Amanda Takes on The “Impossible” SNAP Food Stamp Challenge

I was challenged to live on food stamps for one week for a class assignment.  Using the FNS SNAP website to find the average monthly benefit per household for MN in the 2014 fiscal year ($214.45), then calculating the daily total ($7.15) and multiplying by the days in the challenge (7), I was left with $50.04 for the week of March 23-29. (Numbers used are those required according to the class assignment.)

IMG_0958After spending only $41.05 on food for the week, I am definitely more appreciative of my level of food security and missed the feeling of security more than any one specific food.  That being said, it is not impossible to eat nutritious food while receiving supplemental support in the form of food stamps.  After calculating my budget, I planned what foods I would want to purchase and went to the cheapest store in my area, Aldi.  The challenge does not account for the expected 30% of my income that I expected to contribute to my food budget, so the challenge makes it more difficult than reality.  If this was my lifestyle, I would buy more bulk items over time, but for the one week challenge, this did not make sense.  Someone continually receiving supplemental assistance would be able to easily plan and purchase nutritious foods in bulk to use over an extended period of time.  Each day I was at a caloric deficit and lost a total of 8 pounds over the 7 days.  I ate healthy foods in a balanced diet, I simply was not eating enough, although never felt hungry.

IMG_0959This challenge should be used as a thought provoking longterm experiment influencing spending choices rather than a literal challenge simply to live on the budget for one week.  Anyone with Google can see how Gwyneth Paltrow took the challenge to the extreme and caught a little heat in the press.  Luckily, Mario Batali, who challenged her, and the Food Bank for New York City remained virtually unscathed.  I would like to point out I did the challenge before she did.  Anyway, she used some ridiculous amount of $29 dollars given by the Food Bank for the challenge and purchased what looks like guacamole ingredients.  Of course she only lasted 4 days because she used inaccurate numbers and did not account for the roughly $110,833 that is 30% of her income SNAP expects her to contribute to her food budget for 7 days.  In reality, California AND New York both have higher average monthly benefits than does Minnesota.  Her blog post, if you did not choose to waste your time reading it, goes on to rant about how women make less money than do men, she even got a little Clinton plug in there.  So basically she threw up her hands, gave up, and says it could all be solved if men and women were paid equally.  Disappointingly, although not unexpectedly, she gives no suggestions on how to better attempt the challenge.  Gwyneth will never need to actually live on food stamps, so why bother right?

By focusing on spending money wisely and making better choices, the challenge can actually inspire healthy lifestyle changes, but it is unrealistic for someone to have to purchase everything they may eat in one week at one time.  In reality, people purchase items here and there continuously and have leftovers to use beyond the seventh day.  Many of the things I purchased were in large quantities so the budget is not representative of a normal weekly budget, as I had a lot of food left over at the end of the week.  If I was actually relying on food stamps, I could have consumed these products the next week supplementing only a few more items, lowering that week’s budget.  I ended up with 2 bags of frozen vegetables, 2 cans of tuna, coffee, almond milk, brown rice, black rice, and cottage cheese left over, almost enough food for another week.

In the past, I struggled with disordered eating.  This challenge brought back the habits I worked and continue to work hard eliminating from my life.  For this reason, I would not suggest this challenge to everyone.  I found myself eating only a couple meals on some days during the challenge and was happy with these choices resulting in weight loss.  Because I did not feel hungry and wanted to ensure I would have food if I ever did get hungry, I would skip a meal or two, putting me at a caloric deficit for the day.  Starting the challenge after not following my regular eating routine during spring break only exaggerated my weight loss during the 7 days, as I started the challenge at a weight greater than my normal weight.  The experience was not mentally healthy for me as it brought back disordered eating habits, but someone who has previously struggled with weight gain or health issues could easily change their habits while receiving supplemental assistance and begin to see healthy weight loss immediately by simply making better choices with the food stamps.  My sodium and sugar intakes were low and although I was not intaking adequate calories, my diet was balanced.  Finding frozen vegetables and cheap lean protein, as well as whole grains, at my local Aldi was easy.  I was even able to tie in a purchase from a ethnic food market assignment to this assignment, making coconut rice pudding using black rice purchased at a local asian market.  The rice was the most expensive purchase at $5.99, but a lot was left over.

This lifestyle takes a little more effort to plan healthy eating than does one for someone who need not be thrifty, but is not impossible, as Gwyneth would have you believe.  By planning ahead and making wise choices, someone can easily maintain a healthy lifestyle while relying on food stamps.  When someone receives food stamps, they should only be used for healthy foods.  Because they are supplemental they should only count towards foods beneficial for the participants and their families.  Any so called “junk” foods should be paid for using the 30% contribution of a participant’s income.  The government should be providing support to ensure healthy choices, not solely convenient and cheap choices, this is a misuse of taxpayer funds.  The food stamps should also be given with mandatory nutrition education about making wise food choices.  Although my experience ended up putting me at an extreme, albeit not uncomfortable deficit, overweight participants should be eating at a caloric deficit while eating healthy whole foods promoting weight loss and lowering hypertension and diabetes risks.  The extra time spent planning healthy food choices now is well worth the avoided time and money spent on healthcare in the future.

Below are a few examples of the meals I ate throughout the week.  The diet is reminiscent of a higher protein ratio bodybuilding diet, although it contains far fewer calories.  I drank coffee with almond milk each morning, snacked on cottage cheese and coconut black rice pudding, and took a multivitamin to ensure adequate micronutrient intake.

Egg whites, cheddar cheese, and turkey bacon in a whole grain wrap.
Ground turkey and cheddar cheese in a whole grain wrap with a banana.
Baked chipotle tilapia, mixed vegetables, and brown rice.

Post is adapted from an assignment for a community nutrition class at the UofM.

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