Many of you have been following along with me this week as I make my way through the SNAP challenge–an assignment for my community nutrition class. If you’re just reading about it now, the challenge is to spend a week on approximately the same budget as a SNAP recipient, which is adjusted by state and by the number of individuals living in a home.
We were given a budget of $40 per person, which is reflective of benefits in New York, and Steven and I pooled our budgets so that we could do the challenge together. We were allowed to use spices, oils, and vinegars from the pantry. Everything else we ate for the week was from our grocery haul, which I recapped in detail in Monday’s post.
The purpose of this challenge is to cultivate more awareness about food insecurity–and along with it, hunger, poverty, and other inequities in this country. In my opinion, the challenge does not accurately replicate or even begin to approximate what it truly feels like to be food insecure. But as you’ll see, I learned a lot from my experience with it, and it made me poignantly aware of my own privilege. In lieu of regular weekend reading and menu plan Monday posts this week, I’m sharing some of my observations and thoughts.
My menu plan Monday posts always reflect most of what gets eaten in our home throughout the course of the week, but I often switch the days on which we eat things, or I end up reworking the plan if something comes up for us (social, work, a late night study group, or whatnot).
This week, I stuck to the plan I shared with you exactly, with a few additions. I fortunately had a lot of navy beans leftover from the tempeh/navy bean/corn grit dish, so I used them to make a simple white bean dip with olive oil and garlic. I’m still enjoying it, and I will for a few days more. I also had extra carrots, potatoes, and just a little bit of yellow split peas, so I made a soup with those, and I used ginger and ras el hanout for seasoning.
Highlights of the week included the potato leek soup I shared on Tuesday, which made for one supper and a few lunch leftovers. We loved this, and I’ll make it again for sure.
We also had a sweet potato and yellow split pea curry (which I made in the slow cooker) for quite a few meals early in the week, often stirring in some frozen, chopped spinach.
Because Steven had to transport most of his meals, I tended to give him leftovers and work with what I had at home for my lunches. Sometimes I had leftovers, too, but I also whipped up a quick brown lentil salad (with celery, carrots, slivered kale, lemon, and olive oil) that I had a few times over spelt toast.
For breakfast, we started the week with a giant batch of slow cooker steel cut oats. I used raisins and two bananas for sweetness; liquid sweeteners were too expensive, and I didn’t want to purchase a whole bag of sugar for 7 days (especially since we already have it at home). The oats turned out really well, thanks in part to some cinnamon and nutmeg. Normally we’d both have eaten them with extra fruit, and probably some nut butter, chia, or hemp seeds, but we did just fine with them as they were.
Later in the week, I started to crave my savory breakfasts, and I made a few batches of rolled oats with lentils, frozen chopped spinach, and nutritional yeast. These were super filling, not to mention economical, and I’ll make them again.
One of my other lunches from home was the simple broccoli stem and brown rice stir fry I shared on Thursday. This was delicious, and it will definitely become a staple for us. A great experience for me in using broccoli stems, too–which I’ve been shy about until now.
Throughout the week, I had a few moments of worrying that something would run out or that we’d overeat leftovers and not have enough for both of us. Fortunately, the grocery run I made was just the right amount of food. We ended up eating every single ingredient we bought–down to the last tablespoon of oats–and we have enough to hold us through lunchtime today, which is when we finish the challenge, and even a little extra.
Overall, the biggest challenge for us was logistical. Steven’s also a student (full time), and he had three days this week where he was on campus for both lunch and dinner. This meant a lot of planning, cooking in advance, and packing up leftovers (as well as finding a place to keep food cold). It would have been easier to do the challenge on a week where we were both home for meals in the evening, but that’s a rarity these days, and anyway, ease is not the point of the challenge.
For the most part, I think that being vegan was a big advantage for us this week. The biggest complaint that most of my peers had was that it was hard to adjust to a lower protein diet–this probably isn’t unlike what a lot of folks feel when they first go vegan and feel that it’s hard to get full enough (I hear this from new clients a lot).
I didn’t calculate all of our nutrition for the week–fortunately, we weren’t asked to do that–but I know that we got approximately as much protein as we usually do, thanks to tofu, tempeh, legumes, nutritional yeast, and grains. Notably, these were some of the less expensive purchases on my list, which is a nice reminder that plant-based protein stacks up economically next to animal proteins.
I’m guessing that some of my classmates did have to cut down on animal protein because of the budget, and it’s possible that they didn’t replace those proteins with enough legumes, soy foods, and so on. Since protein is associated with satiety, this could have left them feeling peckish.
Another complaint I heard a lot was that the food was bland and repetitive. We didn’t feel this way–in fact, we liked so many of the dishes we made that we’ll probably have them again! But I think this is in part because we’re accustomed to cooking with a lot of different spices, vinegars, and nutritional yeast, which add flavor to food.
Of course, there were some adjustments to the way we eat normally. That’s the whole point of the challenge, and part of what made it interesting was to compare how different students weighed priorities on the budget. I didn’t choose to spend on either nut butter or much fruit (aside from the bananas we cooked our oats with), but one of my classmates said she lived on bananas and peanut butter for the week. Some of us (me included) chose to make coffee a priority, while others quickly chose to give up coffee for a week in order to budget more food.
One thing I noticed was that we had less variety of fat than usual. Avocados didn’t make it into the budget, and neither did most nuts or seeds. We had tofu, tempeh, and oils (I used sesame and olive during the seven days), and that was about it. I’m guessing we had less fat overall than we usually do, though neither of us seemed to feel a difference in satiety. We’re both volume eaters, and I was conscious to make sure we’d get big enough portions all through the week. Steven was a little hungry at first, but for the most part, we both felt satisfied after meals.
One reader asked about snacks. This was tricky! I tend to snack on hummus and veggies, fruit and nut butter, my favorite almond/chickpea/raisin combo, or sometimes a snack bar if I’m rushing to class. For Steven, it’s usually pita chips and hummus, crackers, or something crunchy. Again, my main priority was to make sure we’d be able to keep up with voluminous portions all week long, so I didn’t put aside anything for snacks. Our solution was to each pack (or make) extra for lunch, and eat a small portion of our lunchtime meal in the late afternoon if we needed a snack. It worked, but I’m looking forward to the usual hummus breaks this week.
Another change from our norm is that we didn’t include any of our favorite vegan products this week, mostly because they were all too expensive to make the cut. These include Sunshine burgers, Beyond Chicken Strips, Follow Your Heart cheese, Veganaise, Earth Balance, and so on. An exclusively whole foods diet was the cheapest option. This is of course because the packaged/brand name foods we like are from small companies, not big corporations that can afford to keep prices artificially low. For many people in low income communities, packaged foods are cheaper than fresh produce and other whole ingredients.
Part of the challenge was to eat and drink solely what we bought with our theoretical SNAP budget. In some ways, this is slightly misleading, as the SNAP program is intended to supplement diets, and not to be a family’s sole source of nutrition. In the real world, though, SNAP often does supply most of a family’s food needs for each month, and we had so many advantages on the challenge (access to tons of grocery stores, time to plan, and jobs/lifestyles that don’t demand physical labor) that it felt more than fair to be asked not to eat/drink any extra foods.
Our professor noted that most of us would probably run into a few tricky situations where it would be hard to turn down food (a party, a gathering, a lunch invitation, etc.) For me, this was the two times I met with my local clients at a coffee shop. I felt lousy not ordering anything, and so I got a cup of black coffee each time.
I had mixed feelings about this challenge before I did it. To me, it felt as though the challenge might be overly reductive, an attempt to boil inequity and poverty (broad and complicated issues) to one single variable (a limited food budget). I also wondered how effective the challenge could be if many participants continued to enjoy numerous lifestyle privileges while doing the challenge–comfortable homes, safe, walkable neighborhoods, plenty of access to high quality food, fitness classes, and so on.
Both of these concerns were borne out during the challenge. Most of my classmates and I shopped at our normal grocery stores–places like Whole Foods or Trader Joes–and at the least, we all had access to numerous places to buy food. This is very often not the case for folks who are living with food insecurity; neighborhoods may be devoid of grocery stores, or recipients may have to take several forms of public transportation to shop for food. And as satisfying as our meals were, I can’t say if they’d have been adequate to support us if we had jobs that demanded hard physical labor or many hours on our feet.
And of course, we had piece of mind that the challenge was just that–a challenge, and not a reality. As things stand now, I’ve got a little leftover food from the week (a very little). But what if I’d run out of something? Running out of oats early, for example, would have been a problem, because oats were our breakfast every day this week. Or what if Steven had forgotten a dinner at home one day?
The answer is that we’d probably have decided that he had to eat, challenge or not, and he’d have picked up dinner near school. But for someone for whom SNAP is the only or the primary source of food, that kind of flexibility doesn’t exist. Leaving a meal at home can be the difference between eating and going hungry. If an ingredient spoils early or someone happens to finish off an ingredient that’s supposed to stretch, there is no safety net to fall back on.
So, did the SNAP challenge teach me what hunger and poverty truly feel like? No, not really. It incited a great deal of consciousness, but it didn’t change my circumstances dramatically enough for me to be able to imagine a life without the security and privileges I have always enjoyed. My classmates and I all lived with a budget this past week, but our lives stayed otherwise the same, and in that sense I can’t say that I feel I’ve truly seen food insecurity from the inside.
Still, there were many moments this week in which managing food did feel like a real challenge. Planning was tricky. Repetition did get tiring–even for the two of us, who love leftovers. I’m used to cooking quite a lot, but I’m not used to cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner from scratch for two people every day, and I underestimate how much of a difference it makes that Steven usually picks up lunch on campus. This was a hectic work week, and at times the cooking felt exhausting. Many of my classmates echoed similar feelings.
That we could have found this challenge difficult in spite of how little else in our lives changed–in spite of how little we fundamentally had to give up in terms of comfort and security–is evidence of how fortunate we all really are.
This, I think, is the real point of the challenge. No, it’s not a perfect approximation of food insecurity. But it is enough to make the people who participate far more aware of their own privilege, and I think that’s a really good thing for everyone. The challenge forced me to acknowledge how much comfort and stability I take for granted, and I think that this will translate into far more consciousness and sensitivity from now on.
Earlier this week, a reader pointed out that the challenge underscores the freedom of choice we take for granted as consumers. This includes the freedom to select food that appeal to our tastes, our health needs, our aesthetic preferences, and so on. One privilege I gave great thought to this week was the ability to shop and eat in accordance with my ethics.
I don’t mean that veganism is a “privilege” in the sense of being elite or costly; if anything, this week showed me how economical eating plant-based can be. But I do believe that being able to select and purchase food in accordance with one’s values and moral conviction is a privilege, and it’s one that I’ve taken for granted until now. For a family with limited access and severely limited resources, exercising any amount of choice around food is often impossible.
So, I’m moving forward with a lot of gratitude. I’m grateful for my food security, for having fresh and healthful ingredients at my fingertips, for nourishing meals. Most of all, I’m grateful that I have the freedom to eat in a way that aligns with my values as a vegan–a freedom that not everyone enjoys.
The SNAP challenge isn’t intended to teach budgeting skills. It’s intended to create awareness about broad social inequities, and not to help those of us who are already food secure to stretch a dollar. But I suspected that I’d take some financial lessons away from the challenge, and I certainly have.
In the end, Steven and I didn’t spend much less than we normally do, but the fact that we couldn’t rely on stuff in our pantry and fridge–from nut butters to grains to chia and flax seeds to canned beans–meant that there was less at our disposal than usual. That we ate so well, for the most part, is definitely evidence that we could make due with a little less from now on.
So, we’ve agreed to try to stick to this budget each week, give or take, and I’ll be thinking harder before I splurge on costly items that we really don’t need. This isn’t to say that I won’t sometimes indulge in an expensive ingredient–Steven and I both love food, and we don’t eat out often, so we splurge now and then on a fancy chocolate bar or a cool new vegan product. But I’m pledging to splurge less often, to resist the lure of flashy new products, to avoid food waste, and to be more creative with my pantry.
If you’ve made it through this whole post, I thank you for reading. And I do encourage all of you who are interested to give the SNAP challenge a try. It is, if nothing else, an opportunity to think much harder about your relationship with food, and I suspect that most folks who complete the challenge will learn at least a few important lessons. I’ve learned many this week, and I’m grateful to you all for following along.