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SNAP Challenge: Eating on a Food Stamp Budget

| July 3, 2012

What is the SNAP Challenge?

Participating in the SNAP Challenge is simple: eat for one week using only the amount of money you would have if you relied solely on SNAP to pay for your food.

By taking the SNAP Challenge, you will directly experience the struggle that nearly 1 in 7 Americans – including nearly 25% of all American children – face every day. You will learn first-hand how difficult it is to afford nutritious foods, avoid hunger, and stay healthy without adequate resources.

Living on a food stamp budget for just a week could never come close to the struggles encountered by low-income families week after week, month after month. What it will do – we hope – is give you a new perspective about hunger in America and renewed energy to help MAZON transform how it is into how it should be.

What are the rules for the SNAP Challenge?

  1. Each person can spend a total of $31.50 on food and beverages during the Challenge week. This budget translates to $4.50 per day, or $1.50 per meal.
  2. Keep all receipts and track all your food and beverage spending. Any food or beverages purchased and eaten during the Challenge week must be accounted for in your budget. For the purposes of this Challenge, you must include in your budget any amount you spend dining out.
  3. During the Challenge, eat only food that you purchase specifically for the Challenge. Do not eat food that you already have in your pantry or refrigerator (excluding spices and condiments).

When should I do the SNAP Challenge?

You can do the SNAP Challenge any week you choose, but we encourage you to join Joshua Malina (Scandal, The West Wing) when he takes the SNAP Challenge from Monday, July 9 through Sunday, July 15.

What to do during and after the SNAP Challenge:

  1. Share your personal experiences through social media, blog posts, op-eds to your local newspaper, or letters to your policymakers in Washington D.C. Be sure to share your thoughts with MAZON as well. Tag us on Facebook (@mazonusa) or Twitter (@stophunger, #SNAP4aWeek) or email us.
  2. Donate to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the additional amount you would have spent on food this week (or any amount you feel is appropriate).
  3. Remember this experience when you cast your ballot this Fall. Learn about food insecurity in your community, then ask your candidate(s) where they stand on food insecurity issues.

Learn more about the SNAP program and print out instructions here.

Leave a comment below if you plan to join us!

58 Responses

  1. Felicity Lingle says:

    You could make this even more challenging and ask people to live on $4.50 a day without a stove/oven, as many homeless and SRO dwelling SNAP recipients are compelled to do.

    • Michelle Stuffmann says:

      Thanks for your comment Felicity. You’re absolutely right that many homeless and SRO dwelling people face even more challenges. Our goal in promoting this challenge, though, is to get as many people as possible to try it, not to make it as difficult as possible.

      • Debra Carter says:

        I can agree with the sentiments. I really do and I appreciate yall trying to bring home the issue that so many American’s face. But if we are to truly get across how the other half lives, then we need to do so with reality. 

        Then again I’m one of those that goes with the “slap in the face” kinda tactics lol 

  2. Felicity Lingle says:

    You could make this even more challenging and ask people to live on $4.50 a day without a stove/oven, as many homeless and SRO dwelling SNAP recipients are compelled to do.

  3. [...] ready to take part in a SNAP Challenge (eating on a food stamp budget for 1 week) – anyone want to [...]

  4. Jen says:

    This would be more realistic if participants were not allowed to buy prepared foods. There aren’t many ways to afford to on that budget anyways, but SNAP benefits only work at food stores, and they cannot be used to buy prepared foods. For example, the salad bar or a pre-made sandwich from the deli at your local grocery would not be covered.

  5. Jen says:

    This would be more realistic if participants were not allowed to buy prepared foods. There aren’t many ways to afford to on that budget anyways, but SNAP benefits only work at food stores, and they cannot be used to buy prepared foods. For example, the salad bar or a pre-made sandwich from the deli at your local grocery would not be covered.

  6. Susie says:

    Question:  can I eat food that was purchased before, as long as I count the cost of that food toward my $31.50 per person limit?

    Also, do children have the same $31.50 limit as adults do?

    • Michelle Stuffmann says:

       Hi Susie – yes I think you can eat food that was purchased before – just count the cost toward your $31.50 limit.

      Yes, children have the same $31.50 limit. Tough to imagine feeding a growing child for that amount, huh?

  7. Susie says:

    Question:  can I eat food that was purchased before, as long as I count the cost of that food toward my $31.50 per person limit?

    Also, do children have the same $31.50 limit as adults do?

  8. Susie says:

    Question:  can I eat food that was purchased before, as long as I count the cost of that food toward my $31.50 per person limit?

    Also, do children have the same $31.50 limit as adults do?

  9. [...] Want to join in? Use the hash tag #SNAP4aWeek and tweet pictures of your meals to @StopHunger – we would love to have you join us! Full guidelines are here. [...]

  10. Michelle Stuffmann says:

    You’re absolutely right, Jen – prepared meals are off-limits, by rules and by price.

  11. Michelle Stuffmann says:

    Thanks for your comment Felicity. You’re absolutely right that many homeless and SRO dwelling people face even more challenges. Our goal in promoting this challenge, though, is to get as many people as possible to try it, not to make it as difficult as possible.

  12. Michelle Stuffmann says:

     Hi Susie – yes I think you can eat food that was purchased before – just count the cost toward your $31.50 limit.

    Yes, children have the same $31.50 limit. Tough to imagine feeding a growing child for that amount, huh?

  13. [...] July 9 through July 15, I’m taking the SNAP* Challenge. Its purpose is to give well-fed Americans a chance to experience the struggle an estimated 1 in 7 [...]

  14. Can You Go Without? | A Day Without Sushi says:

    [...] week I was reading about the SNAP challenge in which Joshua Malina is participating. [For those who don't want to click through, the challenge [...]

  15. [...] by Amy Rogers on July 10, 2012 var addthis_product = 'wpp-257'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true};Yesterday I was feeling pretty smug about my cost-effective shopping. I’d spent only about half of the $31.50 grocery budget I’d agreed not to exceed as part of the SNAP* Challenge. [...]

  16. [...] excited to announce that I’m teaming up with two of my blogging buddies to participate in Mazon’s SNAP Food Stamp Challenge this coming week, July 16th – July 22nd, [...]

  17. [...] far I’ve managed to feed myself well on the basic, staple items I bought for the SNAP* Challenge. But how do you explain to a child that tonight’s dinner will be cereal or soup [...]

  18. [...] halfway through the SNAP* Challenge, trying to eat adequately and healthfully while spending no more than $31.50 for the [...]

  19. [...] week I’ve been taking the SNAP Challenge to learn first-hand what it’s like to feed yourself with no more than $31.50 per week. (You can [...]

  20. Debra Carter says:

    $1.50 a meal reality is more like .90 a meal per person at least it is for me.. 

  21. Debra Carter says:

    $1.50 a meal reality is more like .90 a meal per person at least it is for me.. 

  22. Debra Carter says:

    I can agree with the sentiments. I really do and I appreciate yall trying to bring home the issue that so many American’s face. But if we are to truly get across how the other half lives, then we need to do so with reality. 

    Then again I’m one of those that goes with the “slap in the face” kinda tactics lol 

  23. Debra Carter says:

    I can agree with the sentiments. I really do and I appreciate yall trying to bring home the issue that so many American’s face. But if we are to truly get across how the other half lives, then we need to do so with reality. 

    Then again I’m one of those that goes with the “slap in the face” kinda tactics lol 

  24. [...] writing this post the morning of Day Seven of the SNAP Challenge. In the next few days, I’ll continue to respond to your comments, then I’ll wrap [...]

  25. Guest says:

    (excluding spices and condiments)

    I understand that in doing this challenge for only one week it would be difficult to figure in spices and condiments that are used over the course of a month or more, but in theory I disagree that spices and condiments should be excluded completely in the accounting.  For a number of years I lived on a similar food budget (without the use of food stamps, and for buying not only food but also non-food grocery store items such as dish soap and toilet paper), and of course spices, condiments, and related items have to be figured in.  Salt, olive oil, and pepper and a few other herbs and spices all had to be figured into my budget and planned for.  Larger sizes are less expensive per unit but cost more at the time of purchase.  Sales are difficult to take advantage of when they pop up when it isn’t the right time.  Over time I realized, for instance, how much olive oil I was using per month.  Or was able to judge whether it was worth buying a huge amount of a fresh herb when I only needed a little based on how well it might freeze or dry and how long it would then last and whether I would need to be using it in the future.  A week isn’t enough time to measure such trends, but it would be good if the challenge took into account somehow the use of these items.  Perhaps participants could pretend not to have on hand most condiments and spices and meanwhile note the use of others, so that the report at the end could include a total of what was spent plus an approximation of the cost of what was used from what was on hand.  It won’t exactly reflect what happens year in and year out on a tight food budget but it would be something and would give participants the further experience of what it is like to want to add a seasoning or the like and not be able to.  I do hope at least that participants are not considering items used in larger quantities as main ingredient, such as the aformentioned olive oil, or butter (whether for cooking or spreading) to be mere condiments.

    Also, relatedly, think about items that aren’t ingredients but might be considered food, such as veggie wash and cooking spray, and items that aren’t food but are sometimes needed or would be useful for food prep, such as foils and wraps and containers and the aforementioned dish soap and dishwashing sponges.  Someone with no extra money for food has little to spend on these associated items and certainly next to nothing to spend on kitchen gadgets or even a new vegetable peeler.  This doesn’t affect the rules of your challenge, but is something for participants to consider when attempting to experience this life for a week.

    Thank you for considering my comments.

    Is Mr. Malina (whose professional work I respect and sharp wit I admire) reporting on his experiences somewhere, and, if so, where?

  26. Guest says:

    (excluding spices and condiments)  
    I understand that in doing this challenge for only one week it would be difficult to figure in spices and condiments that are used over the course of a month or more, but in theory I disagree that spices and condiments should be excluded completely in the accounting.  For a number of years I lived on a similar food budget (without the use of food stamps, and for buying not only food but also non-food grocery store items such as dish soap and toilet paper), and of course spices, condiments, and related items have to be figured in.  Salt, olive oil, and pepper and a few other herbs and spices all had to be figured into my budget and planned for.  Larger sizes are less expensive per unit but cost more at the time of purchase.  Sales are difficult to take advantage of when they pop up when it isn’t the right time.  Over time I realized, for instance, how much olive oil I was using per month.  Or was able to judge whether it was worth buying a huge amount of a fresh herb when I only needed a little based on how well it might freeze or dry and how long it would then last and whether I would need to be using it in the future.  A week isn’t enough time to measure such trends, but it would be good if the challenge took into account somehow the use of these items.  Perhaps participants could pretend not to have on hand most condiments and spices and meanwhile note the use of others, so that the report at the end could include a total of what was spent plus an approximation of the cost of what was used from what was on hand.  It won’t exactly reflect what happens year in and year out on a tight food budget but it would be something and would give participants the further experience of what it is like to want to add a seasoning or the like and not be able to.  I do hope at least that participants are not considering items used in larger quantities as main ingredient, such as the aformentioned olive oil, or butter (whether for cooking or spreading) to be mere condiments.
     
    Also, relatedly, think about items that aren’t ingredients but might be considered food, such as veggie wash and cooking spray, and items that aren’t food but are sometimes needed or would be useful for food prep, such as foils and wraps and containers and the aforementioned dish soap and dishwashing sponges.  Someone with no extra money for food has little to spend on these associated items and certainly next to nothing to spend on kitchen gadgets or even a new vegetable peeler.  This doesn’t affect the rules of your challenge, but is something for participants to consider when attempting to experience this life for a week.
     
    Thank you for considering my comments.
     
    Is Mr. Malina (whose professional work I respect and sharp wit I admire) reporting on his experiences somewhere, and, if so, where?

  27. Guest says:

    (excluding spices and condiments)  
    I understand that in doing this challenge for only one week it would be difficult to figure in spices and condiments that are used over the course of a month or more, but in theory I disagree that spices and condiments should be excluded completely in the accounting.  For a number of years I lived on a similar food budget (without the use of food stamps, and for buying not only food but also non-food grocery store items such as dish soap and toilet paper), and of course spices, condiments, and related items have to be figured in.  Salt, olive oil, and pepper and a few other herbs and spices all had to be figured into my budget and planned for.  Larger sizes are less expensive per unit but cost more at the time of purchase.  Sales are difficult to take advantage of when they pop up when it isn’t the right time.  Over time I realized, for instance, how much olive oil I was using per month.  Or was able to judge whether it was worth buying a huge amount of a fresh herb when I only needed a little based on how well it might freeze or dry and how long it would then last and whether I would need to be using it in the future.  A week isn’t enough time to measure such trends, but it would be good if the challenge took into account somehow the use of these items.  Perhaps participants could pretend not to have on hand most condiments and spices and meanwhile note the use of others, so that the report at the end could include a total of what was spent plus an approximation of the cost of what was used from what was on hand.  It won’t exactly reflect what happens year in and year out on a tight food budget but it would be something and would give participants the further experience of what it is like to want to add a seasoning or the like and not be able to.  I do hope at least that participants are not considering items used in larger quantities as main ingredient, such as the aformentioned olive oil, or butter (whether for cooking or spreading) to be mere condiments.
     
    Also, relatedly, think about items that aren’t ingredients but might be considered food, such as veggie wash and cooking spray, and items that aren’t food but are sometimes needed or would be useful for food prep, such as foils and wraps and containers and the aforementioned dish soap and dishwashing sponges.  Someone with no extra money for food has little to spend on these associated items and certainly next to nothing to spend on kitchen gadgets or even a new vegetable peeler.  This doesn’t affect the rules of your challenge, but is something for participants to consider when attempting to experience this life for a week.
     
    Thank you for considering my comments.
     
    Is Mr. Malina (whose professional work I respect and sharp wit I admire) reporting on his experiences somewhere, and, if so, where?

  28. Guest says:

    (excluding spices and condiments)  I understand that in doing this challenge for only one week it would be difficult to figure in spices and condiments that are used over the course of a month or more, but in theory I disagree that spices and condiments should be excluded completely in the accounting.  For a number of years I lived on a similar food budget (without the use of food stamps, and for buying not only food but also non-food grocery store items such as dish soap and toilet paper), and of course spices, condiments, and related items have to be figured in.  Salt, olive oil, and pepper and a few other herbs and spices all had to be figured into my budget and planned for.  Larger sizes are less expensive per unit but cost more at the time of purchase.  Sales are difficult to take advantage of when they pop up when it isn’t the right time.  Over time I realized, for instance, how much olive oil I was using per month.  Or was able to judge whether it was worth buying a huge amount of a fresh herb when I only needed a little based on how well it might freeze or dry and how long it would then last and whether I would need to be using it in the future.  A week isn’t enough time to measure such trends, but it would be good if the challenge took into account somehow the use of these items.  Perhaps participants could pretend not to have on hand most condiments and spices and meanwhile note the use of others, so that the report at the end could include a total of what was spent plus an approximation of the cost of what was used from what was on hand.  It won’t exactly reflect what happens year in and year out on a tight food budget but it would be something and would give participants the further experience of what it is like to want to add a seasoning or the like and not be able to.  I do hope at least that participants are not considering items used in larger quantities as main ingredient, such as the aformentioned olive oil, or butter (whether for cooking or spreading) to be mere condiments. Also, relatedly, think about items that aren’t ingredients but might be considered food, such as veggie wash and cooking spray, and items that aren’t food but are sometimes needed or would be useful for food prep, such as foils and wraps and containers and the aforementioned dish soap and dishwashing sponges.  Someone with no extra money for food has little to spend on these associated items and certainly next to nothing to spend on kitchen gadgets or even a new vegetable peeler.  This doesn’t affect the rules of your challenge, but is something for participants to consider when attempting to experience this life for a week. Thank you for considering my comments. Is Mr. Malina (whose professional work I respect and sharp wit I admire) reporting on his experiences somewhere, and, if so, where?

    • Emily Dingmann says:

      We did not include condiments and other food prep items in our challenge for a few reasons. Non-food items are not permissible on SNAP and we are following the list of items that are and are not permissible on SNAP benefits. If you click on the printable instructions above, you can see the entire list that we used. As for the condiments, because this exercise was only one week, it would be hard to purchase condiments with the one week SNAP budget which is why we decided to allow the use of condiments. Certainly these items would need to be purchased over time, leaving even less for actual food! We hope that helps clarify. 
      Here is a link to Josh’s site where he has been talking about the SNAP Challenge http://joshuamalina.tumblr.com/post/26785873333/mazon-a-jewish-response-to-hunger-is-a-wonderfulThanks for your comments!

  29. Guest says:

    Sorry for multiple comments.  My attempt at formatting messed up and now I am embarrassed.  Please delete all but one of the middle two.

  30. [...] recently completed the SNAP Challenge, designed to give participants a taste of what it’s like to feed yourself with no more than the [...]

  31. Emily Dingmann says:

    We did not include condiments and other food prep items in our challenge for a few reasons. Non-food items are not permissible on SNAP and we are following the list of items that are and are not permissible on SNAP benefits. If you click on the printable instructions above, you can see the entire list that we used. As for the condiments, because this exercise was only one week, it would be hard to purchase condiments with the one week SNAP budget which is why we decided to allow the use of condiments. Certainly these items would need to be purchased over time, leaving even less for actual food! We hope that helps clarify. 
    Here is a link to Josh’s site where he has been talking about the SNAP Challenge http://joshuamalina.tumblr.com/post/26785873333/mazon-a-jewish-response-to-hunger-is-a-wonderfulThanks for your comments!

  32. Jupiter says:

    I have a round-up on my blog of SNAP challenges and bloggers who are actually on food stamps. Participants are welcome to send me their blog link for inclusion.
    http://dumbsainthood.wordpress.com/food-stamp-limited-budget-grocery-challenges/ 

  33. Jupiter says:

    I have a round-up on my blog of SNAP challenges and bloggers who are actually on food stamps. Participants are welcome to send me their blog link for inclusion.
    http://dumbsainthood.wordpress.com/food-stamp-limited-budget-grocery-challenges/ 

  34. [...] SNAP Challenge: Eating on a Food Stamp Budget – MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. [...]

  35. [...] posting on the Mazon Food Stamp Budget SNAP challenge on Facebook, reader Kelli Brown took it up. She finished the week with money to spare. Read her [...]

  36. Jenny says:

    I don’t find this to be realistic. I know families of 4 who get $600/month in food stamp benefits.

    • Emily Dingmann says:

       Hi Jenny, $31.50 per week (for one person) is the average SNAP benefit. Some families get more per person, some get less. Hope that helps!

    • Lisa Brains says:

      That is about 37.50 a person per week. $600/ 4 people is $150 per person a month. 
      $150/4 weeks is about $37.50 per week. So I think it is realistic by your own calculations. 

    • a says:

      Jenny I only budget $600 a month for food for 4 people, 2 dogs, 2 cats, cigarettes, alcohol, toiletries…and I usually come in pretty close to being within that budget. My goal is for most dinners to be under $5 total and all must be under $10. It requires being creative and saving all leftovers. And cutting out all most snack foods. Home made baked goods, pretzels, popcorn, cereal and leftovers make good snacks and the kids haven’t complained too much. And even then simply pointing out the box of cookies they want costs the same as xyz, but has no nutritional value and they stop asking pretty quick. It can be done. But the challenge asks you not to accept freebies. Sorry real people living on snap take the freebies all the time. It’s part of life, nothing to be ashamed of.

  37. Jenny says:

    I don’t find this to be realistic. I know families of 4 who get $600/month in food stamp benefits.

  38. Emily Dingmann says:

     Hi Jenny, $31.50 per week (for one person) is the average SNAP benefit. Some families get more per person, some get less. Hope that helps!

  39. Fyrfli23 says:

    actually you can buy prepared food if they are cold and are taxed as such

  40. Ed Lee says:

    I’m in China and I eat well at $25 a month for food budget. No food stamps.

  41. Mike Jeffers says:

    It’s got to be nearly impossible to feed somebody for $4.50 per day. I feel for families that find themselves in that position. However, the very name of the program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) makes it clear that SNAP’s intention is not to be the sole source of money to feed an individual or family.

    The program is designed to help provide some assistance to low income individuals or families. It’s intention is to help defray some of the costs associated with food.

    SNAP is akin to the many small college scholarships out there. A $1000 annual Rotary scholarship isn’t intended to entirely pay for a year of college education. It’s intention is to help defray some of the cost.

    While it would be nice if SNAP did fully meet the needs of all those in need, it just doesn’t. But, it’s not intended to. I don’t see anybody trying to shame the Rotary into providing a larger scholarship. Why is it okay to try to brow beat the USDA into providing more money? Does anybody really think that folks at the USDA don’t understand that $4.50 a day won’t feed somebody? They know it. They absolutely know it. If anybody knows what a gallon of milk costs today, it’s the folks at the USDA.

    • Autumn says:

      Yes, “SNAP” is meant to be supplemental, but the majority of families that receive it use it as their only source of food for the month. My husband makes less than $800 a month after taxes, and our basic bills (rent, utilities, phone, internet, car insurance) come to around $700. We have no cable/streaming services, and our internet is a limited GB plan. Once you include gas in the car at 4.00/gallon and things like diapers, toilet paper, shampoo, soap, etc, there is not any extra to add to the $300 a month we get in SNAP for ourselves and our 2 small children. Most times there is NO extra and I rely on ‘stocking up’ on toiletries when there are sales and I have coupons. Same for food. That $300 a month is stretched as far as possible with sales and coupons to make sure my husband and I can eat at least once a day and our kids get 3 meals a day.

  42. smith.michael93 says:

    I work at a grocery store and you would be amazed at how many people splurge on food stamps.Just today there was a family that came in and spent half of my families grocery budget on the salad bar

    • Thomas Frieder says:

      you sound like just one more of those dumb liars telling about the guy in front of him at the checkout buying lobster with his food stamps…baloney…food stamps does not cover Salad Bars or ANY prepared food…you can buy cold cuts…you cannot buy them made into a sandwich, etc. and etc….go MAKE UP ANOTHER STORY

  43. [...] only on day four of my one-week SNAP Challenge and I already feel like I’ll hurl if I have to eat another peanut butter sandwich. At the [...]

  44. Autumn says:

    To do it accurately you should leave out ALL fast food (not SNAP eligible) and stick to foods in a grocery store that would be able to be purchased on SNAP, so no prepared or hot foods. Bye, bye, salad bar and hot chicken. My family is currently getting $300/month in SNAP for 4 people, 2 of which are small children. My husband works 40 hrs/week for min. wage and it is a constant struggle to get by, even shopping sales and cutting coupons.

  45. Thomas Frieder says:

    Actually SNAP hurts themselves by not allowing hot foods such as the cooked full size chickens to be covered…most supermarkets sell them half price after 9 pm and they are saving you energy costs by not having to cook it yourself

  46. Jessi says:

    I’ve had to be on food stamps my whole adult life. I’m so used to it that this strikes me as kind of silly. However, it does make we wonder what it’s like to have a larger food budget. Can people really afford to buy fresh fruit every day? What would that even be like? It’s seriously like another world to even contemplate.

    I have just earned my master’s, and hope to finally get off welfare. Apparently that will be a little more surreal, and take a little more getting used to, than I expected.

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