The SNAP Challenge Was A Lot Easier Than Gwyneth Paltrow Said It Would Be

Before “What Taylor Swift Ate For Breakfast” dominated the headlines in the crawlspaces of American “journalism”, the SNAP Challenge was all the rage. For those unfamiliar, the SNAP Challenge is a self-imposed task, thought up by the non-profit FeedingAmerica.org, to eat for an entire week off of only the benefits payable to the average recipient of the USDA’s SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). SNAP is what is commonly referred to as “food stamps.” This average is about $29.30 per person per week, or a little less than $1.40/meal @ 3 squares a day.

The SNAP Challenge bandied around the internet for a few weeks this spring, when several politicians, celebrities, and journalists undertook the challenge with varied levels of success.

Cory Booker spoke of hunger pains and caffeine withdrawal, and that his meals were typically cans of vegetables.

cleanseGwyneth Paltrow lamented the impossibility to eat healthily, and quit after the fourth day. Her endeavor was probably the most publicized and criticized, given her celebrity stature and the fact that her $29 in groceries (photo left) looked more like a juice cleanse than what a struggling, but reasonable, family would buy with their limited funds (7 limes? Really?)

Mario Battali admitted to being “f@ck!ng starving,” but made it through the whole seven days.

Jamison Doran, a columnist for The Huffington Post, spoke of the all-consuming hunger that set in seemingly from the first hour of the week.

Many other folks of all shapes and sizes took up the challenge as well (you can find a bunch more by just Googling “SNAP Challenge”), and a common thread ran throughout: $29 is an inadequate amount of money to satiate a person for a whole week, and an impossible amount to do so healthily.

The politically-connected were typically involved as a means to deride congressional republicans for cutting food stamps, while the motives for others were generally an effort to shed some visibility on the plight of the impoverished in America–particularly impoverished children.

Standardized SNAP challenge guidelines were provided by Foodshare, such as:

  • You may not eat anything not purchased with the $29 or purchased before the week began
  • You may not use coupons, freebies, handouts, or anything that may not always be available to another recipient
  • You must attempt to eat healthily, as if you were needing to do this indefinitely

I decided that I’d give the SNAP Challenge a try in my own household, see if we could do it, and report the results to you. But, first, I want to quickly talk about why the SNAP Challenge is a bit ridiculous, and after, I’ll recap my thoughts on SNAP, in general.

Unnecessary and Unrealistic Rules

When I look at the restrictions put in place like only $29 per week (some went as far to say you can spend just $4.15 per day) it almost gives the impression that those taking on the SNAP Challenge were trying to make it harder than it needed to be, as if they had an predetermined opinion of the program and the level of benefits and sought to reinforce that opinion with their own experience. Why do I get this impression? Because…

The USDA publishes monthly data on the SNAP program, and for March 2015 (latest available) the average SNAP recipient received $29.31/week. However the average SNAP household was not just one person, but actually 2.05 people, meaning that the average household received about $60/week. To add to this, SNAP benefits are not paid weekly, but monthly. Therefore, the average SNAP household received a check for $260/mo for groceries. Now, this may seem like a small distinction, but the ability to buy in bulk or large quantities is vitally important when you’re trying to save money. So, any reasonable SNAP household would almost certainly buy for all household members at once, right?

A second, and rather ridiculous, restriction is that each week was taken stand-alone. Why is this ridiculous? Well, when is the last time you went and bought a week’s worth of olive oil, sugar, eggs, flour, or potatoes? In our house, the only items we buy every week are those things that typically perish/go stale within a week, like bread or milk. Meat can be bought in bulk, partitioned in zip-locs, and frozen for later consumption. If you get clever, you can freeze bread. I knew a SNAP recipient several years ago that would buy milk in bulk and even freeze that. This is important. Buying 6 lbs. of beef at $2.99/lb, 8 lbs. of chicken breast at $1.99/lb, and a big sack of potatoes for $.50/lb. is far more affordable then buying a week’s worth of each for twice those prices. If I wanted to buy a bunch of meat at a low price, but wanted to freeze everything we didn’t eat for the following week, I’d be breaking the rules. That is stupid.

Lastly, why am I restricted to not trying to hustle my way for some food. I understand the “don’t let people buy food for you,” as you can just freeload your way through the week. However, why can’t I use price clubs, or coupons, or reasonable little freebies or samples at the grocery store? I get that every little item will be different for each person, but everybody has some way of cutting costs that is available to him or her. I mean, if I ever end up on SNAP, the first $55 I spend will be on a Costco membership (~$1/week), and best believe I’m gonna be killin’ those free samples on Saturdays. If I live in a food desert or a high cost-of-living area, then the first $99 (~$2/week) I’m spending is on an Amazon Prime membership, so I can use PrimePantry and get nearly all my groceries with free delivery at low, competitive prices no matter my location. I mean, I’d be hustlin for every free item I could get (with some health considerations, of course). It’s my duty obligation to stretch that $260/mo as far as possible.

Our Challenge

The Retire29 household sought to accomplish the SNAP challenge with a few guidelines:

1. Act no differently, except try to cook everything at home. No crazy diets or 8-day-fastings, just normal behavior with a mindset to not do anything stupid.

2. We expensed the cost of anything we ate or could not save beyond the week. For instance, we bought some potato chips that we didn’t eat all of, but after a week, chips tends to go stale–so we expensed the whole bag. Conversely, we bought a pile of ground beef but saved most of it in the freezer–we only expensed what we pulled out and thawed.

3. Since we have a one-year-old, we didn’t give ourselves $29 for the baby–I simply excluded anything we fed the baby. However, I should note that the baby eats almost exclusively, the following: steamed frozen veggies, whole fat yogurt, bananas, breast milk, and gerber snacks. If we included the baby’s food, it would be far under $29/week.

Here is what we ate throughout the week, the costs, and the approximate calories:

Beverages ($6.38) – 3,584 calories

1 Gallon OJ ($2.49)
3 Cups Fancy Single-Serve Coffee & Condiments ($1.47)
1 Gallon Whole Milk ($2.42)

Snacks/Desserts ($6.45) – 3,723 calories

6 Bananas ($0.90)
1 Quart Ice Cream ($1.99)
1 Bag Lays Potato Chips ($1.99)
4 Servings Homemade Molten Chocolate Cake ($1.57)

Breakfasts ($6.50) -5,410 calories

15 Frozen Waffles w/ Syrup and Butter ($3.35)
1.5 Boxes Generic Cereal ($3.00)
1 Banana ($0.15)

Lunches ($1.03) 218 Calories

Leftovers from Dinners ($0.00)
Ham & Cheese Sandwich ($1.03)

Dinners ($38.00) 16,161 Calories

Leftovers ($0.00)
Patty Melts ($7.40)
Pizza Hut Large Pizza ($8.47)
Chicken Parmesan ($5.19)
Chicken Thighs ($3.16)
Baked Mac & Cheese ($3.36)
Tilapia & Rice ($4.74)
Meatloaf w/ Peppers and Onions ($5.68)

Total: $58.36 for 29,096 Calories

Or: $29.18/per person @ 2,079 calories/day

We primarily bought store brand items for most of the processed items, and obviously looked for things that were on sale. But, this is what we always do. We shop at store called Wegman’s in Northern Virginia/DC Suburbs, so our per-unit costs are probably on the higher end of the nation.

There are certainly foods that we used quite a bit, like chicken and beef. These are big foods for us, and there are countless ways to prepare them, so there was no “food fatigue” whatsoever. Additionally, you can see that we weren’t exactly super strict on what we ate. We had ice cream, Pizza Hut, Keurig Coffee (pods were from Amazon), frozen waffles, and potato chips. These are all things we could have done without, but I wanted to see how a “normal” week of just at-home cooking would be. We also diligently ate leftovers; I rarely let leftovers go to waste. We also drank a lot of ice water, but we usually drink a fair amount of water.

Our monthly grocery expenses as I report them, of course, are higher because they include other “grocery store” items that aren’t here, like our fore-mentioned baby’s food, and things like garbage bags, cleaning supplies, paper towels, cat food and litter, and lots of other things we nest in with “groceries.”

If we wanted to do even better, we would have added in a lot more low-cost, calorie-dense items like Potatoes, Carrots, Rice, Beans, Eggs, or Frozen Vegetables.

All in all, I’m sure the accuracy of my reporting here isn’t 100%. It’s hard to exactly capture every little input into a food budget. I’m sure I overestimated on the cost of salt, pepper, flour or sugar. I also would guess that I didn’t 100% capture things I ate–I think somebody brought in donuts one day to the office. But, I think I’m pretty close–and close is what counts.

Some Thoughts On SNAP

I feel the need to write a paragraph like this to ensure I show display some sensitivity to this topic.

We live in a society of abundance. We have far too much food and more than enough money to feed every American a healthy diet. Kids, especially, should never have to go hungry, and it’s troubling that millions find themselves in that situation every night.

I’m not anti-SNAP. I think the program, and some other social entitlement programs, serve a vital function in our society and I think a social safety net is a reasonable thing to have in a compassionate and wealthy country. I’ve read that each $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.80 in economic activity for that local economy–given that benefits are almost always spent locally and immediately. However, you need to view SNAP for what it is: a supplemental program. 80% of SNAP recipients have some other income. I understand that there are other expenses that need to be covered by these families, but SNAP was never intended to be the be-all, end-all source of food money. It’s a stipend to assist families with their groceries. What’s more, in the nature of entitlement programs, they are meant to be temporary.

Understand this: if you are on SNAP, then you are barely hanging on the the societal ledge. You are using your neighbor’s money so that you can buy things that are essential to your survival. In not so many words, your life is in your neighbor’s hands. It’s a vulnerable position, but shouldn’t it be? SNAP recipients shouldn’t be dining out, or buying lobster, or shopping from the organics aisle. They should be couponing, shopping for sales, buying generics, hitting up Aldi, buying in bulk, planning meals in advance, freezing stuff, and maybe even having a somewhat monotonous menu. Come to think of it–those are all things many frugal families already do every day. SNAP is not a salary, it is a means to keep folks that have hit a rough patch in life from experiencing permanent damage or forcing them into crime or dangerous situations. Sometimes these situations are prolonged, but the social safety net should not be so high as to enable comfort in basking within it.

Twice in my life I’ve been on government assistance, both times I received unemployment compensation of about $400/week. Each time I was on the dole for about five weeks. I never wanted to work so badly in my life. My wife (girlfriend at the time) would wake up and go to work, and I would just lay in bed. It was depressing, I sent out dozens of resumes every day. When I got a job, I couldn’t wait to not renew benefits. But, what if I had been getting $1,000/week? I could easily get by on that, I could even prosper. My motivation would be gone or at least greatly diminished.

This is the crux of the issue, then. What is the right benefit amount to sustain an existence, but to not encourage lax behavior. In my opinion, $29.30 per person per week is pretty reasonable.

What are your thoughts on SNAP? A vital function of society? Is $29.30/week enough?

Thanks for Reading!

Eric

12 Comments

  1. Hey Eric,

    Very interesting topic on social assistance. I’m happy living in a country where I pay taxes to help out those less fortunate. Sure, there’s going to be abuses of the system, but to me that’s just an overall cost of the program.

    I’ve helped out a few times visiting families to provide food benefits through a local, non-government charity, and for the vast majority of the households, as far as I could tell, there appeared to be a legit need. The charity doesn’t ask too many questions, or pry, so there’s perhaps a few households that take advantage, but I kind of like that give without judgment or prejudice mentality.

    Thanks for the post and great work on the SNAP challenge.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Jonny. Agreed, almost everyone on the program could use the entitlement. I was only trying to say that the entitlement, if used properly (which it should be), is adequate.

      It almost seems like, in this country anyway, that if you say any benefit for the poor or for veterans is adequate (or excessive) at its current level, then you’re subject to ridicule and deemed heartless.

  2. I work in healthcare, so I see the impact of medicaid and my view is completely different than it used to be. There are far more legitimate users than there are people scheming to get benefits.

    I agree, its meant to be a supplement, not the entire amount. I think the absurdity of the challenge was intentional to bring to light the low amount, not be an exact representation of what recepients go through.

    I am impressed your were able to come in so close to the $29. I wouldn’t even be close!

    • Hi Vawt,
      I wouldn’t have been close if I held strictly to the rules. I think we probably spend closer to $50 at the grocery store, but we still have many pounds of frozen meat in the fridge.

      I believe you that most users are truly in need. I’m not at all against the program, in fact, the underlying message of this article was strongly in favor of both the program AND the current level of benefits.

      I thought it was a misrepresentation of the benefit level on the part of these celebrities and politicians, though. As the rules imposed in the challenge are unnecessarily difficult and not reflective of real life decision-making.

      Thanks so much for commenting and stopping by!

      Eric

  3. I read about the snap challenge. I think Gwen purposely failed it (she’s an actress, used to being starved for a movie, but she got too much media backlash, it’d look much better if she fail).

    With that said, I agree about bulk items, as my main carb is rice. One bag of 25 bls will last me 2 months. It wouldn’t me economical for me to buy a 1 or 2 bls bag.

    Also, I have a garden, if I ran out of food in the middle of the week, I’d go out and pick something – chives, elephant ears, pepper, etc. The rule seems to limit how resourceful one can be. I will not waste $50 on costco membership though, I can’t eat bad stuff they serve on Sunday … Yucky, salty, processed stuff, I’m better off cooking most of everything.

    I normally spend $50 on grocery for at least 2-3 “lashvish” meals with fillet mignon or salmon :), with $30 I could eat catfish instead.

    One thing about early retirement or preparing for retirement is the options are limitless, you open up yourself to more choices and options.

    • Gwen purposely failed, for sure. She would’ve looked cold-hearted if she finished and was like, “yah, that SNAP challenge is easy. I don’t know what those poor people are complainin about.”

      Sounds like you have a great food budget and plan. Nothing wrong with spending money on great food. It can still be done smartly and food is a reasonable place to spend some “fun money.”

      We have a limited garden: tomatoes and peppers. Each year we’ll do a bit more.

      I don’t even know what elephant ears are. I’ll have to look that up.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.

      Eric

  4. Love that you did this challenge, and even better that you didn’t try to subsist on dried beans and rice. Agree with you that the week-by-week approach is a silly rule. But some of the other rules make sense to keep intact — you can’t use SNAP benefits on a CostCo membership, and not sure you can even spend the money at CostCo, or at Aldi, for that matter. Plus most recipients don’t have the luxury of a big freezer and expensive ziploc bags to save things purchased in bulk. But there’s no reason they couldn’t buy a large bag or rice at the grocery store, or buy the larger/cheaper package of meat. One of the misconceptions out there is the income level required to get on SNAP. It’s shockingly low. You have to be earning less than $20K a year, which as you know, living in HCOL area, is barely enough for just rent. So that benefit may be called “supplemental,” but is actually the sole source of food purchasing money for most recipients. It’s super sad that in such a rich nation we are so bad at feeding people and — worse — lawmakers are so insensitive to the challenges faced by so many of our people. Thanks for shining a light on the problem!

    • Our Next Life,
      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. While a recipient can’t actually swipe their EBT Card at Costco is little consolation. Money is fungible, and I’m hard-pressed to believe that even a SNAP recipient cannot come up with $50 outside of SNAP benefits to purchase a Costco membership that will pay for itself many times over just with gasoline and groceries.

      We don’t have a big freezer, just a few cubic feet. In fact, 97.8% of American Households have a freezer (similar to ours) according to census.gov (http://www.census.gov/hhes/well-being/publications/extended-11.html). So, yes, Americans can buy in bulk. Sure, they can’t buy a whole deer or quarter of a cow, but they can buy 5 lbs of beef or chicken with no problems.

      Eric

    • You can use SNAP at Aldi’s. I see it all the time. I think that would be the best route to go if you have that available to you. No need for Costco if there is an Aldi nearby. They have great produce, and I’ve purchased their meat on more than one occasion on special buy Wednesdays. Where else can you buy Chicken breast for $1.89/lb? Perfect for the SNAP challenge. I did a quick “grocery” list for my husband and I, and we could pretty easily do the SNAP challenge even with the stipulations of using nothing bought prior. Most of my purchases would be at Aldi, or their current competition (Ruler) located a couple blocks down from them in my town.

      • Beth,
        Thanks for replying. My best man did the SNAP challenge at Aldi the week after I published this post. He did it the “old school” way–$29 on one receipt for one person for one week–and he succeeded. He took a picture of his haul and his receipt, and it was a totally reasonable diet. Is it something you’d want to live on for years on end? No. But, it is certainly do-able for extended periods of time.

        Thanks for reading!

        Eric

  5. I think you had the same misconception that many people who have not been poor have.
    You can’t get an amazon prime or costco membership with SNAP nor can you get a crockpot or rice cooker aka things that save you money on food but are not food.
    Also, if you don’t have car, how are you lugging that sack of potatoes especially if you have kids ( quite common). You also assume access to a fridge etc.
    Yes, you can live on the average for food stamps if you have supplies to make it easy to do, but if you are an actual poor person, there are other barriers that most middle class are not aware of. For that reason, the snap challenge limited you in ways the SNAP recipient does not get limited by.

    • Hi Ginger,
      Thanks so much for commenting. First off, I’m not trying to demonize the poor–there are innumerable aspects of being poor (beyond food) that add stress to life. However, with that said, a poor person is entirely capable of buying Amazon prime. Yes, they can’t swipe their EBT card for the membership, but money is fungible, and I have to assume that they have $100 somewhere else that can be used for the Prime membership. I say that with confidence because, among poor household, 98% have a TV, 78% have A/C, and 64% have cable or satellite TV–and this was in 2005.

      Am I saying that SNAP households have it easy? No, not even close. What I am saying is that $29/week per person is adequate to afford a totally reasonable, filling, and nutritious diet. Could there be extenuating circumstances that could still making feeding one’s self difficult (no car, no public trans, no money for electricity)? Yes.

      And (same study as I linked to) 99% of poor households have a fridge. So, for that other 1%, I see a lot of Craigslist fridges for <$150 in my area.Thanks so much for commenting and highlighting a common misconception.Eric

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.




CommentLuv badge