My SNAP Challenge: Trying to Eat Healthy on a Budget

12 Mar

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Last week I took the SNAP challenge, spending $30 for my entire week’s worth of food. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The purpose of doing this was to experience what it feels like to be food insecure and to build my appreciation for SNAP and other food assistance programs. Prior to taking the challenge, I felt like I had an advantage because I like to spend a lot of time cooking in the kitchen. A few things I was worried about were my big sweet tooth at night, and my caffeine intake.

I have never really had to restrict myself food-wise, so I had to practice a lot of mindful eating and really tried to listen to my “hunger” cues so that my food could last me the full week.

My final meal plan went as follows: I normally eat a lot of bread, but chose to get my grains by eating oats, white rice, and whole-wheat pasta. I was actually able to fit a lot of vegetables into my meal plan for the week. Fresh broccoli was cheaper than frozen broccoli, and I had a mix of green and red peppers with my rice and beans. My biggest splurge was on cottage cheese. It was the most expensive item ($3.99 for 16 oz), but I thought I would get a big protein bang for the price.

I spent a really long time at the store, comparing prices and going back and forth on whether or not to “splurge” on certain foods.

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Breakfast was oatmeal every day. ½ cup of rolled oats with 1 cup water. I added milk after it was already cooked, and lots of cinnamon that I had at home. I also drank instant coffee, maybe slightly more than a cup each day.

Lunch everyday was black beans with white rice and sautéed peppers. 2 peppers lasted me the entire week. I probably ate ½-3/4 cup of beans and ½ cup of rice at each meal.

Dinner everyday was whole-wheat rotini pasta. I took a can of crushed tomatoes and added some salt, garlic powder, roasted broccoli, and a bit of the remaining kabocha squash that I had leftover from the prior week.

**on some of my hungrier days, I had some cottage cheese with my lunch or dinner.

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Snacks: I would switch up what I ate for a mid-day snack and post-dinner snack, but I chose from the same few foods—banana, peanut butter, and/or cottage cheese (sprinkled with cinnamon). I purchased some cheap oranges from a NYC Green Cart and had those for snacks on 4 of the 7 days.

I ran out of cottage cheese after day 4, so for the last few days of my challenge I ate nonfat Greek yogurt that I bought at Trader Joes. Each yogurt cost $0.99 and had 14g of protein. The ingredients in the yogurt were skim milk, pasteurized honey, and live active cultures. I thought this was a pretty great deal for a healthy snack high in protein, low in sugar (relative to other yogurts, it only contained 13g) and additives, and high in potassium and calcium.

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Leftover food at the end of my challenge: I had SO MANY BEANS leftover. I finished the rice. I finished the pasta. There were rolled oats leftover, more than half of the instant coffee, and about ½ of the peanut butter jar leftover. Everything else I finished.

I felt like I approached the challenge in a smart way, both financially and healthfully. Breakfast and lunch were my favorite meals of the day. I love oatmeal, and I actually felt healthy eating it for breakfast every day. I also did not get sick of the rice/beans/peppers for lunch, they tasted super satisfying. Eating pasta for dinner was fine, but I enjoy pasta so much (I could eat tons of it without feeling super full) that it was difficult to maintain portions to last me a full week. Buying a large can of crushed tomatoes and adding in roasted broccoli and leftover squash made a great sauce that did not have all of the preservatives that a jar of marinara might contain. I made sure not to forget to pack snacks with me this week, because I could not just run to the store and pick something up since it would inflate my budget.

I knew this before, but it really hit me this week that food is such a big part of my life. Cooking and eating are probably my favorite things ever to do; these are my hobbies, my stress relievers, my social life, and my work. I had little wiggle room for social eating out, and had to plan every meal down to a tee. Maybe cooking and eating would not be as big a part of my life (socially) if I were actually living off of SNAP benefits? Furthermore, I am a relatively tiny person who does not need much food to feel satisfied. Feeding a hungry family would also take a lot more time and energy.

I felt pretty good while on the SNAP challenge in terms of making filling, healthy meals with “real food,” but thinking about variety, if I had to continue this for a month or longer, I would feel very restricted. What if I wanted to bake something or invite a friend over for a nice meal? And the amount of time I spent comparing prices at the store felt tiring and tedious. Maybe I would get faster at price-checking if time went on, but it still feels tiring to have to tally things up very intricately. I also had to compromise on brands. White Rose was the cheapest brand I found, but none of their products are organic and the company is probably part of big industry. Supporting local businesses is more expensive, and in my everyday life I like to do this, but it is definitely a lot more of a compromise for someone on SNAP.

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Compounded with stress at home/work/school, taking the time to eat healthfully on a very limited budget can be taxing and sometimes get pushed to the side. You can’t just call for delivery whenever life gets busy and there is no time to cook. Everything needs to be planned to foster a healthy eating environment. While this is something that most of America probably needs to learn more of (planning meals in advance), flexibility in terms of eating is a treat.

Living in New York City is both a blessing and a curse because while food is everywhere I turn, it is also a very expensive city to live in and to eat in.

When I talked to my friends about the SNAP challenge, everyone seemed really interested and tried to think about what they would do if they were on the challenge. I am happy that my friends seemed so excited about the topic, which I think is the point of the SNAP challenge, to raise awareness about hunger and food insecurity in the US.

Related links on the SNAP Challenge:

Mario Batali’s experience

Cory Booker’s experience

A Huffington Post author’s view on the Food Stamp Diet

My classmate’s experience on the SNAP challenge + a great overview of SNAP in general

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4 Responses to “My SNAP Challenge: Trying to Eat Healthy on a Budget”

  1. Alli @ Lean Green Healthy Machine March 14, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

    I completely agree that the variety and social aspects were definitely challenging…absolutely a great learning experience!

    PS. Stephanie I’m in love with your blog! You have such a great style. Definitely a new favorite:)

    • figsinmybelly March 15, 2013 at 4:49 am #

      Thanks, Alli! I love that we are blog friends, now. Just went to go see A Place At the Table Tonight…whew, what a film…it applied a lot of what we are learning in Community Nutrition.

  2. Elita March 23, 2013 at 11:39 pm #

    Very interesting experiment!

    • figsinmybelly April 1, 2013 at 2:25 am #

      It definitely was a great learning experience, Elita!

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