Food insecurity is an ongoing issue for a lot of people and families. And the current pandemic is really exacerbating the struggle many have been facing for a long time. As unemployment continues, more people will likely try to receive SNAP benefits to help with grocery bills. But the thing is, those benefits aren’t as plentiful as you may think. The average SNAP recipient has $4 per person a day to spend on food. That’s less than most people’s morning Starbucks.
Even if they aren’t on SNAP, a lot of folks are trying to spend less on groceries, and now they’re realizing just how difficult it is. As someone who relied on those benefits for a couple years, I know how difficult it can be to make that money last. Plus, now everyone is literally stuck at home, so that means more meals at home. Which means you’re having to make that small budget stretch even farther than before, especially if you have children. It’s practically impossible.
Over the last five or six years, you’ve probably heard of people taking the “SNAP Challenge.” This is when well-meaning, but usually financially secure people (including celebrities) spend a week pretending to live like people who have SNAP benefits. They prep and meal plan, budgeting as if they only have that $4/per person per day allowance. It’s supposed to shine a light on how difficult it is for people receiving benefits to live and eat. And while the intention behind it is good, it often shines a light on just how out of touch many people are about living on food assistance.
The biggest problem with the SNAP Challenge is that people aren’t actually thinking like those living in poverty or food insecurity. Leanne Brown is the author of a James Beard Award winning cookbook Good and Cheap. The cookbook is full of recipes for people receiving food assistance, teaching them how to make “good” meals for basically no money. Brown’s book is a great resource, especially for people right now who may be looking for ways to cut their grocery bills. But with recipes like quiche, polenta and various other “ethnic” cuisines like dal, masala and Mexican street corn, it’s clear who the book is really for — and that’s not necessarily for the low income people who regularly utilize those benefits.
“I think the question should be what is going to give you the most rather than what is going to give you the most quantity,” Brown explained to The Washington Post. And yes, eating well is important, but for many, being able to eat for more than just one meal is paramount.
The problem with Brown’s book and things like the Challenge is that they don’t address major issues with poverty. Many people receiving those benefits live in food deserts — areas where access to nutritious, affordable food is limited. They likely have to travel to the nearest grocery store, and usually on public transportation. Now with coronavirus, taking public transportation is more risky. And that makes grocery shopping harder. People are trying to do less shopping, which changes how they’re approaching grocery shopping.
If you’re on a SNAP budget, you are way more intentional with your grocery purchases. You’re not going to spend money on something without a guarantee. Meaning, you’re not going to buy something that you know may not work for everyone. There is no wiggle room for experimentation. Because if it doesn’t work out, that’s money you can’t get back. Meal prep and making a grocery list are two very useful things to do before your shopping trip.
There are things you can buy inexpensively in bulk, like beans, rice and pasta. Depending on how many people you’re feeding, a box of pasta can be one or five meals. That’s why during the early days of the pandemic, those were the first things to fly off shelves. Same with things like Top Ramen noodles. Those packets are often on sale for less than $.50, which means you can get a lot of them. They’re often a lifesaver, especially with such a small budget.
Cooking on a tight budget means you’re constantly getting creative. You will get sick of eating buttered noodles if that’s your only option. You don’t always have to eat Top Ramen the way it comes. Black beans or lentils can be prepared many ways and added to different meals. You can do a surprising amount of things with canned tomatoes, from making your own tomato sauce, chili, soup or salsa. Veggies like green beans and corn are great either canned or frozen. And these are things that are often on sale, so you can stretch your money a little more. It may give you space to buy some more fresh items.
Thankfully, shelf stable foods pair really well with fresh ingredients when you can get them. However, when you’re working with a tight SNAP budget, that can be a challenge — especially considering that meat is one of the many grocery items demanding a higher price thanks to the pandemic. One family pack of chicken or a pound of ground beef can equal your budget for several days. The good thing is that fresh meat can be used a lot of different ways. Chicken thighs are incredibly versatile, as are chicken breasts. Even buying a roasted chicken pre-made from your grocery store can make several meals. You can even boil down the carcass to make chicken stock. Then you can take that stock and make soups or cooking liquid instead of oil.
In some cities, SNAP beneficiaries were able to get fresh produce from their local farmer’s markets with their benefits. But now that farmer’s markets are pretty much non-existent, that’s something that is lost too. Fresh produce, especially fruit, is very often expensive. So you have to be selective and try to utilize sales. Things like broccoli and green beans can be used a bunch of ways, and they freeze well. Finding shortcuts like that is incredibly helpful. If you can buy those things less frequently, you have room to buy things like fresh fruit.
When you’re living on a SNAP budget, your first concern is making sure you have enough to feed your family. It’s incredibly difficult to do so on very little money, and that’s what many people fail to realize. More often than not, you’re out of money before your next benefits come in. It’s easy to pretend for a week that you understand what it’s like. But unless you’re living that life day in and day out, you have no idea. If you don’t know the stress of calculating your purchases before you get to the checkout, or juggling what bills can be delayed so you can afford to eat, you don’t get it.
Feeding yourself and your family on approximately $4 a day isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes diligence, planning and creativity. This isn’t a new problem, and maybe now that more people are living this life, they’ll see how hard it is. Maybe now people will address the real inequities of the system, and not just joke about it.