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Event Fri Sep 27 2013

The SNAP Challenge Recap

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)

Total: $34.35

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.

Lessons learned:

- 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.

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William / September 27, 2013 11:43 AM

I'm confused -- did Brandy attempt the SNAP challenge at all? She didn't shop on a budget, had a bottle of wine and frozen meals, free food, and a normal social life centered around eating?

She doesn't understand the challenge at all, or even attempt it. Don't say that people can make it on beans and rice unless you're willing to actually do it. The point of this challenge is to show that poverty and hunger are very real problems to people living in the "first world". Its not easy. Try again next week and follow the rules, then write about your experience.

Harlon Katz / September 27, 2013 12:10 PM

Maybe living on $5 a day is not easy, but that is supposed to SUPPLEMENT you providing something for yourself. In IL, a family of 6 could get almost $1200/month (over $45/person/week) - this is on top of the "free" lunches and sometimes breakfasts / snacks the children will also get a school, so that goes against the "no free food" part of the challenge.

My wife has a high school friend that she keeps in contact with on SNAP (5 person family). She is going out and buying Oberweis organic milk with the money and makes sure to spend on "whatever", because if she does not spend it, she will "lose" it. There is waste / surplus in IL's SNAP program.

William / September 27, 2013 12:40 PM

To correct the inaccurate statements above, please see

A family of 6 can receive at most $952.00 in SNAP benefits. The household income can not exceed $3,423.

For a better idea of how "wealthy" SNAP recipients are, please see

Harlon: It is possible that your wife's high school friend is exaggerating her standard of living to avoid embarrassment. And even if she isn't, one person's experience is not enough to justify letting others go hungry in one of the wealthiest nations.

Julie / September 27, 2013 1:17 PM

Christina did a great job of reinforcing the problem she was trying to learn about by shopping at low-wage Walmart.

Christina BrandonAuthor Profile Page / September 29, 2013 8:54 PM

Thanks for sharing the link, Julie! I found this part really interesting because the supply chain isn't something we readily think of because we don't see it as often and so aren't aware of the impact: "The demise of mom-and-pop stores leads to the closing of local businesses that supplied those stores, such as wholesalers, transporters, logistics providers, accountants, lawyers and others."

Christina BrandonAuthor Profile Page / September 29, 2013 9:04 PM

Thanks for the extra info, William! And I just want to reiterate a point you made because I think it's important. Even if there are people who are on assistance that don't "need" it or who seem to be getting more than they should or whatever, one person's experience is not enough to justify letting others go hungry. Isn't it better to have enough money to buy quality milk than not enough money at all?

Cecilia / September 30, 2013 9:09 AM

I found Christina's summary of her challenge really interesting. Especially the part about getting hungry because she needed more protein. And I hadn't even thought about the issue of coffee, that part would destroy me. Great job telling us about her experience (for those of us too lazy to do this for ourselves). It sounds hard and frustrating to do for one week. I can't imagine facing this for an indeterminate amount of time.

Now for Brandy, who didn't fulfill the terms of the challenge and yet still wrote about it. Seriously? Once she realized that she had ruined the first three days of the challenge, why didn't she just go out and buy $20 worth of food? Instead, she cherry picked food from her fridge and pantry with no explanation of how she calculated it was actually $35 worth of food, beyond the following: "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." What she thought could potentially average about $35? Way to commit, Brandy.

The one recipe she describes included carrots, chicken broth and coconut oil. I don't see them in the pic (maybe I missed them?) so it doesn't sound like she really stuck to the group of food in the picture (not that it matters as it may or may not be worth $35). Fair enough, I figured that she would end her article with something like, "Yeah, I couldn't even do this for 7 days." Instead we get: "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." The point of doing the challenge was to DO the challenge, not half ass around with a pantry full of food and then lecture everyone else about how they should spend their SNAP dollars (or their SNAP challenge dollars). I mean, at one point she's buying wine and prepared food and (as I understand it) neither of these things can be purchased with a SNAP card. What a privileged little piece of writing Brandy's section of the article was, combining ineptitude with arrogance and flavoring it with a healthy dose of clueless.

Despite the lecture at the end, what I take away from Brandy's piece is that not only couldn't she manage the challenge she couldn't EVEN try to manage the challenge, but she still thinks that she has a right to tell others how to live their lives.

Robyn / September 30, 2013 12:51 PM

The average SNAP recipient gets about $133/month per person, which is significantly less than the $45/person AND $1200/month figures that Harlon claims they receive--it ends up being about $1.50 per person, per meal. I challenge Harlon to take the SNAP challenge himself and find out how easy it is, rather than resort to age-old stereotypes about poor people hustling the system for organic dairy and steaks.

Michelle Devon (Michy) / September 30, 2013 1:38 PM

Yeah, Brandy didn't even try and the lecture at the end was... meh. Whatever.

Harlon, you don't 'lose' benefits if you don't use them. They stay on the EBT card and can be used indefinitely. Some people will use what they need, and then if they get a little extra cash, work extra hours, etc., they'll spend cash for food and save the food stamp card for an emergency later on down the road when they might not even qualify any more or something. That plus the inaccurate information on the other end (debunked by others here) shows you really don't know what you're talking about and haven't done a lick of research into it and are just spouting off what you've probably heard someone else tell you about someone else they heard someone else might have heard about somewhere else. That's not even hearsay--that's pathetic. If you want to make a statement, by all means make it, but have something other than third hand or deeper hearsay to back it up with.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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