So, about a month ago, I read an article online about a family that decided to take the “SNAP Challenge” or the “Food Stamp Challenge”. The family decided to live for a month on the federal government allocation for families of their configuration who are eligible for a full Food Stamp (now SNAP) benefit. Apparently, this has become the thing to do, much like the $1 a day food budget that was trendy a few years ago, reflecting the typical Developing World lower class food budget.
Many of those who are pursuing this personal experiment stick to a rigid budget and give away or set aside any food that is currently in their kitchen. I was intrigued, but, call me a hopeless foodie, but I was not willing without further information to stick to a rigid food budget, nor did I want to give away, throw away or set aside items already in my kitchen. I would also say that the latter, assuming that Food Stamp recipients start with a bare larder to me is an unsubstantiated, and I suspect, false assumption. Receiving Food Stamps does not mean that the recipient has never purchased food or received food or does not have a box of salt, some flour, or other items in their kitchen. I would also point out that many food banks provide food regardless or the recipient’s Food Stamp status.
I was also not interested in forgoing all eating out for a month. That is another assumption many of the SNAP Challenge community make. In addition to subsidized school lunches and breakfasts, there are other places that people can get free or low cost prepared meals, like churches, soup kitchens and community events, often no or few questions asked.
But what I did think would be interesting, would be to track my grocery expenditures for a month and see exactly how much I spend on food items, not at the grocery store but spending on food, and compare that to the SNAP allowance for a single person, $200/month. (A single adult between 18-50 with no qualifying disability can only receive this assistance three times in every thirty-six months.) I specifically set out to not limit myself in anyway or avoid purchases.
The result? $256.68 spent on four grocery trips and one trip to the discount store. This includes a number of premium priced gluten-free items, some organic dairy, three pounds of beef stew meat from one of the local stores with a meat counter, four bags of tortilla or potato chips, several boxes of gluten-free cookies, and some pricier cheeses. Eliminating the gluten-free cookies and chips from the bills would save $26.53, or about half of my “overage.” (Although I would point out that I use tortilla and potato chips the way other people use crackers as a gluten-free substitute.) I also spent $18.74 on gluten-free flours, which are often pricey substitutes for much cheaper traditional flour and $7.58 on gluten-free pastas likely double at least the price of conventional equivalents. I would also add that I did eat out a few times and did not include these meals in my budget. I don’t think it is necessarily true that someone on Food Stamps would never eat out.
Without question, if I found myself in deep enough financial need that I would apply for and be eligible for Food Stamps, particularly as a single adult who’s eligibility is somewhat limited, I would definitely take a different approach to my shopping, loading up on staples and low-cost items that are shelf stable and store well or can be frozen—things like rice, potatoes, cans, the big blocks of mass market vacuum-sealed cheese—cut out anything premium or processed, and likely look for other places to supplement my food supply.
And, of course, much like I did at the beginning of the month, I have quite a bit of food in my kitchen. What’s the net mass balance? I’m not sure. I’m up a bottle of organic olive oil, purchased on the cheap from a discount store. I ran myself out of corn flour. I am also guestimating (I was a bit lax on recordkeeping on this one) that I ate out three times a week and got one gratis meal from one source or another, for roughly 16 meals not included.
I think my next experiment might be to keep the monthly grocery tab under $200, while keeping my eating out to a minimum. Now that I know where I’m starting, I’ll see if I can make it work without feeling a pinch. Of course, I’m sure what that tells me—like I said earlier, it would be a whole different story if I was really living and dying by it. But why not? I learned something this month, I might learn something the next time.