Menu Plan Monday: SNAP Challenge
February 29, 2016

menu_plan_monday

As I’ve mentioned, I’m doing the SNAP challenge this week, as an assignment for my Community Nutrition class. The SNAP challenge is intended to call attention to food insecurity by asking participants to spend one week living on a food stamp budget. This is adjusted slightly by state, but for our class, the allotment was $40 per person, per week. Couples or roommates were permitted to pool their individual budgets together for the home. Steven wanted to participate in the challenge with me, so we had up to $80 for meals, snacks and beverages between us.

Rules of the challenge are that oil, vinegar, and spices are permitted, but calorific sweeteners (like sugar) are not. All other pantry items are off limits, which for us means our usual collection of grains, dried beans, nuts, and nut/seed butters. Coffee is a discretionary choice: for me, it was a priority, so $8.99 went to coffee for the week (I could have chosen instant coffee, and probably would have if we’d been any closer to our budget). We ended up with $4.38 to spare. In some states SNAP benefits for two people for a week is closer to $63, so I was glad to come in slightly below $80, at $75.62.

I should point out that the SNAP program is intended to be supplemental, which means that recipients are expected to round their diets out with other food (though the extent to which this is possible can vary quite a bit in real life circumstances). My classmates and I come into this challenge with a lot of circumstances that SNAP recipients often don’t have, though, including totally unfettered access to healthful food and jobs that don’t demand hard physical labor. So, I think the fact that we’re using the budget exclusively for a week is definitely counteracted by these advantages and others.

We were given incentives to shop at farmers markets for the week, which is indicative of real world snap initiatives like “double bucks.” In spite of this, most students in my class chose to shop at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or other SNAP-eligable grocers were they felt that they could stretch their dollars further. SNAP participants often have extremely limited choices when it comes to where they shop, and the fact that so many of us chose to buy food at the same grocery stores we’re used to was of course a major disconnect between the challenge and the reality it tries to capture.

I thought about Trader Joe’s, but in the end I only had time for a single grocery run, and I chose Whole Foods primarily for the bulk section, where I knew I could stock up on whole grains and legumes, and the 365 brand, which makes inexpensive tofu and canned items. This means that my purchases were nearly all organic–another discretionary choice that I could have worked around in interest of stretching the budget further. I was lucky to find some of my produce, including yellow potatoes, broccoli, and kale, on sale. Here’s my haul:

Produce

2.4 lbs yellow potatoes: $3.08
1 lb leeks: $3.23
1 head garlic: $0.63
1 lb Broccoli: $3.02
1 head kale: $2.00
2.33 lbs sweet potatoes: $5.80
2 limes: $1.00
1 lemon: $0.89
1.57 lbs onion: $2.34
1 bag frozen, chopped spinach: $1.69
2 lbs carrots: $2.49
1 bunch celery: $2.99
1 bunch chives: $2.69
2 bananas: $0.71

Proteins

Tempeh: $2.50
Tofu: $1.99
Navy beans: $2.71
Green lentils: $2.33
Yellow split peas: $1.88
Nutritional yeast: $1.87

Pantry

1/2 gallon soy milk: $1.79
Rolled oats: $0.90
Steel cut oats: $1.64
Raisins: $ 1.16
Brown rice: $1.60
Yellow grits: $1.55
Basmati rice: $3.98
Coffee: $8.99
Vegetable broth: $2.49
Canned, diced tomatoes: $1.99
1 loaf bread: $3.99

So far, I’ve bent the rules once, which is that we had leftover roasted cauliflower and mache at home today, more than 24 hours into the challenge, and I did put them into a bowl for lunch. There wasn’t enough of either to give away to a friend, and throwing out food felt really out of keeping with the spirit of the challenge. Everything else we’re eating this week comes from the shopping run.

Here’s what I’ve planned in terms of meals for the week ahead. As you can see, I’ve done my best to keep things simple while also giving us variety.

Menu Plan Monday

Meal Plan

Dinners

Sunday night: Potato leek soup | Toast
Monday night: Sweet potato and yellow split pea curry | Basmati rice | Broccoli
Tuesday night: Curry, rice, and broccoli leftovers
Wednesday night: Tofu, onion, and spinach scramble | Brown rice
Thursday night: Tofu scramble and rice leftovers
Friday night: Grits with spicy tempeh, kale and white beans
Saturday night: Leftover grits with spicy tempeh, kale and white beans

Breakfasts

Steel cut oats with raisins and banana (for Steven and for me)
Savory rolled oats with spinach and nutritional yeast (for me, later in the week)
Toast (for either of us if we get bored of oats)

Lunches

Leftovers, leftovers, leftovers
Brown rice and broccoli stem salad
Lentil, carrot, and celery salad
Spicy carrot ginger soup

One of the challenges of the week is that Steven’s a student, too, and he’s often on campus for both lunch and dinner. So, he’ll be taking most of the leftovers with him, while I’ll be using what leftovers remain, as well as the brown rice and lentil salads and the carrot soup. We’ve started splitting a big batch of banana raisin steel cut oats, but I suspect I’ll be craving savory oats later in the week, and Steven will probably want some toast to mix it up.

So far, the challenge hasn’t been very difficult, mostly because I’m used to planning meals carefully. $80 is close to what we spend most of the time, except that a) we usually have a well stocked pantry to rely on that can supplement our purchases and b) in spite of the fact that we don’t eat out much anymore, one or both of us usually ends up picking up at least a few snacks/coffees throughout the week, if not a lunch or dinner.

The SNAP challenge is a highly imperfect approximation of what it feels like to live in true circumstances of poverty or insecurity. After all, most students in my class (myself included) are doing this challenge while continuing to enjoy many other lifestyle privileges. This contrast feels really jarring at times. But in many small ways, the challenge has already given me a lot to think about when it comes to my own privilege, and I suspect that it will make me a much more conscientious consumer moving forward. For those reasons alone, I’m glad I’m doing it.

I’ll have a lot more to share this weekend, and I’ll do a recap in lieu of a normal weekend reading post. In the meantime, I’ll share at least a few recipes in the week ahead, including our hearty potato leek soup (which we had for dinner last night and Steven had for lunch today) tomorrow.

Creamy vegan potato leek soup | The Full Helping

Have a great night, all.

xo

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    21 Comments
  1. Hi Gena, I really enjoyed hearing your perspective regarding your experience with the food stamp challenge. I agree that this is an imperfect challenge – I think the experience would be different for someone who is living on food stamps or has been living on them for some time. I do think the challenge is beneficial though. It helps reduce food waste and opens people’s eyes to mindful spending, but it definitely does require a level of effort in planning. Thanks for your great post!

  2. Will you be sharing the recipe for your sweet potato and yellow split pea curry? That looks delicious!

  3. The thing is that there is a huge difference between cooking for one vs two- a second serving is hardly more expensive than the first, so this challenge for a single person with $40 i think would be much more difficult than for two.
    Regardless it sounds like you ate well, although i am surprised you didn’t pick up some peanut butter- one of my favorite super cheap meals is lentils and veggies with a peanut buttery sauce.

    The bulk bins at whole foods are my favorite thing ever! I always end up with a bag of those dense square carob seed and nut energy nuggets and a fun assortment of whole grains and rices

    • Now I am very keen on trying lentils and veggies with peanut buttery sauce!!

      And yes, I agree about $40 vs. $80. Steven wanted to experience the challenge, so we never even discussed not doing it together, but our professor did tell us that we’d have an easier time if we pooled budgets. $40 would have cut portions but made produce, I think, much trickier.

  4. I’m really loving the different perspective you’re providing, both your own and your classmates (totally just read all the comments!).

    To add another layer of nuance, if someone in the family has a food allergy, bulk bins won’t be an option. I know our food spending went up a bit when the beau (and his peanut allergy) moved in as we could only buy nuts, cereals, etc from specific companies who use peanut-free facilities.

    This also has me thinking about leisurely grocery shopping itself as a privilege – the ability to stop and read labels (particularly to check for allergens and/or ingredients we avoid), meander, pick out the “best” produce, etc. instead of simply grabbing the foods you know are safe and on-budget.

  5. I am fascinated by this challenge, though I have to admit my intrigue comes from a completely advantaged position of simply *wanting* to decrease our weekly food budget. I completely agree with you that this is an imperfect challenge, but I am super curious to see what it brings up for you at the week’s end, as well as all the ways you can inspire those of us, like myself, who want to get a better handle on our grocery budget, as well as simply demonstrating that a whole-foods plant-based diet is not necessarily prohibitively expensive.

    Quick, specific question: I’ve been on a big steel cut oats kick myself, and having a banana with it. How do you manage just two bananas for multiple breakfasts for the both of you?

    Also, will you please share all of those recipes? (I’m not kidding.) 🙂

    • I’m in the same boat! Both in regards to wanting to lower our grocery costs, and wanting to see each recipe from this week!

      Also, Gena, do you have a good reference in regards to soy in the diet as it relates to hormones? I hear such mixed reviews. Thanks!

      • Hi Therese,

        What exactly do you mean by hormones? Broadly speaking, the body of research on soy–including its potential to reduce breast cancer risk, its anti-inflammatory properties, and its positive impact on CVD risk–points to a huge number of health benefits. The isoflavones in soy are a topic of enormous misinformation, unfortunately. One example is the idea that soy feminizes men or impacts testosterone levels. Several meta-analysis have demonstrated that soy does not raise or lower testosterone, and the few studies that do suggest hormone changes among men were in response to extreme amounts of soy, which were widely out of keeping with any normal level of consumption (they were also shown to be totally reversible when those extreme amounts were decreased).

        Another myth is tthat soy foods increases breast cancer risk. There’s no body of evidence to this effect in the literature, and in fact the studies correlate soy intake, especially in adolescence, with reduced rates of breast cancer, as well as with lower chances of breast cancer recurrence in women survivors. There’s no body of evidence to suggest that soy impacts fertility–a claim that tends to circulate online. The bottom line is that soy isoflavones do bind to estrogen receptors, but they are not the same as estrogen, and they don’t function like estrogen in the body. What impact they have has been shown in a huge amount of research to be positive for health.

        If you have precise questions or are curious about a particular study, let me know!

        G

    • Hey Becky!

      I feel that the challenge is giving me a very fresh perspective on budgeting, which admittedly is privileged and definitely less meaningful that the real intention, which is more consciousness about food insecurity. Yet it’s important, all the same. I’ll have more to say about it for sure!

      I usually do a whole banana with a bowl of my morning oats, too, but for this week I used two of them (plus raisins) to sweeten the steel cut oats, which I cooked in my slow cooker. (I could have bought sugar, but it really didn’t feel like a worthy enough purchase just to sweeten oats, and liquid sweeteners were too expensive.) Definitely not as filling as what I’m used to, but in the interest of making things stretch and keeping the budget open for other stuff I wanted to buy, it’s working well enough.

      G

  6. I think this is great, both from food security experience and also to show people that it is possible, if you get creative. My husband and I choose to budget ourselves $75 per week for groceries, mostly for food waste prevention. It is unbelievable the amount of food that is thrown away on a daily basis. People usually do not believe that I spend what I do on groceries, but you rarely see me eat the same thing two days in a row. It does require advanced planning, but it is doable.

    • Thanks, Ashley. It’s great to hear this perspective.

      While food waste isn’t usually an issue for us–we freeze everything we can, and I usually try to make leftovers stretch into a new week if we have them–I do often spend unnecessarily. One thing I’ve realized quickly on this challenge is that I could creatively make due with quite a bit less. It’s a good lesson, one that will most definitely stick with me.

  7. Hi Gena, Love this thoughtful post about the complexities of accepting a SNAP challenge this way. I agree that most people living this life may not have access to the kinds of stores your class is using as a go to, or they may shy away from them, not knowing how to use their dollars wisely on these types of foods to begin with. John Robbins foundation EarthSave?? did a project a few years ago with the Sacramento Food Bank, including shopping education at places like these, cooking classes, and so forth. It’s good to practice making tough choices, even as an exercise if it raises awareness and compassion. I noticed how little fruit there was in your SNAP stash. I supposed I’d spend my coffee allotment on some frozen blueberries and maybe a little carob powder. . .but then gluten free oats are kind of spendy, so hmmmm. . .(in a sense I do a version of this all the time, because I’m on a fixed monthly income and the co-op I can walk to is expensive, so I make a list and go every thurs on senior day, when we seniors can an extra 10% off) I look forward to your recap. xoxo

    • Thanks, Maria. It’s great to hear your perspective as someone who has done education/outreach in this space.

      And I agree about difficult choices. As artificial as the challenge is, I can’t tell you how much more aware it has made me in small ways.

      As for fruit, you’re totally right, though I didn’t notice till now. I guess this is because neither of us are big fruit eaters. I try to be, but with the exception of apples, bananas, and berries I usually have to force myself to eat it (dried fruit is a totally different story, but it’s expensive), and Steven really enjoys fruit but doesn’t tend to buy it or seek it out that often. So, for this week, we got enough for oatmeal, and that was it. But the raisins add nice sweetness and I got a fair amount of them, and of course in not prioritizing fruit we could indulge my coffee habit and things like bread, which I knew Steven would want with soup.

      One of the interesting parts of the challenge is actually seeing how differently people choose to handle the budget. I didn’t get much fruit or any nut butter (even though I eat them both regularly) because I wanted more income for other things, whereas a friend in my program just told me that she’s living off of bananas and peanut butter. Some folks are forgoing coffee, while others cut corners to work it in, and I’m not sure how my non-vegan classmates are handling animal protein, but I’m sure there’s a lot of variance!

      G xo

  8. I love that you’re doing this challenge! It’s really helpful to try every once in a while to plan out your food costs even if you don’t necessarily have to. Whenever I do this, I’m really surprised how easily I can throw money out for nonsense just because “I feel like it” or most often because I haven’t planned ahead. $80 seems like a pretty decent budget though, my fiancee and I rarely spend more than that…but we buy a large proportion of food online and in bulk so that makes quite a difference. Thanks for sharing your meal plan! It’s nice to see how delicious frugal food can be 🙂

  9. Love seeing this! In my experience, plant based is much cheaper, which makes it easier to stay on budget! I have to get better at meal planning though.

    What about snacks?

    • Hey Tara,

      I definitely think being vegan is an advantage for us this week. As for snacks, that’s one of the tricky parts. Our respective favorite snacks are apples and almond butter or hummus & veggies for me, and some sort of cracker or pita chip for Steven. I was primarily focused on making our meals filling enough this week–we both have big appetites, and we’d notice a smaller dinner or lunch portion–so I opted not to budget snacks in very consciously. While we both usually snack, it’s not as essential to us as volume eating at mealtime.

      For now, we’ve actually been packing bigger lunches and enjoying a small, additional portion of what we had for lunch at around 3-4. It’s working out just fine, though I will be totally ready for hummus and veggies next week when we wrap up 🙂

      G

      • I see! Thank you for your response 🙂

        My roommate has eliminated snacking for lent… I can’t even imagine as I’m always snacking between meals. But I’m sure it is good to sometimes give your digestion a break!

  10. This is super interesting-thanks for sharing! I look forward to your recap. I’m going to see if my husband is willing to try the challenge in one of the coming weeks. Totally agree that it would push us to be overall more contentious consumers. I noticed that you didn’t buy any peanut butter or nuts/seeds–I’m sure you’ve thought of this, but it’s crazy how items that we (or at least I) consider no brainers/staples are out of reach for those on a truly tight budget. Bravo for shedding light on the subject of food insecurity.

    • Hi Hannah,

      I definitely thought about peanut butter for oatmeal, but in the end other things (like grabbing a loaf of bread and coffee) won out. Of course on a week where I didn’t have a limited budget, I’d have nuts/seed/seed butters in the pantry to rely on, or I’d consider it a no-brainer, as you say, to grab some. I’m not feeling the absence, but the challenge certainly compels you to decide what’s a priority and what’s not. (I’ve heard other dietitians who did the challenge say that bananas and peanut butter were their staples, so we all make different selections!)

      G

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