SNAP Challenge: What's it like to live on food stamps?

By Naomi Stern

What’s it like to live on food stamps? For two weeks, I decided to find out.

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This September I completed a “SNAP Challenge”, using the federal government’s financial aid for food purchases (commonly known as food stamps). . This comes out to $6.40 a day, for a total of $96 over two weeks.

I started planning for this challenge 6 months ahead of time, when I first got inspired to raise awareness about food insecurity.

At the same time I was planning for this budget challenge, I was getting immersed in the world of food waste. It’s a broken system when on one hand there are whole communities who go hungry and on the other hand Americans waste 40% of all produce grown here.

When I learned about “Shelf September” -- an effort to reduce our waste by spending a month eating all the things in our pantries -- I realized I had found a great combo!

After initial research and intention setting, it was time to start! I gave myself $48 for a week, made a meal plan, and decided I needed to have coffee no matter what.

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The first week I spent $27 shopping at Trader Joes and using up my pantry items (including glorious coffee and half and half that I managed to stretch most of the week).

I noticed an immediate difference in my cooking. All of a sudden, all food was precious, every calorie was extra important and not to be wasted. I also was much more strategic than usual about how to use up every last ingredient I had in my fridge/pantry in order to make meals that felt robust.

I also noticed how expensive fresh fruits and vegetables are. When it came to meal planning, it was tricky to think about needing to reduce meat or gluten and having enough money to make meals that would fill me up. Since I work at a farm, I was able to harvest vegetables to supplement what I could purchase. To me, this might mimic how someone on SNAP might be able to get food from other sources as well, such as family or a restaurant where they are employed.

The biggest difference for me was the time it took to prepare all of my meals. Having to plan ahead for an entire week meant thinking very carefully about what I would eat and when, since I did not want to run out of food. With this budget, I couldn’t fall back on eating lunch out occasionally or doing a second grocery shop mid week.

My greatest successes from week 1 were:

-Making zucchini bread from only ingredients I already had -- and a huge oversized zucchini gifted by a friend. I ate half and froze the other half for future yummy snacks

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-Using up all my frozen blueberries in my oatmeal (making oatmeal for breakfast every morning much more enjoyable)

-Lots of lentils and rice for filling meals

Heading into week two, I was a little nervous since I had used up most of my pantry items and would be relying more on the budget. I was able to only spend $27 for my second grocery trip.

In order to qualify for SNAP as a 1 member household, the monthly income in California must be below $1,307. This blew me away as someone who lives in the Bay Area; this is well below what seems like a livable wage. This got me thinking about other things that might make the SNAP budget harder such as work hours, supporting children, access to grocery stores, disabilities, legal status, mental health... the list goes on. As hard as it is for me to make sure I get fed on this budget I can see how much harder it would be for people with different backgrounds than myself.

It was a privilege to be able to step outside of my day to day and reduce my food budget. A challenge like this isn’t accessible for everyone. It was important for me to take this opportunity to spread the word and start more conversations about food justice.

My takeaways from week 2 were:

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-It is really hard not having flexibility about what to eat. Even if I was craving something else there weren’t other options.

-Eggs were my favorite protein source

-Coffee doesn’t taste as good without half and half

The SNAP challenge might not be perfect but it did a good job for me of revealing my own challenges around food budgeting and food waste. I was amazed with how much lower my waste was during the 2 weeks. It was also insightful to spend much more time cooking than I normally do and get much more creative with leftovers than before.

Stepping into the shoes of someone with SNAP was more insightful than I realized it would be going into it. I hope to incorporate these takeaways into my work with food systems education. I wanted to take a step back and get into the mindset of these students and their families.

I work with many students who are from high-need schools whose families qualify to receive free or reduced cost school lunches. There are 13.1 million households in the US with children that are considered food insecure. The USDA defines food insecurity as: “lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle for all family members”.

When they come to the farm, we teach these students about healthy eating and how food is grown. We harvest produce and then show them how to make snacks they could make at home. They leave inspired to take care of their environment, try new fruits and vegetables, and with a deeper understanding of how their food system works.

There are lots of ways to help support food inequality. Some of those include funding organizations like Feed America which supports food aid programs. Others include getting involved with the conversation of food justice in your local communities.

Naomi Stern has been The HEAL Project’s Programs Manager since 2016. Naomi began teaching as an undergraduate at U.C. Santa Cruz. After receiving her degree in Environmental Studies, she was a Programs Instructor for The Youth Garden Project. She is dedicated to building programs that teach students about healthy food systems.