Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Four

Leftovers. Photo by Amy Rogers.

Day Four:

Time for a mid-week reality check. The jug of milk has started to go sour. The fat in the leftover ground beef we cooked with last night’s spaghetti sauce has congealed into a bright orange slick. I may have just busted my budget by opening a Dollar Tree bag of Twizzlers I discovered in the pantry.

And I hate oatmeal.

I’m halfway through the SNAP* Challenge, trying to eat adequately and healthfully while spending no more than $31.50 for the entire week. At the beginning I was confident I could manage easily, but quickly learned how tricky it is plan, shop, budget and adapt to this way of thinking. Everything I typically buy is eligible, right? Not if I want a marked down rotisserie chicken at the end of a long workday. Hot foods aren’t allowed and neither are foods that can be eaten in the store.

Then there are the leftovers, unavoidable if you’re trying to get by on a food stamp budget. You can’t indulge in single-serving foods, so you’ll be looking at staples such as legumes and grains repeatedly on your plate. If you can afford fresh vegetables, you’ll need to prepare them early in the week and try to stretch them out. If you wait too long to cook them, some will certainly spoil. Tonight, leftover beef goes into a soft tortilla with tabouli on the side.

How often do we reach into a cupboard for some small item – garlic or Jell-O or just plain salt – without thinking twice about it? Canned soup, a bag of chips, pancake syrup: walking past but not having enough money to purchase these items at the grocery store has been peculiar and uncomfortable. Not because of any actual deprivation I’ve experienced, of course, but because it’s more tedious and frustrating than I want to admit, constantly calculating each item’s cost against that dwindling $31.50.

Actor Josh Malina is also taking the SNAP Challenge, and blogging about it. “I’m not necessarily hungry, but I’m finding myself thinking about food a lot. It’s something I normally take for granted,” he wrote on Wednesday.

And that’s the most startling thing about the seven-day experiment. It makes a person realize not simply how much we take for granted, but how habituated we can become to our own comfortable circumstances. Which got me to wondering: Just how many people currently rely on aid from SNAP?

The answer in North Carolina alone: 2.2 million.

*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.

Eating on a Food Stamp Budget (Day One)

Eating on a Food Stamp Budget (Day Two)

Eating on a Food Stamp Budget (Day Three)

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Four

  1. I’ve been following your SNAP experience this week. It’s good to know that someone out there is willing to experience for one week, what millions of people live for a lifetime. And your description of what is wearying about it, is exactly right: the constant grind of knowing that half the things in the store are there for most other people, but aren’t options for you or your children. The constant worry that you’ll run out. The embarrassment of taking a hand-out, but knowing you have no choice. It’s not for a week. It’s for years. And having kids means that you pass on all that anxiety and food-focus to your kids. They constantly hear: “we can’t afford that.”

    • Mary Kathryn, you make a though-provoking point about the anxiety and worry of not having enough — what is called “food insufficiency” — and the disheartening feeling of being marginalized that results. My experience has been, at worst, slightly inconvenient. I can’t imagine how the millions of people who need these programs cope. I’m humbled. Thanks so much for commenting.

  2. Really interesting series. Am deeply touched by the reality that is many people’s lives, so dramatically illustrated by Amy’s experiment and blog.

  3. Sarah

    I too find this eye opening. I look forward to hearing more about your experience and insights.

  4. Kristin

    A very informative series. You vividly describe the psychic toll this situation takes on someone, even if you are only doing it for a week and so many do it forever. It’s hard to imagine how draining that must be, and easy to understand how people can end up eating fattening foods that are low in nutrition.

  5. Meg Humphrey

    Amy,

    Not only have I found your experience interesting, it has provoked some great conversations among my friends. Do do think that as a single person, doing this for one week, you have given up some of the flexibility that a larger family would have budgeting on a monthly basis. For example, a single chicken could provide several meals (roasted, casseroles, soup, etc.) but you be committing to eating a lot of chicken this week!

    Where you have a great advantage is you know how to cook. It seems to me that a basic knowledge of how to prepare different foods is a crucial life skill. I remember having to take home ec in junior high school and although it may seem quaint and archaic today, we learned about nutrition in conjunction and hands-on cooking experience. I applaud the efforts of area schools to get students involved in school gardens and healthy eating, and I see opportunities to take it further.

    • Meg, you’re correct. Over the course of a month I could certainly plan better AND have more variety. I’m fortunate in many ways: I’m a pretty good cook and I enjoy lots of different foods. I agree that we should bring back Home Ec cooking classes. What skill could be more important to learn? Thanks for your comments.

  6. Anne

    Generally, the fat is drained from the meat before adding it to the spaghetti sauce — or you skim the fat from the top of the sauce before serving it. Any fat that got missed will form the congealed orange “slick,” but then it’s easy to separate out before reheating the spaghetti. Helpful hints from someone who’s been there. 🙂

  7. This has been an eye-opening account of adjusting to the SNAP regime. What choices of mine could improve the life of someone in this situation? Just being aware and spreading awareness, as you are doing here, is one thing. Giving to food banks is another, but I’m looking for ways to act differently in my daily life that will contribute towards structural change. Not wasting food, perhaps, or fasting once in a while? Would either of those help anybody?

    (Thanks also, Amy, for doing your homework and giving us some numbers and facts about the program.)

  8. Pebbles

    Your leftovers look pretty good to me. I didn’t know about the SNAP challenge. Is this an annual thing or just this once? I was impressed by Josh’s statement about “enough.”. How often do we think about that? Another challenge could be to way how much food we throw away. Good luck for the remainder of the challenge.

  9. I was hoping someone would offer a series on food stamp eating. Very educational. Thanks for this reality check.

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