Taking the SNAP Challenge: Step One-Shopping

Millions of low-income Americans rely on SNAP (food stamp) benefits to support their families. But what is it like to shop, cook, and eat on a SNAP budget?  

For years I have worked on behalf of community members facing this real day-to-day challenge. And I have urged others who, like me, don’t have to rely on SNAP to take the SNAP challenge by committing to limit their food purchases for one week to a standard SNAP allotment of $35 per person. I have been doing this without ever having taken the SNAP challenge myself.

At a recent meeting, I urged 40 members of the clergy to take, and have their parishioners take, the SNAP challenge, and I promised them I would be doing so myself at the next opportunity. I figure that’s not a good audience to break your promise to, and so my wife and I are taking the SNAP challenge this week.

Yesterday we carefully planned our week. High protein cereal for breakfast, homemade salads for lunch, and dinners (two nights each) of black beans and rice, baked chicken and potatoes, and pasta and broccoli. For fruit we’ll have a watermelon, which is not my favorite but which seems like it will stretch the farthest.

What I hadn’t realized was how stressful the experience would be before we even got started. I just returned from doing the week’s shopping at my local grocery. It was very difficult.

I never appreciated the hardship of making sure that you don’t check out over-budget for a simple weekly shopping trip. I’m pretty good with numbers, so keeping count as I rambled down the aisles was not the hard part.

So, I shopped.  I couldn’t take advantage of many of the sale items at the store since I was limiting my purchases to the bare minimum.  I put a couple of onions in a bag—but wait—could we do with one onion?  I opened the bag and put one back. Another shopper gave me a stern look.  My plan for salads turned out to be the most expensive choice, of course.  Gee, that red and green leaf lettuce is expensive!

Coffee. I won’t be visiting the neighborhood Starbucks this week. Can’t I splurge on something? And Starbucks is $2 off and $1 less than Peet’s. When I got home from the store, my wife scoffed.

I needed a whole cut-up chicken fryer. Pretty expensive. I fished through the bin and found the smallest one; there, I saved a dollar. I later learned I could have saved more if I’d bought a whole fryer and cut it up myself.

I got lucky on the lunch meat; Hillshire’s 3 for $10.

Now the moment of truth—how much did I spend? I had lost track and really had no idea. What if I went over budget? I kept imagining how embarrassed I would be with the checker and other shoppers behind me as I tried to figure out what needed to go back and what could stay. Would they be rolling their eyes at this incompetent shopper who was thoughtlessly taking up everyone’s time.

In the end, I spent $49.97. We have $20 left. I think we’ll make it through the week pretty unscathed, even counting the cost of last week’s red peppers that we’ll put in our salads, and milk and yogurt also leftover from last week. (But wait, we’re having dinner with an old friend who will be in town on Friday and our restaurant bill counts. Looks like its fast food or bust.)

At the end of the week, what will we have proved? That a couple of temporarily frugal 50 somethings with advanced degrees and a lifetime of shopping and cooking experience, unlimited planning and cooking time (not to mention drawers of spices and cabinets of equipment), and no kids demanding our attention, can make it for one week on SNAP?  Still, I have already learned a lot about the stress SNAP recipients face in planning and shopping for a week’s groceries. And, although there’s a vast difference between eating beans and rice for a week and eating beans and rice for a year or more, I expect to learn more as I continue on the SNAP challenge.

I’ll be blogging on this all week.

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