My SNAP Challenge: In Which I Live on a Food Stamps Budget for a Week, Pt. 1

The peanut butter tasted exactly, almost sickeningly, like candy. The rice and beans tasted like nothing at all.

More than just occasionally, during my days at work, I would take a mental inventory of what food remained for the week: three bananas, a dwindling Tupperware container of rice and beans, plenty of plain non-fat yogurt. If this were grief, I’d be stuck in anger and bargaining: my stomach madly growling, a lesser version of myself contemplating cheating just for a second cup of coffee.

My friend and colleague at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, LaTonya Reed, held a SNAP Challenge the week of November 4th, to highlight both the automatic cuts to SNAP that went into effect November 1st and the substantial-to-severe cuts that will likely be coming once Congress takes up the Farm Bill again. Since I’ve been edging my way into doing more work on both public benefits and child food insecurity issues in Virginia, I agreed to participate.

SNAP is an acronym for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program–the federal program more commonly known as “food stamps,” through which individuals and families under a certain income level receive monetary assistance (through an EBT card, like a pre-loaded bank card) specifically for food needs, with quite a few restrictions on its use even within that category. A “SNAP Challenge” is an advocacy tool that asks people who don’t need such help to live for a short period of time on a food budget equivalent to what they would receive if they did–in my case, as an individual, about $32/week, or $4.50/day.

Or about $1.40 per meal.


My 5 days’ worth of groceries = $23.00. I didn’t have enough for fresh produce.

The exercise isn’t meant to truly approximate the conditions under which SNAP recipients live. After all, I was participating knowing full well that it would all end in a week. And though a great number of current SNAP recipients were either working a year ago, or will likely be working within the next year, many families are immersed in the day-to-day struggle of poverty and don’t have the luxury of such a short-term view. Likewise, I not only have transportation at my disposal to shop at whatever stores I choose, I have the time it takes to do so. I also don’t have the pressure of knowing that any extra money I spend on food needs is necessarily a choice to take money away from other vital needs: rent, utilities, or health or childcare expenses. And I don’t deal with the toxic effects of poverty in my daily life, compounding the crisis.

These are just a few examples, but I should make clear–completing this exercise isn’t about appropriating someone’s struggle to allow me to speak from their experience–it is more so an opportunity to offer a small piece of solidarity, and a departure point from which I hope to share a personal view on why we need a robust SNAP program. It’s also a way for people of privilege to help dispel many of the myths and bias around the program by taking a stand and sharing facts and experiences.

It’s fair to say that I went into this challenge a bit of a cynic–after all, I’d been researching and writing about this particular issue for a good number of months, and working on child poverty issues generally for over 5 years now. What could adhering to a typical SNAP budget for a week tell me about families in need that I wasn’t already shouting from the rooftops? What new could I say after this experience that I don’t already know how to articulate?

Turns out, I had–and still have–a lot to learn. I took notes throughout the week, and plotted out some ideas organized into a few categories: privilege, health, practicality and social effects, which I’ll save for Part Two.

Until then, think about what your grocery list would be if you had only $32 for the week, and you weren’t just shopping to “survive the week,” but rather you were trying to eat healthfully on that amount of money over the long-term. Then share your list in the comments.

4 thoughts on “My SNAP Challenge: In Which I Live on a Food Stamps Budget for a Week, Pt. 1

  1. how much $ could you spend on fruits and vegetables if you did not buy the ground beef and turkey breast? did you consider buying generic rice or dried beans and plain cheese? i think a lot of our food-cost problems are caused by buying “packaged goods” rather than foods that are less processed. i will take the challenge and give an update…

    • I definitely could have made different choices, and I’ll talk about this in a subsequent post. I’m not sure there’s a perfect list, especially just starting out. Because of a health condition, I needed a high protein diet, and everything I bought was among the cheapest of its kind and/or on sale. For me–and this is different for many people–the challenge isn’t just simply about stretching a budget down to survival mode levels, but factoring in people’s human choices, and to a certain extent, thinking about food as more than just sustenance that’s to be endured. It’s a fair point you make, but in future posts I also want to talk about choices — next post on privilege is actually going to be called “The freedom to be oblivious about my choices” Thanks for commenting!

  2. Pingback: WHERE’S THE OUTRAGE? - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

  3. $32 goes fast, and that full amount does not necessarily multiply for more family members. I cannot think about how hard it would be to be limited in our food budget. The choices we would have to change, especially since I have to pack up to 5 lunches a day would severely increase the amount of time I had to spend cooking,and working full time with 3 kids in preschool/elementary school doesn’t leave a lot of time. I would love to challenge others in our community to do this for a week, especially those that hold on to the idea that people eat steak and lobster on SNAP.

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