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Taking the SNAP challenge: Could you do it?

Grocery shopping is something almost everyone must do, whether they like it or not.  We walk the long, fluorescently lit aisles comparing prices and inspecting ingredients.  After we have our items we move to the checkout stand and wait to pay.  The checkout line can be intimidating.  No matter how good our inner calculator is we can go over our intended budget.  We grimace at the fact that we have gone slightly over (or way over), and pay the extra money.  Yet many people do not have the luxury of being off by a few dollars.  They cannot be over by even a few cents.

Those on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, face this daunting challenge every week.  The name in itself indicates the program is only meant to provide supplemental food, and is not meant to be the only source for obtaining food.  Yet for many people who have to choose between rent and groceries SNAP becomes their only real source for buying food.  The average amount one person receives from SNAP is $31.50 per week.  Living on such small amount of money can make even the most basic items seem like luxuries.

This is the story of my attempt to take the SNAP Challenge and live off the average $31.50 per week:

I decided to take the SNAP challenge and attempted to live on $4.50 a day, which works out to $31.50 per week.  On Sunday I went to buy my groceries and spent more time shopping than I usually do methodically looking at what I could afford. I thought that this would be easy because I consider myself a pretty frugal shopper.  I got the basic staples: milk $1.85, bread $1.39, eggs $1.39, along with discounted fruit.  For a while I thought I was doing pretty well, buying things that were less than $2, but then I ran across something that I needed, something I consider essential to my life, coffee.  In general I try to buy coffee in the decent-to-good range, but given the price, what I consider the good coffee was not an option.  I selected the cheapest coffee I could find and it was $6.

Once I had the coffee in my cart I was in a predicament.  I needed both coffee and chicken, which would win?  Protein, essential fuel for muscles, or coffee the essential fuel for students everywhere?  The chicken wound up getting cut along with the can of tuna. I figured I could get my protein from yogurt, eggs and some basic soups I could make.  I bought a couple packets of spices and proceeded to the check out line.  I managed to get everything just under $30, but when I got home I did not factor in the olive oil. This was yet another basic staple that had suddenly turned into a luxury item.  The olive oil I usually buy is around $6 – $8, not what I would consider particularly expensive oil, but astronomical when constrained by the SNAP budget.

I tried to cut out other items to make room for the oil: yogurt, oatmeal and lettuce were gone but that only knocked off a couple dollars. I would still be over the allowance for the week, something those using SNAP mostly cannot do. My solution, I cheated, just a little. I took off a couple more items, which left me around $34.  My plan was that as long as I stayed within those specific items for the week and was able to do it without getting hungry I would survive.

Unfortunately, however, I could not completely stick to the budget something those using SNAP as their main food source are forced to do.  People that use the program often run out of certain food items later in the week and turn to food banks in hunger.  Food banks are a great resource for those in need but the more people in need, the greater the strain on all the food banks.

As of November 1st, the 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary boost will come to an end; this means that SNAP benefits will be cut across the board.  Single individuals will lose about $11 from their monthly benefits, and families of four will lose $36 from theirs.   We shall see how strained the food banks are then particularly as we come around to Thanksgiving.

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