Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Reverse SNAP Challenge: Wrap-Up

The Reverse SNAP Challenge has officially concluded. Here are our totals for the final day:

Amy's breakfast (toast and cocoa): 27 cents
Brian's breakfast (cereal with add-ins and juice): $1.07
Lunch: leftover couscous salad, leftover quesadilla, 1 cup blueberries (99 cents a pint at Aldi = 50 cents), 1 peach ($1.49 a pound at Stop & Shop = $1.68 for 3 peaches = 56 cents), the last two leftover raisin cookies (very stale, 20 cents), half a cup of milk (10 cents). Total: $1.36
Amy's afternoon snack: popcorn and an egg cream (39.3 cents) topped with a spritz of whipped cream (4.5 cents), plus 1 ounce string cheese (29 cents). Total: 73 cents.
Dinner: potato-zucchini pancakes. We used a 12-ounce zucchini from our own garden, 13 ounces of potatoes (42.9 cents a pound at Aldi = 34.9 cents), 6 ounces of onion (73 cents a pound at Aldi = 27.4 cents), 6 tablespoons of flour (5.6 cents), 1 teaspoon of salt (about a penny), and 1 egg ($2.49 a dozen at H-Mart = 20.8 cents). We also had about half of a $2.19 jar of applesauce from the Stop & Shop ($1.10). Total: $1.98.
Dessert: ice cream with chocolate syrup for Brian, ice cream soda for Amy. I had more ice cream in it than usual—about 1/2 cup instead of 1/4 cup—so that adds an extra 10 cents, for a total of 70 cents.
Additional snack: 1 ounce peanuts (15 cents).
TOTAL FOR DAYS 1-7: $53.60, or about $7.66 per day. Not only is this well within the limits of our $63 budget, it's comfortably within the limits of the reduced budget that the standard SNAP Challenge is designed to protest: $1.40 per person per meal, or $58.80 a week for the two of us. (And incidentally, this total includes the leftovers we had in our fridge at the end of the challenge: 1 of the 3 quesadillas we made on Tuesday, about 1/3 of the salsa, 3 of the 15 zucchini pancakes from last night, and about half a loaf of rye bread. The value of all these put together is about $1.91, so if you subtract that from the total, our spending for the week was only $51.69, or $7.38 per day.)

This figure, however, doesn't include the cost of the produce we used from our own garden. As I promised at the start of the week, I counted up everything we ate from the garden during the course of the week and went to the supermarket to see what it would have cost to buy all that at the store. Of course, our garden produce was both local and organic, but since this challenge is all about eating on a budget, I used the price of conventional produce for comparison if it was available. Here's what we ate from the garden:
  • 4 ounces of arugula. Organic arugula (the only kind available) is $3.99 for a 7-ounce package at Stop & Shop, so that's $2.28.
  • About 1.5 pounds of zucchini for Monday's and Wednesday's dinners combined. Local zucchini is $1.99 a pound at Stop & Shop, so that's another $2.99.
  • 2 small cucumbers, probably about 1/2 a pound total. Local cucumbers are 99 cents a pound at Stop & Shop, so that's 50 cents.
  • Two scallions. We couldn't find any scallions at the Stop & Shop, but last time we bought them at H-Mart they were 3 bunches for a dollar, so this works out to around 10 cents.
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley. This is 99 cents a bunch at Stop & Shop; the amount we used is worth around 20 cents.
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil. Organic basil was $4.99 for 4 ounces at Stop & Shop. If you use this conversion rate, that means 1/4 cup of basil is worth 78 cents.
  • 1 pound rhubarb. There was no rhubarb for sale at Stop & Shop, but we saw organic rhubarb just recently at the Whole Earth Centre for $4 a pound, so we'll say that's another $4.
  • 6 ounces green beans. These were $6.99 for a 2-pound container at Stop & Shop, so that's $1.31.
  • 2 lettuce leaves. Conventional lettuce is $1.99 a head at the Stop & Shop; the tiny amount we used can't be worth much more than 10 cents.
TOTAL VALUE OF GARDEN PRODUCE: $12.26. Add this to the amount we actually spent on food—even leaving out the leftovers—and our total for the week jumps to $65.86, nearly $3 over our $63 limit. In dollar terms, the produce from our garden accounts for nearly 20 percent of all the food we ate during the week. Without it, this challenge would definitely have been a lot more challenging (though, as I've noted below, not impossible).

So now that the challenge is officially over, what have I learned or accomplished by doing it? Well, unlike most participants in the standard SNAP Challenge (such as these folks on the Huffington Post site), I can't honestly say I've gained a much greater understanding of or empathy for people who live in poverty. During the past week, Brian and I ate pretty much exactly the way we always do; the only time we actually gave anything up was when Brian had to pass up a free bagel during a meeting at work. Aside from the extra paperwork, this challenge didn't really change our lives at all. Still, I do feel like I've learned a few lessons that might be worth sharing.

Lesson #1: The Reverse SNAP Challenge is a lot more manageable than the standard SNAP Challenge. People who have taken the regular SNAP Challenge usually talk about how much it dominated their thoughts during the week, and what an incredible sense of relief they felt when it was finally over. With the Reverse SNAP Challenge, by contrast, the biggest hassle I faced was all the paperwork and calculations I had to do—and honestly, that got a lot easier as the week went on and I had more and more different staple foods already priced out. One of the biggest problems people talk about on the SNAP Challenge is how little variety they get in their diets, and how heavily they have to rely on just a few basic, inexpensive foods to stay within the limits of their budget. But honestly, I think the main problem isn't that they have so little to spend; it's that the artificial limits imposed by the challenge require them to buy everything they eat that week out of their limited budgets. Thus, they have to forego most spices and condiments, because it isn't worth spending $1.49 of your meager $31.50 budget on a jar of mustard if you're only going to use a teaspoon of it. But in real life, food aid doesn't work that way; you aren't required to turn in the entire contents of your fridge and pantry in order to receive your EBT card. If you have a jar of mustard in the fridge, you can continue to use it; when it runs out, you can squeeze $1.49 out of your budget to buy a new one that you can use gradually over the course of the next year. At no point is it necessary to replace everything in your pantry at once, and buying just one or two condiments each month is manageable even on a $4.50-a-day budget.

Lesson #2: It is possible to eat well on a SNAP budget—if you have the right resources available. One problem many SNAP recipients face is that they live in "food deserts," where they don't have access to fresh, affordable food. If the only food store in your neighborhood is a convenience store, then you'll definitely have a much harder time getting enough to eat on $4.50 a day, and if you do manage it, the foods you end up eating won't be nearly as healthy. The neighborhood where I live, by contrast, is practically the opposite of a food desert; you might say it's a food oasis. We have one supermarket, plus a natural foods store, plus several convenience stores, plus a weekly farmer's market in the summer, all within a mile of our house; there are two other large food stores within a half-hour walk, and many more within a 10-minute drive. We have the luxury of shopping at multiple food stores to take advantage of the best prices; we can wait for a sale to stock up because, with so many stores within striking distance, the chances are good that a given food will go on sale somewhere before we actually run out of it. Thus, I would argue that the biggest problem with food aid isn't that the amount in dollars is too low; it's that far too many families don't have the resources they need to put those limited dollars to the best possible advantage. In other words, the best long-term solution is not simply to increase the amount of aid but to address the problem of food availability. Unfortunately, that's a much harder problem to solve—which may be why politicians prefer to wrangle over the dollar amounts and ignore the bigger, tougher issue.

Lesson #3: Having a garden is a big help. One of the complaints you hear most often from people who have taken the standard SNAP Challenge  is that they couldn't afford to eat enough fresh fruits and veggies on a SNAP budget. We, with the help of our garden, ate lots of fresh produce and never came close to going over budget. However, I don't think it would actually have been impossible for us to complete the challenge without a garden; I just think we would have picked our produce based on price rather than on what was ready to harvest out in the garden. For instance, if we hadn't had loads of fresh rhubarb ready for the picking, we never would have chosen to make a rhubarb pie for the potluck on Friday. Instead we'd probably have made one of our go-to potluck dishes from The Clueless Vegetarian, like Simple Sesame Noodle Salad or Incredible Onion Tart—either of which would have cost less than the $3.43 we spent on the other ingredients for the rhubarb pie. Just knocking off that $4 worth of rhubarb would have been enough to keep us within our $63 budget.

Lesson #4: Even a window garden is a help. Most SNAP recipients probably don't have the space for a real garden, unless they're lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with a community garden. But based on the list above, it seems clear that even growing one or two herbs in flowerpots can save you quite a bit of money. The basil we used on Day 4 cost us virtually nothing to grow; we paid $1.70 for enough seeds to plant four square feet of it, and we still have seeds left over. Yet if we'd had to buy it in the store, we'd have paid $5 for four ounces of it, which we'd then have had to use up before it wilted in the fridge. Of course, we never actually did this, even before we had a garden; instead we kept a basil plant in a pot on a windowsill and cut off sprigs as needed. Fresh herbs are an expensive luxury when you buy them in a store, but a cheap and plentiful ingredient when you grow your own. (And in the case of scallions, you don't even have to buy seeds; just plant the cut-off ends of a scallion you've used the green parts of, and wait for a new green part to pop up out of the dirt.)

Lesson 5: A cheap diet tends to be heavy on grains, light on meat. Most of our meals were based around some sort of grain product: bread, cereal, pasta, rice, or couscous. In our one-week challenge, we prepared meat only once, on Saturday night. That dinner was the most expensive one we ate all week, and it left us with the smallest volume of leftovers. Of course, the meat we buy is all free-range, and thus more expensive than most. But I don't think we could have managed to stay within our $63 budget if we'd eaten meat every night. By contrast, a dinner based on grains, supplemented with fresh veggies and some kind of protein source (cheese, eggs, and/or beans) provides ample bulk for minimal cost. (And it will lower your carbon footprint as well.)

Lesson 6: Most important of all, the only way to make it on a SNAP budget is to cook your own meals. I don't think there's any way we could have fed ourselves three square meals a day (plus a few snacks) on this budget if we'd had to buy them all ready-made. And while the meals we enjoyed during the past week were varied and tasty, none of them (with the possible exception of the rhubarb pie) were really that hard to make. They didn't require any fancy equipment and, for the most part, didn't take terribly long to prepare. All you need is a basic kitchen and a couple of decent cookbooks. (Of course, this isn't terribly helpful advice for SNAP recipients who don't have access to even a basic kitchen, because they're living in shelters or boardinghouses or even, God forbid, on the streets. But I don't think that's the fault of the SNAP program; in those cases, it's housing aid that's inadequate.)
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