When I heard about former Newark mayor (now Senator) Cory Booker’s one week Food Stamp Challenge on the Sunday Morning Show several years ago, I was intrigued. As a bone health and nutrition coach, I wondered whether I could not just survive but eat well on SNAP Benefits (USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program offers nutrition assistance to eligible, low-income individuals and families). When I say eat well I mean eating fresh, unprocessed, organic, non-GMO food. Now that’s a challenge!
With that, my friend Vicki and I set a goal to eat well on a budget of $4.40 per person, per day — the same “per day” budget Mayor Booker used. Although most did the challenge for one week, we extended ours for two weeks.
Daily: $4.40 per person
Weekly: $30.80 per person
What We Bought
Vicki is a vegetarian but I’m a meat eater so we ate a mostly vegetarian diet (with some sardines for me). The rules were no junk or processed foods, and that we would try to eat primarily organic and non-GMO foods.
Protein: Eggs, black beans, red lentils, full fat yogurt, peanut butter, sardines
Fat: Peanut butter, yogurt, olive oil, flax seeds
Veggies: Kale, red cabbage, collards, string beans, celery, salad, carrots, onions, tomato sauce, garlic
Grains: steel cut oats, brown rice
Fruit: lemons, bananas, apples, raisins
Other: Green tea on sale and Sprouted Ezekiel Bread
Every day was slow cooked steel cut oats (cook once, eat for 4-5 days) with a few raisins and yogurt. Our two pounds of oats fed two people for a whole week for just $2.80. This breakfast beats any heavily processed boxed cereal – it supplies far fewer empty calories and comparatively little added sugar.
On a normal, non-challenge day, I like to spice my oatmeal with more pricey ingrediants like cardamon, cinnamon, clove, vanilla, raisins, and goji berries, and I would use either plain raw yogurt or almond butter as my source of fat. However, this low-cost version was just as filling and satisfying!
Most days, we ate one of the following for lunch:
RECIPE: SIMPLE BLACK BEANS
The cooked beans are extremely versatile and we incorporated them into several different dishes, like our beans and rice dish, bean burgers, and bean soup.
Main dishes: soups, salads, or black bean burgers
Side dishes: 1 egg scrambled or fried, toast, or salad.
Steamed red cabbage and apples, though it sounds odd, was a surprisingly sweet and simple dish. The key to working with a limited selection of ingredients is to be creative!
Midway into the second week, I craved a hamburger. Burger ingredients were not going to fit into our budget, so we settled for homemade black bean burgers. It was good but….it wasn’t a burger. Settling, compromising, and making-do were recurring themes of our challenge.
We hadn’t allotted any funds or ingredients for cookies, candy, or treats even though it was the holiday season. When Vicki wanted to celebrate Chanukah, we had to scramble. With two sweet potatoes, oat flour made in our blender, and two eggs, we made delicious sweet potato Latkes and served them with string beans and yogurt.
I feel empowered knowing that I can feed myself well for $4.40 a day. We stayed within our SNAP Benefits budget for two weeks and managed to create meals that were healthy and 97% organic. Eating foods in their whole form, not processed, is the way we were able to get through this challenge. We compared prices, bought in bulk, watched for sales, and pinched our pennies. I learned to shop late in the day with a full stomach - shopping hungry is a liability.
I found myself trying to savor my snacks (fruit or celery with peanut butter) to make them last. Admittedly, I felt that my brain was a bit dull with hunger for the first two days, but our appetites adjusted to our more limited food intake. We both lost five pounds, which surprised us because after the first two days we didn’t feel particularly hungry or deprived.
Realizing every morsel counts, I became a vigilant steward of my food. One morning while multi-tasking, I smelled burnt toast. I panicked because I knew that that allotted slice, charred or not, was all there was for breakfast. We were careful about recycling leftovers, turning yesterday’s red lentils into tomorrow’s soup. We worked creatively to prepare fresh looking meals from what we already had on hand.
There were also emotional aspects of shopping on such a limited budget. I was frustrated that I couldn’t buy what I wanted, and at one point embarrassed at the cash register when I calculated incorrectly and found I was over budget. I noticed the impatient stares from the shoppers behind me at the checkout as the huffy manager voided my purchase.
But perhaps the most important change we experienced from our challenge was gratitude for the good fortunate and choices we enjoy. I am more careful with food now, and I don’t waste it or scrape it into the garbage. We have renewed respect and empathy for those who face a real challenge in affording food every day.
Having gone through this experience, I can tell you using SNAP Benefits does not have to mean eating only processed or high calorie junk foods, which are nutritional empty calories.
Wholesome, organic, nutritious food can be affordable. It does take additional effort to find it and cook it, and it helps to have the support of urban gardens, community supported agriculture (CSA), and co-ops to keep costs down. As in most activities it also helps to buddy up. But when you trade processed food-like products for whole, real foods, you get so much more nutrition for your dollar, and it makes a world of difference for your health.
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