Eating on a Food Stamp Budget

What you get for $14 at Super G Mart. Photo by Amy Rogers.

Day One:

Think you could manage on $31.50 a week for groceries? That’s the amount you’d get to spend if you had to rely solely on food stamps.

From July 9 through July 15, I’m taking the SNAP* Challenge. Its purpose is to give well-fed Americans a chance to experience the struggle an estimated 1 in 7 are facing every day in the U.S.

I’m a creative cook so I’m not planning menus or making lists. My only advance strategy is to stop at CVS Sunday night where my 25% off store coupon cuts the price on Café Bustelo from $4.19 to $3.15. Monday morning coffee? Check.

What to buy today with the remaining $28.25? My first – and probably best – decision is to avoid my local grocery store and visit Super G Mart on Independence Blvd. Known for its extensive ethnic offerings, here the produce is bountiful and inexpensive. A pound of bok choy is 98 cents. A giant bunch of parsley, headed for tabouli, is 99 cents. A fat lump of ginger is only 20 cents. Extra firm tofu is 99 cents; I don’t recognize the brand but its advertisement for DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” on its label is oddly reassuring. A big bag of Asian noodles rolled into nests is $1.79. I’m thinking this won’t be so hard after all.

Confidently, I bag two red bell peppers. Yes, this is a bit extravagant. Normally $4 a pound at other stores, I can’t resist them here at only $1.49. They’re irregularly shaped but firm and fresh, so I get two and they ring up at for $1.31. I indulge in a small block of black sesame candy for $1.79.

Quaker Oats are more than $3; the no-name brand is $1.79 so that’s what I get. Cabbage, an onion, a small bottle of soy sauce.

I’ve still got nearly half of my $31.50 left. Then I remember: You can’t use anything already in your kitchen, other than condiments. I’ll have to add in the cost of the tortilla shells, bulgur, lime, cheese, milk and yogurt I bought a couple of days ago.

This creates two possible problems: One is math. The other is that even if I haven’t over-spent, I may have under-shopped.

I’ll let you know more tomorrow…

*SNAP is the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. And for many low-income individuals and families, it’s not a supplement; it’s their only means of buying food.

Amy is documenting her experiences with the SNAP Challenge all this week. Check back daily for updates.

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29 Comments

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29 responses to “Eating on a Food Stamp Budget

  1. Jaime Bedrin

    An interesting challenge Amy. I just took a close look at my credit card bill. We spend so much on food. Organic berries? $5.99. I try to keep my food spending in check. But fresh produce is always more than processed food. We don’t want to feed processed food to our kid.

  2. Jaime, you are absolutely right. As challenging as it may be to feed one’s self on this limited budget, the choices a parent faces when feeding a growing child are much more difficult. Fresh, seasonal produce in summer can often be found at a reasonable price, but it’s still not always the quality we’d like. And in the winter months or in remote areas, it’s even harder. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

  3. Great article Amy. I spent over $31.50 at just one of the two grocery stores I shopped at on Saturday! I think local and in season produce is the best value in general, but not always available. Your choices at the Super G-Mart look like they will offer you some yummy meals. I honestly don’t know how people manage on SNAP, other than going hungry some days or parts of days each month. Whenever my little friends down the street tell me they are hungry, I always feed them because I am certain they are. Thanks for sharing your experience with us all.

  4. Great project, engaging writing. You made me hungry … and eager for the next installment.

  5. Carol Sawyer

    Looks like a good start. Might consider some eggs to help you get some non-tofu protein.

  6. Eve Shoenthal

    Amy, this sucks, is this really happening, how can this be?

  7. Kevin Soden, MD

    Amy,
    Extremely thought provoking and eye opening. As a physician, how do people eat the “right” foods to keep their weight in check and stay healthy on such a limited budget? Does any dietician have advice on what can be bought on such a limited dollar amount?

    Even more basically, how do people get to the market you mention without transportation? Isn’t that costly?

    Keep up the great reporting. I want to learn more. I don’t even want to bring up politics but these articles should speak volumes. Bravo!

    • Dr. Soden,

      I have a handout which I created for patients who request it. It includes a receipt from Aldi’s of exactly which foods to purchase and their cost, as well as recipes throughout the week. The total was $48.80 per week. I myself ate according to the handout without eating any other foods/spices from my home supply for one month and trimmed 6 lbs. The foods were tasty and satisfying (to me). They were certainly healthy.

      I took it as a challenge to create that handout, and it was a bit of work but it was not difficult. That’s, I suppose, what we bariatric physicians do for fun.

      Our medical weight loss institute has been open in Charlotte, NC, for 6 years. For patients who are unemployed or uninsured, we will be opening the first non-profit weight loss medical practice in the nation. We are awaiting the government to return the 501(c)3 documents.

  8. Diane Howard

    good chalkenge, Ames, and great article. a few things come to mind…the first is that this is a better offset to senility than sudoku – the creatuve challenge alone is valuable. second, portion control. we tend to eat more calories than we need , and empty ones at that. I think your challenge forces one to make wiser chouces. mindful food prep/eating…

  9. Elgin Freeman

    One of the comments above is: “Does any dietician have advice on what can be bought on such a limited dollar amount?” I wonder if any of our elected officials could get by on that little amount. Shouldn’t they have to live by the laws they write for the rest of us?

  10. Pingback: Food Stamp Budget: Day Two // WFAEats

  11. Judi Howe

    Recently I went through a similar challenge…feeding a family of 6 on $50 a week. My daughter and I found a grocery shopping list online to accomplish our task. Interestingly, it involved going to three different stores and to no one’s surprise, following the list exactly we still spent $65. Very little fresh produce! Much pasta! We did this because we are trying to help a very low-income family. The grandmother in this family works full-time, making $10 an hour. Go ahead. Calculate that! And she has four gandchildren, her unemployed son and herself to feed, provide shelter, clothing, etc. Impossible! We all must try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, including those running for the highest office in the land!

    • I agree, Judy. “Calculate that” indeed! A few folks have dismissed the SNAP Challenge as silly, but it’s been very eye-opening for everyone I’ve spoken with or emailed.

  12. Mike Joslyn

    Mighty tight budget; I notice that you didn’t pick up any butter or oil which might constrict your choices about how to make some of the things you had in mind. Then again, perhaps those are considered condiments. Surprised that no dried beans made it into the shopping basket. They’re a staple in a lot of ethnic cuisines for good reason— cheap and a good source of protein particularly in combination with starches.

  13. This is a real challenge – one that families all over the country face everyday. And the main reason I work to put together the Food Bloggers Bake Sale for Share Our Strength, down here in Miami, every year. Kids at least can get access to reduced price or free breakfasts, lunches, and sometimes after-school and weekend feeding programs. Which doesn’t solve the problem, since many of them can’t connect or don’t know how to connect with many of the programs – or are too embarrassed or stigmatized to take advantage of them. And when you’re a kid, especially in this situation, all you want to do is blend in and not stand out.

    Another possibility for families actually on SNAP and looking for fresh fruits and vegetables, etc., might be a local farmers market that accepts EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer, a debit card that has replaced the old paper food stamps). The market I used to sell my jam at, not only accepted EBT, but was permitted to give double value, up to $20. So they could purchase $20-worth of food at the market and only pay $10.

    The other challenge I see with your situation is that you are one person doing this for only one week. If you were feeding a family of four, for instance, or doing it for a month, you’d have a larger budget, enabling you to buy larger sizes at say, Costco or (heaven forbid!) Walmart, which might be better values and go further. Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, if bought at a Dunkin’ Donuts as opposed to a grocery store, is a full pound (rather than 12 oz), and if you buy 4 pounds, it’s about $5 a pound, instead of $7.99. Most people on SNAP/EBT get their full month’s budget at the beginning of the month and that’s when they do the bulk of their shopping.

    I, too, notice the absence of protein (aside from tofu) in your shopping basket. Eggs, meat, fish, beans? Of course, I haven’t read Day Two, yet, so I’m eager to see how you manage, this week.

    • Renee, you’re a wealth of information. “Share Our Strength” is the organization that sponsors the “No Kid Hungry” program. And I love the idea of merchants giving double value for aid recipients. Thanks for all your good work!

  14. Thank you all for your very thoughtful comments. I’ll address your questions and concerns as the week progresses, and when I wrap up at the end.

  15. Pingback: Food Stamp Budget: Day Three // WFAEats

  16. Pingback: Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Four // WFAEats

  17. Pingback: Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Five // WFAEats

  18. Carl, I don’t buy much packaged food. For this challenge I did buy noodles and cheese. The noodles were less expensive than packaged ramen. I got 12 servings for $1.69. I don’t eat peanut butter and the eggs are on my list for next week. Thanks for your comments.

  19. Annie Griffey

    It occurred to me how resourceful you have been in realizing that your local market wasn’t going to cut it and you headed for a cheaper and healthier store. I always think about my students whose parents either have no access to such sources n or would know how to put together such meals. Those are not skills that we teach students. I love what you ‘re doing. One of my college prof. Made us do something similar as part of an economics class. We would all do well to follow your lead.You are looking into the face of poverty and it is grim.

  20. Pingback: Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Six // WFAEats

  21. Pingback: Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Wrap Up // WFAEats

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