Weekend Reading: SNAP challenge recap
March 6, 2016


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.

Creamy vegan potato leek soup | The Full Helping

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.

SNAP Challenge

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.

SNAP Challenge

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.

SNAP Challenge

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.

SNAP Challenge

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.

Simple Broccoli Stem & Brown Rice Stir Fry | The Full Helping

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.


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  1. What a fantastic reflection on the SNAP challenge. As a registered dietitian myself I too went through that challenge (twice actually- once in undergrad, and once in my internship) and I remember feeling so fortunate, lucky, and a little guilty for being so lucky to be surrounded by so many options, to have so much knowledge of cooking and ingredients, and to be able to meal plan. And also to have such a broad palate, aside from being strictly plant-based I’m not picky or restrictive, and I’m willing to try anything. These are things that so many people just don’t have. It’s also nice to read a plant-based account, as I feel like most of the students/interns I heard feedback from during my challenges were all omnivores or pollo/pesce-tarians, and did not really appreciate the economical sense of a whole plant-based diet. Cheers!!

    • Jayda, so great to hear your reflections, especially given that you did the challenge twice. I bet that you had new observations each time. It sounds as if we had similar overall takeaways, and I appreciate your sharing!

  2. I really appreciate this post. Just as an FYI, my family of three lives in NJ, in the Philadelphia metropolitan area and we were on SNAP benefits of $200 per month, which means $15 per person per week. Then, our income went over the SNAP limit by $10 per month, so we lost our benefits and essentially had a food budget of $10 per month.

    • I really appreciate and value this comment, S — thanks for sharing your experience. And I’m so sorry to hear about what happened with your benefits — this seems to be a story I’ve heard again and again as I study the SNAP program.

  3. As usual, a thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Amazing, insightful post! I love your reflection on how even on the same budget, the playing field isn’t always even for those who live in food desserts or may have very physical jobs. Also nice to see that there are ways to fit organic products into a small budget –another benefit of eating a plant based diet!

  5. Hi Gena,
    This is the first time I’ve heard of the SNAP challenge, but I find the idea interesting and important. I enjoyed your thoughtful write up and the nuance of the experience that you share. I’ve occasionally fasted at different points in my life and part of the motivation was to experience what it was like to truly be hungry. I think intentionally creating these kinds of constraints for ourselves helps us deepen our empathy, even though I agree that it is MUCH different to choose to go without rather than being forced to due to circumstance.

  6. This is a great recap and reflection, Gena.
    I’ve heard of the SNAP challenge years ago and think I could definitely benefit from trying it. As much as I hate waste, I end up throwing out so much food or splurging on interesting new products or packaged food (canned beans vs dry or frozen pizza).
    Like another commenter said, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the privilege of experimenting in the kitchen and trying new foods. Because, if you don’t have the luxury of saying, “oh this didn’t turn out – let’s just get takeout” you’re far more likely to rely on tried and true foods. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it does certainly point to yet another privilege we have – one of choice and making food a pleasure instead of a struggle.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You made a lot of creative choices and definitely have reminded me to be more thoughtful when meal planning and grocery shopping.

  7. Hi Gina. Thanks so much for taking the time to detail this challenge – sounds like an exciting adventure! I wonder how you found this challenge as someone who is recovered from an eating disorder or restrictive tendencies? As someone currently struggling with an ED, I know for myself, I would see adding another restriction to my already long list of rules as something I would jump at (for the wrong reasons, like decreasing calories). I give you huge congrats for not mentioning this once in your recap which illustrates to me that it really didn’t enter into your consciousness over the course of the challenge – would this be accurate? Just curious and hoping that I can one day do something like this when I have a healthier relationship with food 🙂

    • Hi Katelyn!

      Oh, this is such a good question. I had actually anticipated that it would bring up a lot of my history, and I had sort of steeled myself against that. The most triggering moment of the whole experience, for me, was actually the moment I found out we were doing the challenge. I had a LOT of resistance, and most of that was based on the fear of limitations, which can definitely evoke my past and/or bring out the rebelliousness of the ED–that part of me that wants food EXACTLY the way I like it.

      Once the challenge started, things were actually fine. There was a little discomfort in the first few days as I realized that there would be so little choice/wiggle room throughout the week. But for the most part, it was ok. There was a lot to think about in terms of cooking, planning, and portioning, and being focused on all of the details, as well as all of the big picture issues I mention in this post, helped to keep me from worry about the potential triggers. I definitely didn’t feel compelled to use the challenge as a means of restricting–if anything, I was focused on making sure we both got enough food and big enough portions. It’s also worth saying that I planned the meals to be filling specifically so that the whole experience wouldn’t feel reminiscent of my past.

      I’m sure my professor would have understood if I’d opted out because of my history, but I’m really glad that a) I’m far enough along in recovery that I believed I could do this with a healthy mindset, and b) I turned out to be right.

      I hope you can do the challenge one day, in your own time, when you are ready for it, and I’m glad you asked this question, Katelyn 🙂


  8. I found that I was always hungry when I went vegan. I tried for a couple months and now I mostly eat vegan but also non-plant based food items.

    I would love to get back to this way of eating, as long as I could feel satiated. Do find this goes away with time as our bodies adjust to plant based proteins?

    • Hi Tara!

      My observation from working with clients is that yes, it can definitely shift over time, as the body adjusts to a new way of eating. But I think making sure that new vegans eat a lot of plant-based protein and plenty of complex carbohydrates — as well as overall volume — is crucial. Some new vegans don’t replace enough of the protein that they’re eliminating with animal foods, or they don’t adjust servings of carbs and portions to fit what is usually a less calorie-dense way of eating. So, adjustments often need to happen, but in my experience, they can be really effective in eliminating the hunger!


      • Thank you so much for your always thoughtful replies!

        I’m hoping to transition back to this way of eating again, soon 🙂

  9. Loved reading your insights, Gena. You not being able to use the food in your pantry actually made me think about how much excess I have in mine. I need to put more effort into utilizing what I already have. Thank you for sharing this challenge / assignment with us. Be well.

    • Believe me, Erin, the challenge made me realize how much surplus we have in our own pantry, and I’m now on a mission to “cook the pantry” (and the freezer) until I’ve put a lot of the dry stuff to good use. I’m glad you liked the post.

  10. Excellent recap Gena, and beautifully written and heartfelt and smart. Thank you. So many good comments and insights in them too. I agree it’s easier to meet the challenge get enough protein and feel full if you are used to eating things like lentils and tofu, whole grains, etc., and that most people aren’t used to those foods, or, as one of the other commenters says, can’t afford to risk “trying out” something like that, especially without a back up. There are so many variables to think about and you touched eloquently on them all. I thank you especially for the broccoli rounds stir fry, because I love having another way to use those–and I am going to make it again tomorrow night! And now off to investigate the slow cooker curry. . .xo

  11. this is really inspiring gena! i’d love to give it a try in our house too. the problem comes in with having to buy things for client projects, and photography shoots. but i think we could do it outside of that. i rely on bulk bins for much of our normal weeks, so i think i would approach it that way. but not having those fat sources i think would prove very difficult, especially since i can’t eat soy. wonderful post! xo

    • I definitely worried about the time the challenge would take away from recipe testing, Amanda, and I even talked to my professor about the possibility of keeping a separate “professional” food budget for the week. But in the end, I felt that it would be so much more meaningful and authentic to truly inhabit and experience the challenge, and then to share the experience in all of its fullness. Really glad I did that, but I think you’d find it to be powerful and interesting even if you kept up with other professional food stuff for the week.

  12. Of course i read to the end and i’m very moved by your insight, humility and general approach. I’m definitely disturbed by my own lax attitude to spending on food and we can all do to learn some of these lessons.
    we also forget the privilege of simply knowing how to cook! and of having kitchen appliances! some families (certainly in bedsits in London) live off of a microwave alone.
    I feel i could stand to learn a lot from doing something like this, escape the bubble both of privilege and anorexia.
    much love xx

    • Great point, Hannah-Phoebe — kitchen knowledge and capacities is also a huge privilege. I’m really glad you liked these posts.

  13. I think one thing that you didn’t touch on that I think about often, is the luxury to try new recipes, ingredients, and flavors without the fear that it will be rejected. I’m pretty sure you posted an article about this issue in your weekend reading recently, but it jumped out at me as it seems like you tried two new to you recipes this week. Plant based eating lowers the grocery bill, but if you fear your family (or yourself!) won’t enjoy tofu or lentils, how do you justify purchasing them knowing you can’t afford a back-up meal in case of rejection? It’s such a privilege to experiment in the kitchen and make healthier choices, and allow your palate to adjust to new things. I feel like this is something people often don’t consider when they wonder why people “choose” boxed Mac and cheese or other convenience food instead of other healthier choices.

    • Erin,

      I could not agree more. That article you mention is (I think) by Caitlin Daniels, and yes, it brilliantly illustrates something we all tend to take for granted, which is freedom to safely try new foods without dire consequences if we end up not liking them. I sort of knew that Steven and I would like everything I made this week, but I was somewhat cautious with flavor profiles because I knew that we were eating everything I prepared, period. To be able to experiment in the kitchen is definitely a form of privilege.


  14. I really enjoyed reading this post, Gena, and getting some insight into what it was like for you on the SNAP challenge. I think that your point about how being vegan helped you in this challenge was spot on, and is something that should be advocated from the vegan community. A whole foods, vegan diet is not only the healthiest way to go, but the most economical (not to mention the most environmentally friendly).

  15. There are so many ads & videos running on your site it makes it hard to read via mobile FYI plus cheapens the experience. I want to read your blog not be bombarded with car ads.

  16. Thanks for sharing your experience, Gena. I have to say that your creativity and resourcefulness in this challenge is really inspiring, and something that I hope to emulate in my own meal planning.

    Even though I experience a lot of privilege in my own life, including access to grocery stores and restaurants, I find that living in an expensive city like Boston forces me to be careful about the weekly amount I spend on food. When I account for other factors–rent, public transportation, additional living expenses–I really do need to be mindful about my food purchases. So I really can’t begin to imagine what these budgetary constraints look like for the food insecure living in large cities, even with relatively easy access to food.

    • Living in an expensive city can most definitely be a challenge, Molly, especially for young people, and I’m glad that the post helped to inspire you as far as budgeting goes.

  17. What an interesting challenge. And what a good experience.
    I think what I’m noticing in (student) clinics, is that many people who are on lower incomes often work long hours to make ends meet and just don’t have the time to plan. And then there is the lure of cheap, quick fast food, where you get a meal for $10 to feed 4 (bull, of course as it’s neither nutritious nor filling, but that’s a whole otehr subject).
    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us 🙂

    • Hi Kimberly,

      Yes, these are all observations that resonate. Having time and energy to plan and budget might have been the biggest advantage of all on this challenge, and it’s definitely not something that families who are struggling to make ends meet necessarily have the wherewithal or time or energy to do. And of course the lure of cheap, fast food makes it easier to opt out of the challenges of planning altogether. So much of what the challenge teaches is that health problems related to poor diet are endemic, social problems. We need to create a culture in which healthy choices are easier and less healthy choices are more difficult.


      • Not only is planning and cooking time a luxury many food-insecure families don’t have, but also the basic cooking tools a lot of us take for granted, such as decent, reasonably sharp knives for chopping all the veggies, sturdy pots, and even counter space. And then there’s basic cooking skills that are no longer passed on in homes that have relied on convenience foods and/or fast food for at least a generation, or never had a stable adult figure to teach them in the first place.

        There are so many facets to the hunger problem. Thank you for bringing some thoughtful insights to the discussion.

  18. Gena — this was one of your most poignant posts to date. Thank you for your honest reflections. Your arguments on privilege, choice, and security will stay in my mind as I rethink what it means to be a teacher at an under-resourced, food insecure school.

    • Jen, kudos on the work you’re doing as a teacher, and I’m so glad that you found these posts to be thought-provoking.

  19. Thank you, Gena. I really appreciated reading about your experience and the perspective that you took. I agree with you in that their are valuable lessons to be had here for people from all walks of life, but that this is no substitute for being truly food insecure and/or economically disadvantaged.

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