The Greater Philadelphia Food Stamp Challenge concluded (for us) last Thursday, ending a week of eating on the budget of a SNAP recipient household. We started the week with $64.40 in an envelope and a mostly emptied refrigerator. Three days into the week, we only had $5.50 in the envelope but plenty of leftovers and pantry items remaining.
On the final day of the challenge, we finished the last of our tea, oats, bread, rice, eggs, and fruit. We used the last of our food budget to purchase a box of brownie mix ($1.50) and a tub of strawberry ice cream ($2.99), ending the week with $1.01 left over. I was very excited that we could afford to purchase dessert; but it also felt so extravagant.
We’re now through five days of the Greater Philadelphia Food Stamp Challenge! On Monday, I prepared our second big dinner of the week—a delicious stewed black bean recipe with aromatic herbs and vegetables. Between this dish and the slow-cooked chicken from early in the week, we should have more than enough food for the remaining dinners this week and even left-overs for lunch. I am hopeful now that we will have money left over in our food money envelope for an end-of-the-week treat: perhaps some ice cream!
Yes, I actually put $64.40 cash into an envelope labeled “Food Money” at the beginning of the challenge. I take that envelope with me when I shop, keep my receipts there, and keep a running tally of the balance on the outside of the envelope. When I was shopping on Saturday, I became increasingly self-conscious of my envelope, especially as the larger bills disappeared and I had to spend time counting out change to pay for my groceries. To get at the money, I have to turn the front of the envelope toward the cashier—with the “Food Money” label and the running tally plainly visible. Sometimes I found myself contriving to cover the envelope with my hand or getting the money out ahead of time.
Until 2004, the USDA issued paper vouchers that were the actual form of payment used by Food Stamp recipients. To an even greater degree than my envelope, these unmistakable coupons marked a customer as a recipient of public assistance and were a source of private and public embarrassment. Today all SNAP benefits are distributed on Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards that operate exactly like a debit card at the grocery store.
Saturday’s habitual trip to the farmers’ market yielded one small bunch of fresh, young asparagus. One-half pound for $3.50 was definitely a splurge, but for the first local asparagus of the year to share with friends, this is one splurge I can easily justify.
I also picked up the rest of my Sunday brunch ingredients at the grocery store; the total, $12.86. I now have only $5.50 left in my food money envelope for the week and four more days to go. It’s a bit stressful to be so close to our budget limit, but I still think we’re going to make it.
For our brunch guests, I decided to make an asparagus and bacon quiche. A quiche also requires crust, so I opted to purchase some flour and make my own crust rather than buy a pre-made crust. My quiche recipes call for either evaporated milk or cream in the egg mixture, neither of which I have or could justify purchasing, so I had to figure out a way to make do with regular milk. I also debated with myself over whether to spend $1 on potatoes or go without. Eventually I purchased them, hoping that more food at brunch would also equal more leftovers for later in the week.
I did not tell our brunch guests that we were participating in the Food Stamp Challenge nor make any apology for the quantity or quality of the food provided.
We hit the weekend (and the official start of the Greater Philadelphia Food Stamp Challenge) with lots of leftover Sweet-and-Spicy Chicken from Friday night, cooked oats and rice in the refrigerator and a healthy pile of fresh produce on the counter. However, complications to our budget, meal plans, and commitment to Challenge rules are already coming thick and fast.
First of all, we had planned to host brunch with friends in a couple of weeks, but they suddenly realized that they will be out of town. The only other available dates were yesterday or at the end of May. So, rather than push off our meal another month (at least), we decided to get together this weekend.
Normally, brunch at our house is a lavish affair involving pancakes or waffles with every topping imaginable, eggs, bacon, juice, coffee, etc. But to stick with the challenge guidelines, we were going to have to entertain within our food budget for the week.
Have you ever looked at your grocery receipt later and realized that you had been overcharged for something? Normally I wouldn’t even notice, but this week I really can’t afford $4.99 for the butter that was supposed to be on sale for $2.49! Heading back to the store today to see if I can get a refund…
We are starting the Greater Philadelphia Food Stamp Challenge today, so I made a second shopping trip yesterday evening to buy more of the fresh produce that I will need for tonight’s dinner and for the rest of the week.
No matter what way you slice it, fresh produce is expensive—especially high-quality or organic produce. The cheapest and best that one can get is local, in-season produce, but not much is “in-season” in the middle of April in Pennsylvania. Most of our farmers’ markets aren’t even open for the season yet.
I choose not to buy most of my produce at Whole Foods because I really couldn’t justify the organic price markup. Some of the items (such as carrots), I may be able to get at the farmers’ market, but again the price for the quantity I need would have been prohibitive. Other items (such as bananas and celery) are just not available at the market. So, to get all of these produce items, I visited my neighborhood fruit truck—and the total, $9.17 for eight varieties of produce items.
I made my first shopping trip today for the upcoming Greater Philadelphia Food Stamp Challenge—-to Whole Foods.
What!? Really, Whole Foods? And you didn’t blow your entire food budget?
Yes, I really went to Whole Foods. And no, I didn’t blow our budget. I was actually able to purchase most of the staple food items that we’ll need for breakfast and lunch, get meat and veggies for our first big dinner, and choose natural or organic items (when reasonably priced).
And the grand total was… $33.37. For a breakdown of items from my receipt, check out my full blog post.
Did you know that more than 600,000 people in the five-county Philadelphia region rely on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—-formerly known as “food stamps”) to put food on the table? SNAP is the nation’s most important program for fighting hunger and one of the most effective at lifting individuals and families out of poverty. A family’s monthly allotment of SNAP benefits might mean the difference between everyone having three meals a day and someone going hungry. However, even with the help of SNAP, many families are faced with hard choices about what kinds of food to buy: trade-offs between price and nutrition; convenience and quality. Can you imagine what food choices you might make if you had to live for a week on the money you’ve got in your wallet today?
For just one week, individuals like me have committed to seeing what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a food stamp recipient in Philadelphia. The challenge is to live on just $35 for a week’s worth of food (for a 1-person household)—-the average food stamp budget for Pennsylvania. For my family, the weekly budget is $64.40. This budget includes all food and drink purchased and consumed during the week—-even though SNAP benefits can’t actually be used to buy prepared foods, alcohol, etc.
Will you join me in taking the Greater Philadelphia Food Stamp Challenge? You can sign up or find out more at www.hungercoalition.org/foodstampchallenge.