As a registered dietitian working in public health, food insecurity (lack of access to adequate food) is something that I talk about almost every day. Ironically, I have never actually put myself in the shoes of individuals who are dependent on supplemental food programs like SNAP/food stamps. When I was told about the Food Stamp (SNAP) Challenge, I felt this was the perfect opportunity to do so.
Although SNAP/food stamps is a supplemental food program, the unfortunate reality is that many families do not have additional funds they can allot to spending on food. For this reason, when I did the Challenge, I followed the rules, which included no additional food from other sources. The main rule is that you get $4.57 or less a day to spend on food and drink. I spent $31.42, which sustained me—with some sacrifices—for the week.
Even though this Challenge only lasted for a week, I learned a lot about what this lifestyle involves, most importantly the amount of planning and sacrifice I had to do. Below are some of the main points that I appreciated after participating in the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge:
It was exceptionally difficult to plan activities for this week because I essentially couldn’t participate in anything involving eating out. The part that really hit home for me though is that for me this challenge ended, for those using SNAP/food stamps benefits — this is their reality. They don’t get a break, this is not a challenge or an experiment — this is real life.
Lack of energy
Something I noticed throughout the week was my hunger and my lack of energy, I would go to bed earlier and I was much more “hangry” (yes, it’s a real thing) to the people around me. While I did have less energy, I was still able to go to work and work out as I usually do; it just took more effort and motivation to do so.
Staying healthy while on SNAP/food stamps
Of course, one of my main goals with this challenge was to prove that you CAN eat healthy even with limited means—which I did find to be correct. With my allotted money, I was able to get a good mix of nutritional foods. The saying “healthy foods cost more” can be true in some cases, but if you think about how you stay full longer when eating healthy foods and therefore don’t need to buy as much of them, this theory seems flawed. Many healthy foods are similar in price to their less healthy counterparts–at the store I shopped at (King Soopers) whole wheat pasta and brown rice cost the same as white pasta and white rice, so there is no reason not to buy the whole grains.
I do think that the best way to stay healthy while using food stamps is to utilize sales and coupons as much as possible. Choose your store wisely, some chains charge much more for items than others; be aware of this. You do not need to buy “organic” food to get health benefits; “organic” almost always costs more than conventionally grown food. Frozen fruits and vegetables have the same nutritional benefits as fresh, so this is a great area to save money (canned products do as well if there is no fat, salt, etc. added).
Although it is possible to eat healthy while using SNAP/food stamps, it is more difficult for many reasons. There are a lot of areas that have limited access to healthy and affordable foods, and many times unhealthy snacks foods do appear to be a better value, so it is easy to buy them. Many people with time constraints, food preparation/storage issues, or a lack of proper education are not able to shop the sales and prepare food themselves, which leads to consumption of less healthy convenience foods.
Eating for necessity, not enjoyment
I love food. It was very difficult for me this week not being able to eat many of the foods I enjoy, simply because I could not afford them. I also learned quickly that a lack of variety can make you sick of a food, even a food you like, very quickly.
One of the best things that came from this Challenge is the talk it generated; raising awareness about the hunger epidemic.
For some of the recipes I was able to make or more of my day-to-day thoughts, check out my SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge experience on my personal blog.
I underestimated how much this Challenge would negatively affect my quality of life. While I had enough food to live on, I had to make so many sacrifices that my week was not enjoyable. I feel that now I not only have sympathy but also empathy for those who live on food stamps. Although I only did this for a week, it was a very impactful experience watching how much it affected me physically, emotionally, and socially.
Marissa Donovan is a registered dietician living in Denver, Colo., who participated in the Food Stamp Challenge during Hunger Awareness Month (September 2014) and blogged about her experience. She also recently joined the Hunger P.O.D. Squad to take more action to help eradicate hunger.
Learn more about the Food Stamp Challenge, including how you can participate and share your experience.