Sunday, December 11, 2011

Oh, SNAP!

That's "SNAP" as in "Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program," the program formerly known as Food Stamps.

In its latest newsletter, the Community Food Bank of New Jersey talked about the difficulty of feeding a family on SNAP benefits and invited people to take the "Food Stamp challenge" for one week. The challenge is to get by on "about $4 per day worth of food or $30 per week– the average food stamp benefit." My initial reaction to this was, "Hmm, $30 a week, that's difficult," and then my almost immediate second reaction was, "Oh wait...is that $30 per person?" Because if so, our average weekly food budget for the two of us (roughly $55) already falls within this limit—and that's including all meals eaten out, which aren't covered under SNAP. For groceries only, we spend about $48 a week, which is well within the limit.

However, in order to keep our food budget this low, we use a variety of strategies that it's impossible to use when you're following the challenge for only a week. We buy certain items in bulk, for instance (such as my Fair Trade/organic coffee and cocoa, which we buy five pounds at a time from Dean's Beans), and stock up on others when there's a really good sale. But under the rules of this challenge, you must purchase all the food you eat during the week with your $30; you can't use any food you already have, and you can't accept any free food "from friends, family, or at work, including at receptions or briefings." (I really don't get that last one—do they really think that if you were on food benefits, you would refuse a free doughnut at a meeting?)

These limits mean that you can't:
  • Buy anything in bulk. Powdered milk costs a lot less per quart than fresh milk, but it comes in a 20-quart box for $10, which would eat up a third of your $30 budget. So you have to buy a gallon of fresh milk instead for $4, paying $1 a quart instead of 50 cents a quart.
  • Wait for a good sale. We would not, for example, be allowed to use any of the cheese we have stockpiled in the fridge, which was purchased on sale for $2 a pound; we'd have to go out and buy more specifically for the week, paying the regular price of $4 a pound or more.
  • Use any vegetables from your garden. SNAP benefits do cover garden seeds, but obviously a week is not long enough to buy seeds, plant them, let them grow, and harvest the crops—so anything grown prior to the start of the challenge is off limits. (I assume that foods you can forage for, such as dandelion greens, would still be allowed.)
  • Go out to eat at any time during the week, even just for a cup of coffee, because restaurants do not take SNAP.
  • Accept any invitations during the week, because that would be taking "free food from friends." I'm not sure whether that means you can't even bring your own food to a potluck; it seems to me that if you made your own contribution with food you purchased out of the SNAP funds, that should mean that you have the right to share your dish with others and eat from whatever they've brought. But the organizers of the challenge might still consider this to be accepting free food, since the only dish you actually paid for is the one that you brought.
In other words, living on $60 worth of food for just one week is a lot harder than sticking to a $60 weekly food budget for an entire year. And it would be practically impossible to do at any time during December, because the month is so packed with parties that you'd have to turn down invitations left and right to keep an entire week of your calendar free from them.

So, I've decided that if I'm going to tackle this challenge at all, I should do it in January, after all the holiday fuss is over—say, January 2 through 8. But I still haven't made up my mind whether it's worth it at all to take a "challenge" that seems so unrealistic as this one. What do you think? Is it worthwhile taking this contrived challenge just to prove that I can do it, or is it better to stick to my regular grocery buying practices, which actually save more money over the long run?
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