SNAP/ Food Stamp Challenge, Day 1: Broke vs. Poor

SNAP/ Food Stamp Challenge, Day 1: Broke vs. Poor August 20, 2012

“So what are food stamps anyway?” my eight-year-old son, Mattias, asked as I drove him to his summer camp this morning. “Are they, like, stamps that you eat that taste like different foods?”

“Not exactly,” I said. My family was less than thrilled when I presented the idea of living on the equivalent of what a family of four would receive on food stamps for a week. Actually, the program is now called “SNAP,” which stands for “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” and which involves government-issued vouchers or debit cards, rather than the antiquated stamp method. But the result is the same; we have a lot less to spend on food this week than usual.

“But I don’t want to be poor,” Mattias moaned as I explained the challenge to him.

“We’re not poor,” I said, “but it’s important for us to know what it’s like to struggle to feed our family.”


“Because,” I paused, trying to figure out a way to explain privilege and compassion to a third-grader who was quite content to have all he has, and then some, “Jesus tells us to have a heart for the poor, but how can we really do that if we don’t know anything about what it’s like to live with less?”

“Hmm,” he wrinkled his brow, “I guess we can do it for a few days.”

There have been moments in my life when I’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like. I remember seeing my mom lay all her coupons out, ordering her grocery list by priority, getting part of the way through the list at the store and having to stop because there was no money. There were tears, although I wasn’t exactly sure why. But the hardship was relatively short-lived. My dad got a promotion, mom went back to work and the fridge stayed full the rest of my childhood.

Then there were the years after college, when I expected the world to come to me on bended knee, offering me the bounty of opportunities I had heard about from my parents, high school counselors and college professors. Instead, I found myself waiting tables, interning for a music company, and finally landing an assistant manager gig at a record store in the mall. I remember one week in particular when I was out of both food and gas, and it was still five days until the next payday. I had twenty bucks to make it to Friday, and I sat at the gas pump, anxiously figuring how little I could put in the tank to still get back and forth to work, while hopefully having enough left for three meals a day.

I’ve been broke before, but I’ve never been what I’d consider to be “poor.” Broke is a short-term condition; poor is an inevitable way of life. Broke is asking friends or family for help; broke is having no one else around you in a better state than you’re in to even ask. Broke is buying ramen and rice for a while; poor is imagining what it would be like not to feel hungry or worry about having enough to feed your kids, every day of your life.

So no, I’ve never really been poor.

We get $112 to spend for the week on all of our food as a family of four on the SNAP Challenge. Since we work Sundays, we haven’t gone to the grocery store, so we had to figure out what it cost to eat what we already had around the house this morning:

  • Coffee: 50 cents
  • Cereal for three: $1.25
  • Milk: 30 cents
  • Eggs: 40 cents

The eggs were a contentious issue this morning, as my wife, Amy, had only planned on having one (20 cents). But while she was cooking it, the doorbell rang, and the egg burned before she got back to the stove. She gave it to our dog, Maggie, who scarfed it down and started again.

“We have to account for two eggs,” I said.

“But I only had one.”

“Yeah, but you used two,” I said. Amy shot a stare across the counter that was one of those you-did-this-to-me looks.

Then there’s Mattias’ lunch. The boy eats more than either of us, and usually he packs his own lunchbag. Today I did it for him so I’d know just what we were in for.

  • Sandwich (40 cents)
  • Yogurt (35 cents)
  • Apple (30 cents)
  • Apple sauce (25 cents)
  • Pretzel sticks (20 cents)

So by 10 AM, we’ve spent $3.95. Not too bad, considering we’ve budgeted an average of about $5 a meal for all four of us. But breakfast is arguably the cheapest meal, so It will still take some figuring to get through day one under the red line.

“Daddy,” my three-year-old daughter, Zoe, looked up at me as I typed up this reflection, “can I have a snack?” I could feel a little pang of anxiety creep up my neck.

“Are you really hungry,” I asked, “or are you just bored?”

“Really hungry,” she said. “really, really hungry.”

Add another 35-cent yogurt to the tally. This could end up being a long week.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • thanks for writing about this; it’s quite a challenge even for folks who understand the realityand can make an informed decision to live on SNAP for a week. . .but two observant, hungry, growing kids?~ I’ll look forward to your posts this week.

  • Eric Brown

    We had to live like this for a couple of years when I was hurt and the work comp did not pay us more than 22.oo per week. I finally found more work, but it took us years to get back to having adequate money, and we still havent paid all the debt after 7 years. This did not kill us, but made us appriciate all the little joys and gifts and blessings of life. We did not use the Snap program, but lived off the largess of friends and the local food pantry. Really brings things into focus.

  • D Kerr

    Have been there before, not our choosing. When the church closed at the old NCBC in Texas we were giving 2 months pay to get us back to CA, with no job, no place to live( ended up living with Steve’s mom for almost 2 years, what was suppose to be 3 months!! Has to start over as a barista making min wage! Thankful we did qualify for food stamps for a short time until he got his job and then we didn’t qualify because he has – ” job” no matter it was min wage for a family of 5! I was excited becUse I thought I could get retrained and have state sponsored training but we didn’t qualify, he had a “job”. Took us 6 years to get where we are today. Grateful to his mom wo took us in and yes we weren’t poor! We managed to pay our bills on savings for 8 months!!! We never had a late bill and I learned a lesson what my “needs” we and what my wants were! Suddenly a 1 bedroom apt of our own looked very exciting even with 5 people! I have never forgotten those days and am grateful because I know what it is to struggle and to have to be humbled to the point that you must depend on God to meet our daily needs. It also felt good to no longer qualify for food stamps except sure could have used it a bit longer since we were also using the money to feed really 6 of us including Steve’s mom, but the feeling that we no longer needed them was wonderful! We are

  • Russ

    I wish I could e-mail some of our garden harvest but will give it to others….and send you some seeds! Kindly, Russ

  • Johnny

    Thank you, Christian, for doing this. I’m especially interested in sharing this with our
    local sustainability group here in MS – we’re working with female heads of household who are in the SNAP program and are also growing some of their own food in a project we’re calling O Gardens – Occupy your Garden. Really appreciate your Amy’s ministry.

  • hadhufang

    I’m a candidate for ordination in a liberal denomination. The process has dragged on more years than I budgeted for, and SNAP has more than once made the difference. I try to tithe my allotment–put at least 10% of the value in our church food program. It’s hard. Broke vs poor is a good distinction. I make the distinction between technical poverty (income level) and functional poverty (not enough resources, regardless of income). Some of those who live in functional poverty make choices it’s hard to respect–judgment is everywhere and hard to avoid, even as a practice. Whole process–application, use of card, counting the pennies–is emotionally draining.

  • I’ve read most of this series – you’ve written possibly the best reflections on the “food stamp challenge” I’ve ever read. Thank you to your family for not only embracing the challenge but also sharing their personal struggles and challenges. I’ve shared this many times over the past week. What struck me the most was the challenge of engaging your children – people are incredibly judgmental when someone uses SNAP to purchase “treats” but you deftly sidestep that judgment and illustrate that there’s always a story behind what people choose to purchase.