Politicians, many of whom have probably never met anyone on food stamps in real life, played a fun game over the summer.
The SNAP Challenge!
As of May more than 47 million Americans are on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, what we used to call “food stamps”). The program was not originally designed to provide an individual’s or family’s entire food budget. It is supposed to provide supplemental money for food, in addition to other income from work, pensions, child support, or government benefits (unemployment, disability, Social Security, SSI). However, 20% of people on SNAP (almost 10 million people) rely on it alone to buy groceries.
Democrats started the #snapchallenge over the summer to show how difficult it is already for this 20% of our nation to get by and make a real-life point about why SNAP cuts are a bad idea. They ate on $4.50 a day, using the average SNAP payment for one person of $133.44 per month. Journalists from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette joined them but were allowed to budget $6 a day.
A family of four could receive up to a maximum benefit of $668 in SNAP per month for food. According to the USDA’s Food Plans, updated in June, for a family of four (a couple with two children between 6-8 and 9-11 years old) SNAP benefits are slightly more than the USDA “Thrifty Plan” of $632 per month. The “Liberal Plan” is $1250 a month for the same family.
The USDA does have somewhat decent resources, including a list of cheap recipes to enable recipients to plan meals around the food one can afford, searchable by dollar amount, and ponderous, somniferously dull Dietary Guidelines. This is useful for SNAP users with access to computers and internet access, probably at their nearest library branch, which is hopefully within walking distance or on the same bus line as a grocery or dollar store.
For a family of four including teen-agers, I suspect that surviving on $632 would be possible only if they also raised chickens, had a large vegetable garden, and at least one actively extreme-dieting family member subsisting on protein shakes and cotton balls dipped in orange juice.
Massachusetts’ Department of Transitional Assistance Commissioner Stacey Monahan did the challenge for a week. She told WCVB:
Yesterday I had my last apple. And I was really anxious about that. If this were my way of life for more than just a week, I can see how that would be really difficult. A lot of people that utilize SNAP run out of their benefits by the third week in the month.
Unfortunately a lot of Democrats – however good their intentions were with this challenge – are clearly not used to grocery shopping for themselves. They made themselves look foolishly out of touch with people living in poverty. Instead of buying in bulk, shopping at a farmer’s market, making a lot of food and freezing it in portions for future meals, they pulled idiot moves like buying expensive Boca Burgers (Rep. Mark Pocan), grated cheese, non-seasonal fruit, one (!) presumably free-range egg dipped in gold for $1.08 (Donald M. Payne, Jr.), and—preposterously—setting foot in Whole Foods (children’s health advocate Matthew J. Wright).
Fitness and nutrition blogger Lisa Johnson used the USDA “Thrifty Plan” in 2012 ($491.10 for 30 days in her case, which is 30% higher than SNAP), and shopped only at Whole Foods in an attempt to prove that if you really, really try, you can feed your family healthy organic food near the poverty line. When she succeeded, Whole Foods agreed to reimburse her for the month’s expenses. She asked the company to donate the amount to a local food bank instead.
Throughout the 30 days I kept thinking of families who were living at or below the poverty level trying to feed everyone. It was such a struggle for us even though we had done our homework and only had to do it for one month. I can’t imagine what the grind feels like after months or years of living like this.
If you’re on food stamps it can be really challenging to feed your family healthfully. Starches are cheaper than produce and it’s easy to reach for those. I can see how the poverty/obesity trap happens and why it’s so difficult to get out of.
Over the 30 days, I gained a lot of knowledge about how to feed a family well even on a tight budget. When I started our meals were starch heavy but as I got savvier about living on a frugal budget, I figured out how to add more produce into our diets. It’s definitely possible, but it takes a lot of patience and tenacity.
A former Wild Oats (bought out by Whole Foods) employee told me that the Thrifty Challenge is do-able if you buy almost everything in their bulk food aisle and carefully shop their sales. Hope you like quinoa and dried figs!
To prove that living in poverty and getting enough to eat on a daily basis is no biggie, lawmakers like Texas congressman Steve Stockman declared the SNAP Challenge to be a left-wing publicity stunt and set out to disprove it. In fact, one of his staffers, Donny Ferguson, claimed that all the SNAP Challenge accomplished was prove that poor people are already getting too much food assistance and the program should be decimated. It also had the unintended consequence of proving that Donny Ferguson is a morally-repugnant douchebag of low character who possesses zero empathy for his fellow man. No doubt this Texas Republican toady considers himself a good Christian…
A press release from Stockman’s office bragged:
Donny Ferguson, who serves as Stockman’s communications director and agriculture policy adviser, was able to buy enough food to eat well for a week on just $27.58, almost four dollars less than the $31.50 “SNAP Challenge” figure.
“I wanted to personally experience the effects of the proposed cuts to food stamps. I didn’t plan ahead or buy strategically, I just saw the publicity stunt and made a snap decision to drive down the street and try it myself. I put my money where my mouth is, and the proposed food stamp cuts are still quite filling,” said Ferguson.
“We can cut the proposed benefits by an additional 12.4 percent and still be able to eat for a week,” said Ferguson. “Not only am I feeding myself for less than the SNAP Challenge, I will probably have food left over.”...
“Not only did I buy a week’s worth of food on what Democrats claim is too little, I have money left over. Based on my personal experience with SNAP benefit limits we have room to cut about 12 percent more.”
Here’s what he bought to feed himself for a week:
Two boxes of Honeycomb cereal
Three cans of red beans and rice
Jar of peanut butter
Bottle of grape jelly
Loaf of whole wheat bread
Two cans of refried beans
Box of spaghetti
Large can of pasta sauce
Two liters of root beer
Large box of popsicles
24 servings of Wyler’s fruit drink mix
Eight cups of applesauce
Bag of pinto beans
Bag of rice
Bag of cookies
Gallon of milk
Box of maple and brown sugar oatmeal
Paraphrasing Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat empty calories and carbs!”
What is objectionable about this challenge is that it is a political version of The Simple Life. After smugly making their case for or against SNAP cuts, like Paris Hilton and Nichole Richie going back to Beverly Hills after taping an episode among the peasants in Bumfuck, USA, these politicians, journalists, bloggers, and public policy researchers can go back to a normal, much higher food budget, whereas the people for whom this struggle is daily reality…. can’t.
Democracy Now’s report on food insecurity in the U.S., below: