As I posted on my instagram, @wellbymel_, I experienced being on Food Stamps (SNAP) for 1 week for a project in my Community Nutrition class. SNAP budget is $40 per week for a single person and limited to only non-prepared foods. For example, you are able to purchase raw chicken; however, rotisserie chicken is not allowed under the SNAP program.
When the SNAP experience project was mentioned on the first day of class, I honestly felt nervous. Eating healthy is something that is really important to me and a lot of the choices I make during the day are based around eating healthy. The idea of being on a strict food budget that would most likely compromise my food choices was scary to me. I didn’t do a ton of grocery planning for this project. For my first grocery trip I actually tried to purchase foods similar to what I purchase in a typical week.
I decided to make two trips to the grocery store instead of one. That way I could learn from any mistakes that I might make during the initial shopping trip. Fortunately, I am a member of a Food COOP, which tends to have more affordable food prices, and did my first grocery shopping trip there as it does accept SNAP benefits. During the first shopping trip, I tried to buy foods close to what I would normally buy at the grocery store.
On my first grocery trip on a Friday, I spent $28 on bananas, 2 packages of frozen riced cauliflower, 1 jar of peanut butter, 1 carton of flax milk, 1 package of chicken, 1 can of tuna, 1 package of fresh arugula, 2 avocados, 1 package of frozen broccoli, and one dozen eggs. Surprisingly, shopping at the Food COOP for my first trip actually put me at a disadvantage price-wise. This is because the COOP is much smaller than a typical grocery store and as a result, does not have as large of a selection of foods. As a result, I had to buy organic bananas and avocados instead of conventional because that is all that was in stock. Realistically, it cost me about $3 more to buy the organic bananas and avocados as it would have to buy conventional, however, that $3 is almost 10% of my weekly SNAP budget. It would have been smart of me to not buy these items at the Food COOP and to buy bananas and avocados at Trader Joes instead. However, I didn’t have the time to make a separate trip to do this.
I ate very similar meals everyday for the first few days:
- Breakfast: smoothie with 1 frozen banana, 1/3 pack frozen cauliflower, peanut butter, and flax milk
- Lunch: 3 eggs, ½ avocado, and ¼ package of the frozen broccoli
- Dinner: chicken or tuna over arugula topped with oil, salt, and pepper
I did very poor job planning the first few days. My breakfast was fine; however, my lunch and dinners were not enough food. Furthermore, I didn’t budget for any snacks. As a result, I ate scoops of peanut butter as a snack because that was the only food that I had enough of. I ate so much peanut butter that I finished the entire jar after breakfast on Monday. I started to feel hungry and get worried about being able to make it through the week with the amount of groceries that I had left plus the $12 I could still spend.
The following Monday, I spent the remaining $12 of my budget at Trader Joes. I purchased bananas, peanut butter, a bag of sweet potatoes, oatmeal, a dozen eggs, and an avocado. This seemed like a lot of food for only $12 in comparison to what I had spent at the Food COOP earlier that week. For dinner on Monday, I had ½ can black beans, a sweet potato, and ¼ avocado. I was so grateful and excited to variety in my diet and actually started to get excited about my meals again. However, I was afraid to eat too much of my groceries because I knew that they had to last me through the rest of the week.
I also ran into some other challenges with my groceries. On Monday, I accidentally dropped an egg while cooking. Because I dropped the egg, I couldn’t eat it and that was one less grocery that I had for the week.
I found the SNAP experience really challenging. I learned that you really need to plan everything on a SNAP budget. Of course, you need to plan your groceries in advance, but furthermore, you need to plan exactly what you’ll be eating on what day so that you don’t run out of food. I have gone through different phases in my life where I have restricted my food intake as a diet. However, that kind of food restriction came from a place of complete control. During this experience, my food intake came from of place of having no control. Granted, I only experienced this for a week, but I can imagine the feeling of having no control over your next meal can be really scary.
The SNAP experience impacted me from a lifestyle standpoint. On SNAP, you always need to have food prepared. I personally love to cook, which I know is not true for most people from my generation. As a result, cooking all of my meals was not a daunting task for me. However, I’m a busy person- I work 20-25 hours per week, am in school full-time, and have other commitments. It was really challenging for me to always have food prepped and packed with me and not having the flexibility and convenience of being able to just grab food on-the-go if needed.
The SNAP program also made me view food differently. Besides breakfast, I was never really looking forward to any of my meals. The lunches and dinners that I ate were very bland and repetitive. I found that I really missed more variety in my diet or being able to snack between meals. While I planned meals in my budget, I really did not budget for snacks. The SNAP experience also made me realize how many “non-food luxuries” that I buy on a regular basis. I buy groceries such as kombucha, matcha, and different sauces. While these are items that I enjoy and like to purchase, they are not groceries that will provide sustenance and are a luxury versus a necessity.
I had numerous realizations during the SNAP experience. First and foremost, buying fresh or even frozen fruit and vegetables on a SNAP budget is really hard! I tried buying foods similar to what I would normally eat in a week. However, if I had to do the SNAP experience again, it would be a better use of the budget to buy more grains and beans as they are more economical and also nonperishable. I also found that bananas, sweet potatoes, eggs, peanut butter, other legumes, and whole grains were the most affordable healthy foods. I also learned that on a SNAP budget there is almost no room for error. I accidentally dropped one of my eggs on Monday and realized that it didn’t matter if you accidentally ruined any of your food, that SNAP budget was the budget.
I also found it interesting that Trader Joes prices seemed to be less expensive than the Food COOP. I think the COOP generally has cheaper prices on organic and specialty food items; however, I think Trader Joes has better prices for conventional items. I think if I had done all of my shopping at Trader Joes, I would have had a much easier time. However, not everyone has access to Trader Joes. As a future dietitian, it is necessary to not only keep food choices in mind, but also food accessibility and availability.
Overall, I think this was a really valuable experience. As a future nutrition educator, it will be my job to offer nutrition counseling to patients. However, the advice is not practical or sustainable, it will not serve patients. I think that this experience offered some perspective of what its like for someone who is food-insecure. Coming out of this experience, I’m going to be more mindful of budget-friendly food options and incorporate ‘Budget-Friendly Recipes’ into my blog.