What It’s Really Like to Cook on a Food Stamp Budget
In 2013, 49.1 million Americans lived in households struggling with hunger, a stark number which includes 15.8 million children and 4.8 million seniors. Food insecurity is a daily reality for about one in seven households. So why do we only seem to talk passionately about it when a celebrity is involved?
If you paid any attention to the recent controversy surrounding Gwyneth Paltrow's $29 SNAP grocery shopping challenge, you know what I mean. When she posted a photo of the groceries she purchased with the weekly budget of a typical SNAP (food stamp) recipient, Paltrow inspired a lot of snarky editorials poking fun at the actress's cluelessness and comments naming all the ways her charmed life is not like the typical SNAP recipient's, but in the end, it was just more media coverage of a wealthy celebrity.
What are the challenges of shopping, meal planning, and cooking when your budget relies on SNAP benefits? Someone who spends a week trying it out isn't the right person to ask. Instead, I spoke with regular people with real experience with SNAP — some who receive benefits, others whose jobs involve working with recipients — to learn more about the individuals behind the statistics and the realities of feeding yourself and your family with the help of SNAP.
What Is SNAP?
SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is a federal aid program administered by the USDA that provides food assistance to low- or no-income Americans. Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, it now uses a debit card system to distribute benefits, so recipients pay for their purchases with an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card. The amount that households receive depends on several factors, including location, but often averages to about $4 per person per day.
Recipients can only use their EBT cards to buy food items, which means non-food items — like soap, paper products, pet food, alcohol, cigarettes, and prepared foods — cannot be purchased with SNAP funds.
Some farmers markets also accept EBT cards, and state programs such as Market Match in California give recipients additional funds to spend on fresh produce.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP is the country's most important anti-hunger program. Over 70 percent of participants live in households with children, and in 2014 more than 46 million Americans fed themselves with the help of SNAP.
Image credits: Seacoast Eat Local/Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0
Who Receives SNAP Benefits?
Carolyn, a graphic designer living in Baltimore, decided to apply for SNAP when she was laid off in the spring. “It seemed like a program that was worth taking advantage of in this time of transition that I find myself in,” she says. “These programs are around to help people in situations like this.”
Ouida moved from the South — where she owned a small business — to Pennsylvania so her partner could attend school full-time, but their financial plans changed drastically when she was unable to find a job after the move. “It's like you had the rug pulled out from under you,” she says. “When we found out we could apply for the SNAP benefits, it was a hard decision to do it, but when you don't have any money coming in, you have to do something.”
RELATED: 6 Tips for Eating on a Very Tight Budget
Elisa is a single mother with a 12-year-old daughter diagnosed with two medical conditions that have so far required four open-heart surgeries and four spinal surgeries. She left nursing school in order to devote her time to caring for her daughter and because of the uncertainty of her daughter's health, is not able to work full-time. “[My daughter's social worker at school] said to me, ‘Listen, I see you struggling. You can go on these benefits — they apply to you and your situation,'” she says. “I've been on them for a year and a half now and they are so helpful. Because the last thing I have to stress about now is feeding my daughter and myself.”
These are just three stories of the 46 million across the country, of course. But they offer a small glimpse of the realities of grocery shopping, meal planning, and cooking with a SNAP budget.
Image credits: Zsolt Biczo/Shutterstock
The First Problem? Grocery Shopping Without a Car
You might think that the main grocery shopping challenge for SNAP recipients is having a very limited budget, but for many people, the difficulties start before stepping foot in the store.
Jacqueline Stevens, a registered dietitian and SNAP-Ed educator with Healthy Northern Kennebec in Maine, has been working with SNAP recipients for the past three years, offering free classes that teach the skills needed to shop, cook, and eat healthy food on a budget. Many of the people she works with don't have cars, which makes grocery shopping much more difficult. “So they have to walk, but a lot of them can't walk because they have health problems and they don't have health insurance to help them out,” she says.
Some recipients live in food deserts, she notes, so the closest grocery store is miles away and walking to it can mean risking their safety, either because they have to use busy roads with no sidewalks, or because they live in unsafe neighborhoods. And once they buy the groceries, they then have to carry them home by themselves, which limits what they can buy. “It's a big problem,” says Stevens.
RELATED: How a Food Budget Got us Out of Debt, and 4 Steps to Create Your Own Budget
Carolyn doesn't have a car, so she relies on rides from friends. “My roommates and I go to the grocery together because they both have cars, but before that, I would take public transit to a grocery store and only buy as much as I could carry back,” she says. Her neighborhood, which is adjacent to the Baltimore area where unrest broke out at the end of April, has no grocery stores within walking distance.
Elisa also lacks a car, but she works part-time as a caregiver, and her patient takes her to the grocery store in his car. This allows her to do a big shopping trip at the beginning of the month when the SNAP benefits come in. “I do have a great support system,” she says. “I'm very blessed.”
You Have to Have a Plan for Everything You Buy
A major challenge when planning meals on a SNAP budget is the lack of flexibility; every item you buy must have a place in the weekly rotation of meals or you risk wasting it.
Leanne Brown — the award-winning author of Good and Cheap, a free downloadable cookbook created with SNAP recipients in mind — hears feedback about the difficulties of meal planning from current and past SNAP recipients who use her recipes, and for one reader who spent a year on SNAP while he was unemployed, the lack of flexibility was especially difficult. “He said, ‘We didn't buy anything that didn't have a plan,'” she recalls. “That was not only difficult to plan, but there was this negotiation with the people he was living with, where he would have to put the groceries in the fridge and say, ‘Okay … we can have three meals a day if no one grabs the peanut butter and makes a snack for themselves.'”
RELATED: 5 Simple Habits to Help You Cook on a Budget
Ouida is the primary cook in her household and she makes a meal plan every week for what she wants to cook. Because she shops for produce on a weekly basis from local farm stands — they don't accept SNAP, but are inexpensive enough to make it worth it — she finds the biggest challenge is having the vegetables she needs on hand and not letting them go to waste. “You can't just decide you want, say, a salad that has watercress in it today and tomorrow I'm going to have something that has red cabbage,” she says. “[Doing that], you can't use up the rest of your watercress. If you're going to buy it, you've got to figure out how to use it.”
Elisa agrees. “My secret is being able to use something to its fullest extent,” she says. “So I'll make, say, a roasted chicken and it's not just the chicken that I serve that night, but I'll make a chicken salad the next day for sandwiches. Then whatever is left on the bone, I use to make stock.”
Image credits: David Hopler of D Square Photo & Video
Another Challenge Is Having the Time to Cook
The SNAP recipients I spoke with have one advantage over many who receive these benefits: they know how to cook. And because of their employment situations, they have more time to cook than those who work full-time hours or more for wages so low they still qualify for benefits. This is important to note because SNAP benefits are calculated with the assumption that recipients will be cooking almost everything they eat from scratch.
The amount that each household receives in SNAP benefits is calculated based on the USDA's Thrifty Food Plan, which reflects the lowest cost for a nutritious diet. “If you look at the types of food in [the Thrifty Food Plan] and what they say would be typical, it really would take a lot of time for people to do all that preparation,” says Amy Headings, a registered dietitian and Director of Nutrition at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank. “The tough thing is that if you're on SNAP, you're usually working a job that isn't paying great, which usually means you're working two jobs that aren't paying great.” Expecting people in that situation to cook all their meals from scratch is slightly unreasonable, she says.
So, What Do Recipients Think About the SNAP Challenge?
The SNAP Challenge asks people who are not receiving SNAP benefits to try living on a food stamp budget for a week, which is roughly $4 per person per day for food. The challenge raises awareness about the difficulties of feeding yourself and your family on a SNAP budget, and over the years has been undertaken by members of Congress, governors, mayors, journalists, chefs, and — of course — celebrities.
RELATED: How to Eat Healthy on a Small Budget
Especially in the wake of Gwyneth Paltrow's unsuccessful attempt, I have heard the SNAP Challenge criticized for not painting the full picture of poverty, and that just having a small budget isn't reflective of the full experience of living off of SNAP benefits if, for example, you have a car to drive to the supermarket, or only work one job and have enough time to cook everything from scratch. So I was curious to know what actual SNAP recipients think about the challenge — do they appreciate that it raises awareness? Is it too simplistic? Is it patronizing for a well-to-do person to pretend she is poor for a week?
Image credits: Steve Lovegrove/Shutterstock
Ouida points out that if she had to take the SNAP Challenge, she would probably fail. The benefits she and her partner receive are not enough to cover all of their groceries every month, even though they cook all their meals at home from scratch. “We can rarely use coupons because we don't use most processed foods,” she says. “Maybe it is that I am not a good manager of money, but I don't really think so. No matter how good the managing, you can only stretch funds so far.” But she appreciates that even if participants fail, the challenge raises awareness about how difficult it is to live on a food stamp budget.
Carolyn also acknowledges that it gets people thinking about some of the realities of relying on SNAP benefits, but is bothered by some of the aspects of poverty the challenge ignores. “A lot of people on SNAP are living in food deserts, so they don't have access to a grocery store to buy the kinds of things people doing the SNAP Challenge would be purchasing,” she says.
Elisa welcomes anything that brings some awareness to the experience of being on SNAP. She hopes it will make people less judgmental of SNAP recipients. “It really does hurt me. Sometimes it makes me feel the shame of being on food stamps.”
Learn more about hunger in America, find your local foodbank & take action at Feeding America.
- Restaurant.com sells $25 gift certificates for $10 or $50 gift certificates for $20. The site also has sales throughout the year, and I've snagged $25 gift certificates for $5. I keep a stack of these things in my wallet at all times. Most places have a minimum purchase requirement (from $35 and up) but you can generally use the gift certificates any time.
But there are drawbacks: They're for dine-in only, they're nonrefundable, and they can only be redeemed once per month per restaurant. Still, the site has become so popular that you can double dip – buying Restaurant.com certificates through an airline's shopping portal in order to earn frequent flier miles, for instance.
- If you're not already using Groupon and LivingSocial, start now. Both sites post daily deals that will give you 50 to 90 percent off at different restaurants. You'll have to act quickly, but you'll save a bunch. I just got a dozen cake pops (regularly $17) for $8 through Groupon.
If you don't want to spend hours sifting through all the offers, Money Talks News deals diva Karla Bowsher has culled the very best on our deals page.
- If you have a smartphone, some social networking apps will get you free stuff and discounts. Last weekend, I got free guacamole and a free flan for checking into the restaurant on Yelp. Here are a few apps that score you deals:
Yelp Check-ins – After you check in, mention Yelp to your server to get the goods.
Foursquare – Many places offer discounts and buy-one-get-one offers to people who check in.
SCVNGR – Every time you check in, you accumulate points. You can redeem your points for a discount on your bill or a free item depending on the restaurant.
- Every restaurant in town knows when my birthday is. Last year, I got three half-price meals, six free desserts, two free entrees, and about a dozen free cocktails – and all I had to do was sign up for a birthday mailing list and turn a year older.
Many restaurants have a birthday or anniversary club. Signing up is free and they'll send you a coupon around the date. Ask your server how to sign up – and even if they don't have a mailing list, he'll tell you what you can get for free or cheap on your special occasion. There's even a site devoted to listing restaurants where you can eat free on your birthday: eatfreeonyourbirthday.com
- Social media-savvy restaurants post special deals on Twitter. Some even post code words. If you tell your server the code word, you'll get a discount or a freebie. Last month, I got a free dessert for saying “Free Sean Payton” to my server. (I live in New Orleans, and the code words referred to our NFL coach who has been suspended by the league.)
To find a restaurant's Twitter info, visit its website and look for the “Follow Us” links. One should be for Twitter. Another should be for Facebook. Speaking of which…
- Here at Money Talks News, we take surveys, hold contests, and give out freebies on our Facebook page as a way to keep in touch with you. Many restaurants do the same thing. By “liking” the restaurant page, you'll get access to special deals not mentioned anywhere else.
- I've made it a habit to open a few apps before I walk into a restaurant. There are several free apps that post deals to local and chain restaurants. Most places will apply the discount to your bill if you show them the app – no need to print the coupon. Here are a few apps worth downloading:
The Valpak App
- Many restaurants in my area extend their lunch hours until late afternoon. By eating dinner early, I get the lunch prices, which are often 25 to 50 percent cheaper than the dinner prices for the same entrees. Before you try somewhere new, visit the restaurant's website and see if they have a lunch or early bird special.
- It's uncommon, but some restaurants let you bring your own beer or wine, which is usually cheaper than the cost of paying per glass. Before you go, call ahead and ask if the establishment is BYOB. If they're not, skip the cocktail and have one somewhere else. Some places will charge a “corkage fee” if you bring your own wine, but even at $10 per bottle, it's still often cheaper than buying the same bottle in the restaurant.
Most restaurants in my area overcharge for alcohol. For example, my local bar charges $3 for a mixed drink, but the restaurant next door charges $6. I save 50 percent stopping by the bar for my after-dinner drink.
- Restaurant meals are over-proportioned, so split your meal in two. You'll eat dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow for one price. It may seem like obvious advice, but it's harder in practice. If you're not careful, you'll end up eating everything on the plate. To beat the extra calories and save money, I divide my plate in half before I start eating. I only eat from my “now” half of the plate and ask for a to-go box for the rest.
- Knowing the different steak cuts and how they're prepared will save you money. For example, my friend always goes for the filet mignon because it's well known and tender. It's also one of the most expensive cuts you can order. Meanwhile, I ask if the hanger or flank steak was marinated. If it was, I order that. It's the cheapest steak on the menu, but it's also flavorful and tender – if marinated.
MSN says sirloin, flank, skirt, and hanger steaks are really underrated. Give them a chance.
- If I've learned one thing being a local in a tourist town like New Orleans, it's this: Tourist traps are alive and well. Many of the famous restaurants tourists want to visit are overpriced and not the best dining experience. If you want an authentic experience and a better price, check out a review site like Yelp or Urban Spoon before you visit a vacation spot. Pick a few places the locals rated highly and check their websites for menu prices. You can save a ton by planning ahead and skipping the hot spots.
- I'm fortunate to have very cheap friends. “I don't care where we go as long as it's cheap,” is a common refrain on a Friday night. But I also have some less-than-frugal friends who visit from out of town. Since I know they'll want to try that expensive five-star restaurant they heard about on the Food Network, I jump the gun and suggest a similar but cheaper place.
If you're dining out with a group, suggest reasonably priced places ahead of time. It will keep you from having to choose between a $25 salad or a $30 piece of chicken.
- Around here they call it lagniappe – the little something extra you get for being a great customer. Like the free cup of gumbo I've gotten every time I visit a diner in my neighborhood. I get that little something extra because I'm a regular.
Trying new places is great, but you can get a discount (or a lagniappe) by building a relationship with the servers or owners of local restaurants.
- With iDine, you can earn 5 to 15 percent back any time you eat out. Just sign up on their website. Within 30 days of your meal, sign on and complete a quick survey. For every survey you take, you'll earn cash back. When you reach $20, iDine will mail you an American Express gift card. It takes some effort, but it's free money.
See? Dining out doesn't have to mean going all in – or staying in.