Food Stamps - Challenge Accepted

Stepping into someone else’s shoes replaces all judgement with compassion.

As I write this, I munch down a $2.50 slice of banana bread chased with a $2 cup of coffee. A simple snack, and a frugal one at that. Yet this $4.50 snack is more than what most get on food stamps for a day, and for some an entire week!

In filing my 2015 taxes, I noticed I spent $9,566.91 on food last year. Considering I cook most my own food and spend half that year in Southeast Asia where food is $2 a plate, this was a shock.

As my income grows, so does my care for the cost of certain things. Primarily food, as I value my health I really don’t care how much food costs. I’ve been caught off guard when I can’t tell a friend how much a meal I’m eating had cost because I casually and passively just buy what I want.

So Seneca stepped and inspired my next 30 Day Challenge:

Let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard. We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden. Moral letters to Lucilius by Seneca Letter 18. On festivals and fasting

30 Days on Food Stamps (Podcast)

As an impetus to better understanding what others go through with a limited food budget, I though it could be beneficial to live on food stamps for a month … challenge accepted!

In the process I captured a few stories from locals living on less. Their stories offer priceless insights and reminders that reveal truths about our great, but imperfect, society and force us to confront some shared fears.

Listen to Podcast on iTunes

I failed.

In filling out the application for Oregon’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – also referred to as ‘food stamps’) based on my age, location, number of dependents (or lack there of in my case) and other details along with a fictitious income, it was projected that I would receive $200 a month – $6.46 per day. After 25 days I broke my budget with total spent of $255. Continuing the 30 days my average spend was $10.20 per day.

To better track my expenses I use my debit card for all food purchases. This made it hard to actually create a budget. So my strategy was just to spend the least as possible while still eating healthy. This mostly meant not buying specialty foods, not eating out, and fewer dinner parties.

Food Stamp Comparison

As you can see, my biggest mistake was that I continued shopping at my usual spots, like New Seasons and Whole Foods. Which, let’s face it, if I was actually reliant on food stamps, I’d be shopping at Winco, Walmart and lining up at food drives. I simply couldn’t justify eating lower quality food and sacrificing my health for an experiment.

In hindsight, I think the best approach to this Food Stamp Challenge would have been to take out the entire month’s budget for food in cash to avoid using debit or credit cards. Tangible cash is way more emotional than swipping a card plus it makes the experience more realistic being that you can’t accidentally overspend.

The biggest reason I was able to shop at the same high-end grocery stores yet still cut my budget over 70%, is I stuck to the bare essentials. Comparing my grocery list from my usual shopping and my food stamp budget shopping I noticed over 50% of my expenses are attributed to specialty foods like goji berries and reishi mushrooms. They’re not even foods I necessarily need to be healthy. I just buy them because I can and I like experimenting with interesting foods. That said, living off food stamps stretched my creativity to keep things alive in the kitchen.

Some Takeaways from Living on Food Stamps

While a 30-day experience is not comparable to the everyday struggle many people face to secure an adequate healthy food supply, it does provide the opportunity to temporarily walk in someone else’s shoes and hopefully gain a better understanding of the challenges they face.

Despite my failure to stick within my food stamp budget, I learned some things that will ripple on:

Be tolerant, because you can’t relate completely. It’s easy to imagine what it might be like, though in this food stamp experiment for example, during the challenge I still knew if I needed to spend more I could. Those actually living on food stamps don’t have that luxury. The stakes are very real. If they spend their budget, they have to get creative or they don’t eat.

Cook once, eat twice.  Eating out less is a no-brainer for someone looking to tighten their food budget. But it is convenient and can save a lot of time. The main reason many avoid cooking is the amount of time it takes to cook and clean for each meal. Which is why when you do cook, cook for twice or thrice the amount of people that are eating. Stir fries and soup taste better a day later anyway.

“Can I afford to attend that party?” A question I never had to consider before committing to food stamp living. And now a factor I consider before inviting others to partake in particular activities.

Gratitude begets more things to be grateful for. Recognizing and being grateful for one’s abundance cultivates joy and motive to attain further abundance. Living with less is a refreshing reminder to do just that. It’s a balance of never settling for less than the best, but also being willing and humble enough to make it through with as little as possible.

What are you grateful for?

Let it be known in the comments below.