I started to write this up months and months ago, but I’ve been thinking more about food security and governmental programs as the long-term unemployment benefits have been cut. Why? Because people were using them for everyday expenses like food, housing, heat… so what’s left? Family, friends, SNAP (if they are eligible), or food pantries, or selling off belongings.
So, how is it living off of SNAP benefits? I’ve never honestly tried. Why? Because I’ve never eligible for SNAP. (I was nearly eligible once, but then I got a job. Yea!) Nonetheless, the media often features stories about big-wigs (or even not-so-big-wigs) trying to subsist using only the current US food stamp, now known as Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, allotment. I think it is particularly challenging now that benefits have been reduced to less than $200/mo for an individual at the highest level of eligibility. So what I do mean by the highest level of eligibility? Many people on SNAP have some resources, so the SNAP benefits are supposed to be “supplemental”, that is, added to their food budget rather than fully fund it. Different levels of income/resources mean that people receive different amounts, from small amounts to substantial amounts.
Shocking tidbits from reading articles about SNAP:
1. One state commissioner never compares price per pound during normal shopping trips. Really? It’s on the little tags on the shelves. Produce can be trickier, but if you’re lucky, it’s priced per pound.
2. Packing meals was somewhat foreign to this journalist, who yielded to an urge for a quick snack from a quick-serve restaurant. I’ll admit it– this takes practice (knowing how much you’ll need AND how long you will actually be gone instead of an optimistic estimate), being willing to be hungry for an extra hour or two when plans go astray, and planning.
3. Commentators consistently swear it can be done. Other commentators consistently swear it can’t be done if you have any other things going on, like, oh, a job. Or two.
4. Nobody seems to mention the fact that cooking at home requires having the electricity/gas on, although other people acknowledge that things like pots are very useful when it comes to cooking those dried beans. (We’ll revisit this in the next post.)
Could I subsist off current SNAP allotments? Yes, I could. Would it be an enjoyable diet? Possibly, certainly not always. Items that would likely fall off my grocery budget would include cocoa powder, cashews, chocolate chips, lemons, sugar, other baking supplies, pasta, quinoa, and probably most if not all organic food. Certainly the processed salsa and other condiments, marinated artichoke hearts, bread, cheese, ice cream, and butter would all go.
Full disclose: in a semi-urban area, my typical grocery costs are around $65/week excluding things like dish soap and dog treats but including the organic price premium (I probably end up buying around 30% organic, more depending on availability). It would be higher in city like Boston, and per person costs would be lower in a family.
Starch: rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and/or corn tortillas.
Vegetables: onions, winter squash, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, frozen corn/peas/spinach/green beans, and seasonal specials/sales. Bunches of parsley and cilantro, or green onions, might work out some weeks, and buying garden seeds would provide other produce.
Fruit: apples, applesauce, watermelon (seasonal), pears (seasonal), canned pineapple, dried apricots/raisins, and seasonal specials.
Protein: eggs, peanut butter, dried black beans, lentils, dried chickpeas, dried navy beans, dried lima beans, and (for a little variety!) dried pinto beans. My fancy theoretically sustainable canned tuna would become a treat.
Dairy: I think we’ll just grab a calcium supplement (not through SNAP), maybe an occasional splurge on cheese** or organic milk.
Fats & sweets: olive oil, canola oil, almonds, brown sugar.
Other: vinegar, salt, pepper, tea. Bulk herbs/spices as they fit into the monthly budget.
This is somewhat dated (2006) but you may find it informative to play with this calculator to see how your budget works nutritionally. If you had to trim your food costs to subsist almost entirely off of the maximum SNAP benefits, what would you change or have you changed? How do you think that would/will affect your health and your community?
Next post: thinking about the resources people need to eat off of SNAP benefits as the USDA proposes.
**Since I originally wrote this, local grocery stores have started offering bulk bags of grated cheese that might be at a lower price that the volumes I would normally purchase, so I’d have to re-evaluate this and consider freezing portions of it.