Planning for Poverty: The SNAP Challenge

I’ve said before that privilege often is invisible until you don’t have it. So in that light, I’m doing a little experiment in a few days with our family, and I encourage you to join in.

A lot of us never know what it’s like to try and live below the poverty line, and I tend to think the statements we hear about the poor that lack sensitivity for their situation point to this. It’s easy to say things like, “people on public assistance are lazy” (in fact, 47% of SNAP recipients are under 18; a majority of the remaining recipients have other income from work, and this doesn’t account for seniors and those who are disabled) and that food stamps are a “free ride” that are so attractive, it keeps people from wanting to work and get off of the assistance.

So let’s find out just how easy it is.

“SNAP” stands for “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” which is the new name for food stamps. Basically, families receive $4 a day per family member to cover food costs, so the SNAP challenge is pretty simple (in theory, at least): Live on the same amount with your family for a week.

For a family of four like us, this means we’ll have $112 to spend on all groceries for the week. If you’re single, you’re stuck with living on $28. Couples get $56, and so on. And there are a few ground rules:

  • You can’t raid your existing food in the fridge or cupboard without counting that toward your weekly total. Condiments and spices are an exception, though use them sparingly to be fair.
  • If you go out to eat, the whole ticket amount counts, including tax and tip.
  • If someone brings you a meal or buys you a meal, you have to count the full cost of it as if you had bought it yourself.

My hope is that a few things will come of this. First, we all can use a little reality check from time to time to keep in perspective how incredibly privileged we are, and how much of the rest of the world actually lives. If you think about it, this allowance for food totals just under $1500 per person, per year. Now, consider that the average worldwide per capita income is $7,000 a year, and that because of the dramatically uneven distribution of wealth in the world, eighty percent of the global population lives on less than that.

We really have no idea on a day-to-day basis what reality is like for much of the world, but maybe this is at least a good start in that direction.

Our family is doing the challenge starting on August 2oth, and we’ll continue it through the night of the 26th. I’m inviting members of our church and all who read this to do the same. Please pledge your commitment to the challenge by posting a simple “I’m in!” comment below. Then spread the word to others and encourage them to join us. I hope that those who have an audience with a blog or other media outlet will talk about the experience and use it as an opportunity to inform people about the challenges of poverty.

Finally, I encourage you to consider what you would normally spend in a week of food (dining out, fast food and ordering in all included) and to donate the difference for that week to a local shelter or food pantry.

If you’re not quite ready to take part, at least commit to following along for the week to see what it’s about. My hope is that this is something we can do as a network of people each year, partly as a spiritual practice, and also as a way to raise both awareness and money.

So, who’s ready to do the SNAP challenge?

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Mike

    way ahead of you.

  • http://twitter.com/JenDOC Jennifer Lewis

    I would join you, but I’m on SNAP currently and my daughter and I only get less than a dollar for a meal. We each get $.48 per meal. I don’t have the luxury of $4 per day.

    • http://www.facebook.com/christiandpiatt Christian Piatt

      That’s good to know. Not good that it’s your reality, but helpful perspective. So you are joining in and then some. Help share with folks the challenges you deal with, perhaps, and what you do to manage good meals on such a budget.

      • http://twitter.com/JenDOC Jennifer Lewis

        I will keep my eye on this and jump in. You got my support! I just finished my monthly shopping at Aldi’s. Couponing doesn’t help as Walmart with coupons is still too expensive. Besides, I’m not interested in supporting the Machine that even pays their own employees so little that they have to use SNAP also. When it gets tough, food banks help. Securing food is the only thing I can think of most of the time. Forget organic food and fresh food is a once-a-month luxury.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000044374400 Vonda Zimmerman

          Your statement about Walmart is COMPLETELY false. My beef about working there were the horrible and sometimes criminally behaving customers–rudeness has never been so rude. Walmart ALWAYS pays more than Target or anyone else…I started @ $9.50 and was up to $11 in a year and a half. It was part time. My second job….They are MUCH better to their employees than the Union SuperValue or any of the other Big Box stores…Media LIES should not be spouted by people who do not know the facts and they are ALWAYS cheaper then the stores around them except perhaps Aldi’s. If you use coupons you can save in any store up to 90%–you just have to be clever…use stock piling techniques and buy their loss leaders…

  • http://lifebeforethebucket.blogspot.com/ Adrian Waller

    We were on food stamps for about a year. We just got off because my wife finally found a full-time job! We just stopped re-applying for them – easiest way to get off was to go cold turkey.

  • LoneWolf343

    $28? It would be tight, but I think I could do it, but that’s because I had practice. :P

  • Jen

    After reading this, I realized we already do this… The recession has made us budget this way for a while now.

  • minister from a small church

    once you put out this challenge, it may be amazing to see how many people are already living on SNAP or SNAP levels……I’m living on that level but only receive $16 a month because of some wierd rule. But I tell you what…at the end of the month, when you are broke, $16 seems like a lot of food! That’s what the system has trained me to believe, at least.

  • katz

    This sounds interesting. Maybe I will try.

  • Chuckles

    We’ve been on food stamps for just under a year. Because we’re lazy and want to milk the system… Ha! Just kidding. Actually, I’ve been out of work because of health reasons and my wife has been unable to find full-time employment. This has been one of the toughest seasons of our lives. Anyone who thinks people stay on public assistance because it’s easy has never been on public assistance. Believe me, I’m sick and tired of being broke.

  • Elizabeth

    i volunteer at a food bank and i’d say 85-90% of the folks i see are out of work, severely underemployed or are grandparents having to take care of grandkids. very few of the folks who come in are there to milk the system (yes, those folks exist, but they’re not as prevalent as the press would have people believe).

    i’ve never been on SNAP (didn’t get accepted although i qualified), but utilized food banks myself. food banks are such a gift b/c they’re such a help for folks on SNAP or fall between the cracks.

  • http://twitter.com/PhrogsLily PhrogsLily

    Cant buy prepared hot foods so no eating out and only cold stuff from the deli section. I always thought that was a weird rule. You can buy the cold chicken but not the hot chicken.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marta-Layton/100001373579092 Marta Layton

    Rvd. Piatt, I’ve been doing this for three years now for the fortnight leading up to Thanksgiving, and like you I give the money I would spend to others (in my case, families I know in my building on food stamps, to help them buy a good meal for the big day). I can’t do it now because I have a busy week, and I know just how cranky and irritable no fresh fruit/veggies tends to make me. But I’ll be doing this again come November.

    And yes, I know how blessed I am to have that option! It’s a good challenge to put you and your family through, and I hope you all grow through it.

  • Mom who watches

    I have every sympathy for those needing assistance. We use coupons and when we have extras, it goes to the food bank.

    That said, it’s sad that $28/week per person is “limiting”. I feed a family of six (including teenagers) on $600/month – or about $150/week for the six of us. We rarely eat out and don’t use convenience foods. It doesn’t take longer to shop, eat, or cook inexpensively, you just have to be paying attention.
    I expect that SNAP actually pays less than $4/person/day, in most cases.

    • Nate Sauve

      We have 6 in our family as well. We also budget $600 per month, and usually go over by a handful of dollars. We have young kids and not teens so I expect it would get harder as they get older, but for now we are good.
      However, schools also do free breakfast and lunches for kids with financial need so it seems pretty doable.

  • annek

    When a friend of mine did a similar challenge last year, she found that one of the toughest hurdles was that people who are actually on food stamps often can’t use the same money-saving shopping and cooking strategies that people with more resources might use to be frugal. For instance, it’s hard to buy bulk packages of staples if you don’t have twenty or thirty dollars at once to spend. It’s hard to buy the large packages if you must travel by bus. If you are very poor, you may be living without a full sized refrigerator or stove. There are all kinds of obstacles beyond the dollar cost of actual food.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001010845039 Laura Hoglin

    This family of 4 lives on $80-$110/a week in groceries. (6 & 8 yr olds, not teens.) No reduced school lunch price, no food banks. CA prices. We eat out maybe once a month, get Little Ceaser’s $5 pizza once a month. It can be done, and done well with a little planning. I try to be organized enough to use coupons, but that doesn’t usually happen. I do plan around what is on sale. No chips. no soda, no packaged cr*p. Just pure food. (It helps my husband is diabetic/high BP–has to be that way.)

  • Judy

    I wonder if the SNAP limits make adjustments for folks on special diets. As someone with celiac disease and milk allergy, I know firsthand that this diet costs more. And I’m not talking convenience foods, either. I mean basics – like bread and alternative milks. I can only imagine the challenges faced by folks on SNAP with other special diets.

  • John

    I am sorry, I can’t agree to living off of SNAP income as it would double my grocery budget and that would cause us to go broke.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004191000641 Kathleen Otley

    Transportation is an enormous problem. Until a month ago, there was not a single supermarket within the borders of our city of over 100,000 residents. And the suburban supermarkets located along bus lines often had higher prices than those which were not connected to the mass transit system. Many city residents are forced to deal with street-corner grocers whose products are overpriced and normally do not include fruits, vegetables, and fresh meat.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000044374400 Vonda Zimmerman

    This is false…I have had food stamps myself many years (20 or more) ago and it was so much I never used them all…There isn’t ANY reason for ANY child to go hungry on food stamps unless they are being MIS-USED!

    • TheDude

      No kidding. The most misleading thing in the article is that they only budget $4/day. SNAP benefits for a family of four are actually $5.56/person/day.


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