What I learned taking the food stamp challenge

Could you eat on $33.98 a week?

Stunt reporting, in which writers try on roles for a limited time, always leaves me a little squeamish. Pretending you are someone for a day or a week or a month or a year does not let you know what it’s really like to be that person. So it was with hesitation that I considered taking the “SNAP Challenge,” or eating on the equivalent of food stamps for a week. (SNAP is the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.) The challenge originally was issued to lawmakers, urging them to consider whether they could survive on the policies and budgets they set for others. (If you’re on Twitter, you might recall Cory Booker posting pictures of his yam-centric SNAP menu.)

I shared my skepticism with Cicely Garrett of the Atlanta Community Food Bank when I met with her during my reporting for this month’s feature on the metro area’s food deserts. She had taken the challenge—and blogged about it—a few weeks earlier. Isn’t this just a form of poverty tourism, I wondered, like the modern equivalent of Marie Antoinette building a fake Austrian farm on the grounds of Versailles? Garrett said she, too, had been hesitant, but found the challenge an enlightening experience. “It really made me think about the daily experience of someone on limited resources with new awareness,” she said. “And food insecurity and access is something I think about every day for my job.”

So I decided to take the challenge, and lucky for me, my husband, Jim, who does almost all the shopping and cooking in our household, decided to do it with me. The rules are simple. You can spend only the equivalent of your state’s average weekly SNAP allowance, which at the time in Georgia was $33.98. You can’t accept any outside food or eat restaurant meals, and, except for condiments, can’t use anything already in your pantry or refrigerator. And, like a SNAP recipient, you can’t spend any of your budget on alcohol, cigarettes, or household products.

Sunday, January 5
The day before the challenge started, we headed to the store determined to prove we could eat as healthfully as possible. After all, we figured, our situation embodies the best-case scenario USDA nutritionists have in mind when they produce brochures on healthy cooking tips: We have time to cook, we have a well-equipped kitchen, and mostly importantly we have a car and thus can shop around for the good deals and quality foods.

We ditched our game plan minutes after entering Kroger. Everyone seemed to be on a January diet, so prices on chicken and turkey had been yanked up. Pork tenderloin on the other hand, was marked way down, along with fellow New Years staples like black-eyed peas and collards. We got a roast the size of a bread loaf for just $7.88 and decided to make it our main protein for the week. As Jim placed items to our cart, I kept a running tally on my phone’s calculator. The trade-offs escalated. Instead of honey ($3 and up) we opted for brown sugar ($1.29), and we ditched frozen berries ($4) for raisins ($2.59). We’d usually buy organic stock to add to lentils; instead we picked up cheap Knorr concentrate. The decisions weren’t just about menu items; we wavered on our food politics. We always buy cage-free eggs, but at $2.79 a dozen, a dollar more than those of unknown provenance, they were too steep. We normally get half-gallons of organic milk, but on this trip we picked up a quart of regular 2 percent ($1.69).

We left the store with: apples, cauliflower, potatoes, onion, celery, carrots, frozen peas, pork loin, milk, brown rice, dried lentils, raisins, bread, oatmeal, Ramen noodles, brown sugar, peanut butter, chicken bouillon, eggs, hazelnuts, applesauce, coffee, and—because we wouldn’t be able to use any of our own supplies—the smallest and cheapest quantities of olive oil and butter for cooking.

To make sure we stuck with the rules and didn’t dip into our own food supplies, we piled all the non-perishables on the counter and put the rest on one shelf in the fridge. “This way we can see what we have,” Jim said.

Our SNAP budget: $67.96
The Kroger total: $58.29
Our balance: $9.67

Monday, January 6
A creature of habit, I eat the same breakfast at least five days a week—Trader Joe’s organic multigrain cereal with fresh or frozen fruit, honey, and slivered almonds. My SNAP challenge version—Kroger brand oatmeal, raisins, brown sugar, and hazelnuts—was a passable alternative. And just 54 cents a serving. James is fond of veggie-loaded omelets. He replaced that with a stripped-down plate: two fried eggs and two slices of buttered toast (59 cents). The Kroger Super Valu coffee ($2.79 for a can) was drinkable.

That evening temperatures dropped to record single-digits. As I was out reporting a story, I got a text from Jim. He’d picked up a bunch of bananas at Publix—$1.47 for six. “I know we’re not allowed to accept food gifts, but what about drink gifts?” he asked. Our daughter’s boyfriend had given us some nice small-batch gin for Christmas. “I’m making a martini,” Jim texted. “I am sure poor people get Christmas presents.”

It was after 8 p.m. when I got home and found a lovely dinner of pork loin, roasted potatoes, and applesauce. This sort of savory home-cooked meal is the kind USDA folks envision when they establish food budgets. “The fact is, if you’d been working late, too, or I was doing this alone, I’d be eating Ramen right now,” I said.

And then, on day one, I cheated. It was freezing and I craved hot tea. “I will replace it tomorrow,” I assured Jim as I swiped a teabag from the pantry cabinet.

Our balance: $8.20

Tuesday, January 7
As the Polar Vortex swept Atlanta, I was out on the west side visiting grocery and convenience stores. I’d also forgotten to pack a lunch. Normally, this would mean grabbing something; heck, since I was out reporting, I could justify putting lunch on my expense report. Instead, I warmed up with a cup of coffee served by the Vine City Walmart manager. After my interview with him, I picked up tea to replace the bag I’d swiped, reducing our dwindling balance by another $2.04.

We’d each posted about the challenge on Facebook and were flooded with comments from friends and family. My mom offered to bring us fried chicken, people offered to take us out. Everyone asked if we were actually paying with SNAP cards. No, we’re not defrauding the government, we explained. And no, we can’t take any food. We urged them to act on their generous impulses by donating to the food bank.

That night’s dinner: brown rice and lentils, a meal we usually eat at least once a week, and one of my favorites. Luckily it’s also just 86 cents a serving.

Our balance: $6.16

Wednesday, January 8
A number of Georgia farmers markets and urban farms participate in a program called Wholesome Wave, which allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits to buy local foods, and, as an incentive, doubles the value. So if, for instance, you buy $10 worth of produce at the Grant Park Farmers Market, it only deducts $5 from your SNAP card.

To replicate the Wholesome Wave experience, we headed to the Truly Living Well urban farm in East Point. We arrived to find the staff arranging collard greens and Bok Choy on a table; the crops barely survived the Polar Vortex.

The greens would have been a fantastic deal, except for one flaw: I can’t eat collards. Thanks to a genetic mutation called Factor V Leiden, I’m at higher risk for developing deep-vein thrombosis and dangerous blood clots (it’s kind of the anti-hemophilia). My hematologist recommends avoiding all foods high in Vitamin K, which aids in clotting. Those foods include kale, spinach, and, you guessed it, collards.

Bok Choy is moderate in Vitamin K. Two bunches came to $6, or $3 at the Wholesome Wave discount. This was the only fresh green we’d buy all week.

That evening, I went to my book club. The hosts had a wonderful spread of goat cheese, bread, and preserves—all homemade. I explained the challenge, declined the food, and accepted a glass of wine. It was tasty, but I was so distracted by the cheese plate I lost track of the book discussion for a while. (The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel. The club’s collective verdict: Meh.)

Our balance: $3.16

Thursday, January 9
That morning, I spent four hours in the parking lot of West Hunter Street Baptist Church, which houses the Southwest Ecumenical Emergency Assistance Center, or SWEEAC (pronounced swee-ack). Dozens of people lined up in the parking lot waiting for food.

As its acronym suggests, SNAP benefits are intended to be supplemental, to boost a needy person’s budget. But in reality, for many poor people SNAP represents all the funds available for food. For those who rely on SNAP—or are waiting to qualify or have been denied by state or federal policies—the difference between eating and starving can come in the form of food distributed by groups like SWEEAC. I talked with Daniell Lanier, who had just been laid off her job as a machinist and was still waiting to get benefits. “I don’t know what I’d do otherwise,” she said. “I’ve never had to get a handout like this before.”

For dinner, Jim made a stir-fry with the Bok Choy and leftover pork. It was fantastic. But the satisfaction was diminished remembering those people trudging away from the church parking lot with their bags of donated food. I wondered what Daniell Lanier was eating.

Friday, January 10
People in the nonprofit sector use the term “food insecurity” to refer to lack of food in general and lack of fresh, healthy food in particular. The implication of that term—and its accuracy—became more clear to me as the week progressed and we watched the pile of groceries on our counter dwindle. We strategized about how to get through the next three days. The plan: roast whatever veggies we had left for dinner and then make rice and beans for Saturday and Sunday. Jim bought a bag of dried beans and a few more bananas at Kroger ($2.51).

Jim’s brother and his wife, with whom we regularly socialize, were headed out of town for a long trip. Normally we’d have them over for dinner, or suggest going out to eat. “We could have them over for rice and beans,” I said. But that would have wiped out all our supplies. So we wished them well by phone and email and hunkered down at home to binge-watch Justified.

That night we had an odd dinner: roasted cauliflower, potatoes, and celery—along with a little leftover rice. Everything on my plate was yellow. I decided to exercise our “gift-booze” loophole and poured a bourbon, a present from the magazine’s design director.

When I’d asked Cicely Garrett about her experience doing the SNAP challenge, she said that what was hardest for her was feeling isolated from her usual social activities, because food is so central to them. As she blogged: “On a food budget of $33.98, I could never invite friends or family over and to share a meal without severely limiting my own food intake. On this budget I could never host holidays or special occasions. On this budget I am isolated from my community. On this budget there is no room for unexpected surprises.”

Our balance: 65 cents

Saturday, January 11
That morning we literally divvied up our remaining food, pushing things into piles on the counter. You get the last pack of Ramen and the peas; I’ll take the ingredients for peanut-butter-and-raisin-sandwiches. You get the banana; I’ll take applesauce.

We went for a long walk around the neighborhood and stopped in at our local corner store, Little’s Grocery, which had just been saved from closure by a crowd-funding campaign. We chatted with the owner and congratulated him. We browsed the shelves, but there was nothing we could get with our remaining 65 cents. “I’m sure he wonders why we raved about his store but wouldn’t buy anything,” I said as we headed home.

We’re fortunate to have Little’s in our neighborhood. Like many parts of Atlanta, Cabbagetown doesn’t have a supermarket, but Little’s stocks produce and fresh milk and healthier packaged items. Most convenience stores carry nothing but junk food. And we’re lucky we have a car to get to the Kroger on Moreland Avenue. Otherwise, it would mean a thirty-minute walk (we’ve tested it). To get there by bus or train requires multiple transfers, more walking, and trip times of at least forty-five minutes. And none of that takes into account the hassle of carrying your shopping bags on MARTA or schlepping them several miles by foot.

Sunday, January 12
The milk was gone and I was forced to drink black coffee, which I normally won’t consider. But with no choice, I gulped it down.

On this, the last day of the challenge, I felt actual hunger pangs for the first time. We sorted through the dribs and drabs of what remained. Nothing much but the olive oil and butter we bought to play by the rules.

That night for dinner we had leftover beans on top of cauliflower. “This looks like something they’d make on a cooking show, with a chef-y argument that the veggie is a great starch substitute,” I said. “But it’s really not.”

As the week wrapped up, my attitude about the challenge had changed. Yes, it’s an artificial construct. But the exercise of living on this budget is a valuable one. It’s easy to brush aside the day-to-day lives of poor people, thinking, “Oh, we help with food and housing through taxes and benefits,” without pausing to reflect on whether those benefits sustain even a basic standard of living.

“Tomorrow we can go back to our regular lifestyle,” said Jim. “But for other people this goes on week after week after week.”

How did we do nutritionally?
Our goal was to buy and prepare the most nutritious food we could on the SNAP budget. We each kept a diary of what we ate during the challenge, and I sent those food logs to Shayna Komar, dietician at Piedmont Healthcare.

Komar’s major feedback? We should have tried for more variation. “It is a good idea to get variety in a meal plan for the simple reason that there are so many different vitamins/minerals and nutrients in foods that people sometimes miss if they don’t mix things up,” she said. “I love your oatmeal breakfast, but would encourage you to eat eggs once a week with your hubby.” She suggested a scramble with veggies, olives, and fresh herbs—a great idea, although the latter two ingredients would have been tough to cover on the budget. She also suggested berries as an addition to the fruits we did get—apples, bananas, raisins. We’d initially had those on our list, but didn’t get them because of cost. (One quibble about the challenge rules: Because we weren’t supposed to use anything we already had, we spent a percentage of the funds on olive oil and butter for cooking, and used just a fraction of what we bought. Had we been able to pro-rate some of that, we’d have had more money for vegetables and fruit.)

She complemented the complete protein in our lentil and bean dinners—“fun vegetarian meals; awesome!”—but pointed out that our giant, bargain-priced tenderloin resulted in us consuming too much pork throughout the week, whereas we should have tried to work in fish or chicken.

“Last but not least, make sure you stay hydrated,” she advised.

Read the main feature: “Stranded in Atlanta’s Food Deserts”