
|Tofu (organic)||2 10.6-ounce* packages||$4.50||Fairway|
|Marinara sauce||1 container||$1.50||Fairway|
|Chickpeas (conventional)||1 15-oz can||$0.99||Fairway|
|Manicotti (conventional)||1 box||$1.79||Fairway|
|Cilantro (organic)||1 bunch||$1.49||Fairway|
|Kale (conventional)||1 bunch||$1.99||Fairway|
|Spinach (conventional)||1 bunch||$1.67||Fairway|
|Celery (organic)||1 bunch||$1.67||Fairway|
|Black beans||1 15-oz can||$0.99||Fairway|
|Elbow Macaroni||1 box||$1.67||Fairway|
|Zucchini (conventional)||1.06 pounds||$2.11||Fairway|
|Breadcrumbs (whole wheat)||1 can||$2.00||Fairway|
|Carrots (conventional)||2 pounds||$2.50||Fairway|
|Bouillon cubes||1 box||$2.59||Fairway|
|Button mushrooms (conventional)||1 box||$1.67||Fairway|
|Yellow onion (conventional)||1.49 pounds||$1.18||Fairway|
|Bananas (conventional)||2.65 pounds||$2.09||Fairway|
|Yams (conventional)||1.77 pounds||$1.40||Fairway|
|Garlic (conventional)||0.2 pounds||$0.80||Fairway|
|Italian bread||$1.79||Key Foods|
|Almond milk||Half gallon||$3.49||Key Foods|
|Granola||10 oz.||$4.69||Key Foods|
|Corn flakes||$2.19||Key Foods|
|Cheddar cheese||$2.79||Key Foods|
|Tuna||2 cans||$2.98||Key Foods|
|Grapes (conventional)||2.1 pounds||$3.13||Key Foods|
|Hamburger buns (whole wheat)||8 buns||$3.49||Key Foods|
|Wednesday, 2/22||Oatmeal, ½ banana||Lentil soup (Josh had can of soup)||Chickpea tacos w/ homemade tortillas|
|Thursday, 2/23||Granola, ½ banana||Chickpea tacos w/ homemade tortillas||Black bean burgers w/ zucchini “fries”, grapes|
|Friday, 2/24||Corn flakes, ½ banana||Black bean burgers w/ zucchini “fries”||Manicotti made with tofu, grapes|
|Saturday, 2/25||Oatmeal, ½ banana||Manicotti made with tofu||Lentil soup|
|Sunday, 2/26||Granola, ½ banana||Tuna melts||Sweet potato macaroni, cantaloupe|
|Monday, 2/27||Corn flakes, ½ banana||Sweet potato macaroni||Barley mushroom kale pilaf, cantaloupe|
|Tuesday, 2/28||Oatmeal, ½ banana||Barley mushroom kale pilaf||Sweet potatoes and skillet cornbread|
During the Challenge
We decided to start our challenge on a Wednesday because of a few factors that were out of our control. One unintentional side effect of our timing was that I didn’t have time to prepare or shop in advance. J met me at Fairway on the Upper West Side after class Tuesday night because we thought we would find good prices and options. We then lugged our groceries all the way back to Park Slope (in hindsight this was a poor decision). By the time we got home around 10:00 p.m. I was far too tired to stay up for two more hours to cook the soup we were planning to have the next day. Consequently, J had to take a can of soup we had at home* and I worried about him being hungry all day. As it turned out, he was able to snag a sandwich from a meeting at work, which may or may not happen for someone who is on food stamps. We took turns cooking dinner for each other (he usually cooks on Tuesdays and Thursdays when I don’t get home until around 8:00 p.m.), but it still felt like we were always cooking. We normally cook the majority of our meals during the week, but not having the option to pick something up if we needed to was very difficult. I had to make sure when I left for the day that I had enough food with me to satisfy my hunger for the next 8+ hours because I couldn’t just find something on the street or order delivery. I think Josh struggled a lot more with the hunger than I did. I never felt terribly hungry, but the food was very bland and unsatisfying to me. I didn’t look forward to meals like I usually do. I can only imagine that parents on SNAP who have children to feed may even experience dread at mealtimes, which breaks my heart.
*this can of soup was not calculated into the budget below, but we did ensure we had a little left in the budget to cover what the cost would have been if we would have purchased it with our other groceries
I think both J and I really took a lot away from this challenge. I would say more than anything, I realized how much time and planning goes into stretching every dollar. Had we made some terrible mistake, J and I could have gone to the store and gotten extra food rather than experiencing lasting hunger to the point of debilitation. Not having that crutch, although we didn’t have to use it, would have given me so much more anxiety. If you add to that the responsibility of children, I can’t imagine the kind of mental suffering that would cause. This challenge also made me re-think the debate between public health activists and hunger activists, particularly the challenges presented in A Place at the Table. There is so much value in simply providing food to people, even if the food isn’t as rich in nutrients as we would like.