SNAP Challenge-an eye opening experience

SNAPlogoIn 2013, 14% of households (17.5 million households) were food insecure and 14.5% of the population (45.3 million people) were living in poverty.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) currently serves an average of 33.5 million people in the United States.   A SNAP eligible family of three could qualify for $497 per month and a household of one could receive $189 per month towards groceries.  In order to really understand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and to raise awareness about the recent government financial cuts, people have been doing the SNAP Challenge. This involves living on a SNAP participant’s limited food budget of about $4.50 per day. Registered dietitians, congressman, journalist, bloggers, and even CEO restaurant managers have tried this challenge.

In any profession it is very important to know what it feels like to be in the shoes of those you are trying to help.

As a future RD, I too wanted this perspective to see if I could actually eat all the nutrients and calories I needed with just $4.50 a day. Parameters of this 3 day challenge exclude bulk pantry items like spices, flour, & sugar. However, the extra costs of these items should still be taken into account when increasing personal grocery budget awareness. The first part of this experiment involved keeping a food journal for 3 normal eating days & entering everything into a nutrient assessment program.

The Food Processor program calculated my caloric needs to be 2200 per day based on my gender, age, weight, height, and moderate activity level. During those 3 days I consumed an average of 2275 calories and sufficiently met my recommended values of protein, fiber, carbohydrates, and fat. According to MyPlate recommendations of fruit and vegetable consumption for a female aged 18-30, I would need to eat at least 2½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit.  During the normal days I did meet the fruit recommendations (except on day one). To my surprise, I was below the MyPlate recommendation in vegetable consumption for all days. After completing this analysis, I headed to the grocery store for phase two.

Overall I learned that it takes a lot more time to shop, cook, and eat on a low budget. My grocery store visit took four times as long as normal! Here’s a look at my shopping experience:

  • Scouring Looking for deals and determining which recipes I could use. I really wanted to stretch all of my ingredients; since carrots were on sale I figured they could be packed as a lunch snack and thrown into chicken tortilla soup.
  • Choosing Yogurt or cheese for dairy? Apples or bananas for fruit? Carrots or celery for vegetables? Normally, I would have just bought both. Thoughtfully, I made decisions based on what was on sale, in season, and nutrient dense (aka most nutritious bang for my buck).
  • Splurging My biggest purchase was spending $3.39 on whole wheat bread, because I did not want to buy the cheaper “brown” loaves with high fructose corn syrup. Be sure and read the ingredient labels!
  • Searching Nonfat milk was $1.49 a gallon on a “manager’s sale” because it was nearing the expiration date. Even though I dislike drinking milk, for the sake of my calcium levels I searched in the back of the fridge for the milk with the latest expiration date.
  • Checking Out I double checked every price that was scanned and while the cashier was ringing me up I noticed she charged me .77/lb for an onion that I knew was .55/lb. I had to ask her to please change the price and she rolled her eyes at me.

Next, I priced out each item’s serving size and again recorded a food journal. During those three days I was hungry, had trouble focusing, and felt irritable/tired. So thankful for the free coffee at church and work!


SNAP Challenge food record

A few quick Tips I learned:

  • Plan recipes ahead of time. This blog prices out all the ingredients in each recipe and is a fantastic resource for eating healthy on a budget
  • Eat Peanut Butter! Kroger peanut butter only costs $1.80, has no added sugar, and is packed with energy & protein. Goes great with a banana between 2 slices of whole wheat bread. Bam, you’ve got 3 food groups.
  • A box of microwave popcorn can cost $3.99 for just 4 bags of 2-3 cup servings. Buying the bulk kernels only costs about $2.50 and you can make up to 12-15 servings. Guess what? This snack counts as a whole grain = double bonus!
  • Don’t waste leftovers- the most expensive food items are the ones we throw away. Making extra at dinner can be a great way to stretch ingredients for a yummy lunch the next day.

Now 3 days is just a small snap shot of what a limited food budget looks like.  During my SNAP shopping trip, I spent about $43 for a week of groceries.  Some of this included buying items in bulk that would last me throughout the month, which is more reflective of how people actually purchase food.  However, the experience of breaking down the cost of each item was still quite eye opening.  The most  difficult part of the challenge was not spending any extra money throughout those 3 days.

Tuesday morning during the SNAP Challenge I had some time to kill after an astonishing quick trip to the DMV, so I figured I’d hit up Starbucks for some coffee and internet. Needless to say my usual $4.50 grande soy chai was not going to quite work with the $4.50 daily budget.  Even with bringing my own cup to get 10 cents off, a tall drip coffee costs $1.73! Quick math- I’d already eaten 52 cents for breakfast; this would have left me with $2.25 for the rest of the day.  Oh the caffeine aromas were so painfully tempting… but I opted for food and <deep breath> conceded to heading to work early.

After entering my intake into the nutrient analysis program I found the reason for my “hanger” (hunger + anger); an average of 1360 calories per day.

According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D are all nutrients of concern for public health due to low consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, milk products, and seafood.  Even after eating what I considered to be a healthy balanced diet, under the budget constraints I was low in all four of these nutrients.


food record for normal days

Comparing values:

When looking at the 2 diets, my normal days (above) were also below recommendations in vitamin D, calcium, and potassium. Another noteworthy nutrient, because I am of childbearing age, is iron. My iron consumption was only at 55% for the SNAP Challenge and 85% for the normal days. Fortunately, protein consumption for both diets was well above the required 45 grams daily and all from lean sources such as chicken, beans, dairy, and nuts. Fruit and vegetable consumption was also comparable to the 3 normal days, although there was not much variety which explains my low nutrient values.

The only significant difference between the two diets was my energy consumption based on calories.

During the normal 3 days, I ate as many servings as I wanted. However on the SNAP days, if I didn’t save some leftovers then I wouldn’t have a lunch the next day.  Here are some other differences due to budget constraints that caused an insufficient amount of calories:

  • not adding cheese or avocados to my soup
  • not adding almonds or extra fruit to my oatmeal
  • not having ice cream
  • not going out to dinner and eating as much as I wanted

Wrapping up:

Experiencing this type of hunger gave me a new perspective on the injustice of food insecurity. I now see why those on a limited grocery budget are drawn towards cheap high calorie foods that will keep them full longer. During my 3 SNAP days, driving by those McDonald Dollar Menus never smelled so good!

My findings were similar to a study done by the American Cancer Society,

“…compared with low-income nonparticipants, SNAP participants had lower dietary scores overall and lower scores for fruits and vegetables, seafood and plant proteins, and had higher intake of empty calories.

Even though I somewhat failed at meeting my nutrition needs on the SNAP Challenge, my normal diet without a budget constraint was low in important nutrients as well. Based on my experience, not only am I going to increase my own vegetable consumption but I now have a better understanding on how to give advice to those with a low budget about increasing foods which prevent chronic disease. The results of the previously mentioned study are discouraging; however this only proves the need for Registered Dietitians to educate SNAP participants about how to consume the correct nutrient dense foods and encourage them to eat a healthy diet.

One final thought:

These types of government funded programs are not designed to give participants everything they need in a month.  But the reality is that most people do depend on programs like SNAP for most/all of their grocery budget.  Therefore, it would be fantastic if programs could offer more nutritional help to families that are in need.

Copyright: All content © 2010-2019 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.