Guest Blogger: My Amazing Sister, Jennifer Russell

There’s been a lot of chatter in the media about reducing funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Personalities such as Ben Affleck and Newark Mayor Cory Booker participated in the SNAP Challenge, an experiment meant to educate the public on how much money SNAP participants are afforded for food every day. My amazing sister Jen also took the challenge and lived on a food stipend of only $5.13 a day for a week. I asked her to write about the experience.


The SNAP Challenge Is No Snap by Jennifer Russell

Like my sister Rebecca, I have come to value good food and cooking, and have thought a lot about what they mean to me. Over the last several years I’ve worked hard to improve my understanding of nutrition, food preparation and health. I was lucky enough to live in Europe for a few years and experienced the benefits of regularly walking to markets for local produce and buying locally grown ingredients. I’ve even tried cooking classes and wine tastings in the hopes of expanding my skills and my palate.

Unlike my sister, however, I’m not a very talented cook. I do not have friends asking me for my recipes, and the expression on my kids’ faces when I serve yet another soup dispels any misconceptions I might have about developing a fan base.  (Don’t even ask about how my kids and my husband look forward to Rebecca’s annual Christmas cookie package. They act like it’s a long-anticipated food drop to some remote outpost!) So when I learned about the SNAP Challenge, I knew I’d have my work cut out for me.

The SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Challenge is an exercise created by the University of Bridgeport. Participants experience what it’s like to live on the average weekly stipend allotted to those qualified for SNAP (formerly Food Stamp) benefits. The amount that people on SNAP receive varies by state, but most payments fall somewhere between $28 and $33 dollars per week for an individual.

The idea of participating intrigued me for several reasons. First, I’ve lived a very lucky life. I’ve never been so short on money that I needed to rely on government assistance, and I’ve never been truly hungry. Second, I wanted to see what it means to rely on government resources. Is it, as you often hear, really enough for people to regularly indulge in steaks and other expensive foods? Finally, is it possible to eat a healthy diet when you rely on government assistance? After all, what is the point of feeding the disadvantaged if the quality of food leads to poor health?

Brown.Ricke.Sweet.PotatoesTo participate in the SNAP Challenge, you must first figure out how much a qualified family receives in your area. I live in Connecticut, which has a high cost of living, so I looked up the average monthly allotment ($143.89 in FY 2012) and divided by four. This left me just $35.97 for the week, or an average of $5.13 per day. Ouch. Not much, but I was convinced I could accomplish it for two reasons: I cook the majority of meals I eat, and I’ve chosen to be what I call schmegan (a variation of vegan), which means I avoid (but have not completely eliminated) meat and dairy in my diet, foods which can be expensive. I quickly learned, however, that even practiced cooks can struggle on $5.13 a day.

Bananas.2Eating healthfully proved to be a challenge. Options like soda, chips and hot dogs were readily available and quite affordable. I realized if most Americans are in poor physical shape because of lifestyle choices, low-income families are even more vulnerable because they cannot always afford better food. Still, I did my best to make healthy choices. The list below shows a typical menu on my plan.

SNAP Challenge Diet: Day 6

Oatmeal (on sale!)  $0.40

Cup of tea  $0.20

1 cup brown rice and beans including can of tomato, onion  $2.17

Baked potato with nothing on it (sigh!)  $0.79

2 beers (My husband is a bad influence.)  $3.00*

TOTAL:  $6.56

* Note: you can’t actually purchase alcohol with SNAP benefits but I counted them in my overall cost.

I ate a LOT of oatmeal and a lot of beans. Fortunately, some days went better than others, and with a lot of planning I was able to evenly distribute my resources and finish within budget for the week.

Soaking.Black.Beans.2All told, I found the Challenge to be, well, challenging. It was difficult to deal with all the other complications of life and still know that I had to cheap out on what I was going to eat. I went out to meet a friend at a coffee shop, and I had to limit my dinner to the cheapest thing they had, a basic coffee. My friend felt so bad she offered to pay, but the rules don’t allow for this. So she gave me money to add to my donation to the local food bank!

Also, the planning was crazy. I was able to (barely) stay in the guidelines, but the amount of careful shopping, food prep (example: soaking beans because the dried ones are cheaper than canned), and constant estimation (how much does that cost versus this) was nerve wracking. I didn’t appreciate how much planning is required if you don’t have a lot of choices.

A few disclaimers: Although I tried to come close to the experience of relying on SNAP benefits, the fact is I did not completely. I could transport in bulk rather than having to walk and carry my bags, or take the bus. I did look up the bus service in my town, and what is normally a seven-minute ride to the store would be over an hour each way because I’d have to make a transfer. I ended up driving to the store.

Black.Bean.Soup.2Most importantly, the Challenge is not like the real experience of having to rely on government support because it’s finite. I knew that it would end in a week. I don’t want to pretend that I really experienced hopelessness, the result of not having resources for so long that you don’t see how things will ever improve.

That’s why I’m glad I gave this a try and encourage others to do so. I learned that living on limited resources takes a lot of energy and planning just to get by. If there are people who are able to regularly buy steaks and other expensive items on SNAP, I’d love to figure out how they did it. I know I had to be creative just to feel full most days.

There is one benefit that has continued into my every day life: understanding the value of the inexpensive but healthy foods available in my area. I’ve been eating a lot more beans, legumes and whole grains since the Challenge and I feel all the better for it. I guess what they say is true: When you know better, you do better!



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