Food Stamp Challenge

After a long hiatus from the blog, we’re back! We’ve decided to take up the food stamp challenge, and what better way to learn and share the experience than to blog about it? Plus, going public will serve as excellent commitment device.

What is it?

In a food stamp challenge, a family not on food stamps attempts to limit their food expenditures to be less than or equal to food stamp benefits.

Food stamp challenges have gotten so popular that Wikipedia now calls them a ‘trend’. There’s even a map of challenges taken and a documentary.

Why do it?

It’s a hands-on way of learning about the challenges of living on food stamps. Personally, I’ve always thought that our diet is relatively healthy, cheap and tasty. When we debate over whether to buy a luxurious ingredient or whether to eat out at a nice restaurant, we always reassure ourselves that we’re economical the rest of the time, so it’s okay to indulge once in awhile. Now it’s time to put our money where our mouth is: when shorn of luxuries, can we still eat healthy, cheap and tasty?

Show me the numbers

Budget
$367
Time period
1 month, Mar 22 – Apr 22

$367 is the maximum monthly SNAP benefit allotted by the USDA for a two-person household. While other food stamp challenges sometimes use the average food stamp benefit, that’s generally too low. Many food stamp recipients supplement their benefits with out-of-pocket cash, so taking the average as a guideline isn’t that reasonable. Another possible guideline is the Thrifty Food Plan, the least cost USDA food plan. The average cost of the TFP was estimated to be $381.90 for January, so I think using the $367 allotment is right in line with the TFP.

Since SNAP benefits are distributed on a monthly basis, we felt the shortest reasonable time period was one month (many other food stamp challenges are only for a week). We would probably learn the most by doing it for a much longer period of time, like six months or a year, but I’m not ready to sacrifice one of the most important aspects of my lifestyle for such a long time.

Caveats

There are many foodstuffs we already had before we started the challenge, and we’ll certainly be using some of them over the month. So, in a sense, we’re cheating. On the other hand, we also have a dog (added to the household after we stopped blogging) for whom we cook. In terms of food, at least, she’s an additional individual in the household for whom we don’t have an allowance in the budget. But she’s not really like a child, because I effectively have complete control over where, when, what and how much she eats.

Our purpose in taking the challenge is not to self-impose the real constraints that a low-income family may face. Those constraints are many, and go far beyond food expenditures. As one of my colleagues pointed out, to be ‘like’ a food stamp participant, I would have to ditch my car and wipe my mind of all cooking and food knowledge. I may also have to throw out all my kitchenware, find three part-time jobs that leave me exhausted and with no time, and move to an apartment without a real kitchen or a full-size fridge.

I’m not interested in doing any of that. Our purpose in taking the challenge is to test our assumptions about how cheap we can push our diet. How far do we have to deviate from our preferred diet to stay on budget? I believe we won’t have to make any major changes. Will I be right? Or will I have to go hungry for the last couple of days of month and live on cereal? Stay tuned for the next month to find out!

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13 Responses to Food Stamp Challenge

  1. Pingback: Baseline | extra curricula

  2. I’m impressed that you’re doing this for a whole month! Mind if I share your blog with our Food Stamp Challenge takers next week? 🙂
    http://www.uwkc.org/hunger

    • Clara says:

      Go ahead! In some ways, I think doing it for a month is easier than doing it for a week. When you’re buying for a month, you can buy in bulk, which is one of the best ways to save to money.

  3. Pingback: Grocery Trip #1 | extra curricula

  4. Michele Hays says:

    Just found your blog via Parke Wilde’s US Food Policy. I’ve always thought the Food Stamp Challenge should be a month and not a week, in part because one tends to buy bulk staples monthly. I’ve added you to my reader and look forward to seeing how you do!

    In case you need some help as your money runs low, my own blog is focused on the food desert: I have a collection of recipes that use only shelf-stable ingredients (many of which are cheap) There’s a recipe index here: http://quipstravailsandbraisedoxtails.blogspot.com/p/recipe-index.html (the blog is currently hosted at ChicagoNow.com, but the bulk of my recipes are here)

    • Clara says:

      Thanks! You have a great selection of recipes in your food desert collection – I’m really impressed with how international the recipes are (love the Chinese ones). I think I’m going to try the empanada or samosa ones (I have a real weakness for meat pasty types).

      Also – totally agree with you about buying in bulk. I feel like that’s one of the top three ways to save money on food, but obviously it only makes sense for a longer Challenge. My boyfriend and I talked about doing a year-long Challenge briefly – that would get rid most of the ‘cheating’, and would present more realistic constraints – but we weren’t interested in sacrificing our occasional splurges for the sake of an experiment.

      • Michele Hays says:

        Thanks so much – I do love exploring the world when I cook!

        I think a month gives you time to buy stuff like a “family size” can of oatmeal, etc, but I don’t know that a year is going to give you any better information about what it is really like – I think you’d wind up rotating through your bulk items enough so it wouldn’t matter.

        Another resource – the USDA has a whole searchable database of recipes on their website specifcally for SNAP families http://recipefinder.nal.usda.gov/ I’ve always wanted to do a challenge myself – but since there’s more than one other person in my family to convince, I don’t think it will happen anytime soon.

  5. Jessica says:

    I’m sure Hide wouldn’t mind living off of cereal 😉

    • Clara says:

      Too true. Maybe I should say, it’s a fight to the end – to stop Hide from eating only pb&j sandwiches and cereal.

  6. A Lady says:

    Eh, plenty of people using SNAP benefits have just one job and a fair portion know how to cook (and do some cooking at home) and have kitchens. Since lots of people end up using the benefits because of income reduction/job loss, they also have stuff lying around in the old pantry too. This mythical multijob kitchenless carless ingredientless SNAP user is a compelling emotional fixture in these challenges, but not that tethered to the reality of the participants. I.e., the ones with no kitchen and/or car tend to not have jobs, while those with jobs are more likely to have both a kitchen and even own their own home in some cases (although demographic data is a big pain to come by at that level, I’m making guesses based on the distribution of benefits and regional characteristics).

    There are lots of reasons poor and even middle-income people don’t prepare food at home all that much, and it is worth noting that SNAP benefits are a major chunk of food spending in the USA, but spinning a fable about who’s using the benefits is not helpful at all.

    I am also here from Parke Wilde’s blog because that dude is awesome, even if he and I diverge wildly on food policy, he’s actually in it and a wonderful resource.

    • Clara says:

      Point well taken. It would be nice to see some solid analysis of the human and physical capital available to SNAP participants, relative to their SNAP benefits. Anecdotes are nice, but data would be great too. To be honest, I don’t have a clear picture of what SNAP participants look like at all, particularly relative to their benefits. Most data summaries I’ve seen (e.g., the USDA reports) have been unidimensional (let’s look at race, then gender, then household composition, then age – all separately) and focused on sociodemographics (rather than human and physical capital, like cooking knowledge or kitchen functionality). I think there’s great mileage to be had out of analysis which is far more multidimensional and which includes variables more to the point.

      I’d also like to point out that our Challenge budget is the max SNAP benefit, for which only the lowest income participants are eligible. If any of the participants meet the ’emotional fixture’ profile, these would be it. Participants who receive smaller SNAP benefits are expected (in some sense) to supplement SNAP benefits in order to obtain food.

      • Michele Hays says:

        I think also, the point of this kind of challenge is to find out what COULD be done.

        SNAP is not intended to be a sole source of food – the S stands for “supplemental.” I do love challenges, and if I did it, I’d want to try it with a bare cupboard – but I agree with A Lady that this isn’t necessarily representative of a real SNAP user.

        Even the lowest-income participants may have resources: TANF, WIC, and subsidized housing – so some expendable income may be used for food. It is awfully complicated to figure out all the socioeconomic variables. Whether these resources offer any wiggle room for the food budget or not is another question.

        But, basically, the reason to try out these challenges is to explore possibilities so there’s a roadmap for people who might need it. If nothing else, those of us who don’t qualify for SNAP aren’t operating under the same stress level, and frequently we have access to education and other resources. Someone once pointed out to me that one reason why SNAP recipients may be reluctant to cook new things is that a failed recipe means you either have to eat something bad, or you have to throw it out and go hungry. I can see where a project like this might be helpful to someone in that situation.

      • Michele Hays says:

        I think also, the point of this kind of challenge is to find out what COULD be done.

        SNAP is not intended to be a sole source of food – the S stands for “supplemental.” I do love challenges, and if I did it, I’d want to try it with a bare cupboard just to see how it would work out – but I agree with A Lady that it isn’t necessarily representative of a “real” SNAP user.

        Even the lowest-income participants may have resources: TANF, WIC, and subsidized housing – so some expendable income may be used for food. It is awfully complicated to figure out all the socioeconomic variables. Whether these resources offer any wiggle room for the food budget or not is another question.

        But, basically, the reason to try out these challenges is to explore possibilities so there’s a roadmap for people who might need it. If nothing else, those of us who don’t qualify for SNAP aren’t operating under the same stress level, and frequently we have access to education and other resources that may be helpful. Someone once pointed out to me that one reason why SNAP recipients may be reluctant to cook new things is that a failed recipe means you either have to eat something bad, or you have to throw it out and go hungry. I can see where a project like this might be helpful to someone who needs some direction and support.

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