By now I’m sure you’ve heard of the SNAP challenge that many celebrities are joining in on. I saw it but didn’t give it too much attention because it’s nowhere near the same as living on a meager food budget day after day, week after week, sometimes year after year. It’s not a challenge, it comes across like a game. It’s kind of fun to stretch your buck and see how many meals you can squeeze out of a set budget, but not if you have no other choice. I realized this. I also believed that if I were hungry I would eat whatever I could, so the challenge was stupid. $30 budget? 30 boxes of pasta, done. If you’re hungry, you’ll eat, right?
I understand that some enjoy the thrill of the hunt type of thing and avidly scour sale flyers and clip coupons. My mother in law was the coupon queen and she saved TONS of money over the years. She would plan her Saturday route 100% by which stores had the best prices, and she would sometimes hit 4-5 stores, including the local CVS if their price on bread beat the supermarkets. For the first few years of my marriage we survived on $50 a week for 2 adults, and we had to squeeze diapers and wipes out of that too. Because we were so broke, my mother in law would often take my $50 and shop for us, working her magic.
What I could get for $50 compared to what she could get for $50 amazed me. She was like a food fairy, appearing with bags and bags of stuff each week. If it had not been for her and her skills, I don’t know what we would have done. It was lean as it was, even with her help and family having us over for dinner a couple of meals each week.
To her, it was a sport and she was an all star. She enjoyed it. To me, it was an overwhelming chore that took years of practice to master. At 18 I wasn’t able to ‘play the game’ like I later learned to. I watched and learned, and with age came experience. I know more about nutrition now, and what foods keep the longest. I’ve learned recipes and crock pot dinners and how to make 3 meals and a soup from a whole turkey. I just didn’t have this knowledge at 18, when our budget was $50.
A certain celeb recently shared a photo of what $29 bought her. Even after all I’ve learned, I wouldn’t know what to do with the things she bought. Limes are for tequila, set up the shots.
So, coincidentally I had just done my grocery shopping for the week right before deciding to take this “challenge” (hate that word for it). I felt pretty good about what I’d gotten for my $159. Nothing frivolous, pretty basic, and I shopped the sale stuff. I decided that the first thing I would do would be to find out what 1 person in my state (Massachusetts) would qualify for on SNAP. My son is disabled, and at 19 if he were living on his own he would qualify for $197 per month in food assistance. This would be his primary food source, as he would be living 100% on SSI if he wasn’t living with us at home.
So, I pulled out my shopping receipt. I would say approximately $25 of that was stuff like soap, paper towels, so let’s call it $125. I spent $125 and got plenty; Deli ham, cheese, turkey and rolls; apples; bananas; strawberries; lettuce; tomatoes; potatoes; chicken breasts; almond milk; pasta; sauce; yogurts; bags of frozen vegetables that were on sale. We’re good- for a WEEK. A weeks worth of food and only $72 leftover, if I were surviving on the SNAP budget my son qualifies for. (This food I bought will also feed more than one person and the challenge was for a one-person budget, so not really accurate, but this is the ‘challenge’, right? We’re pretending, like when I was a little kid and wanted to be Annie. It’s a hard knock life, and when life knocks you hard, you buy cilantro. Cuz this is fun. Isn’t this fun?)
So, only $72 left for the month, then what? Tuna was 10 for $10 this week, I guess I could stock up on that. Buy more pasta and sauce maybe? Obviously I hadn’t shopped with a budget in mind, and I probably would have chosen different items, probably stretching the money a bit better, so I decided to try. Let’s get serious and stop all this fun.
I took that $197 in benefits he would qualify for and divided by 4, giving me $49.25 a week. Sounds like plenty, should be pretty easy. I know for a fact, chicken breasts are super cheap this week, add potatoes and a vegetable and I might even have money for dessert. Who doesn’t like chicken? So versatile and tasty. Why would anyone blow their budget on things like frozen pizzas and tater tots when you can get nutritious and filling chicken? You don’t need cilantro to be shopping healthy, you just need common sense. Duh, no brainer.
Well the problem is, chicken breasts were super cheap for me on my personal budget because I bought in bulk and divided them up into meals and put them in the freezer. It worked out to be cheap per meal, but I had to cough up $10 or $11 up front. Would I pay $10 on a set budget with no idea what may go on sale next week? What if nothing went on sale that I wanted to buy? Would I just stick to this weeks planning, spending just my weekly $49.25, making sure to keep my safety net of $49.25 in place for the weeks ahead? Those frozen pizzas? 9 slices to a box, 2 boxes for $4….which one was the no brainer again?
I started planning my list. Breakfast: I could get 1 dozen eggs $1.49, a gallon of milk $3.49, a loaf of bread $.99, 5 bananas $1.95 and a whole pound of strawberries $2.00 for a total of $10.22. I could eat 2 eggs all but one day, have some toast, some fruit, or maybe even make french toast and put the fruit on top. That is assuming I already have maple syrup, butter, and maybe PB&J for my toast. If I had to add peanut butter and jelly, that would add $1.79 and $1.49, bringing the total to $13.50.
Sounds pretty healthy by my dietary standards overall. I have no restrictions, its all food I like. But then I started looking at some of these foods and their ingredients.
Buying the cheapest peanut butter would keep stretching my dollar at only $1.79 for 18 oz, but look at the ingredients. Oil…syrup… which adds to its shelf life and makes it smoother. For another $3.20 you get just peanuts and salt. Healthier choice- far more expensive.
For jelly, you can save a ton of your budget if you want to slop high fructose corn syrup on your toast. Decisions, decisions.
For lunch I came up with some pretty good stuff. As always, a good standby is the Hydrogenated Rapeseed Oil and High Fructose Corn Syrup sandwich, aka HRO&HFCS sandwich. Kinda catchy.
Another lunch choice would be deli ham- $2.99 for a pound, deli cheese- $3.49 for a pound, lettuce for .99, bag of chips for $2.00, and 8 yogurts for $1.99. I would also need another loaf of bread for .99. This would be white bread, not wheat or whole grain bread- that stuff is $2.49. So my lunch budget was $12.45 for the week. Hopefully the deli meat would produce 7 sandwiches, but if not there’s grilled cheese, and I decided to toss in 3 cans of tuna for $3.00 as a lunch safety net. That brought me to $15.45….assuming I had mayo already.
The only nutritional issue I could find with my lunch was the yogurt. If you want a healthier choice, organic with no artificial ingredients, it’s gonna cost ya.
So, that brings us to a total of $28.95, and although we’ve ingested a fair amount of artificial colors, flavors, oils and syrups, we are still doing okay budget-wise.
Dinner.. In my house, dinner tends to be the biggest meal I get all day. By this time if I were living on this budget, I would have eaten 2 decent sized meals, so hopefully I wouldn’t be ravenous by dinnertime, but nobody likes going to bed hungry, so let’s see what we can get for the final $20 in the budget.
Chicken breasts- $4.77 and I could make that go 3 small meals. Add potatoes- $2.50 and frozen vegetables each night for another $3.00. The other 4 nights I could do egg noodles $2.60 for 4 woohoo! A jar of sauce for each night for $4.00.
I had about $3.00 leftover, so figured I’d grab 3 cans of ravioli to have on standby. Check out the nutritional differences on ravioli.
Guess we are going with the xantam gum, carotenal recipe.
So, yes I could survive on a SNAP budget for myself. That’s one person, shopping for things they will eat. If you are a parent shopping on a budget for 4 people with different tastes and dietary restrictions, I could see it being far more challenging.
If I had limited resources and were dependent on this program to help my family survive, it would take some strategic planning to find the healthiest foods for the best prices. SNAP program or not, we’ve all had to choose the crap at one time or another because the healthy stuff was too much money, I think I have some in my fridge right now. I’m not saying that people surviving on SNAP deserve to buy organic, when the person busting their butt to make a paycheck and buy their food has to eat the junk because it’s all they can afford. My point is, its hard for everyone to find the healthy, cost effective foods if your wallet is tight. That sucks.
I’m not a nutrition expert, and I’m not a budget expert. I am just a person who grocery shops, sometimes mindlessly, with a kid who could potentially depend on this program someday if circumstances changed. I am a working woman who has bitched about people abusing this system, out of frustration at the taxes I pay and the weeks when I can’t afford to buy every single thing on my food wish list. I am a parent who thinks it sucks that we are making a choice to feed our kids the less healthy option, because we can’t afford better. I am a mom who is heartbroken at the thought of some moms and dads putting their kids to bed hungry.
So, I did this “challenge” to increase awareness, but what I ended up challenging was my own heart and opening it up just a little bit more. I challenge you to do the same..