The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is the federal food assistance program, also known as food stamps, and to be eligible for this assistance, a household of two must take home no more than $14,712 in total net annual income.
My wife and I recently took the seven-day SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge, in which participants must live on no more than $4.56 per person, per day over the challenge period. In addition, specific rules ban the purchase of alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, hot food or any food that you eat in-store. No outside food is permitted, which means no dining out (SNAP benefits generally can’t be used for hot meals), and no free food can be accepted (so, no lunch treats or office candy jar visits!). We started the week with a food budget of $63.84, with the operating assumption that SNAP would pay for 100% of their food.
I reflect on our experience in question-answer format with my wife:
Why did you do this?
I <William> serve as the Board Chair for Hunger Free Colorado, and one of our strategies for achieving our mission is to ensure that people who are eligible for the SNAP benefit do apply for SNAP. There is a perception that SNAP recipients are living the high life and that it’s a waste of taxpayer money. Hilary agreed to do this challenge with me so that we could share the experience.
We thought that it was important to know how life on the SNAP program felt so we could better understand the situation of some of the people served by Hunger Free Colorado and also be able to have a perspective on the sufficiency of this benefit.
What did you discover?
There are several things we both reflected upon during the week. First, the obvious finding was that it’s not an extravagant benefit by any measure. The variety of the meals was depressing – mostly some variation of beans and rice. Ironically, you could buy more junk food than fresh produce but we did our best to include apples, a few bananas, and some fresh vegetables. Hilary is a great cook and she was able to pull some interesting meals together. The second major finding was how low your energy levels drop when you are on this diet. I was tired and hungry all the time – sometimes just looking at my watch for the next meal. It made me realize the fact that hungry people can’t be on their game and confirmed my position that hungry kids can’t be expected to perform to their full capabilities as students.
What was most surprising?
Hilary did most of the meal planning, and it took her several hours of planning and trips to multiple grocery stores to ensure the quantity and type of individual food items maximized our budget. Ensuring that $63 is sufficient means planning every meal and snack in advance, weighing bulk food, and then tracking every meal. It wasn’t easy to do this level of meal planning. Hilary also realized how poorly we currently track our own meals; we’re not buying caviar, but we’d never had to truly fear that we wouldn’t be able to afford whatever food was in our grocery cart so food costs were never really on our mind.
We also started to dread our meals as the week continued due to the limited and repetitive choices. We didn’t want to experiment much with our meals because if we messed up a meal, we didn’t really have a backup option. It was clear to us that living on such a minimal budget, while providing enough caloric substance, was emotionally depressing due to the lack of variety, particularly now in summer when there’s so much delicious (but relatively expensive) produce available. We were occasionally close to fighting over who got to eat the ‘good’ food (e.g. an avocado, the last banana, leftover pork, etc.).
Hilary found it frustrating to be cooking every single meal from scratch – this was required to make our meal planning work, and to abide by the rules we couldn’t take any of the shortcuts we typically rely on on busy workdays, such as picking up a cooked rotisserie chicken or grabbing take-out if we were both too hungry to spend time cooking something. More cooking also meant, frankly, more dishes to wash and less time spent directly with our daughter. We both reflected that people surviving on this budget must have significant challenges making this program work for them. We simply couldn’t imagine doing this challenge with children given the demands on both time and financial resources.
What did you learn?
We empathize with people receiving SNAP benefits more than we did before we started the challenge. The challenge of providing a nutritious meal within the budget and the time required (both for planning and cooking) – and that you actually felt like eating – was an eye-opener.
More importantly, we were hungry on this budget and this hunger impacted us in many ways. We struggled with work, we were irritable with each other, we were tired, and we felt generally depressed knowing that the next day wouldn’t be any better – in fact, as we ate our more perishable (and better tasting) foods at the beginning of the week, we knew we had less to look forward to as the week went on.
We know now that millions of our fellow citizens in this country are feeling this all the time and can’t simply end their “challenge” and access proper nutritious food.
I remain an advocate for SNAP . There is no other investment that the U.S. government can make that can make such a critical contribution to our economy and our future. But I also believe we need to evaluate the allocations of the SNAP program and fight to make sure this program isn’t reduced further. There are those who criticize SNAP as a wasteful entitlement, but these are same individuals who have never needed to be on this program. For those individuals, I would ask them to take the SNAP Challenge as it’s a fantastic way to learn how too many of our fellow Americans live their lives.
William Browning serves as Chair of the Hunger Free Colorado board of directors. Hilary Gustave is his wife. Learn more about the Food Stamp/SNAP Challenge.