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Event Fri Sep 27 2013
On the week of Sept. 16-22, Drive-Thru writers Christina Brandon and Brandy Gonsoulin took the SNAP Challenge and used only $35 for food. Here's their experience:
My SNAP strategy was simple: I would take my $35 to a store I normally would visit, and buy food I'd normally buy. This was motivated in part by laziness. With a full-time job, I had little time and no energy to be creative with my meals. I wanted some basic ingredients I liked that could stretch over a couple days and be tossed together quickly and easily.
For me, that meant produce and pasta, but after suffering through afternoon hunger headaches and this empty-pit feeling in my stomach for two days, it was clear the biggest whole in my strategy was protein. Garbanzo beans (chick peas) were the easiest and cheapest way for me to get more sustenance out of a meal (68¢ per can for the generic brand at Walmart). I managed to stretch one can over three meals of salads made of noodles, a vegetable, and beans.
By the end of the week, I made four total trips to a grocery store (once to Devon Market and Dominick's; twice to Walmart Express).
This was my week with $35 worth of food:
- Coffee (1 8.8oz bag)
- Sesame Bagels (1 package of 5)
- Mixed Berry Yogurt (1 32oz container)
- Pasta (2 1lb boxes)
- Garbanzo Beans (3 cans)
- Tomatoes (5)
- Broccoli (2 heads)
- Cucumber (1)
- Green Beans (⅔lb)
- Veggie Burger (1 package of 4)
- Salad mix (1 5oz container)
- Apples (4)
- Granola Bars (1 box of eight)
- Mini Blueberry Pie (1)
- Parmesan cheese (1 3oz container)
The garbanzo beans did a fair a job warding off the hunger headaches (as did drinking a cup of coffee in the afternoon with a granola bar), but I was surprised to discover it wasn't the hunger itself that was hardest to deal with, it was in knowing that once that day's allotment of food was gone, that was it. Zero dollars for the vending machines or Starbucks or that ice cream place. Eating something that had already been purchased meant less food for tomorrow which meant the hunger would be more intense tomorrow.
I constantly recalculated my grocery budget looking for a magical solution that would let me buy that candy bar or a bag of Cheez-Its. Feeling hungry and having no money made everything look good and made me feel worse.
I cheated once, on the first day of the challenge, without even thinking about it. A food truck parked outside my office building was handing out free donuts and coffee to promote the new show Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I gobbled up the three powdered sugar donuts before I remembered that the SNAP Challenge guidelines prohibit free food of any kind.
Over the course of the week, it became clear to me that food is abundant to the people who can already afford to buy it. I almost cheated again by accepting a piece of rum cake from someone in the office, but I stopped short of eating it. Someone else brought in cookies that I didn't touch. Free lunches were given to sales staff during a training meeting and the rest of the staff could pick off their leftovers, or the leftovers would get tossed out. I also realized how my social life is built around food when a friend and I struggled to find something to do on a weeknight at 8:00 that didn't involved food or going out to a bar (we hung out at her house, and I drank water).
Having food so readily available can be blinding toward others who just don't have the same resources. It wasn't until I was back at Walmart buying the generic brand of garbanzo beans at 68¢ that I felt this swell of injustice that the beans at Dominick's and Devon Market were over $1. On a normal day for me, I wouldn't blink at a 40¢ difference in cost, but I did when I had only $35 to sustain myself for a week.
Those pennies do matter. In the documentary about hunger a A Place at the Table, I understood how fortunate I still was, even with such a tiny food budget, that I did have such easy access to healthy food. I had several options on stores that were either near my home or my workplace so I could find fruits and vegetables that were inexpensive. I didn't have to decide between buying more of the cheaper, sugary, processed food over buying less of the expensive fresh food, or whether or not to drive a long distance to get produce. I was still fortunate.
I admit, I failed horribly at this task. Well, not so much horribly as in I executed a half-assed, poorly thought out attempt. It started after I dropped $60 on groceries, stuffing my freezer and pantry with things like bison burgers, quinoa, organic kale and omega-3 eggs - you know things that people who have to live on $5 a day eat. This wasn't part of my strategy. I had confused my dates.
I scanned the week ahead of me - date on Friday, free dinner on Saturday, and a baby shower and Chicago in White on Sunday. This was not going to go according to plan.
The first night I looked through my refrigerator while talking to my mother, scanning the produce bin.
"How does quinoa with fennel, carrot and kale sound to you?"
"It sounds horrible," she said. Whomp, whomp.
P.S. Mom, it was freaking amazing and I can't wait to do it again. For the recipe - sauté onion with sliced fennel, cubed carrots in a little coconut oil, throw in the kale and let that wilt and combine it with red quinoa cooked in chicken broth.
I still didn't have a plan, so I pulled out what I thought could average about $35 worth of food and committed myself to get creative. This is what my week potentially looked like:
I was feeling better about this strategy. Maybe I could pull it off by just limiting myself to small portions and preparing all my meals . . . that worked until about Wednesday, when I decided to bring dinner to a friend's house. Granted, dinner was a Trader Joe's package of frozen pasta and only cost $2.99 (the bottle of wine tipped the scale as well) but it was a meager, modest dinner.
Was this all really working? Was I feeling the restraint of a limited budget? Was I hungry?
No, I wasn't. I wasn't hungry, I wasn't thirsty and for the most part, I was eating food that came from the ground and not out of a box or a can or saturated in preservatives and fakeness, like the stuff most people who have limited resources have to eat.
Had I truly wanted to experience this life I would have taken $35 and gone to Aldi and stocked up on things I don't normally eat. I do know, however, exactly what it's like to do something like this as I did it before as part of my own experiment. I actually managed to make $40 last two weeks. (For real.) Yes, it's possible, and it isn't glamorous.
- The most creative moments come with restraint. (I'm serious, that quinoa was one of my best moments.)
- You are spoiled with #firstworldproblems if you don't think you can make it a week on a bag of rice ($2.00), a bag of beans (.99), a couple of chicken breasts (~$8.00), eggs ($3.00) and a loaf of cheap bread ($2.00). Remember college? Yeah, you did worse than that. You ate ramen.