The Food Stamp (SNAP) Challenge

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutritional Service there were 46,326,352 individuals in 22,155,497 households receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits in February 2012, the latest date for which figures are available. That’s up 4.8% from February 2011, but down -0.3% from January 2012.

The average monthly benefit was $132.98 per person. That’s roughly $33.25 per week, $4.75 per day or $1.58 per meal for 3 meals per day, seven days each week. It occurred to me that the daily allowance wouldn’t cover one way of my commute to work.

Millions of Americans with this food budget have to juggle which foods to buy with their SNAP benefits. Lowering your foods costs down to this level appears to be a daunting task. I can understand why the decision to buy a hamburger for $0.99 would appear to make more sense than spending $0.75 for a can or bag of beans.

It’s very easy to denigrate people on the SNAP program as just looking for a handout or even treating applicants like criminals – as evidenced by New York State’s fingerprinting of food stamp applicants – but high unemployment and even higher underemployment has forced people who probably would never have thought of applying for these benefits to seek help. An article recently highlighted the tripling of individuals with graduate degrees applying for SNAP benefits. Granted, they only make up 1% of total benefit recipients, but this is still a disturbing trend.

How much do you spend per week on food for yourself? Take away what you spend on eating out. Do you think that you could live on $33.25 per week for food? The Food Bank of New York has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging all New Yorkers to live on a food stamp budget. Celebrities such as Mario Batali and his family are participating in this challenge.

Are you willing to try this challenge? Can you live on a food stamp budget for a week?

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22 thoughts on “The Food Stamp (SNAP) Challenge

  • I honestly don’t think I could make that $140/month budget work (not for a sustainable amount of time anyways).

    For a limited period of time my family received food stamps and it was a challenge. While food stamps helped, it wasn’t enough to cover the entire grocery bill for us. Our mother was creative and did a lot meal planning.

    That said, there are some ways one can work with that budget until they get back on their feet. One can find affordable fresh foods (even Wal-mart is joining in)in their community.

    It does mean having someone cooking meals from scratch (or close to) which isn’t a bad thing. My mom did most of the cooking, but we each had our day to prepare meals and it was learning experience.

    I also would add that for that small budget to work moving over to a more vegetarian based diet will help the money go further. Meat is expensive, so buying in bulk when a deal is around is a cost effective move (if you have the freezer space).

    Will those tips help someone trying to keep their $140 budget?I still don’t think so, especially if you have a teenager in the house.

  • Yes I can and do do it on less than that without food stamps. I always thought national averages and food stamp amounts were high. Yet I know many who run out of food stamps 2 weeks into the month but what I noted is all in what you buy and how you cook. A long time ago a really bad car wreck had me on food stamps for 2 months, in that 2 months I bought enough food for 6 months worth of food. Yet I see pizza places take foods stamps along with Schwanns and Omaha meats!

    I feed my family of 5 plus dog ( dog gets a homestyle diet we cook for her no dog food) on an average of around $300- $350 a month which includes paper products like toilet paper and personal like shampoos.

    This month I tried a coupon experiment I don’t usually do and spent $500 which is really really high and only happens about twice a year! That still comes down to $25 a person a week….less if you count the dog as a 6th person!

    Cooking skills go a long way in stretching a food dollar!

  • Shortly after we got married, my wife’s wages got garnished and I was out of work. We were were denied for food stamps because we made about $200/year too much. They didn’t care that a quarter of our total income was being taken by the court. To make do, we spent about $50 a month on food. There was a lot of ramen and peanut butter. This continued for two months until my wife filed for bankruptcy.

    These days, with my wife making 50% more than she did 3 years ago, and be being upgraded to UNDER-employed, we spent about $200/month and eat much healthier.

    I have trouble believing that the average is only $132 per person. My brother was on it for a short time and he got $200/month. My brother-in-law and his family was getting $1200/month when there was only 5 of them. Maybe my family is just poorer than the average poor family in the US. :/

    • The maximum allotment for an individual is $200, according to the US Dept. of Agriculture, which runs the program. The average allotment is less because there is a sliding scale, so eligible people with higher incomes are expected to spend some of their own money on food.

  • When I was single I usually spent less than that on food without making any special effort. Most of the foods I like are cheap. Unfortunately, they are also unhealthy.

  • Actually, my family of four regularly beats that budget without much effort. Our goal, not always achieved, is to eat $1/person/meal and we eat very well and healthy I might add (I’m also not much of a couponer.

    I recently did a post on this, but the average American family only spends $6.81/person per day. Much more than $4.75, but not so much more that I couldn’t believe many people could achieve it.

  • Not only do I think you could live on that, and be healthy — we usually spend that much or less every single week.

    Would you be interested in a guest post on how I do it? I’d be happy to pass on the tricks I’ve learned!

  • With the food prices in New Zealand I definitely couldn’t survive on this money right now. I think I could just scrape it in USA (being vegetarian hopes) but it would be tough to get enough protein.

  • I’m pretty sure I couldn’t. If I was a good cook maybe…making my dollar stretch getting creative with ingredients, but I’m not a good cook at all. I COULD…and SHOULD do better than I’m doing though with food spending. There are some things I don’t NEED but really, really like.

  • You have cited the AVERAGE benefit, not the maximum benefit. Remember that recipients of food stamps are also working. So, if they are making more money the food stamp benefit gets reduced presumably becasue they have SOME money to pay for food. So no one is expecting them to live on $33 per week of food (although the commenters on this post point out its possible) they are expecting them to kick in some of their earned money for food. Reasonable, don’t you think?

    In my state the benefit for a family of 3 not making enough money to contribute anything towards their own food is $568. Which I can tell you is FAR more than my family of 3 spends on food, and more than adequate.

  • When my daughter was a newborn, this is about how much money we had per week to feed ourselves (her formula was a separate line item). It was tough but we somehow managed to survive. It was during this time that I learned to cook pretty much everything from scratch and became less prideful about letting people buy us food. It was a hard lesson to learn but I’m much stronger for having gone through it. I have no interest in doing it again, though.

    That said, I did a modified version of this last year and partially documented it on my site. I’ve thought about repeating the experiment, if only to remind ourselves how fortunate we are that we don’t have to struggle to put food on our table.

  • Wow graduate degrees and snap. It reminds me of when I used to work in a food kitchen. One of the homeless had a masters degree. I was too young to ask what happend. Very sad.

  • Our current budget is about the same at the SNAP allotment, so I know we could do it. But I cook almost all our meals at home, I buy in bulk, and I’m cooking for 4-5 people. I actually think it is easier to live on less when you are buying and cooking bigger quantities.

  • It might be theoretically possible where I live, but it would be a lot of rice and very unhealthy. Food prices are often much cheaper in the US than in Canada, especially in the rural areas where I live. My spouse and I probably spend $140 a week, eating fairly well and mostly vegetarian. We do eat some seafood and almost all of our meat is game meat.

  • I own my car and house, I feel very blessed to have both of them! I am a single parent, working part time. Both my adult children live with me. One is in college and the other works. I am having difficulty paying bills and providing food on the table. As you know, just because you own a car and your home doesn’t mean the sky is free. There’s maintenance and insurance and taxes keep going up… Any help would b appreciative. Where is it? I’m up for the challenge!

  • I have to agree with M doats’ comment. In taking the food stamp challenge one should use the maximum allotment of $200 a month for an individual, not the lower average. Families getting less than the maximum do spend some of their own money on food. They have other problems because of poverty, but taking the food stamp challenge cannot approximate those other difficulties.

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