Monthly Archives: August 2012

The SNAP Challenge: Win, Lose, or Fudge

I am reluctant to declare whether we have succeeded or failed at the SNAP challenge, which drew to a close on Sunday.

On one hand, it was close enough that it comes down to interpretation of the rules.  Jordan and I are leery of the requirement that you include the cost of food given to you or eaten at someone else’s house; it decreases the realism of the simulation and creates unnecessary tension when friends who don’t know about the challenge invite you over.  We have a friend who never visits without bringing a gallon or two of Fosselman’s ice cream–truly the sort of friend you have to appreciate–and whether we are required to include the price determines whether or not we win.  But this isn’t a game and rules lawyering is not the appropriate attitude.

It isn’t a game.  That’s the other reason why I don’t want to declare a “win” or a “loss” because in this context they’re meaningless, and even harmful, concepts.  If you succeed in living on a SNAP budget, what are you going to do?  Declare that living off food stamps is easy and anyone could do it?  Claim that you now understand the lives of the poor and are qualified to speak for them?  In this case, failure, casting into sharp relief one’s own dependency on an affluent lifestyle, would be more eye-opening.

In the end, a challenge like this is simply a discipline.  One benefits from the experience, but deserves to neither be lauded for success or berated for failure.


WWI propaganda poster from Wikimedia Commons.


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The SNAP Challenge: Food and Drugs

Barely out of the first day, Jordan and I encounter a problem: I’ve come down with a massive sore throat.  Advil obviously doesn’t count as food, but what about cough drops, vitamins, or my own personal home remedy, a shot of straight vodka*?

While cough drops and vitamins are definitely exceptions, an argument can be made in favor of vodka as well: Since you can’t buy alcohol with SNAP benefits anyway, it belongs to the same category as medicines and supplements; that is, things that SNAP doesn’t cover.  Theoretically you could have a beer or a glass of wine every night, you just couldn’t make a cocktail with mixers.  But we have chosen to take a no-alcohol path to add to the realism.

This highlights a weakness in the simulation: You’re limiting spending in the area where a low-income family would actually have the most economic freedom.  The family can count on receiving $28 per person per week for food, but might not have any regular income outside of that.  They can judge whether or not they’ve been spending too much on food and can make decisions like “I’ve got $5 left over, so I can afford a carton of ice cream.”  Non-food expenses come out of a much more volatile source of income.

My failure to buy any illness-friendly foods is illustrative.  If I’d known I was going to get sick, I probably would have picked a different week (even greater pragmatism would have picked a week once Jordan and I are both out of a job and packing lunches for work will no longer be necessary).  As it was, I worked on the assumption that I wouldn’t get sick and now I don’t have the money to go get anything else.  Low-income people often have to make choices like this, working on the assumption that a crisis won’t occur and knowing that they won’t be able to afford to deal with it if it does, and the consequences can be far worse than a cold with no chicken soup.

In the end, we decided to allow the shot of vodka, on the grounds that a) vodka isn’t food, and b) my throat really hurt.  It helped a little.


*The idea is that, if you do a shot right when you first develop a sore throat, you’ll kill all the bacteria or viruses before they have a chance to spread.  It has to be a straight shot or a white Russian, though: if you mix it with anything sugary, you’re feeding the germs and negating the effect.

I fully accept that the purported health benefit is probably illusory, but let me tell you: it numbs up your throat like nobody’s business.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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The SNAP Challenge: The Beginning

Christian Piatt recently announced a challenge on his blog of the so-simple-yet-so-edifying variety: Live for one week (August 20 to August 26) on the equivalent of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program–the formal name for the food-stamp program–budget.  That’s four dollars per person per day, and you have to follow these rules:

  • You can’t raid your existing food in the fridge or cupboard without counting that toward your weekly total. Condiments and spices are an exception, though use them sparingly to be fair.
  • If you go out to eat, the whole ticket amount counts, including tax and tip.
  • If someone brings you a meal or buys you a meal, you have to count the full cost of it as if you had bought it yourself.

Intrigued by the idea, Jordan have decided to participate.  Thus, this week, from today until Sunday, we will be eating on just $56, including the costs of things we already have on hand.

I think the most important factor to keep in mind this week is to avoid poverty-as-entertainment.  It’s a strange attitude, but one that pops up uncomfortably frequently: Witness the entire phenomenon of slum tourism.  We should not view eating frugally for a week as a “vacation” from our normal eating habits.  Food stamps are a daily reality for over 40 million people and we insult them and their struggle by treating it as a way to amuse ourselves for a few days before returning to our standard affluent lifestyle.  Instead, we should treat this as a discipline–physical, mental, and spiritual–to give us a deeper appreciation for our own privilege and for the value of conserving the resources at our disposal.

Jordan and I happen to live near a very moderately-priced supermarket, so we planned out meals for the week (wow, I haven’t done that since Home Ec) and purchased the needed ingredients.  The total came out to around $40.  With the addition of an estimated $10 of ingredients around the house, we have $6 left for anything we might need to buy later in the week.  Our entire supply is shown in the photo; front and center, of course, the fruits (vegetables?) of my labor: home-grown yellow pear-shaped tomatoes.  They will play a major part in almost all of our meals.

Jordan and I are well prepared for this diet in some ways and poorly prepared in others.  On one hand, we eat very little meat and almost never have prepared foods or soda, which add significant cost for very little nutritive value.  On the other hand, we are accustomed to high-quality ingredients: Fresh fruit and vegetables, wheat bread, foods free of added preservatives, artificial flavors, salt, MSG, and most of all, corn syrup and sugar.  Jordan valiantly agreed to eat peanut butter sandwiches for lunch all week, but cheap peanut butter always includes sugar, and cheap jelly is nothing but thickened, sweetened fruit juice.  Cheap bagged cereal is always sugar cereal.  Canned fruits are cheaper than fresh fruits.  And so on.

The one factor in our lives that makes this challenge distinctly easier is that we don’t have children.  Everyone in the family is capable of understanding what we’re doing and why; no one will steal a snack from the fridge that we were saving for later or feel left out because he or she doesn’t get the candy and prepared lunch foods that his or her friends get to eat.  These are daily problems for a parent on a SNAP budget.

Since the challenge only lasts for a week, it’s easy to fall into an “it’s only temporary” mentality.  We’ll hardly need to change anything if we just don’t eat out.  We don’t need to buy dessert this week.  Having the same lunch every day won’t be so bad when it’s only for a short time.  While this might be a realistic attitude for someone temporarily broke between jobs, most people on SNAP don’t have a sudden influx of money to look forward to.  If there isn’t enough money for dessert this week, there won’t be enough next week, either.  And when you get home after a long day of work and it’s 110 degrees, it’s exhausting to know that you can’t afford to go out to eat–not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

The challenge’s short duration also creates a curious conflict of price versus quantity.  The biggest package has the lowest unit price, but if you only need a week’s worth anyway, why not buy the smallest package, which has the lowest total price?  This mirrors in reverse the conflict low-income families face when they would save money in the long term by buying larger quantities, but lack the money on hand to pay for it.

I’ll be posting my final thoughts on the challenge when the week is over.  For now, it’s time for some macaroni and cheese.


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Chick-Fil-A’s Freedom of Speech vs. My Freedom of Wallet

This chicken, however, is awesome.

Never has there existed an online scrap that I wasn’t willing to jump into, and I have nothing better to do.  Therefore, in my capacity as a completely uncredentialed blogger, I present: My thoughts on the Chick-Fil-A mess.  In particular, let’s talk about free speech.

What is it with conservatives and misunderstanding free speech?  Look, everyone loves free speech.  I’m using it right now.  But it isn’t one of those meaningless political phrases that can be invoked at random, like “American values.”  Free speech has a meaning that has been carefully defined and vetted for over 200 years.  It doesn’t mean the ability to say anything without repercussions from anyone.

This is what Sarah Palin thinks it means, and unfortunately, a fair amount of the country seems inclined to follow her.  Let’s look carefully at the quote:

Well, that calling for the boycott is a real — has a chilling effect on our 1st Amendment rights. And the owner of the Chick-fil-A business had merely voiced his personal opinion about supporting traditional definition of marriage, one boy, one girl, falling in love, getting married. And having voiced support for kind of that cornerstone of all civilization and all religions since the beginning of time, he then basically getting crucified.

I’m speaking up for him and his 1st Amendment rights and anybody else who would wish to express their not anti-gay people sentiment, but their support of traditional marriage, which President Obama and Joe Biden, they both supported the exact same thing until just a few months ago, when Obama had to flip-flop to shore up the homosexual voter base.

Hmm.  Boycotting a company because of something the CEO said is a violation of first amendment rights?  That implies that either a) the First Amendment forbids you from deciding where to spend your money based on your perceptions of different companies, or b) the First Amendment forbids you from telling other people where you think they should or should not spend their money (which, yes, would mean that the First Amendment actually limited what people were and were not allowed to say).  Both of these are curious precepts.  The former, in particular, ludicrously implies that businesses shouldn’t be allowed suffer based on what those representing them say, which suggests that, for instance, a failed advertising campaign causing business to take a hit would also be unconstitutional*.

Dan Cathy has freedom of speech; I have freedom of wallet.  I can choose not to not to eat there because of his statements just as I could choose not to eat there because I hate their stupid misspelled name or because, let’s face it, their food isn’t that good.


*Unless, of course, they are Oreo or J.C. Penney, in which case the chilling effect of boycotting them on free speech is somehow negated.

Serama found here.


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