(Failing) the SNAP challenge

(Failing) the SNAP challenge

The thriving, nationally-celebrated food scene in Richmond shows no sign of slowing down. But for many, sampling a chef’s tasting menu or enjoying organic produce from a neighborhood grocer is a distant reality.

The thriving, nationally-celebrated food scene in Richmond shows no sign of slowing down, as new restaurants and grocers grace our neighborhoods and culinary experts rise among our ranks. It’s an inspiring thing to watch. It feels as though all of Richmond is living high on the hog, and that’s true enough for some people. But for many, sampling a chef’s tasting menu or enjoying organic produce from a neighborhood grocer is a distant reality.

Richmond’s Food Policy Task Force, a group of advocates, business owners, educators, and policy experts, (a Food Justice League, if you will) provided data in their 2013 summary to show that:

20 to 60 percent of Richmond’s population–or between 40,000 to more than 120,000 of total residents–are going hungry or are at risk of food insecurity due to lack of healthy food access or consumption. Low income households, minorities, children living in single family households, mothers–especially single mothers, the disabled, and people without health insurance are all at risk for diet–related health problems, if they remain without access to healthy foods and do not develop nutritious eating habits over time.

To give people who have a comparatively ample food budget perspective on the challenges of getting by on limited resources, Feeding America, a nonprofit nationwide network of food banks, created the SNAP challenge last Fall. The challenge encouraged members of congress, spiritual leaders, and public figures to limit their spending to the per meal budget of the average SNAP1 recipient. Images of congressmen eating ramen noodles in plush leather offices began popping up with the implication that they were feeling their constituents’ pain with every salty slurp.

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I want to see first-hand what they may have learned by taking the challenge myself, so I embark on a five-day SNAP Challenge, wherein I’ll attempt to provide meals for my family for $4.50 per person, per day, $67.50 total. I arrive at Kroger with a list I scribbled down in the car, a positive attitude, and a basic understanding of the parameters of the challenge (see sidebar). It’s go time.

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The challenge

1. $67.50 over five days to be spent on grocery items, excluding hot, ready-to-eat foods or alcohol.

2. The original challenge, created by Feeding America, restricted participants from accepting food as gifts or eating any pantry items that were not purchased from the SNAP benefit budget. I modified this because it seems extreme. SNAP recipients are normal people who can enjoy dinner at Grandma’s house or other ‘food gifts’ just like anyone else.
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I start with some produce, careful selections to last me through the week, including cabbage and kale at bargain prices. I’ve already got spinach at home, a heaping grocery bag full from the farmers market for a flat $3. It will need to play several roles this week to get me through. I pass the meticulously maintained Blanchard’s display and reach out for a bag of Breakfast Blend, but I stop short. At $8 a bag, my addiction exceeds my budget, and I decide to stretch the coffee I have until the weekend.

At this point, I have to drop $7.98 on milk. There is no way we can get through the week on anything less, and that’s counting the milk we already have. Not long after that, I come face to face with a money trap I just can’t pass up: soda. At three for $9, the sodas practically buy themselves, right? Actually, $9 is about 13% of my food budget, and the return is completely devoid of nutritional benefit. Knowing that, I still make the decision to buy the soda, a decision I’ll regret by Friday. My total comes to $52.13. Combined with the $10.00 I spent at the farmers market, I’ve spent $62.13, which means I have exactly $5.37 left for incidentals. So, you know, I clearly live by the motto PLAN AHEAD.

For Monday’s dinner, I’ve got shrimp from the farmers market, only affordable because my local fishmonger gives me a generous discount,2 to make a simple Shrimp and Rice Stew–a big batch that we will revisit for lunch the next day.

Tuesday goes almost too well. The major lesson for the day is that the budget limits spontaneity–this learned after a well-meaning attempt to make cookies meets a very real lack of eggs and an abrupt, unfulfilling end. Otherwise, I feel like I’m meeting the challenge admirably, but I’ve already accepted gifts of ‘food’ in the form of juice, booze, and coffee in the past 24 hours, which has kept both my spirits and sugar levels (same thing?) up.

We eat all three meals together as a family: yogurt and toaster waffles for breakfast; leftover stew for lunch; chili, kale, and cornbread for dinner. It’s going pretty well. But on Wednesday, the first hint of a challenge emerges. I’m starting to run out of stuff that I had counted on lasting longer–like the bread I tore off in chunks to sop up extra stew. Why did I have to tear it off in chunks? The rest of my fancy Eurobread is now rock-hard. Why did I buy crusty artisan bread at $4 a loaf, when a $3 bag of processed bread would still be springy and viable?

Wednesday, you taunt me with your 2:00 PM headache and slowly building sense of dread. We’ve run out of coffee. Half of my big bag of spinach is wilted and gross, but I pick through it so we’ll have something green with dinner. I should’ve gone through the spinach two days ago to avoid wasting it. Now I’ll only have enough for one meal, and it should’ve been enough for three. Despite these relatively minor setbacks, we have a pretty filling dinner: a roasted chicken, cous cous, and the salvaged spinach. I’m out of proteins for the week, so that roasted chicken will need to last through Friday night.

On Thursday, we use our tiny ‘incidentals fund’ plus a little extra-budgetal money to buy coffee, the good stuff. The idea of going through coffee withdrawals is unbearable, and I realize that, even on a tight budget, we make money for the things we feel like we need to buy. And thus, Thursday is the day when it finally occurs to me that I’m doing it wrong and possibly missing the point entirely. It’s also the day I decide to try to get a better understanding how real SNAP recipients make it work each month.

It’s nearly impossible to quantify what number of SNAP recipients rely on their benefits exclusively to cover their food costs. According to Joron Moore, at the Department of Social Services, only 21% of SNAP recipients in Richmond have earned income, making the supplement less supplemental and more total. For many, SNAP is a major part of the household budget, and with the recent diversion of previously available stimulus funds for government subsidies, those benefits are shrinking nationwide. According to the Food Policy Council’s report, many Richmond SNAP recipients live in the city’s food deserts with limited access to full grocery stores and/or reliable transportation and may have incomplete kitchens, further limiting their ability to produce nutritious meals.

It will take at least two weeks to find someone who’s willing to talk about her SNAP experience with me, and as I wait to hear back from people, I realize it’s largely because of the stigma associated with using SNAP. A friend who worked at Ellwood Thompson’s for several years (who wanted to remain anonymous) told me, “It was interesting because many students are on them, and there was a lot of judgement from the staff about what people would purchase, prepared food, specifically–which is well within the law as long as it is cold.”

Susan Clifton, a single mother who relies on her monthly SNAP benefit to feed herself and her son, is thankful to be able to put food on the table: “Honestly I don’t know what I would do at this time without it. It makes every difference in my day to know that I can eat. It’s such a basic need and one I never thought I would struggle to meet.” Susan, who has received SNAP benefits since September 2012 is wary of being lumped in with people who “abuse the system,” telling me, “there are people like myself who have found themselves in extremely difficult and hopefully temporary situations.” She says she’s glad the EBT system allows her to shop unobserved: “No one has to know…I just swipe it like a regular card and enter my PIN without actually needing to hand anything over.”

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It’s Friday at 5:00 PM. TGIF, y’all; I’m out of money and sick of chicken. We dip into money that theoretically doesn’t exist in order to make the hangry go away. We’ll spend what would have been approximately half of our entire food budget on eggplant parmesan and a couple of heroes from 8 ½. Worth it. But what does that mean for me? I think what it means is that I’m unwilling to let myself get too close to the reality of hunger.3 The real, helpless, gnawing hunger that 1-in-6 people face nationwide, a hunger that penetrates every aspect of so many people’s daily lives. And more to the point, it means that a week-long challenge probably can’t get me there even if I don’t ‘cheat.’ With a bailout on the horizon, it’s impossible to feel the constant fear of not knowing where your next meal will come from. I’m unable to let myself truly suffer for the sake of learning a lesson, and I have my doubts that all those Congressmen did either.


  1. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps. 
  2. Lesson: Flatter the fish guy. 
  3. And possibly even mild discomfort. 

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