A week at $35

Last Monday, I started the Food Stamp Challenge – an experiment to try to live on the average food stamp (or SNAP) benefit of $35 a week. Now it’s Sunday. How did things turn out?

The experience was very, very stressful at the beginning of the week when I was inexperienced and anxious about what a day’s worth of food was likely to cost. By this time, I have a clearer idea of what I can get away with eating, so I’m less worried – but I’m also pretty sick of counting pennies.

On the other hand, I did come in under the $35 limit – by the end of the day, I expect my food for the past week will have cost $29.32. (But who’s counting? 😉 Millions of people who have to go right on living like this, that’s who.) So you can say I was successful – but what did being successful require?

First, I relied on cooked-from-scratch food. I like to cook, I have enough free time to cook, and I’m in good health and have the energy to cook, so that wasn’t a burden – for me. With a job or two plus kids to care for plus health problems? Could look very different. Second, I had pay a lot of attention to what I was planning to eat and what it would cost. Third, I ate less meat than usual – over the course of the week, about four ounces (a very little more than 110 grams) of chicken and two ounces each of cod, pork, and hamburger.  And finally, I ate less food of any kind than usual – there’s a pound, or not quite half a kilo, less of me than there was a week ago.

(Could I have had more meat and more food? To some extent, one or the other. Not both. Meat becomes shockingly expensive when you’re trying to keep your food costs under $5 a day – I would have had to eat even less overall to afford the amount of meat I usually eat. And I could have traded off meat and milk and cheese and vegetables for a lot more bread and rice. But I was also trying to come up with a reasonably healthy diet.)

What did this approximation to a healthy diet look like? Lots of beans. Plenty of vegetables. Not many sweets – and that’s counting the muffins as sweets. Not a lot of meat. So far, that’s reasonable – nutritionists are forever complaining that we Americans eat a lot more meat and sugar than is good for us. Does that mean there are no problems with eating like this?

There’s at least one. Quantity. I’m a five foot one inch (1.55 m) tall woman who stopped growing (except sideways) years and years ago. I make a point of exercising, but if I chose I could spend most of my time sitting down. And I lost a pound in a week without trying to. I don’t think this would be enough food for my six foot two inch (1.88 m) tall husband – active, but with a job that’s not physically demanding. (I didn’t try to talk him into joining this project. It didn’t seem fair to pressure him into a project that I had mixed feelings about myself, and he habitually eats lunch at work anyway.) I’m positive it would be too little for growing teenage boys (I don’t have any daughters, but I do have experience with trying to keep fourteen year old boys fed) or those doing manual labor.

Again, you might be able to make up the calorie deficit by leaning harder on rice and bread and pasta than I did – but what’s the nutritional cost in the long run? I can’t stress hard enough that there are a lot of people who live like this indefinitely, because they have no choice.

So here I am at the end of the Food Stamp Challenge week. Only not; I plan to try to stick this out for at least a month. Why? To give myself a better picture of just how possible it is to stick to this budget, for one thing. The challenge rules allowed you to ignore the cost of condiments. And that makes sense when you’re only tracking expenses for a week, because it’s hard to figure in the price of small quantities. But condiments tend to be relatively expensive. Over the long haul, you have to either find the money to replace them, or go without. And, beyond that, to get a feel for the longer term psychological and nutritional effects. And it still seems as if it should be possible to use this experience toward programs for my church to help people who are hungry more effectively.

I put up a couple of other posts related to this challenge:
Could I live on food stamps?
Three days into the $35 week
186 cookbooks – 7 days of lentils

For those with a thirst for detail – what I actually ate:
Monday, black coffee and seven or eight peanuts for breakfast. Lunch, red lentils with ginger and garlic, and homemade pita bread. Dinner, African peanut chicken (chicken cooked with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and thyme, plus peanut butter at the end), rice, and salad. Also, two cups of milk.
Tuesday: coffee and peanuts for breakfast; lunch, lentils with caramelized onion, pita bread; dinner, macaroni and cheese, asparagus, salad.
Wednesday: Breakfast, coffee and peanuts; lunch, lentils with spinach, pita bread; dinner, cheese and veggie omelet, bread.
Thursday, coffee and peanuts again; lunch, Greek style peppers with yogurt, pita bread; dinner, New England fish chowder and salad.
Friday, more coffee and peanuts; lunch, lentils with chilis, pita bread; dinner, pork sate (skewered cubes of pork marinated in a mixture of peanut butter, soy sauce, lemon juice, brown sugar, and spices, then broiled), green beans, apple-raisin-walnut muffins. Two cups of milk.
Saturday, a change in the pattern – leftover muffins for breakfast and lunch, with coffee as usual. Dinner, spaghetti with meat sauce and salad.
And today, coffee and peanuts for breakfast and lunch; dinner will be chicken enchiladas (with corn, peppers, and onions in the enchilada filling as well as chicken), refried beans, and salad. Probably some more milk; at least, I included its cost in my calculations.

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9 responses to “A week at $35

  1. Don’t forget the importance of cheap snacks—carrot sticks, inexpensive muffins, bread, etc. After 9 months of this, I’ve found that eating small meals evenly spaced throughout the day ensures you don’t feel deprived. And while sweets are definitely a splurge, some, such as certain kinds of cookies, can be made cheaply enough (less than 10 cents each) that they can fit into the daily budget as a dessert. If you have trouble keeping to just one, freeze them individually wrapped; you feel much guilter having to unwrap and defrost a second one than you would just grabbing one and going.

  2. That is actually less then what we get here which is about £31.50 but that includes toiletries and household stuff as well so maybe it works out the same. It looks like a varied menu but like you said if you were 6ft 2 it might not fill you. But they do say that we eat too much but we have to train our bodies to accept less. Glad you are going to keep going will be interesting to see how it goes.

    • It is hard to compare – food stamps can only be used for food, and not even all kinds of food – apparently it’s okay to buy prepared food if it’s cold, but not hot! Hot food, toiletries, cleaning supplies – all of that requires cash. (Food stamps used to be special coupons in various amounts that people had to give to the clerk – now recipients get cards that look like any other debit card / credit card, and the amount they spend gets deducted electronically from their balance. On the one hand, nobody can spot the food stamp recipients any more; on the other hand, it had to be easier to keep track of how much you had left for the month when you could look at the coupons!)

      • So would people get cash on top of the food stamps? I must admit the sparse money becomes the money becomes cash and not card.

      • Well, first of all many people – could be most people, I’m not sure – who are on food stamps do have jobs. Being eligible depends on how low your income is (I think the figure I’ve been reading over the past two weeks is 130% of the “poverty level”), not on whether you’re on welfare. Beyond that we get into the vast confusing swamp of how all the different welfare programs fit together, and I can’t give you much information.

        If you used to work and lost your job through no fault of your own, you can collect unemployment for a certain number of weeks (technically this is not welfare but a sort of government-run insurance); how much you get depends on what you were making in your last job, and you have to pay income tax on it. And how long you can collect basically depends on the overall state of the economy; traditionally Congress approves extensions from the basic six-month (I think) period if it’s hard to find jobs. Like now, for example.

        Aside from unemployment, people who have never worked, or haven’t worked in a long time, may receive cash directly, in some circumstances – for instance, if they’re disabled and can’t work, they can get benefits either temporarily until they recover, or for the rest of their lives if a doctor says they never will recover enough to work. Women with young children can receive cash welfare (since the mid-1990’s, this has been for no more than a lifetime maximum of 5 years, and they’re supposed to be in a training program to help them get a job). I really don’t know what other groups of people, if any, would receive cash. (There are also programs to help with things like the cost of housing or medical care – again, I don’t know what the rules are to qualify for them. Besides, the details of the rules depend on where exactly the person lives, as far as I can understand. And anyway, these programs wouldn’t hand out cash, they would either pay the bill directly or arrange for a discount.)

        And I won’t even try to guess how much cash someone might get in these different situations, because it depends on where they live, what exactly their problem is, and how the economy as a whole is doing.

  3. Pingback: The bits at the back of the fridge « Minutiae

  4. Just linked to this from Minutiae as I thought the conversation here was interesting.

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