"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Monday, August 3, 2015

What you don't know about living on food stamps

Every once in a while, a politician or celebrity tries to go a week spending only the $28 SNAP/EBT average disbursement; they inevitably quit after a few days, saying it's impossible. Yet, people who have to rely on food support do it. I decided to take the challenge for an entire year and I learned some interesting - and paradoxical - things along the way.

It's not $28 and it's not supposed to cover costs

In 2003, the government spent millions of dollars to find the absolute least a person needed to spend to eat a healthy diet and they came up with $31.54, meaning they couldn't find any way to do it on $31.53; the rationale was that they wanted to be absolutely sure they were not squandering resources. Food costs today are much higher, largely due to transportation costs, but the average SNAP benefit currently is about $28. The "S" in SNAP stands for "Supplemental;" it's not supposed to cover all costs. If one has no income whatsoever, the maximum benefit currently is $194 per month, about $6.25 per day, rather than the $4 people have been trying to use (when I started this project, it was $188 per month). That's difficult, but not impossible.

The last days of the first few months are miserable

I recall once Tweeting "I have $6 to spend on food for the next 6 days." It is a monthly stipend and one has to think in terms of a month; it's very easy to overspend in the first weeks, especially when one's not accustomed to eating cheaply. At the end of the month, you'll be shopping to get through a few days; instead of buying a gallon of milk at a cheaper price per ounce, you'll buy a pint at a much higher price - because you don't have the $1 difference to spend.

Thank God for junk food

It's bizarre. You run out of money, but need a lot of calories and you're tired of the same food every day. In my case, a bag of flavored potato chips saved the day. There's been a push to remove junk foods from things that can be purchased with SNAP, but that push is by people who have never tried living on them.

Follow the USDA guidelines and use free nutrition apps

When the government figured out how to eat healthily most cheaply, they also gave away how they did it in a 112 page report. It's a long dull read, but there's some useful charts. To make sure I was getting the nutrients I needed, I used a free web nutrition tracker. When I ran into problems with what I still needed to obtain and what I needed to avoid, I found a useful site. It's incredibly time consuming, especially at first and I doubt many people would do it.

There are some odd things that crop up. The USDA recommends dairy products, green leafy vegetables and red/orange vegetables, but the combination easily leads to way too much Vitamin A. One carrot has all the vitamin one needs for a week, but if you buy a bunch of carrots, they spoil before you could ever use them and two is already too many.

Buy from bulk, not in bulk

You always hear how you can save money on groceries by buying in bulk, but that doesn't work well with SNAP. One month, I found great bargains on blueberries and almonds, so I bought more than I needed, but I had too little left for everything else. You can buy two - at most three - month's worth of something and only at the beginning of a month. Coffee goes on sale in 12 week cycles and that can wreak havoc on a budget.

In the bulk foods section of a supermarket, you can buy just one olive, one dried apricot or one ounce of oatmeal. That can be a lifesaver at the end of the month. Plus, the bulk foods are usually priced lower than elsewhere in the same store (but not always! You have to check).

Dried, frozen, ethnic

Dried and frozen foods are usually much cheaper than their fresh counterparts. Canned and boxed foods tend to be loaded with salt and/or sugar (tomato paste and fish are the only things I bought canned). You can often find the same thing at several different prices in the same store and the cheapest is often in aisles marked "world" or "ethnic." I bought sesame seeds marked as ajonjoli at 40 cents per ounce, when they were six times as expensive in the spice aisle. Fresh produce in season is cheaper, but still more expensive than frozen.

Portioning meals and freezing them for later use is a great idea and, if you're buying for one, you will freeze things you wouldn't expect. Frozen orange juice is the cheapest citrus, but it goes bad in the refrigerator before you finish it, so you make it and then refreeze half.

You will miss what you can't have, then forget it exists

No restaurants. No alcohol. You can't shop the deli at the supermarket, because SNAP doesn't cover the preparation costs; the roasted chicken is especially hard to walk by - which is why it's always where you have to walk by it. You also can't supplement your nutrition with vitamin pills or meal replacement products like Ensure. You can't buy seeds to plant your own garden in a hope to bring down costs. Dried cranberries, for reasons I do not know, are also out - there will be surprises.

You could make your own wine, but it won't be very good. Purchasing a whole chicken and roasting it yourself sounds like a great idea; you can use the bones, with whatever vegetables wilt on you before you eat them, to make stock, and flavor things with chicken fat, but I never got the hang of it.

Farmer's market conundrum

Farmer's markets have great produce, in season, at low cost, but create a new problem. Individual vendors cannot accept food stamps, so one has to buy vouchers which cannot be used elsewhere and which cannot be redeemed if not used. You end up wasting about as much money because of the bureaucracy as you would save, plus it's an extra trip.

Baking gets problematic

Flour, eggs, oil, salt and sugar are all relatively cheap, so baking seems like a no-brainer. The problem comes in when you assemble all the ingredients you need and find the total runs to $20, which means not buying some other foods. Are you going to live on cookies? In order to make something and have it be healthy, I ended up making an all-rye sourdough bread that I used mostly to thicken soups.

Eggs used to be the cheapest source of protein, but avian flu changed that (it's now chicken breasts). This goes to show you that you have to have plans to change what you eat on occasion. Also, if you're buying groceries for one, a dozen eggs is way too many - you end up wasting half, or you accept that you're not going to eat healthily for a few days and down them quickly.

Spice world

Once you figure out what you can buy, your foods become monotonous quickly. Spices can take care of that, but they're very expensive, so you have to buy only what you plan to use a lot. In my case, cinnamon made oatmeal palatable and oregano (or basil) saved tomato sauces that accompanied the eternal pasta meal. Curry powder and red pepper can cover a multitude of sins (but, if you like black pepper, get used to pre-ground, as fresh is expensive and a pepper grinder is not covered by SNAP).


You will never use manufacturer's coupons, so "double coupons" are a thing for others. There's no manufacturer for, say, potatoes. Store coupons, however, are a lifesaver, if one buys only what one would've bought anyway. Buying something "extra" because it's on sale might mean you're on a diet on day 31 of the month.


The SNAP benefit is the same every month. February will be your favorite month, as it's shorter, and you can buy a rare treat or two.

The final word

You can eat healthily and cheap, you can eat with great flavor and cheap, you can eat healthily and with great flavor. You cannot do all three. If you eat healthily and cheap, you can save enough for an occasional splurge on great flavor.


wildknits said...

Steve, thanks for the report. Having grown up on food stamps I remember the lean end of month times. Experienced them on and off in my 20's and 30's as we raised a family on a single (low) income. Still have a cookbook (and use it) that we got via WIC that included great recipes utilizing cheap and healthy foods.

A lot of energy is needed to figure out meals when living on a very limited income.

SteveQ said...

Since I just linked to this again - the cranberries thing turned out to be a mis-labeling as "taxable" in that one store.