Within the next week or so, I plan on taking the SNAP Challenge. The challenge is to experience what millions of low-income Americans do, by having to feed themselves on $4.50 a day, which is the average amount provided by the SNAP program, formerly known as Food Stamps. Numerous politicians and others have done this recently. And frankly, many of them come off as condescending, if not out of touch with reality. For example, Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida famously spent $1.08 for a single hard boiled egg and then bemoaned the fact that he didn’t have enough money. On the other end of the political spectrum, an aide to Texas Congressman Steve Stockman attempted to debunk the SNAP Challenge by going to a local store and buying a strange assortment of products, including Honeycomb cereal, root beer, and popsicles. There was no indication, however, that anyone actually tried to subsist for a week on this unusual diet. In short, there seems to be quite a bit of condescension on both sides of the aisle, as politicians and others attempt to make a political point by taking this challenge.
One recent example of someone taking the SNAP Challenge was Panera CEO Ron Shaich. I would say that he approached the challenge in good faith, but made some rather unwise buying choices. This New Hampshire blogger seems to have done a much better job of rising to the challenge. Under the rules of the challenge, I’m allowed $31.50 to purchase food for one week. During the week of the challenge, I’m allowed to eat only that food. (In some versions I’ve seen, the participant is allowed to use things such as spices that are on hand, but I don’t think I’ll take advantage of that option.) I’ll be doing this challenge by myself, rather than with my family, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it would take a bit more planning to make sure that the food we eat at different locations (school lunches, lunches at work, etc.) is all accounted for. With one person, the logistics necessary to make sure that I’m not “cheating” are simpler.
But more importantly, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge if four people were involved. With four people, we would be allowed $126 for a week’s worth of groceries. As conservative critics have pointed out, this is more than we normally spend on groceries most weeks. In other words, feeding a family of four with the “challenge” amount wouldn’t be a challenge at all, since it’s what we normally do. In the future, I might repeat the process and document how a family of four can feed itself for $126. But in the meantime, I think that would be the height of condescension.
On the other hand, without some economies of scale, it does seem to be a fair challenge to feed one person for $31.50 a week. In some ways, it’s not a fair challenge. For example, I already have most of the items I’ll be buying in the house. Therefore, I could actually feed myself at no additional cost. And since I bought most of those items in larger quantities, the cost was in many cases less than what I’ll be spending now. On the other hand, there are certainly people in a situation where they don’t have a single scrap of food in the house, and they need to get by on only what they are able to buy with very limited funds. Therefore, I will do my best to duplicate that experience.
Also, it is quite true that many people have a very limited choice of where they can shop. As I plan my menu, I realize that I can get a better price by driving to a store across town, waiting for a sale, or even ordering online. But for many people, that’s not an option. If you don’t have a car, then you need to shop at stores within walking distance, or on the bus line. Therefore, I’ll shop only at stores within walking distance of my house. If my schedule permits, I’ll do some of the shopping by walking to the store. But even if my schedule requires that I drive, I’ll shop only at stores where I could have walked, and buy only quantities that I could have carried home by walking or by taking the bus.
In my case, I’m fortunate enough to have one full-service supermarket within walking distance. Rainbow Foods is less than a mile away. On average, other local supermarkets are a little less expensive, but the prices are generally reasonable. Dollar Tree is somewhat closer. As the name implies, everything there is a dollar or less. It has a fairly good selection of groceries. Many, but certainly not all, of the prices there are lower than the supermarket. Dollar Tree has an interesting assortment. It often has products for which a dollar is an extremely good price. These tend to change on a daily basis. Other products are there on a regular basis, and would usually cost about the same price at another store. Some of these are packaged in unusual sizes to keep the price point at a dollar. For example, milk is sold in 20 ounce cartons, and eggs are sold in packages of 8 rather than the customary 12, all in an attempt to keep the price point at exactly a dollar. Walgreens is also within convenient walking distance and has a modest assortment of groceries. Many of these items are on sale any given week, often at very good prices. There are a few other stores within walking distance, but I think I can do all of my shopping at these three.
There are some restaurants within walking distance, and I would be well within my rights to spend my $31.50 at any of them. But I doubt that will be a wise use of limited funds, and probably won’t take advantage of them.
You’re probably wondering what political point I intend to make as a part of doing this challenge. I’ll let that come out naturally. You’re probably best off it you wait to criticize me until I actually make that political point, since it will probably disappoint you, whether you happen to be on the left or on the right. And more importantly, I don’t know exactly what that point is going to be. There have been those on both sides who have been quick to criticize, and I’m sure I will have some criticism to offer. But it’s really not fair for me to offer that criticism until I actually do it myself. After all, I might conclude that buying a hard boiled egg for $1.08 was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Or I might conclude that buying Honey Comb cereal and root beer was actually the best way to approach the challenge. I won’t know until I try it myself.
It’s clear that some advance planning is necessary. I don’t have a rigid shopping list, because prices might change, and there might be some errors in my planning. But here’s the rough draft of my shopping list, and the approximate amounts I have budgeted for each item. If one item goes over budget, I will, of course, have to eliminate that item, or make a reduction elsewhere.
SNAP Challenge Shopping List
Here’s my tentative shopping list, with estimated prices:
- Flour $3.00
- Oatmeal $1.00
- Sugar $2.00
- Eggs $1.00
- Ketchup $1.00
- Rice $1.00
- Margarine $1.00
$31.50 is a tight budget for food, and to produce filling and somewhat nutritious meals, I will need to do most of the cooking myself. The ingredients shown above should be sufficient to provide the majority of my calories for the week. The budget constraints also prevent a great deal of variety. For example, when shopping for the sugar, I would prefer to get three different items: White sugar, brown sugar, and pancake syrup. However, to keep within my budget and buy all three, I would need to buy fairly small portions, which probably wouldn’t give me enough to last the week. $2, on the other hand, should buy me a five pound bag of white sugar, which will probably last me more than a week.
Similarly, I would prefer to get a bottle of vegetable oil in addition to the margarine. However, there’s no way that I can buy both for a dollar, so I’ll need to settle for one. Of course, I assume that butter is out of my budget. It’s possible that I’ll need more oil. If the margarine starts going faster than expected, I’ll buy a bottle of oil later in the week. But to start, the margarine should take care of most of my oil needs. The sausages I plan to buy will also offer the bonus of free oil.
The flour presents a problem, since it really can’t be used without additional ingredients. In particular, it requires some sort of leavening agent, such as baking powder, baking soda, or yeast. Ideally, I’d like to buy all three. However, buying any of them would put me over my budget this week, even though what I buy would last me much longer than a week. For example, a can of baking powder (which would probably last me weeks or months) is about $1.50. I plan to solve this particular problem by buying so-called Self Rising Flour. It doesn’t cost much more than regular flour, but it comes pre-mixed with the baking powder, and some salt. (Salt is also out of my budget, since I don’t want to risk spending 50 extra cents for a pound of salt, even though it would last me months.) The self-rising flour should allow me to make pancakes and biscuits, which should take care of most of my bread needs.
I don’t have any specific plans for the oatmeal and rice, but they’re also a low-cost source of carbohydrates, and I’ll undoubtedly make use of them.
I didn’t originally plan on buying the ketchup. Instead, I was planning to buy some spaghetti sauce. However, when I looked at the labels of the two products, I realized that a dollar’s worth of ketchup provides about 800 calories, whereas a dollar’s worth of spaghetti sauce is only 300 calories. The ketchup seems to be the clear winner in value for the money, and it’s probably almost as versatile.
For my $1, I’ll get either 8 or 12 eggs. Walgreens frequently has a dozen large eggs on sale for 99 cents. If I’m lucky, they will be available this week. If not, Dollar Tree always has 8 medium eggs for $1, and I’ll get those
- Milk $2.00
- Cheese $2.00
I’ve budgeted $2 for milk, although I’m not certain how much I’ll be able to get for that price. Walgreen’s frequently has milk on sale for $1.99 a gallon. Therefore, if I’m lucky, I’ll have a full gallon to work with. The worst case scenario is that I’ll need to buy milk at Dollar Tree. They normally have 20 ounces for a dollar, and 40 ounces should be enough for cooking. More likely, they’ll have quarts of shelf-stable UHT milk available. They don’t always have it in stock, but they frequently have quarts or liters of milk from Parmalat or other brands.
- Hamburger or Chicken $3.00
- Sausage $2.00
- Hot Dogs $1.00
- Peanut Butter $1.00
- Beans $0.50
- Meat Spread $0.50
- Tuna $0.75
If I’m lucky enough to find it on sale, I’ll get a pound of hamburger. If not, I’ll get some kind of chicken. Ideally, I would like to get a little of both, but they generally aren’t available in small enough portions.
I plan to get two packages of breakfast sausages at Dollar Tree. In addition to eating them for breakfast, I can use them in other recipes. And I can use the grease in other recipes. A package of 8 hot dogs can also be eaten by themselves or in other recipes. For additional sources of protein, I plan on buying items such as canned beans, peanut butter, meat spread, or tuna, depending on prices.
If I wanted to economize further, I would probably buy dry beans and cook them myself. But that’s rather time consuming, and outside of my skill set.
- Bread $1.00
- Tortillas $1.00
- Pasta $1.00
I’m quite sure that I have enough carbohydrates with the flour, rice, and oatmeal. But there is just enough in the budget to add a little bit of variety with a loaf of bread, a small package of flour tortillas, and about a pound of spaghetti or other pasta.
- Canned Vegetable $1.50
As you can see, I’m skimping somewhat on vegetables, and I’m sure the dietitians are aghast. If there are any fresh vegetables on sale, I’ll probably see what’s available. If not, I’ll get about three cans of vegetables, such as green beans, peas, carrots, corn, or sweet potatoes. This would allow me about a half can of vegetables per day. I can eat them alone or in other dishes.
- Coffee $1.00
- Drink Mix $1.00
I am budgeting a dollar for the luxury of coffee. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a necessity. However, I will have to skimp to stay in budget. Normally, I would purchase an 10.5 ounce can of Master Chef Coffee at Wal-Mart
, where it is routinely available for $2.
It’s more than adequate, and that can would last me more than a week. Unfortunately, there is no Wal-Mart
within walking distance, and the equivalent cheap coffee would be almost $4 at the supermarket. Therefore, I’ll need to buy one of the 7 ounce packages of Coffee at Dollar Tree. I usually keep one of these in the house in case of emergency, but they’re not particularly good. I think these generic packages of coffee are the “transition” between blends. When the coffee factory switches from one blend to another, there’s still flavoring from the last one in the machine. Until the machine gets cleaned out, the coffee goes in bags that wind up at Dollar Tree. If I’m careful, 7 ounces should last me a week, but there’s always a chance that I’ll need to buy a second package.
There’s not much money left over for other beverages, other than water. But I’ll buy a few envelopes of Kool-Aid, and I can make use of my excess sugar.
- CONVENIENCE FOOD
- Burrito $0.50
- Ramen Noodle $1.00
I understand that there might be situations where I need a convenience food. If I have money to spare, I might buy a TV dinner for a dollar. But I’ll probably get one frozen burrito, and a few packages of Ramen Noodles for emergencies.
- TOTAL $30.75
Yes, I have a kitchen
Undoubtedly, some skeptics will be quick to point out that I have a kitchen full of modern conveniences. And they have a very valid point. I own, and plan to use, a stove, an oven, a refrigerator, a freezer, a microwave oven, a toaster, an electric coffee maker, and probably other modern conveniences that I haven’t given a thought to. And I fully realize that this gives me an advantage that some might consider unfair. For example, someone with 50 cents to buy a can of beans wouldn’t be in a very good position if they didn’t own a can opener. I’ll be using many devices that didn’t exist a hundred years ago, and that many people in the world would rightly perceive as luxuries. And this is probably a fair criticism.
But, on the other hand, most Americans (but yes, certainly not all) have access to these same luxuries. I can’t duplicate every hardship faced by every possible person. And I certainly can’t duplicate other hardships of poverty. This particular challenge is to subsist on a particular food budget. I do have resources that I will use to meet that challenge. If you have other challenges you wish me to consider, please let me know what they are and I’ll see if I can give them a fair try. But for now, I’m concentrating on one thing, and that’s feeding myself for a week for $31.50.
In a few days, I’ll do my shopping for the week and begin this challenge.