The ACAA Arizona SNAP Experience 2011 drew in 50 participants from across Arizona as well as participants from Kansas and Washington D.C. and as far away as Thailand. We asked our SNAP Experience participants to blog about their week on a SNAP budget and share their reflections with us. This is a complete archive of those blog reflections. Thank you to all who participated and shared!
In Your Words: The Grocery Store is a Battlefield
“The Grocery Store is a Battlefield” – a la Pat Benetar
It would appear that there is a food revolution going on in America. High fructose corn syrup is clinging on for dear life to all of the uses it found for itself over the last 40 years, local legislatures are increasingly requiring consumers to be made aware of the nutritional information of the foods served and eaten in restaurants, there is a strong movement attempting to make school lunches healthier, and Michael Pollan believers can be found at any local Whole Foods (or as a friend calls it – Whole Paycheck) shopping the perimeter of the store and for a pretty penny easily avoiding foods with a
long list of unrecognizable ingredients. All of this is great – right? But I’m not yet
convinced that all of this greatness is going to tackle the issues we need it to – obesity, diabetes, lower quality and longevity of life issues, healthcare costs, etc… Here’s why: EATING HEALTHY IS EXPENSIVE, REALLY EXPENSIVE.
I found this out first hand when my office decided to participate in the SNAP Experience (a week where participants budget their food costs to reflect the average Food Stamp allotment for their household size– in my case $29). We are doing this while also attempting to follow the USDA’s new version of the Food Pyramid – My Plate. This new guide places the primary emphasis on fruits and vegetables (should make up half of your plate), then grains (mostly whole), and finally protein (do your best to make it lean).
Armed with these parameters and seven days worth of meals to make, I hit the regular ol’ grocery store. My first stop was the produce section – which quickly became a minefield – the more nutritious a fruit or vegetable, the more expensive. Blueberries and broccoli may be the world’s super foods but they are certainly not a wallet’s best friend. Iceberg lettuce, cheap with low nutritional value. Spinach, significantly less cheap with high nutritional value. You get the idea. Next stop was the meat/fish counter. For many people, being healthy when it comes to eating meat has become synonymous with eating organic – don’t even think about it unless you are also thinking about getting a second job. Wild fish, also wildly healthy, your second job should probably be on Wall Street (same goes for milk and eggs, cows that aren’t given hormones and happy chickens are going to cost you significantly more). My final stop on the journey was the dry goods section where I encountered the counterintuitive concept that the less you refine something the more you pay for it. Whole wheat pasta, steel cut oats, whole wheat pitas or 9 grain bread are all pricier than their less healthy counterparts. Checkout complete, and in under $29, I took my supplies home and will be attempting to eat a proper My Plate meal every day. There is a strong possibility though that towards the end of the week there will be some hunger pains.
New Census figures came out (this week, actually) showing that 1 in 6 Americans is now living below the poverty line. And we already know from a large body of research that people who experience poverty are more highly represented in obesity and
diabetes figures. So if I may draw a very unscientific conclusion here – perhaps that’s because EATING HEALTHY IS EXPENSIVE, REALLY EXPENSIVE. If faced with the choice between buying iceberg lettuce and having more money in your budget to pay your utility bill or fill up your gas tank to get to work vs buying spinach but not having that extra money – what would you do? I’m thinking that we probably won’t be able to tackle the aforementioned issues until people don’t have to make these kinds of choices when they enter the front lines of this battlefield – the grocery store.
In Your Words: Grocery Shopping
Grocery shopping is usually something I do without too much thought. I know what fruits and veggies I like. As a vegetarian I try to keep a good stock of dried beans, eggs, tofu, and nuts on hand. I usually go for whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat bread. I know where everything is and what brands I prefer, and rarely do more than glance at the price tags.
But knowing I had only $29 for seven days made shopping much more complicated. I usually try to get most of my produce at local farmers markets, but assumed that the prices would be too high for my SNAP Experience budget. In the grocery store I found myself looking not just at the price, but the smaller “price per ounce” to find the cheapest option. In the produce section I steered clear of organics entirely and decided I couldn’t afford salad greens and chose starchier, more filling vegetables like carrots and frozen peas instead. I used the produce scale for what was probably the first time, and kept track of my total expenses using a calculator as I went. I found myself weighing selections I usually make thoughtlessly:
Could I afford cage-free eggs?
Would soy milk be too expensive?
Is natural peanut butter really worth the price difference?
And when I got home I realized I had completely left out carbs, other than oatmeal for breakfast. Thank goodness I had a little of my budget left over!
In Your Words: Marie
Putting SNAP on the Map: When it comes to eating, place matters.
It’s no secret that where you live affects how you live—everything from the length of your morning commute, to the quality of your neighborhood park, to whether your child’s teacher writes with broken chalk or SMART Board™ technology.
And the same is true for food. You likely know from shopping and eating and penny pinching, that where you live affects how much your groceries cost. As a Texas-native recently transplanted to D.C., I have endured the wide-eyed, light-walleted symptoms of supermarket sticker shock. The same items—bread, milk, eggs, and other staples—I enjoyed in my home state cost far more in D.C. stores. Though the mechanisms that drive such food price variation across regions, states, and neighborhoods are many and entangled, the effects on consumer buying power are substantial: the more food costs, the less you can afford.
When I decided to participate in the Arizona SNAP Experience from afar, my Texas-to-D.C. sticker shock got me thinking: How does food price variation affect buying power for people who rely on SNAP to cover their grocery bills? The answer was not difficult to uncover. The USDA publishes a table on the average per capita SNAP benefit for every state, and Feeding America, the nation’s largest emergency food provider, recently released Map the Meal Gap, an interactive map with food insecurity and food price data for a variety of useful geographies.
Using two simple formulas, I used the data sets to calculate the average weekly SNAP benefit per capita in each state in the U.S. and the average cost of food for an individual for one week in each state, assuming s/he consumes three meals per day. By dividing the average SNAP benefit for a week by the average cost of food for a week and multiplying the quotient by 100, I found the percent of average food costs covered by SNAP for each state in the nation.
And I couldn’t believe what I found. First, SNAP covers far less of an average shopper’s food budget than I was expecting. For example, SNAP covers just 44% of the average weekly food cost for a shopper in D.C. Although the USDA admits that SNAP is “supplemental” and therefore not meant to cover an individual’s entire food budget, 44% is simply insufficient, especially since many families cannot afford to spend money out-of-pocket. Second, I was surprised to find that there is incredibly high variation across states. In the best case, SNAP would cover 68% of your food (Ohio); in the worst case, just 44% (Vermont and D.C.). The national average is 58%. In Arizona, the number is 59%.
The biggest problem resulting from such variation is obvious: if your food costs are high and your state’s SNAP benefit does not rise to meet them, you must leave some items on the shelf or reach deep in your pockets to pay for food not covered by your benefit. This is a problem for low-income people, who are often stretching their budgets to cover things like rent/mortgage, child care, health care, and utilities. I would hypothesize (though I haven’t formally researched these claims) that other phenomena may be related to geographic variation in what SNAP buys you, such as the following:
• Geographic variation in which foods (type and quality) families choose to purchase with their SNAP benefits.
• Geographic variation in food insecurity rates. (SNAP provides a different level of in-kind benefit to families depending on where they live!)
• Geographic variation in health outcomes associated with food insecurity and/or consumption of unhealthy foods.
• Geographic variation in SNAP participation rates. (One might ask him/herself: Why participate if SNAP only covers a small portion of my bill?)
These questions require formal analysis, but it’s easy to see how a failure in the SNAP “system” to account for geographic variation in food prices could result in important differences in health and other measures of well-being based solely (and unjustly) on where people have chosen to lay down roots.
Of course, food price variation is local. Examining food prices in your state is better than looking at food prices nationally, but using more localized estimates is even better. For example, within New York State, the average cost per meal in New York County (Manhattan) is $3.72, whereas the average cost per meal in Chautauqua County (rural NY county near the PA border) is $2.27.
Use the three simple steps below to calculate what percent of an average food budget in YOUR county or congressional district is covered by SNAP. Compute the number for your community, reflect on your week participating in the SNAP Experience (or the blog posts describing the experience), and write your state and federal politicians about it! I would bet your whole food budget and mine that your elected officials don’t know just how little SNAP is doing for your most vulnerable neighbors.
Easy as 1, 2, 3: Calculate “Real” SNAP Benefits on Your Own
1. Visit Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap site. Locate your state, and click to make it larger. You can find your county or congressional district of interest and trace your cursor over the area until it changes color (to orange). Note the average cost per meal in the right hand corner of the data that appears. Multiply the average cost per meal x 21. This is the average cost of food for a week in the geographic area you’ve chosen.
2. View the USDA chart of average SNAP benefits per person for FY 2010. Find your state’s average monthly SNAP benefit per person and insert it into the following formula: Monthly benefit x 12 / 365 x 7. This is the average SNAP benefit per person for one week in your state.
3. Divide findings from STEP 2 by findings from STEP 1. Multiply the result by 100 to get the percent of an average weekly food budget covered by SNAP benefits in the geographic area you’ve chosen.
In Your Words: Recipe for Peanut Sauce
If you are doing the Experience with a jar of peanut butter and looking for some new ways to use it, try this rough recipe for Peanut Sauce (based on the recipe for Indonesian Gado Gado in Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook). Thanks to ACAA Hunger Fellow Sarah for sharing!
1 cup onions, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp butter
1 cup peanut butter
3 cups water
Juice of 1 lemon
Apple cider vinegar
Sauté the onions and garlic in the butter until the onions start to get translucent. Add peanut butter, water, and lemon juice, and reduce burner to low heat. Add soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, ginger and salt to taste. Continue to cook on low heat for about 30 minutes.
Sarah serves this over a mix of veggies and fruits.
Lunch at the ACAA Office: Day 2
Lunches eaten by our staff on Day 2. Notice a few things missing? Here’s hoping we added some more variety to our breakfasts and dinners to meet the MyPlate requirements!
Homemade biscuits, apple, and peanut butter.
Whole grain pita, peanut butter, and banana slices.
In Your Words: Never Experienced Hunger
Participant: Brian S.
I was raised in an upper middle class family and never worried about a meal. As an adult I always had the food supports I needed to be healthy and nutritionally fulfilled.
In starting the SNAP Experience (creating a week of meals with $29 to spend) I became acutely aware of all the supports a middle class or above person has to be food secure. Supports that make it cheap for me to have nutritional meals. For example: I get a newspaper so I have access to money saving coupons; I have a computer to search for the best deals; I have a Costco Membership which allows me to buy food very cheaply as compared to individual item purchases.
Individuals who are eligible for SNAP cannot afford a newspaper subscription, cannot afford an annual membership (worth 2 weeks of SNAP support, can you imagine) to buy
high quality bulk food etc. Instead they are making daily choices, weekly choices about what bills to pay, childcare, utilities, rent, transportation costs etc.
Other food supports come from my employer and job, i.e., free coffee daily, filtered
cold water, free snacks or meals at monthly all staff meetings, or conferences where my meals are covered in the course of my work. These are not necessarily available to those individuals in low wage jobs.
Another observation that I am aware of after being on my second day of the SNAP Experience is my energy level swings as I am eating more carbohydrates and less protein (too expensive on a SNAP budget). Yesterday I spent $1.99 for a bunch of celery and $1.69 for a head of lettuce so I had more roughage in my diet, those two items alone represented 12.6% of my weekly budget.
In Your Words: SNAP Stretching
For Day 2 of the SNAP Experience, I calculated my cost for the day’s meal and I
was surprised that even the little snacks can add up. I tried to stretch my grocery supply as much as I could today, which included spreading out my meals with longer gaps in between and drinking a lot of water.
When I was going grocery shopping I avoided buying flavored drinks or vitamin water, which I like to have on hand for a quick pick me up if I don’t want coffee. Right now, I have to admit I have a little bit of a headache. I know it’s not from not drinking
enough water, but my work schedule.
I’ve been staying up late sewing for the last few nights I’ve been going to bed at 2 or 3am. Normally, I would have a midnight snack to stay awake for a few hours and last night being the first day of the SNAP Experience I did without it and stayed up until 3am and woke up at 8:30am this morning.
Not having just a little energy pick me up last night may have affected how I feel today. I also try to eat at least 1200 calories a day, because if I go below that the next day I get super hungry. I would have had a package of microwavable rice with my chicken dinner, but it cost $1.79 and opted not to have it to stay on track for the whole week.
Here is what I ate, I was surprised for eating all my meals at home I thought it would be cheaper than this.
Breakfast: — Calories: — Cost:
Coffee with Soy Milk — 35 — .40
1 can of Slim Rite — 170 — .80
1 & 1/2 servings of imitation crab meat ($1.99 a pack)2/3 serving of Cream Cheese –210 — .79
Coffee with Soy Milk — 35 .40
String cheese — 80 — .49
Chicken with onions — 175 — $2.04
Broccoli — 20 — .13
1 Egg –70–.13
Total water intake
3/4 of a jug — .59
Total Calories: 1025
Total Cost: $6.11
In Your Words: A Family of 3
This week, instead of being just an individual participating in the SNAP experience, I decided it was important to involve my 5 year old daughter and my husband, too. My husband is always really supportive and aware of what I do as the coordinator of a food pantry. He is halfway to his bachelors’ in family and human development, so he has an interest in social services, too. Our daughter, on the other hand, is a typical 5 year old
who has no concept of money or how we get our food. She whines when we elected
to grill hamburgers or make pizza from scratch as opposed to buying it (or borrowing it, as she calls it). I wanted her to learn an early lesson that food isn’t always there for every kid. In fact, I was one of those kids when I was her age. I subsisted on a diet of ramen noodles, spaghetti, burritos and bologna sandwich, because my family was “too proud” to apply for food stamps, even though we needed them. With a household of 3,
we had $77 for the week to work from.
I knew this experience was going to be difficult for me because of my aforementioned issues with food security as a child and my background in nutrition, I can always justify food purchases and keep the pantry, refrigerator and deep freezer stocked with food at all times. In preparation, I let my supplies languish a little so that I wouldn’t be tempted to “cheat.”
I did the majority of my weekly shopping at Fresh and Easy, because I LOVE their $.98 produce packs and they also have a section of meat and produce that is 50% off because it needs to be eaten or frozen that day. I got 2 lbs of onions, 2 lbs of oranges, a bunch of cilantro, 2 lbs of carrots, 1 lb of celery, 2 green peppers, 5 lbs of potatoes, 1 lb of broccoli, 1 lb of roma tomatoes and some iceberg lettuce for under $12. Now, if I weren’t shopping on a budget, it would’ve been romaine instead of iceberg and cucumbers instead of celery, but still, not bad. I, later, picked up a lb of bananas, a lb of mushrooms and 3 lbs of grapes at Walmart for less than $4 by price matching.
I spent Sunday soaking and boiling beans and prepping for the week, which is way more than I usually do, but it’s been challenging to figure out how to make everything work for $1.22 per person per meal. Thus far, I’ve been really frugal, I’ve only spent $55 of my $77, because I can possibly foresee a day when I get out of work late and I’m just not in the mood to cook or something comes up at school that’s an emergency.
Day 1 is down and yesterday, we all had cereal with milk and a piece of fruit for breakfast, pb&j w/ carrots and grapes, and homemade chili w/mushrooms substituted for half the beef, 1 T. of cheese and a soft taco sized tortilla for dinner. In addition to a serving of mushrooms, the chili also contained a serving of green pepper and tomatoes. My daughter loves chili, so day 1 was easy for her. She finished 3 bowls worth, and she still only weighs 35 lbs- I don’t know where she puts it all! My chili recipe was only $.65 a serving (the recipe serves 9) excluding the tortilla, cheese, and spices used.
My menu for the week is a little more complex than I normally would prepare, but it is also devoid of fish. During a typical week, my family consumes fish or shellfish twice a week. Because I still have budget room, we may make tuna sandwiches for lunch sometime this weekend, but it’s different from the sockeye salmon or shrimp scampi we have normally.