It's been a few years now since I first heard about the SNAP Challenge (formerly known as the Food Stamp Challenge), in which people attempt for one week to eat on a budget of $4.50 a day, the average benefit per person from the SNAP program. The problem with this, as I noted at the time, is that the way the challenge is designed makes it a lot harder to stick to this budget than it is over the long term. If we followed the rules of the challenge to the letter, we'd have to set aside all the food we currently have in our pantry and start over completely from scratch, buying an entire week's worth of food for $63. We wouldn't be able to buy in bulk, or wait for sales, or eat the fresh produce from our garden—some of the most important strategies we use to keep our food budget as low as it is. Thus, I concluded, even if we did manage to stay within the $63 budget for the week, we'd have to spend more on food for that week than we do in a normal week. And without access to all the goodies in our pantry and garden, we certainly wouldn't eat nearly as well during that one week as we normally do.
Because of these problems, I decided that it wasn't worth taking the SNAP Challenge. It wouldn't really prove anything, and it would be a waste of money. Just recently, however, as I reread that old post, it occurred to me that there's a simple way to get around these problems: we should just do the SNAP Challenge in reverse. Instead of buying all our groceries for the week out of a $63 budget and eating nothing else, we should just eat as we normally do, but keep track of every bite of food we eat and exactly what went into it. Then, at the end of the week, I should add up all these ingredients and figure out exactly how much we spent on them. Basically, it'll be like the way we did our rationing challenge last year, keeping track of our points as we went.
To help me with this challenge, I've rescued the past month's grocery-store receipts from the recycling bin, where I normally dump them after checking the charges against my credit card bill. (Okay, yes, I'm anal. So sue me.) Unfortunately, the receipts from Aldi, which only takes cash, aren't among them, and the receipt from our last trip has already been hauled away with last week's recycling. Some of the foods we bought on that trip are priced here, but many of our staple items, like raisin bran, rolled oats, and chocolate chips, are missing. So to supply those numbers, we'll have to stop into an Aldi store some time next week when we're in the vicinity and update our price book.
Another snag with this Reverse SNAP Challenge is dealing with free food. The terms of the original SNAP Challenge say to "Avoid accepting free food from friends, family, or while at work"—which seems like the exact opposite of what you would do if you really were on food aid. But I see the reason for it; free food isn't something you get every week, so it isn't really fair to count it as part of the week's eating. Thus, we'll have to postpone the start of this challenge at least until Thursday, since Brian is getting a free lunch at work on Wednesday. We've also been invited to a party on Friday, but it's a potluck, so I figure that's not really getting food for free; it's trading the food we bring for the food that others bring. So we'll just write down the ingredients used in whatever dish we make—most likely a rhubarb pie—and count that as our dinner for Friday evening.
That rhubarb raises another question. Is it fair to consume our own home-grown produce during this challenge? On one hand, a garden is a resource that most SNAP recipients probably don't have; but on the other hand, anyone who was on SNAP and did have a garden would certainly use it as much as possible. A version of the challenge run by a bona fide SNAP beneficiary says, "If you have a garden or farm animals, you absolutely can use them"—so this person, who certainly understands what it's really like to deal with food insecurity, thinks including garden produce in a food stamp budget is perfectly fair. I could, of course, try to calculate the actual cost of growing the produce that we eat during the challenge, but the math would be absurdly complicated; we know how much we've spent this year on seeds, plants, and compost, but how can you possibly figure out what percentage of that cost is represented by, say, a single zucchini? It would basically amount to sheer guesswork.
So I think the only fair thing to do is to calculate two separate totals for the week's spending: one for the amount of food that we actually bought, and one for the estimated value of the garden produce we used. I'll just check the price of each item in the store and multiply it by the amount we used, the way I did when trying to calculate the monetary value of last year's garden. Adding the two numbers together will give the total that we would have spent to eat exactly the same menu if we hadn't had a garden to draw on. (This will also let us see exactly how much our garden saves us over the course of a typical week.)
So, if all goes according to plan, we'll start our Reverse SNAP Challenge this Thursday morning. I'll post updates every day or two, just as I did with the rationing challenge. Watch this space for details.