Last week, I wrote about thought experiments in poverty, and concluded that I had to at least attempt the food stamp challenge, eating on an average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamp) budget for a week.
So how did I do? The top-line answer is ... fine, I guess. I learned some stuff, if learning stuff is the goal. (And it better be in this case, because otherwise this piece is just me telling you what I ate.) I only did five days, not the seven I'd planned, but plenty of people go into it with that as their plan, and for those days I stuck to my budget. I had been ambivalent starting out, because it's not clear it's all that useful for people who already believe that, as I wrote, "benefits should be higher, the safety net should be stronger, and the economy should work for working people [to] live on a food stamp budget and confirm that yes, it sucks, and no, no one should have to live that way," and also because I wanted to be careful not to turn it into a game or a competition.
I did feel in danger of making a game of it as I planned for the challenge. I put hours of planning into what I'd eat. Hours. I turned into the extreme couponer of the food stamp challenge, obsessing over how to make it work. I wandered around a grocery store taking notes, then went home and plotted out scenario after scenario, knowing that in the end, everything could be shifted by a single weekly special or by the price of one key item having gone up. Then I redid it all. I tracked how long half a gallon of milk lasted me, for planning purposes. Little pieces of paper on which I'd jotted possible shopping plans littered my living room.
All of my planning laid bare just how casual I am, how casual I can afford to be, about food. If I'm eating it at home, I'm not thinking about how much it costs—that's a concern I save for restaurant meals. What I do think about on a regular basis is buying local, buying organic, buying antibiotic-free. I try to avoid eating meat too often, but it's for environmental, not financial, reasons. I eat giant piles of vegetables, mostly from the farmers market; one of the nights I was planning my food stamp diet, trying to decide how I could afford enough vegetables, I ate a dinner that incorporated broccoli, red and green pepper, cauliflower, onion, and bok choy. So eating on a food stamp budget requires not just eating less but eating differently, changing the set of concerns I bring to meal planning.*
The planning—and, let's face it, overthinking—also pointed up a number of advantages I bring to this that aren't purely financial. I live walking distance from several grocery stores, so I can comparison shop. I work from home, so I can eat on my own schedule and in my own kitchen. I love to cook. (Unfortunately from the point of view of this challenge, I also love to eat.) Not eating meat won't be much of a challenge.
I agonized over the question of what to start out with. One food stamp challenge guide I'd seen said not to use anything in your kitchen other than spices and condiments. With all due respect, they've not seen my spices, and I don't even know where condiments begin and end. Is sriracha a condiment? Tabasco sauce? So clearly I wasn't giving myself all my spices and condiments. But I also didn't try to pretend I was starting with a 100 percent empty kitchen. Otherwise I'd have had to spend a big chunk of my money on staples like oil and salt that you'd normally only buy every month or two. Since benefits are issued monthly, I undershot the weekly allowance and allowed myself use of a few things that I would be able to afford within a month at that rate: canola oil, salt, pepper, cider vinegar and cumin.
If I were living on this budget for the long term, there are things I would do differently. The grated romano I get for $1.68 in the refrigerated cheese section at my corner store is cheaper than any shaker of shelf-stable grated cheese in the pasta section at the supermarket, but the big shakers of that—enough for months—are on sale for $2.50. If I were going to be eating spaghetti a few nights a week for the foreseeable future, that would be a great deal. Similarly, some types of frozen vegetables are on sale for $1 per pound; if I were worried about next week and the week after, I would think about what I could forgo this week to stock up on those. I may not like frozen vegetables, but I do like vegetables.
This points up more of the limitations of the challenge. It's about the one week, but if you had this budget for the long run, you'd probably be trying to shore yourself up against unforeseen expenses or losses in the future. Not that thriftiness would someday make you wealthy or whatever it is Republicans think people living on food stamps should be aiming for, but that having some lentils left over at the end of the week might mean getting through an emergency next month.
Without belaboring the details, my basic meal plan is this: a piece of toast with peanut butter and honey and a glass of milk for breakfast, a piece of toast with an egg scrambled with American cheese at lunch, a hot chocolate in the afternoon, and for dinner a rotating cast of spaghetti with tomato sauce, lentil soup and a grilled cheese sandwich (or half, depending on my bread allotment), and, once, spaghetti with peanut sauce. For vegetables I have frozen peas, a green pepper and part of an onion to have with the spaghetti with peanut sauce, and there are carrots in the lentil soup. I have carrots left over from that, but they fall in the category of "If I was really on food stamps, I'd put them in a soup or something next week, because I don't like carrots enough to eat them alone unless I'm truly desperate." Though if desperation had struck, I'd have tried roasting them with vinegar and honey.
Just as shopping was a potent reminder of how free I am to eat as I wish at other times, eating a predetermined diet was a reminder of the degree to which my daily life is shaped by my own preferences alone. I chafe not so much against the reality of toast with peanut butter and honey as against the fact that I'm not allowed to make a difference choice. It's not that I'm totally undisciplined day to day, it's that the logic of my discipline is my own, and I have the opportunity to break it from time to time. During this challenge, it's not my logic and I can't break it and that experience of restriction is something of an education. It's probably an education that, as much as hunger, would be valuable for the lawmakers who want to cut food stamps. It's also why Elizabeth Kucinich, who has advocated limiting food stamps to purchasing "foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes," can bite me. People's choices on this program are already restricted enough without a paternalistic government telling them that they should become vegans.
In addition to the rare experience of having my choices constrained, I face the equally rare-for-me experience of insecurity. Eating this diet is not just about the hunger or the blandness, but about wondering if I will I become hungry at some point. As it happens, because I work at home and can eat smaller meals and snacks spaced through the day, I'm not mostly hungry. Or I should say, I'm not hungry in any truthful sense. Because I'm thinking about whether I will be hungry, and thinking about the ways what I have eaten isn't satisfying, I have a constant nagging sense that I wish I was eating—something other than what I'm allowed. But I'm not weakened or anywhere close to suffering. I'm just plain irritated.
Then there are the social questions. In my life, most social activities revolve around food somehow. So doing the food stamp challenge would involve either not seeing people, or watching people eat while I didn't. That points up another way the challenge can't replicate a life really lived on this budget—if this was your life, you'd have it built into your social life. That might mean seeing no one because you couldn't afford to join them in what they were eating; it might mean having a social life less oriented to food; it might mean sharing what you had with friends who had no more; it might mean having friends or family who could offer you food along with their company. But I can't know how I would deal with this, and even if I knew, I can't replicate it in the space of a week. Once again the challenge alerts me to its own limitations.
So doing the food stamp challenge is a challenge, and it was a learning experience even for me as a person who knew it would be hard and that I didn't think it was a reasonable way to call on people to live. I understand a bit more just how shot-through my life is with privilege, with the freedom both to make a million little choices about what and when and where and with whom I eat (or do anything else) and with the freedom from having any of those choices mean all that much. In daily life, if I spill a glass of milk or break an egg, it's an annoyance. On a food stamp budget, it might be half a meal. But more, in daily life if I try a new recipe and don't like it, I don't face the choice between eating something I don't like and going hungry—that again gives me a world of options, to try new things because failing won't hurt me much.
I started out ambivalent about the challenge, and I came out ambivalent about my ambivalence. There are things to be learned, to be sure. But if you don't think hard about the sources of the difficulty of doing it, about the advantages that you bring to the challenge—be they the time to cook for yourself or proximity to a grocery store or whatever else—and about the fact that in real life, you don't get to eat a huge meal of your choice at the end of the week, it could be a trap, letting you think you know what it's like when you really don't.
* Some of the planning work, I should note, was because I can't eat gluten. That puts many cheap dietary staples off-limits for me, and gluten-free products cost astronomically more than their gluten-containing equivalents. Somewhere out there, there are a few people living gluten-free on a food stamp budget, but I decided not to set myself that extra impediment; for the purposes of the challenge I priced bread and pasta and a few other things, eating their pricey gluten-free equivalents while pretending like I was paying standard prices on them. Of course that's not a luxury I would have if I was really on food stamps and still trying live gluten free. In another sense, being gluten free simultaneously gave me a skill and a liability: I'm an obsessive reader of labels, which is a good skill to have if you're thinking about how to make things work nutritionally on a tight budget. But reading labels to be sure the cheaper brand of cheese or chicken broth doesn't have gluten in it (many do) meant I had to look at the name of every preservative and filler and chemical in everything I was eating. And that's no fun.