SNAP is not a game

a week's worth of food

a week’s worth of food

In the beginning…..

there was an apple. Two toasted tortillas with salsa and greek yogurt. Three dark chocolate kisses. And a large glass of seltzer with a splash of cranberry juice. I eat some weird things after I play squash. Basically whatever’s close at hand and quick to fix. But four of those items I won’t be eating this week. They’re too expensive and I’m on a budget. A SNAP budget.

I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of SNAP before last week. It stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. You and I may know it better as Food Stamps, but we’re behind the times. Many, many people know SNAP, whether they like it or not, but it was the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey who brought it to my attention. In my daily perusal of online news—from NYTimes to Huffington Post to EOnline—I caught wind a week ago that Mayor Cory Booker had been to Pathmark on a grocery shopping trip. And spent just less than $30 on food. Food to last the entire week.

What was up?

A SNAP Challenge that’s what. “Nutrition is not the responsibility of the government” tweeted a Twitter user to Mayor Booker and the mayor had tweeted back with a challenge. Let’s do this thing. Let’s see how we feel after a week living off the food budget of a SNAP recipient and then see how we feel.

I was intrigued. On many levels. Could I do it? How would it make me feel? Would I still be able to be as active (play squash, do my workouts at the gym, be focused enough to write coherently) as I usually am? (And I’ll hastily add that some of those things are a luxury that most people on a budget would not be concerned about.) Would I feel more connected to and concerned about social issues, particularly about poverty and wage issues here in the U.S.?

I’ll be completely honest. My mother will be appalled (she recently served in the Peace Corps), but I don’t spend tons of time thinking about social issues or the poor children starving in Africa, or any country for that matter. I know it sounds absolutely heartless (it does to me as I write it!), but the avalanches of not-so-good news that pour in from the radio, internet, newspaper, TV are often so suffocating that it’s easier to remain in my little cave. Ironically, the written word often rolls as quickly out of my head as it does into it. But put that head into a new and not so comfortable situation, and it will stick.

So that’s why instead of merely reading and listening to issues in the news this week, I am going to try to feel what it’s like to be part of an issue, or at least experience it more viscerally. SNAP currently helps about forty five million low-income families eat more nutritious meals, make ends meet, and have the energy for work and school. Things many of us take for granted . . . so much so that we may unwittingly let some of the families assisted by SNAP go over the fiscal cliff if that program is trimmed next year.

Admittedly, when I first heard about the SNAP Challenge it sounded like a game. And it even comes with rules. Spend a set amount for all food and drink for the week you’re on the challenge. Eat and drink only from the food you purchase for that week. Avoid accepting free food. But SNAP is not even close to a game for those who truly need it. And I know that one week of living on a SNAP budget won’t even come close to what SNAP recipients go through, both now and long after my challenge is done. But if a week long ‘challenge’ will help me get out of my cave and see the world a little more clearly (and hungrily) then game or not, I hope it has lasting effects.

My first stop for the week,

with its shopping ‘circular’ in hand, was my local supermarket C-Town. I had $33.29 to spend, according to SNAP, based on a per person monthly allowance for my home state of New York. This was, admittedly, the first time I’d ever used a ‘circular’. I’m ashamed to say that finding them littering my stoop every week had always annoyed me, because I never used them. I just went to the store and bought whatever I needed….or, more accurately, wanted. But when you’re on a budget, they’re extremely helpful. In truth, I used their online version to pre-shop for everything, so I pretty much knew what I was going to buy and what everything cost before I got to the store. Thank god. Because if I had tried to shop the way I usually do – willy nilly – it would’ve taken me hours to figure out what I could afford.

Fortunately, I am a decent cook and have a pretty good sense of nutritional value. But with just this one shopping trip, I have a whole new admiration for those on a strict SNAP budget, even if supplemented with money of their own. I quickly realized that most of the protein and produce I regularly purchase was not affordable. I usually eat a lot of fish, but just the half a pound I eat at one dinner would’ve wiped out almost a third of a 7 day budget! And fresh greens, while a purchase of Mayor Booker, a vegetarian, seemed a high and less filling price to pay in lieu of the cheaper carbs from pasta, rice, and potatoes. Although I did buy a bunch of cheap chicken legs which I’ll cook up later in the week.

IMG_1419So here are the results of my shopping toils. This is the receipt from C-Town and what I’ll be eating for the next seven days. Note, no coffee, no sweets, and no juice (all too expensive) and I went slightly over budget, due to my addiction to spinach and mistakenly thinking it was on sale. See, I’m already breaking the rules. But I’ll cut $4.53 somewhere, if you cut me some slack for being new to this.

See my next post for meals and thoughts on days 1 & 2. If you have questions (the reasonable sort), leave a comment below and I’ll try to answer it.

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3 Responses to SNAP is not a game

  1. Anonymous says:

    i just read this – whilst eating a pulled pork sandwich and fries and two beers at the SFO airport. i think the total tab will come to slightly more than what you’re allowed for the week. nice article… does have me thinking…..

  2. Nat says:

    Hi T, I look forward to reading your daily menu! Good luck, and don’t get too skinny!

  3. Dinah Day says:

    good luck to you, Tracy. I am leaving for my sister, a choc-oholic, in LA where everyone always goes to restaurants in order to have any semblance of social lives. You ( and Corey Booker) are inspirations to me and will do my best to stay lean and nutritionally frugal. Dinah D.

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