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.
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
- 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.
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!