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.