On Sunday, October 12, my SNAP Challenge came to an end. For the folks scoring at home, I had $27 to feed myself for the entire week: The same amount a single adult receives for a weekly food budget on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps). That’s about $1.28 per cibum or $3.86 per diem.
Lessons learned: For seven days, it can be done with relative ease, as long as you don’t mind…
- Eating the same thing meal after meal after meal. To make the most of my $27, I stayed with the basics during my shopping trip last Saturday: Cheap, shelf-stable, bulk items. By Thursday, after four lunches and one dinner of black beans and rice variants (with chicken, without, with rice, without, with extra canned tomatoes, with all of the above), I didn’t want to see another black bean… and I still had two days to go… and two more lunches of black beans and rice. I ate eight (8) extra-crunchy peanut butter fold-over sandwiches for breakfast or snacks. I had six (6) chicken thighs in various states of pan-fried, baked, grilled and chopped. No fish. No beef. No bacon.
- Forgoing fresh fruits and vegetables. Starches are cheaper and more shelf-stable. End of discussion. I bought three bananas on Saturday. I’d hoped to save one of those until Sunday, prior to my 30-mile Tour de Scottsdale bike ride. Potassium, hooray! By Thursday, I had to eat that final, rapidly-browning banana. Spoilage, boo! I bought a head of cabbage and two cans of tomatoes. I ate half of each. Three days in, I wished I had set aside some of my $27 to spend later in the week on the luxury of fresh spinach or a single green apple.
- Forgetting about convenience. With just $27, you have to be obsessive about what you are going to consume. Coffee. Snacks. Meal to meal to meal, spooling out hours into the future. You can’t just pop by the store for some beef jerky or pickup takeaway if you forgot your lunch or ran out of money. You can’t buy a cold beer if you just want to throw up your hands and forget about the frustration of it all (Contrary to popular talk-radio myth: SNAP benefits cannot be spent on alcohol, tobacco, firearms or lottery tickets). You will think more about food than you ever have because hunger becomes a chronic threat. I didn’t plan an afternoon snack when I had a big meeting. I felt nauseous as I walked back to the car (and I made a beeline for the convenience store). Imagine what life is like for children who go to school hungry and try to focus on fractions and grammar?
- Being hyper-vigilant about waste. With just $27 for the whole week, waste is more than the unfortunate oversight of limp celery in the refrigerator drawer. It is a moral failing. It is flushing money down the toilet. It is stealing food from your own mouth… or from the mouth of someone you love. I still have three single-serving containers of black-bean soup, seven potatoes, a half-head of cabbage, a half-gallon of milk, a half-pound of rice, a half-can of tomatoes and a box-and-a-half of dried pasta. We will figure out how to eat all of it because I can’t bear the thought of throwing it out. If anything, this exercise has educated me about how much I waste in my own household every week. It breaks my heart.
Solutions… The purpose of the Arizona SNAP Challenge is to walk a mile in their shoes. As the gap between rich and poor in this country widens, we are seeing a new form of economic segregation, where people at the upper ends of the economic spectrum have little or no interaction with those at the lower end of the spectrum. Ever. When some asshole-developer installs a separate “poor door” in his New York high-rise, we all need to spend a week on a SNAP budget to nourish our empathy genes – OR AT LEAST LEARN SOME MANNERS.
It is easy for high-powered politicians and their high-paid mouthpieces on news-talk radio / TV to lambaste the “moochers” and “succubi” that suckle at the teat of “big gubmint” with its food stamps and welfare queens. It is a tired joke, trotted out to gin up votes from the less fortunate, who can still afford to look down their noses at the least fortunate, until they find themselves in those same soulless shoes. Most SNAP recipients use these benefits between eight and 10 months… and the majority of recipients HAVE JOBS. The rest of us might well be a catastrophic illness or a credit-default swap pink-slip away from joining their number. Patrons of boot-strap capitalism wag their fingers about waste-and-fraud, when the fact is, just about 2 percent of all SNAP transactions are fraudulent, based on long-term research.
2 percent. That’s a motherfucking rounding error at Goldman Sacks. Are they going to do away with the whole banking system because of a 2 percent rate of fraud? Indict anyone? Garnish their wages or stock options?
Didn’t think so.
When I think about waste, I will now think more about throwing out a soft tomato. I will think about using coupons more consistently to stretch my dollar further. I will figure out how to make a new meal out of the same old ingredients instead of relying on the microwaved ease of packaged plastic foods.
If anything, this experience has taught me that $27 can go a long way in America… if you are resourceful, geographically lucky and don’t have issues with high blood pressure (Have you checked the sodium on a package of Top Ramen?!?). My friend Donna joined me on this journey and managed to do it gluten-free… She also lives in Central California in an agricultural region where she could literally live off the land. I have many friends back home in Louisiana who could hunt and fish their way through a season of animal protein: But only if they have a freezer to keep it from spoiling.
I do think that more educational resources could help SNAP recipients stretch their food budgets further, especially when it comes to incorporating fruits and vegetables in a cost-effective way. We have to prepare people to thrive when they roll off benefits… and prepare others to survive if their lives take an unlucky bounce.
When I was growing up, we called that “home economics,” and those are skills that could benefit ANYONE, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Those skills are not taught to the test in our schools today, but I think they would serve our young people more than solving ridiculous word problems designed to make legislators feel like they stuck it to the teachers’ union. (Don’t I sound like a populist firebrand?)
Thus concludes my SNAP Challenge for 2014. I will now go about my life of comfort and relative ease, grateful for a new perspective: For me it was only a week. For many SNAP participants, it’s eight grinding months of $1.28 per meal, $3.85 per day, $27 per week.
If you would like to help, join me on this journey next year. In the meantime, please donate to your local food bank or join me in donating to St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance and also to the SNAP Challenge sponsor, the Arizona Community Action Association.