I have thought about taking the SNAP Challenge several times over the past few years. Participants of the SNAP Challenge pledge to live on roughly $4.00 per person per day, which is the amount of the average daily food stamp benefit. Emergency food providers have taken the challenge. Politicians have taken the challenge. Celebrities have taken the challenge. Although usually garnering positive coverage Gwyneth Paltrow received tons of negative press earlier this year over her food choices when she decided to take the SNAP Challenge.
When I became serious about understanding the issues around food insecurity, taking the SNAP Challenge seemed like one of the most obvious things for me to do if I really wanted to understand what it would be like to experience food insecurity. Yet I never have. I have my reasons. The first being that I have a family, and while this is my mission and they support me, they would not be too happy to subsist on a SNAP Challenge diet, nor do I think it is fair to ask them to participate to that extent for my cause. Additionally, do not I want to do double cooking duty by preparing a separate meal for me. Neither my family’s dietary discomfort, nor my lack of time to prepare double meals is the main reason I have never taken the SNAP Challenge. As a person who likes to cook a wide variety of food, I have a very well stocked kitchen pantry and I have not quite figured out how to take that pantry out of the SNAP Challenge equation. I could decide to not use any items in my pantry, but that seems a bit unrealistic. Most food insecure people have a minimum of kitchen staples to use. I could purchase only ready-made, preprocessed foods, but that doesn’t fit my mission to help those who are food insecure eat as healthfully as they can while stretching what little food resources they have. And so consequently, I have never taken the challenge.
This summer the perfect opportunity to take the challenge presented itself, and if I had only been thinking ahead I could have capitalized on the opportunity. Every few summers my family vacations in a cabin in Maine. The cabin belongs to another family and we rent it from them for the week. While the cabin is stocked with food belonging to the other family, we bring whatever food we need for the week. This would have been the perfect chance for me to take the SNAP Challenge, without having to worry that I was cheating by using some of the staples in my own kitchen. We could have bought our food, staying within the parameters of the challenge, and relied on whatever spices or other small quantity ingredients were available at the cabin. The only problem was that I didn’t think about trying this until half way through our vacation.
To be honest, it is probably for the best. I’m pretty sure my family would have revolted at the thought of turning our vacation dining into a SNAP Challenge even though when we take this vacation we tend to eat simple, easy to prepare meals. (Except for the lobster dinner. We were in Maine after all!) This is in part because the cabin in which we stay does not have electricity, and while it did have running water, it was pumped from the lake and not potable. The adequate, yet primitive nature of our cooking setup, dictates relatively simple meals. Some of the meals we ate included spaghetti with jarred sauce, vegetarian burritos with beans and rice, sandwiches, leftovers and other ready made foods like soup.
Once the missed opportunity occurred to me, however, I did begin thinking about what we had purchased, how much it had cost and what we could have done without. To feed my family of four for a week I would have only had roughly $112 to spend. Our total shopping bill was well over twice as much as that. When you factor out alcohol, lobsters, and items that can not be purchased by SNAP benefits, like toilet paper, our expenses would have been lower, but still considerably more than the SNAP Challenge allotment. Since we were on vacation I bought fun items, like cookies, chips and soda. Those items could have been sacrificed. We also had to bring in all our drinking and cooking water, as the water from the lake was not potable. That is an expense not usually factored into the average SNAP Challenge. Even without all these items I still do not think our total would have been the roughly $112 we would have had as our benefit.
In the abstract I knew SNAP benefits did not allow for much food to be purchased; they are not intended to totally supply a monthly allotment of food, even though they do for many. What this mental exercise accomplished for me was to concretely demonstrate, not only how little food SNAP benefits provide, but how difficult eating well can be if relying on SNAP benefits and how repetitive one’s food choices would be. I will probably never take the SNAP Challenge and I am okay with that. While I understand the intent of the challenge, I find it a bit flawed. Here is the challenge I have for you that I think will demonstrate the point the SNAP Challenge is attempting to make. Next time you go shopping keep your grocery bill. How much was it? Now figure what your household SNAP benefit would be ($4 per person per day for the number of days your shopping trip would cover). After you deduct all the non-food items, how far over that amount is your grocery bill? Now, examine what’s left and decide what you would do without to come within your SNAP benefit range?