thoughts on the SNAP Challenge

My week on the SNAP Challenge is up.

My mind has been racing for the last week, and I’m not even sure where to begin. Pulling my thoughts together has proved to be difficult so I’m going to list them out and continue to try and make sense of it all.

Thoughts:

  • Planning is key and very different from the way I typically go about planning my meals, based on what I feel like, a new recipe to try, or something easy on a busy night.
  • I never account for snacks or desserts in my meal plans (I just buy them), so it didn’t even cross my mind until last Monday afternoon when I needed a snack and realized the only thing we had was saltines and cheese.
  • Shopping decisions were based on price – not healthiness, flavor or quality.
  • Most meals need a cheap filler, which always ended up being carbohydrates. I mentioned that brown rice and beans at every meal would obviously be a wholesome, cheap choice, but boring!
  • As much as I love cooking, I rely on prepared meals/food when things get busy, and on the SNAP Challenge I could not afford any of our favorites from Trader Joe’s or a rotisserie chicken. (Hot, prepared foods are not SNAP eligible either)
  • Food and cooking was not a joyful experience as it usually is. It was boring, monotonous, and always felt like a chore.
  • I was constantly afraid that we were going to run out of food and run out of money. I cannot imagine having this constant stress.
  • Having two of us made things immensely easier. Cooking for two (or more) means more variety!
  • There was no hope of a fun, special meal on the weekends. More of the same meals…
  • I found it very difficult to get 5-7 servings of produce a day.
  • It is much easier to get closer to the recommended amount of produce/day with the help of convenience vegetables (washed lettuce, baby carrots, etc.).
  • I wondered if part of the reason I wasn’t satisfied after meals was because of the lack of protein and fat or because I normally choose quality over quantity and was not able to do so last week…not sure!
  • Little things like a sprinkle of flavorful cheese were missed.
  • Impulse buys caused feelings of guilt and an angry husband, “How could you spend $1.29 on these?”
  • With the challenge coming to a close, I was so excited and then immediately guilty when I thought about the millions for which this is a constant reality.

I think what struck me most throughout the week was the amount of time and effort that goes into planning, grocery shopping and then prepping almost every meal. By Thursday night, I was exhausted and wanted nothing to do with cooking or the kitchen, which is normally something I love.

With that said, we did manage to have some great meals last week. Breakfast burritos were delicious, bison ragu was a hearty, satisfying meal and ramen “plus” totally hit the spot!

I do have to let you know that we took a hiatus from the challenge for two meals this past weekend, for reasons that both were important enough for me. I subtracted $6 from our allowance which put us over the $57 we would have had. We also drank coffee + cream on Saturday and Sunday morning, neither of which we purchased with the SNAP money.

 I think we were close to our budget for these reasons:

  • All of the meat we purchased was deeply discounted and on a manager special – I doubt this is possible on a regular basis
  • We changed the way we ate – gone was the loads of produce, healthy fats and lean proteins – bring on the carbs (both processed and whole)!
  • We didn’t really purchase anything that was used for snacks, so when I was hungry in between meals, I turned to saltine crackers
  • We didn’t purchase any beverages (coffee, milk, juice)
  • I always chose the cheapest option (bread, crackers, eggs, cheese)
Shopping Breakdown:
I shopped at Ralph’s (a cheap, but not bad store) on two separate occasions and the Korean market for fresh produce once. In total, we spent $58.70, which was $1.70 over the amount we had for all 7 days (minus 2 meals).

Protein/Dairy: ($22.11)

  • Tofu ($1.25)
  • 2 lbs ground buffalo ($1.98)* manager special (close to use by date)
  • 1.38 lb chicken drumsticks ($2.75)* manager special (close to use by date)
  • 2 cans tuna ($1.98)
  • 24 large eggs ($3.29)
  • Natural peanut butter ($2.49)
  • 1 lb dried beans ($1.69)
  • 2 blocks of cheese ($4.29)
  • Sour cream ($1.39)

Frozen/Canned Foods: ($8.26)

  • 1 bag frozen spinach ($1.00)
  • 2 bags frozen broccoli ($2.00)
  • 1 bag frozen green beans ($1.00)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes ($.79)
  • 2 cans tomato sauce ($.98)
  • 1 jar salsa ($2.49)

Carbohydrates/Treats/Processed: ($14.52)

  • Wheat bread ($.99)
  • 1 lb brown rice ($1.19)
  • 1 lb white pasta ($1.00)
  • 12 whole wheat tortillas ($2.99)
  • 2 mini ice creams ($2.50)
  • Pepero cookies ($1.29)
  • 1 box saltines ($.99)
  • 1 box mac & cheese ($.59)
  • Mushroom rice mix ($.99)
  • 4 packs of ramen noodles ($1.00)

Produce: ($16.79)

  • Celery ($.99)
  • 2 bunches spinach ($.99)
  • 2 lbs carrot ($.99) – the receipt from the Korean market carrots says $.20, but I don’t think that is right…
  • 1 zucchini ($.49)
  • 1 medium sweet potato ($.83)
  • 1 head cabbage ($.64)
  • 2 nectarines ($.72)
  • 1 bunch kale ($1.49)
  • 1 bunch lettuce ($.99)
  • 3 onions ($2.03)
  • 2 avocados ($.98)
  • 2 ears corn ($.67)
  • Small bag sweet peppers ($1.99)
  • 8 oz mushrooms ($1.99)

What’s next? I’ll certainly be more aware of the challenges that millions face each day and I’ll continue to fight for the hungry in America. I’ll be thinking about food security for Americans when I vote this fall and I urge you to do the same.

Comments

  1. Lori says

    This is outstanding. I’ve been following your tweets and IG photos for the week. Such a great challenge and I really enjoyed your obsevations. I worked closed with the SNAP-Ed program in Kentucky for most of my career before my current job. I had the challenge of trying to reach and educate others about how to eat healthy on a Snap budget, but shame on me for not actually trying it like this. Valuable insight!

  2. says

    This was a really interesting challenge to follow along with. I can see just how difficult it is to eat a balanced diet when you have such severely limited resources! It really makes me feel blessed to have access to fresh, healthy foods without having to worry about making ends meet!

  3. says

    This who experience has been so interesting to read. Although I’m very health conscious, I also look at price all the time, clip coupons and look at the sales fliers. Some of my coworkers eat lunch out every day. I think food spending is one of the easiest things to cut back on.

    • Emily says

      What kind of coupons do you clip? When I’ve looked in circulars and newspapers it seems like most of the foods are processed ones that I wouldn’t normally buy…but I love coupons!

      • says

        there are often online coupons for produce (earthbound farms has them semi-frequently) and some organic brands. also, newspaper circulars have tons of coupons for toiletries and paper products. it helps if you aren’t brand specific about that…. then you can play the drugstore game & get free/inexpensive (look it up on moneysavingmom.com and/or ask me if you have any questions). also you said you have ralph’s, which is a kroger affiliate. make sure your rewards card has your correct address and they send coupons in the mail based on what you buy most often…so i get coupons for greek yogurt and such in the mail.

  4. says

    You know, I consider myself to be on a budget when it comes to grocery shopping, but it’s amazing how much I’m really NOT on a budget when you think about it. I go to Trader Joe’s, yes, but I don’t force myself to go to another store that has coupons/specials for items that would probably be cheaper there. That in and of itself is a luxury. Makes you think!

  5. says

    I enjoyed these posts. I am on a very strict budget and use SNAP. I am also a very healthy runner. I need a lot of food. The key is to plan every meal, waste nothing, and stay away from convenience items. Due to health problems I can’t have highly processed corn items (the cheap stuff!) so it is very difficult.

    • Emily says

      Thanks for sharing, I’m curious to know what your staple meals are and how you are able to fuel properly for an active life!

      • says

        Well here is the short story. I recently graduated from graduate school and have been unemployed for about 7 months. During graduate school I took out as much student loans as I could so I’m living off that now so I do have a little more money to spend on food other than SNAP. Although none of it is my money, is gaining interest, and needs to be paid back it pads my food money a bit. No, I can’t live on SNAP alone due to my need for consuming a lot of calories and healthy food. The ironic part of it all is that I am doing an (unpaid) internship of high level SNAP policy analysis. The other thing is that I rarely ever go out to eat or buy new clothing and opt to spend any money on more expensive healthy foods like nut butters, olives, shrimp, salmon, cherries.
        I eat a LOT of dried beans, eggs, and tuna for my protein sources. I find deals on chicken breast and freeze them. I eat a lot of oatmeal instead of bread. I buy frozen veggies a lot and never ever buy fruit/veggies that aren’t on sale. I rarely buy any food item that isn’t on sale. I am super creative in the kitchen and read recipes for inspiration but never ever follow them because I can’t afford any herbs or spices. I don’t buy unnecessary items that don’t add value nutritionally (ice cream, cookies, granola, crackers, cereal) because they aren’t really needed.
        I guess that is how I am doing it.

  6. Jess says

    Wow, I loved these posts. It was very eye opening and makes me feel so lucky and at the same time sad for the people who are on this budget. Thank you!

  7. says

    Emily, I loved these posts so much! Thank you for enlightening me and raising awareness of how so many people in the U.S. eat. I think that your posts will definitely make me more conscious of what I am buying/spending and also help me to be more aware of hunger issues. Great job!

  8. Kristin says

    THis is very impressive and a real eye opener. It helps me more with understanding where my patients are coming from.

  9. says

    This challenge – and your subsequent thoughts and reflections – was so eye-opening and impressive, Emily. It caused me to think twice while shopping at the grocery store last week and really appreciate what a “budget” means. Combined with my conversation with farmers and ranchers, I feel as though there is a lot to consider and will definitely be doing more research on food security. Thanks for inspiring!

  10. says

    I truly admire the families that have to do this week after week, these are the families that deserve help! We budget but not to this level, I use coupons when possibly (mostly for things like cereal (Scott eats this) pasta, tomato sauce, shampoo/condition, toothpaste, toothbrushes) I buy things on sale and the store brand. Shopping on a strict budget it hard! I am thankful that I have the luxury of eating the meals I want.

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