After a week of eating oatmeal, lentil soup, and tuna sandwiches, what’s the first thing you want that was off limits?
Coffee and watermelon. That’s what I wanted. We picked up a late season watermelon at the farmers’ market with the understanding that we had to hide it in the back of the fridge until our SNAP challenge was done. So for breakfast, I cracked into that watermelon. And I ground coffee beans while my husband leaned over my shoulder to breathe in the foreign aroma. The rest of breakfast was cereal with frozen blueberries and soymilk.
I packed a familiar lunch of lentil soup and an apple, but today my snacks were a little more exotic: watermelon and pistachios! And then I didn’t even eat the pistachios. Instead I wound up asking myself if I was really hungry, and I wasn’t. I made a cup of herbal tea, because I really missed having something warm to drink in our chilly office, but I didn’t need more food. Looks like I learned something there.
Meanwhile, my husband was having a harder time making wise choices with our new-found freedom.
His friends gave him a hard time on facebook for the less than amazing appearance of this impulse purchase. You see, my husband’s family owns a pizza shop back in Michigan and so it is expected that he will always maintain high standards for any and all pizza he consumes. This didn’t quite cut it. And when I asked him about it later, he admitted that it didn’t taste that great either. But I think we were both just excited to be able to eat things that had been off limits.
That excitement carried over into our dinner out to celebrate the end of the week. I couldn’t say no when my husband asked if we could go out to dinner the night after we finished our challenge. For many reasons, and some of them even valid, he was not initially thrilled about the idea of my experiment, but he played along at least 95% of the time, and that deserved a token of thanks.
Of course the irony is that even with a leftover gift card, we still spent nearly a week’s worth of SNAP budget on one meal out. It was delicious, of course. I had trout over couscous with grapes, mango, and fennel and my husband had a pork chop with mashed potatoes and green beans. And then we split the Chocolate Creme Brûlée for dessert. I appreciated a meal that had so many different fresh ingredients. And dessert. I appreciated dessert.
My husband and I have always enjoyed trying new food in the kitchen and in restaurants. But having spent a week eating only out of our kitchen and with only $60 has caused me to see our dinners out a little differently. I didn’t feel guilty eating a nice meal out. I thought that I might initially. But we watch our overall budget very closely and don’t go out to eat very often because we realize other things are more important to us. Instead I appreciated the meal more, understanding how fortunate we are to be able to indulge in the occasional luxury of experiencing foods that we don’t usually cook without having to spend any time in the kitchen cooking or cleaning. I also appreciate that like many folks who have enjoyed this luxury and now use SNAP to make ends meet instead, that this luxury is not guaranteed for anyone.
Lesson of the day: $60 could buy a week of groceries or one nice meal. I hope I will always remember how to do the first and properly appreciate the second.
Still to come: more reflections and analysis of the week, what we didn’t eat, plus our complete weekly menu with links to recipes.
The only problem with this experiment is that people on food stamps don’t celebrate after one week by going out and throwing money into one meal. The hunger keeps going and going and going and going….
I have to agree with the previous comment. We get about $126 for a week’s worth of groceries on SNAP, and that may seem like a lot, but it really isn’t when you’ve got 2 adults and 4 kids. The idea of blowing our food stamp budget for a week on eating out is an impossibility for us. Even spending $60 on a meal for my partner and I is an impossibility. That right there is almost our monthly water bill.
When you live on a food stamp budget you look at the world a lot differently than just food. After all, you can compare that nice dinner out to a week’s worth of groceries (actually, that’s more than two people would be allotted here by about $20), or you can remind yourself that a nice dinner out costing that much is about the same as the water bill. That’s about 2/3 of our electric bill. That meal is about 10% of our rent.
I think that’s one thing this experiment is severely lacking, an understanding about what it’s like to choose not to eat because you’re so stressed out, or because your children have been devouring everything in the house because they’re going through a growth spurt, which means the adults have to sacrifice or the kids complain about being hungry. It’s an interesting experiment, but in a way I almost think these experiences almost trivialize a lot of the details of living in poverty. And in a lot of cases everyone shows how easy it can be done.
A lot of details are forgotten with experiences like this. For example, in your area you’ve got $10 bonus bucks if you shop at the farmer’s market each week and about $10 per person more than the average in Texas. You also downloaded digital coupons to your safeway card, I’m assuming from a home computer. What about the areas where digital coupons aren’t an option? Not everyone has a computer or has the free time every week to get to the library to search for coupons. Or where the local store doesn’t have any coupons at all, digital or otherwise? It’s a great experiment, and I’m glad it can give others an appreciation of exactly how hard it is, but it’s moments like this that I come to realize that unless you live it, you’ve really got nothing more than a tiny peek through a window of what it’s like.