Imagine going into a supermarket knowing that you have only $30 for a week’s worth of food. You make your way along the aisles carefully comparing prices, rejecting canned beans for the cheaper dried ones, and substituting chicken drumsticks for pricey boneless breasts. You skip over all extras like coffee and soda without a second glance. Most of all, you fret over the high prices in the produce aisle and wonder if you’ll have to get through the week with no fruit and veggies at all.
This scenario is an ongoing reality for many Americans who live on SNAP, the food aid program formerly known as food stamps. And, for one week, it was also a reality for many people who normally have no budget problems at all, including politicians, bloggers, celebrities, and a corporate CEO. They deliberately chose to live for a week on a SNAP budget to call attention to the problems of people receiving food aid.
The Food Stamp Challenge, or SNAP Challenge, gained national attention in 2007 when four members of Congress – Representatives James McGovern, Jo Ann Emerson, Jan Schakowsky, and Tim Ryan – spent a week on a food stamp budget and blogged about the experience. Their goal was to encourage Congress to increase food stamp benefits. Since then, hundreds more people have taken the SNAP Challenge to spread awareness about SNAP and the difficulties of eating on a budget.
Rules of the SNAP Challenge
The main idea behind the SNAP Challenge is simple: Eat for one week on a SNAP budget. The hunger-relief organization Foodshare proposes a budget of $4.15 per person, per day, which it says is the “average daily allowance” for SNAP beneficiaries.
However, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), an advocacy group, recommends a more specific approach. It says to base your budget on the average monthly benefit per person for your state, which you can find on the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 2014, the monthly benefit ranged from $105 per month, or $3.50 per day, in Minnesota and New Hampshire to $225 per month, or $7.50 per day, in Hawaii.
Whatever budget you choose, it has to cover all your food and drink for the week. Specifically, this means the following:
- Track Your Spending. Keep track of how much you spend on groceries throughout the week. If you eat out at all during the week, the money you spend on that must also come out of your SNAP budget.
- Don’t Shop Your Pantry. According to Foodshare’s rules, any food you bought before starting the Challenge is off-limits. FRAC, by contrast, says it’s okay to eat food you already have at home, but you must take money out of your budget to pay for it.
- Don’t Take Freebies. Accepting free food from family, friends, or coworkers isn’t allowed, since freebies aren’t always available to people living on SNAP. That means you can’t let your friend treat you at Starbucks or take a doughnut at a workplace meeting. If you do accept any free food, FRAC’s rules say you should deduct money from your budget for that as well.
A final rule, proposed by both Foodshare and FRAC, is to share your experiences as you take part in the Challenge. Past participants have used Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to post regular updates on their progress throughout the week. Some particularly well-known individuals and organizations have spread the word through the mainstream media as well, discussing their experience on television and writing columns for newspapers.
Stories From the SNAP Challenge
Since 2007, many people have taken part in the SNAP challenge and have written or spoken to the media about their experiences. The best-known participants include Newark mayor Corey Booker, who is now a U.S. senator; Ron Shaich, the CEO of the Panera Bread restaurant chain; and actress Gwyneth Paltrow. Various other politicians, bloggers, and activists have taken the challenge too.
Like those who have taken the Live the Wage Challenge – trying to live for a week on minimum wage – participants in the SNAP Challenge had differing experiences. Some participants took it on their own, while others got family members to join them. Some made it through the whole week on a SNAP budget, while others quit partway through. Nearly everyone who took the challenge, however, considered it a valuable learning experience.
Although sticking to a SNAP budget was harder for some participants than for others, nearly all of them found the experience challenging in some ways. A few particular problems come up repeatedly in accounts of the challenge:
- Shopping on a Budget. Many challenge participants had trouble figuring out how to fill their shopping baskets on a shoestring budget. They describe the struggle of constantly adding up prices in their heads as they walked around the store, putting items back on the shelves as they realized they didn’t have enough money for them. CEO Ron Shaich, who posted about the challenge on LinkedIn, describes “the embarrassment of having to leave items at the register” and “the diligence and ongoing calculation required to constantly prioritize and rank every purchase.” Writing for the Huffington Post, Representative Barbara Lee says she “read the back of every box” of tuna-noodle casserole mix, looking for one that didn’t call for milk or butter – two ingredients that wouldn’t fit into her budget.
- Finding Healthy Options. While all the participants eventually managed to buy groceries for the week, nearly all of them said the foods that ended up in their baskets were less healthful than what they’d normally buy. Many of them mention the difficulty of buying produce on a budget, noting that fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive and canned ones tend to be high in sugar or salt. Meat was another item that posed a particular challenge for participants – Representative Jim McGovern tells The Washington Post he deliberately chose high-fat hamburger meat because it was the cheapest kind, even though he normally buys lean meat on account of his high cholesterol. However, not everyone had this experience. Mary Elizabeth Williams, a staff writer for Salon, says the home-cooked meals she made with her two daughters were probably “a more healthy, balanced and pleasurable diet” than the convenience foods eaten by many families “with a whole lot more to spend.”
- Feeding Kids. While Williams says her two daughters voluntarily signed up for the SNAP challenge, they were the exception. McGovern says he didn’t ask his five-year-old and nine-year-old to take part because “I’m lucky when they eat anything.” Lee recalls that back when she depended on public assistance in real life as a young, single mother, she had to choose foods that her sons were willing to eat: “I would have bought ground beef and white bread for them, not yams, and certainly not tuna.” Maria Cimini, a SNAP Outreach Coordinator at the University of Rhode Island, wonders whether, if she were a mom on SNAP, she would dare to serve her kids anything she wasn’t certain they would like.
- Hunger Pangs. For some of the challenge participants, the groceries they could afford on a SNAP budget just weren’t enough to satisfy their hunger. Jamison Doran, a Huffington Post writer, says she was constantly hungry during her challenge week because “Everything I ate was garbage and just filled with sugar and empty calories.” Shaich, in a summary of his challenge written for CNN, says the carb-heavy meals he ate left him “not quite full – but enough to get by,” and he was always “laser-focused on how much food was left in the fridge.” And Representative Mark Pocan, who joined Representative Lee during her challenge week, says on her webpage that right after finishing a lunch of a veggie burger and an orange, he immediately felt hungry again.
- Lack of Variety. Even those who didn’t feel actual hunger pangs often found themselves tiring of the same foods day after day. Cimini says she “desperately miss[ed] variety” after five straight days alternating between rice and beans and ramen noodles with broccoli. Williams says her daughters “pined for regular old cereal instead of oatmeal or yogurt again” for breakfast. McGovern describes looking longingly at a roast beef sandwich in a lunch meeting when he was eating lentils out of a plastic container, and Gwyneth Paltrow says she “personally broke” after four days of meatless meals and gave in to a plate of chicken and fresh veggies – plus half a bag of black licorice.
- Lack of Convenience. For many participants, the biggest problem wasn’t the food they had to eat during the challenge, it was the inconvenience of preparing it. Cimini says she missed being unable to stop for coffee on the way to work or pick up some takeout on days she had to work late. Writing on LinkedIn, Corey Booker says “My crazy schedule required that I prepare all of my food in the morning to enable me to eat on the go.” Williams, on the other hand, sees the extra effort involved in preparing her meals for the challenge as a good thing, asking, “Why shouldn’t nourishing yourself take a little thought and work?”
- Caffeine Withdrawal. Several participants, including Booker, McGovern, and Shaich, say they struggled with caffeine withdrawal during the challenge because they couldn’t spare money from their budgets for coffee or cola. Booker writes on LinkedIn that he “hit the wall with caffeine withdrawal” on day four of the challenge, suffering a “terrible headache” and feeling sluggish. Shaich, in an account of his challenge for CNN, says giving up coffee left him “listless and grumpy.” Cimini, by contrast, was able to avoid these symptoms – but only because she chose to “sacrifice nutrition by omitting fresh fruit for coffee.”
- Social Isolation. One surprising problem for many participants was how socially isolating it is to eat on a strict budget when those around you aren’t. McGovern says he had to “just drink tap water” at a fundraising dinner, and Shaich says he “canceled two scheduled dinners, knowing they were way beyond my budget.” Cimini says after a day “spent running errands with a friend,” she was unable to join her friend for dinner as she normally would, and she missed her Sunday morning breakfast out with her sister.
Lessons From the SNAP Challenge
While challenge participants learned a lot about how difficult it is to eat on a SNAP budget, they also picked up some valuable lessons about what can make it easier. Here are a few techniques that participants mention:
- Cooking From Scratch. A SNAP budget doesn’t leave room for pricey convenience foods, so all the challenge participants had to cook their meals from scratch. Williams says that when she mentioned the challenge to a hospital dietician she met at a party, the other woman’s comment was, “If you can cook, you’ll be fine” – and as predicted, she made it through the week with few problems. However, some participants found that simply knowing how to cook wasn’t enough. Doran felt hungry most of the time, even though she says in her Huffington Post article that she “love[s] to cook,” and Paltrow gave up on day four even after making “delicious, budget-conscious recipes” on days one through three.
- Eating Less Meat. Meat is one of the priciest items at the grocery store. Most challenge participants had to eat at least some meatless meals to get through the week, such as McGovern’s lentils and Cimini’s ramen noodles with broccoli. Paltrow notes that “vegetarian staples like dried beans and rice go a long way,” and these staples played a fairly large role in most participants’ diets. By contrast, Doran, who relied on eggs, ham hocks, ground turkey, and “some sort of ‘ham’ product” for her protein, struggled more with hunger than most other participants.
- Drinking Water. With so little to spend on food, most participants quickly concluded they couldn’t afford to waste any money on drinks like soda or coffee. Instead, they stuck to free tap water. The only ones who missed their usual drinks much were the coffee drinkers, and that was mostly because of the lack of caffeine.
Another lesson that participants say they learned from the challenge has less to do with food and more to do with attitude. Many participants say that eating on a SNAP budget for just one week made them more sympathetic to those who have to do it on a day-to-day basis.
Doran says she can’t imagine how anyone manages to survive on SNAP over the long term, and Williams says, “I don’t ever want to forget that feeling I had yesterday of wanting to buy an avocado, and being just two cents short.” Cimini says a week of limited menus was “a small price to pay to skim the surface of how other people live all the time,” and she hopes it will make her better at her jobs in food stamp outreach and as a state legislator.
At the same time, the challenge made participants feel grateful for the foods they enjoy every day without thinking about it. They gained a new appreciation for little things like a cup of coffee, a meal out with friends, or even just a bowl of cereal.
Overall, the experience made participants even more determined to try and fix the problem of food insecurity in America in whatever way they can. Paltrow urges people to donate to food banks, but she also stresses the need for a “heavy revision” of a food system that prices healthy food out of so many people’s budgets. Shaich says that CEOs like himself “must be part of the solution” and describes his development of Panera Cares community cafes to help feed those in need. And politicians like Booker, Lee, and McGovern say they want to work harder at promoting legislation to increase food aid.
Problems With the SNAP Challenge
Enlightening as the challenge was for participants, it’s far from perfect as a way to learn what life on SNAP is really like. Observers commenting on the challenge participants’ pages pointed out several flaws in the way the challenge is structured that make it less realistic.
- Too Short-Term. Real SNAP recipients, commenting on the challenge in the Huffington Post, point out that participants know going into it that it’s going to be over in a week. This is far different from dealing with food insecurity on a day-to-day basis. A week isn’t enough to experience the long-term damage that eating too little, or eating an unhealthy diet, does to your body, or the mental and emotional stress of worrying about where your next meal – or worse, your kids’ next meal – is coming from.
- No Bulk Buying. In some ways, however, the fact that the challenge only lasts a week actually makes it more difficult. Alli Sosna, the founder of a nonprofit called MicroGreens that educates people about eating on a budget, writes that the single most important way for SNAP recipients to stretch their dollars is to buy in bulk. However, when you have only a week’s worth of SNAP benefits to spend, it isn’t practical to stock up on a 15-pound bag of rice or a five-pound bag of carrots – it would take up too much of the budget, and it’s way more than you need for the week.
- No Sale Shopping. Another key strategy for controlling your grocery spending is to shop sales. For instance, instead of buying cheese at $5 per pound, you can wait until it goes on sale for $2 per pound and then stock up. If you shop this way routinely, you can have a refrigerator and pantry stocked almost entirely with sale-bought items. Unfortunately, the rules of the challenge don’t allow you to use any of that sale-priced food. You have to go out and buy a week’s worth of groceries all at once, paying full price for anything that doesn’t happen to be on sale that week.
- No Gardening. Having a home vegetable garden is another great strategy for lowering your food bill, and in real life, you’re allowed to use SNAP benefits to buy seeds and plants for your garden. However, a single week obviously isn’t long enough to plant, grow, and harvest homegrown produce. So this is another money-saving strategy that’s off-limits because of the way the challenge is designed.
- Inaccurate Budget. The budget for the SNAP challenge is based on the average weekly benefit for your state. However, as the Fact Checker column in The Washington Post points out, the average SNAP recipient is receiving benefits to “supplement” the grocery budget, not cover the whole cost. SNAP benefits are doled out on a sliding scale based on how much money the recipients earn, so people with no income at all get the maximum amount, which the USDA puts at $194 for a single person. So if SNAP really were your only source of money for food, you could expect to get about $6.45 per day in benefits, not the $4.15 a day the challenge provides. On the other hand, as Lee points out, many SNAP recipients do rely on the benefits to pay their entire grocery bill, even if they have other sources of income, because they have to stretch their earnings to cover all their other expenses.
FRAC‘s rules for the challenge include a loophole that lets you get around many of these problems. According to these rules, you can eat food from your pantry, including bulk-purchased and sale-priced foods, as long as you take money out of the budget to pay for it. If you take this rule to its extreme, you can take the challenge using only food from your pantry and not shopping specifically for the challenge at all.
I took this form of the challenge in 2014, calling it the Reverse SNAP Challenge because I was eating what I would normally eat but deducting the cost from a $4.50-per-day budget. Doing the challenge this way made bookkeeping more difficult, since I had to calculate how much I’d spend on each ingredient I used rather than just using a week’s worth of benefits to buy a week’s worth of groceries. However, the actual food part of the challenge was much easier. Because I could use everything in my fridge and pantry, I was able to eat a much more varied and healthful diet on my Reverse SNAP Challenge than most participants could on the standard challenge.
Commenters discussing the SNAP Challenge have a variety of reactions to it. Some dismiss it as a gimmick or publicity stunt that has little to do with reality. Others applaud the intention behind it, but still maintain that a week-long challenge isn’t enough to really understand the problem of food insecurity.
However, the most interesting responses come from the challenge participants themselves. They acknowledge that the challenge has its limitations, but they still say it made them more sympathetic to the problems facing SNAP recipients, more appreciative of the food they eat every day, and more determined to address the problem of food insecurity however they can. That seems like enough to make the experience worthwhile.
Have you ever relied on food stamps or SNAP? Do you think you could do it today?