We began our SNAP challenge at our house today. (SNAP is Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.) Based upon Massachusetts figures, our per person per day allocation is $4.40 for all food and beverages. That means for the four of us we have $123.20 for the week. We can’t use any of the food we have in the house, except for seasonings and condiments. We also can’t accept food gratis, such as at a reception.
Yesterday, I went food shopping with one of my daughters. We decided to hold the line at $80 so we had some money left over for the second half of the week for items such as milk and vegetables. As we participate with one of our neighbors in a CSA, we also deducted our share for the week, which was between $5 and $6.
Absolutely, key for us was planning our meals. I didn’t go to the supermarket with a set menu. As I cook pretty well and have a broad repertoire, I usually can pull meals together on the fly based upon what looks good and is a decent price at the store. We knew we had certain things we had to purchase: milk, coffee, and bread.
I found a roasting chicken at a good price. I figured I can make a roast chicken for one meal and then use the leftovers for enchiladas one night and some sort of chicken casserole another. We could also use some of the chicken for chicken salad sandwiches, which meant picking up some celery.
I make hummus, so we picked up some garbanzo beans, followed by garlic (of course), parsley, and lemon. Tahini is not exactly cheap, but is necessary. So, I purchased tahini with the idea that I will also make cold sesame noodles during the week as well. As I also do Chinese cooking, I have all the seasonings for that. However, I had to purchase olive oil, but couldn’t afford plain vegetable oil too. The parsley along with the can of crushed tomatoes and the olive oil will help to make spaghetti sauce, but the olive oil could be a little odd in chili.
Of course, we got some peanut butter and grape jelly. I usually purchase jam, but the jelly was way cheaper (and though a very cost-conscious brand was, surprisingly, without high fructose corn syrup). Our bread was the plain, white, soft stuff, not the whole grain bread I usually purchase. I decided against purchasing oatmeal, which I like and eat almost every Sunday, in favor of cold cereal because no one in the house other than me makes oatmeal. We bought onions and carrots in addition to the celery. We also got some bananas at $0.69 a pound, which is a way better price than peaches and nectarines.
We couldn’t purchase our usual milk, which is produced at a local dairy only a few miles south of here. We also had to purchase coffee that was not fair trade. Both of these are substantially higher in price than what we bought yesterday.
We bought a couple of boxes of pasta. For whatever reason the brown rice was the same price as the long grain white rice. We took the brown rice.
Meanwhile my daughter was tallying all the purchases on a calculator (OK, it was her telephone with a calculator app). We did not purchase any fun stuff like cookies or chocolates or ice cream. Though we tried really hard to keep it to $80, we spent a little over $86. Still, we’ve got a buffer for later in the week and most of our meals are now covered.
Today, I made a batch of hummus. I roasted the chicken for dinner and had lettuce from the CSA along with some brown rice. Tomorrow, will be chicken enchiladas.
A few things already struck me. First, buying on such a small budget takes a lot of planning. Having an idea of what meals one eats over the week helps a lot. Equally important, though, is knowing how to cook as well as being able to make more than just a couple of dishes. Second, this budget leaves little room for extras. For instance, if I want cookies, I can’t purchase them. I can make them, but I didn’t purchase eggs, flour, or butter on this trip. Third, purchasing raw ingredients will lower one’s food bill overall, but that means knowing how to cook and having time to cook.
Right now, I’m on vacation. I also do the bulk of the cooking at home. So, making a batch of hummus this morning wasn’t a huge problem for me, but I started soaking the beans last night and I have a food processor to put it all together. Roasting a whole chicken is not a problem for me either. The point is that I have the time to cook and I generally can do it without cookbooks.
I also have a kitchen scale, which enables me to monitor portions better. This way when the box of cereal says 12 servings, I can weigh the bowls to be sure we’ll get at least 12 servings out of the box.
I missed noshing between meals. Usually when I’m home and writing, I tend to nosh on something. Usually I’ll eat some crackers or some nuts, but not this time. This morning I had to stop to eat some peanut butter on a slice of white bread (the bread is dreadful). Even now I feel like noshing.
Since it’s been really hot, I’ve been drinking a lot of ice water. It’s good that I’m hydrated, but I really missed drinking wine with dinner.
In some way staying on a SNAP budget seems easier when there are a few people on the program. Having more people helps to spread costs of some larger items out over a few people rather than one person shouldering the entire burden.
Already, I can see that living on a SNAP budget may be possible, but it also takes a lot of planning and skill, which translates into time. It takes time to plan meals and how ingredients can be stretched across them. It takes time to shop very carefully. It takes time to prepare meals. Time is not what some SNAP recipients have. Finally, I’m not confined to a SNAP challenge week after week after week.