Top 5 Things the SNAP Challenge Taught Me

For those of you without enough time to casually peruse my week-long journey on a SNAP budget as chronicled here on, I have summarized it for you in one handy post, and with one handy infographic.  Here you will find what we learned, and how we did nutritionally and financially.  Enjoy!



What We Learned

I convinced my husband to do something a little strange with me for a week.  We only ate what we could purchase for $60–the average SNAP benefits for two people here in Maryland. It’s a challenge promoted by Maryland Hunger Solutions to encourage policymakers like Mayors, journalists, and average folks like myself to see what it’s really like to try to eat enough food and healthy food for a week on food stamps.

For 3 days I brainstormed a menu for the week, searching recipe sites for simple lentil soup and cost effective pasta. Two days before we started, my husband and I went to the grocery store armed with my excel spreadsheet of meals for the week, a shopping list, a list of coupons downloaded to my loyalty card, and an iPad to serve as the high-tech calculator to keep us on track.
And here’s what we brought home with us:

As we ate our way through all this food, we learned 5 big lessons.

1. Eating healthy on a budget is hard.

We are both typically healthy eaters. We like our fruits and vegetables, we like our grains whole and our food minimally processed. I already cooked from scratch most days. But I wasn’t accustomed to using quite so much pasta, rice, bread, and peanut butter. We went through an entire jar of peanut butter in a week! Our fruit and vegetable consumption was overshadowed slightly by our carbohydrate consumption for the purpose of saving money. Eating more fruits and vegetables would have meant eating less food, and that’s a scary premise when money is tight.

2. Making cheap food delicious and interesting takes time, skill, and creativity.

I came into this challenge with a few advantages.  I have been baking and cooking for nearly 20 years, I like to cook, I only work one job, and it’s just the two of us and we aren’t picky eaters. Planning the menus and shopping for this week took significantly longer than a typical week. That was time I could afford, and I enjoyed the challenge of the task. But not everyone has extra time, a love of cooking, or the luxury of only pleasing two palates. And although I’m proud that we took the challenge and managed to purchase groceries within our $60 budget, I have no intention of making this a long-term deal.

3. Hunger makes everything else harder.

Day 3 made this ultimately clear. Just spending a day walking around Annapolis and visiting the Naval Academy was more challenging when hungry. We got cranky and tired and just wanted to go home early instead of taking a boat tour like we had originally hoped. Normally we could have just stopped and picked up a snack, or I would have brought granola bars to ward off hunger instantly. Instead we had to go back to our car to get our carrots and hummus out of the cooler and inhale them before driving home.

4. Feeling limited in food choices ruins good judgment.

This might sound harsh, but let me explain. My husband and I are typically very selective about what we eat. We prefer foods that we know will help us feel healthy. But in the grocery store and in situations of free or cheap food, our standards dropped. I would usually prefer whole wheat pasta, but for $.67 I’d take regular pasta on our SNAP budget. At the farmers’ market, my husband was not strong enough to resist a blueberry and cheese Danish when he heard them discounted to $1 at the end of the market day. On the first day after the challenge he also couldn’t resist a couple slices of bad pizza simply because he was now “allowed” to purchase it.  Selectiveness is a luxury for those who have many options.

5. Feeling satisfied and feeling full are two different feelings.

I certainly felt hunger during my week challenge, which wasn’t something I was accustomed to.  But I was always able to satisfy my hunger, even if it wasn’t with the most interesting meals.  In the portioning of food that was necessary to make $60 last a week for two people, we weren’t able to eat until we were full, at least not until the last day when we knew we could eat whatever was left.  At the end of each meal however, my husband and I both agreed that we felt satisfied and no longer hungry.   We just had to learn to be emotionally satisfied with physically satisfied.

*$124 per average American is calculated using 2009 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.


17 comments on “Top 5 Things the SNAP Challenge Taught Me”
  1. ERDEBS says:

    This is a great experiment! Do most people on SNAP only have that money to eat? Or is it a supplement to their own money?

    1. marianhd says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I wish I could take credit for the idea, but I can’t.
      You’ve asked a great question, and I wish I could answer it with some authority, but I can’t. I might know someone who can though, and I will try to get an answer! Stay tuned…

    2. Fox says:

      SNAP is supposed to be a supplement to a family’s own food budget. Unfortunately, for many families I know who use the program all of their money is tied up in bills every month and they don’t have the luxury of adding their own funds to the SNAP income. A few of them will splurge and eat out once or twice a month, but it’s usually whatever’s cheap, pizza, fast food, nothing good and healthy.

      And $60 is actually high for the national average. The national average seems to be about $1 per day per person. An awesome documentary to check out for more information on all of this is Food Stamped. A woman and her husband do a week long food stamp challenge and they were found at the end of it all to be seriously lacking in calories, and they interviewed a handful of families that live on food stamps.

      From personal experience, my family has our food stamp budget, about $126 per week to feed 6 people, 4 of them growing kids. That amount doesn’t go far when you consider how much more kids need to eat when they’re growing. It’s a serious challenge, and most of the people who live in our neighborhood face the same challenges. It’s stick within their food stamp budget or risk losing things like their electricity, water, housing, or don’t have money to pay someone for gas for a ride to the grocery store. Those that do have cars have insurance and sometimes car payments to worry about. It’s not easy and most states don’t take into account that families really don’t have extra money to add to their food budget every month.

  2. Wow – what a GREAT post! Using coupons and building a (not too crazy) stockpile has enabled me to get our weekly grocery bill for my family of five down to about $75/week. I actually aim for $60 but there are always the extra runs to grab a missing item during the week, so $75 is average. It is so true – healthy eating costs more (and no coupons for fruits and veggies!) so usually that is at least $15 of my weekly trip. It takes several hours every week to plan a shopping trip so that I can get all of my coupons in order – I usually have at least $40 in coupons (and they don’t double here in FL) so that really helps the bottom line. Anyway, the idea of living on a strict $30/person per week budget is scary and this was enlightening (and humbling) since it reminded me that so many people out there are having to do just that.
    Thanks again for the post!

    1. marianhd says:

      Thanks Claire! I am thoroughly impressed with your $75/week! To keep it healthy is a challenge on a tight budget, and you’re right, there are never coupons for avocados or red peppers. I can’t imagine if allergies or food sensitivities were an issue, either. I was humbled, too, by the experience and feel much more grateful for what I can afford. Your $75 might be a challenge to me, too, cause on a normal week I spend about that for two people! Although I can usually get by with one week of $20, too.

      1. The coupons really help make that possible. The first 2-3 months were the hardest (I will be posting all about it at some point but not this month! My 31 Days challenge is keeping me busy)! I did post about our patio garden and red peppers (and now a new little avocado seedling!) are among the mix! We are complete foodies and love to cook so hopefully some of these things will produce good stuff for us soon! Love the NY post. Mmmm. Pumpkin hummus. Sounds crazy but I bet it was YUM! 🙂

  3. marianhd says:

    I will be watching for the upcoming post about how you lowered your grocery budget! And the pictures of your patio garden have me jealous. I can’t wait to have some outdoor space for a few veggie plants. I have literally dreamed about an avocado tree. Find yourself some pumpkin hummus, now. It was amazing!

  4. Tammy says:

    I love that you did this and you did such a great job reporting it. I did it a couple of years ago and really won’t forget the lessons that it taught me. It’s really important for people like you and me to do these social experiments. Here’s a link in case you want to compare our experiences:

    1. marianhd says:

      Excellent post! Doing the challenge with an entire family had to be an even greater challenge. I sometimes thought to myself how fortunate I was that it was just me and my husband. I agree with the changed mentality! I actually caught myself getting angry at my husband for eating an apple when he wasn’t hungry because we only had 7 apples for the week between the two of us! It’s definitely left an impression on me.

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