Food Stamp Challenge: $227

The Challenge

The challenge is simple, but difficult too: in October, maintain a foodstamp budget while feeding your family wholesome, nourishing and unrefined foods.

Due to loss of jobs, inadequate wages and other unfortunate situations, many, many families derive the bulk of their food budget, or even their entire food budget from governmental assistance programs. Mothers often wonder just how they can feed their families well while subsisting on supplemental nutrition assistance programs like WIC and foodstamps. Just how can you make good food work on a few hundred dollars a month?

While a challenge of this sort may seem patronizing at best, there’s a real and sincere need to illustrate just how wholesome food can be purchased and prepared on even the slimmest of budgets. So in October, I’m ditching my CSAs and farmers markets, cutting my budget to $227 for October and focusing on real food done real cheap.   Besides, who doesn’t need to save a few bucks?

The Number

Settling on a final budget for the project proved difficult. The benefit allotment for foodstamp program is directly related to the USDA’s cost of food. In essence, the government assumes that nutrition assistance recipients will spend approximately 30% of their budget on food and the aim of SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is to supplement a family’s low income until the USDA’s thrifty food budget is reached. This means that the maximum foodstamp benefit for a family of our size is $527 – not too shabby. In fact, eating well on $527 a month is hardly a challenge at all.

Despite the fact that foodstamps are intended as a supplement, many recipients rely on nutrition assistance benefits exclusively. So, while a family may receive $227 from the government in nutrition assistance, they are unlikely to make up the remaining $300 of that thrifty food budget out of their own pockets. With rising healthcare costs, childcare costs, transportation costs and rent, there’s often no leeway to increase the food budget at all.

In 2008, the average individual on SNAP received $101 and the average household on SNAP received $227 in benefits each month. Undoubtedly, this number has increased since then – though probably only nominally. Were our family to have only one earner making minimum wage, we’d likely receive $332 – $342 in benefits. Were our family live right at the poverty line, we’d receive $235 – $245 in benefits. We settled at $227 – the average benefit in 2008 for a single household.

The Assumptions

To keep us honest and on target, let’s assume a “worst-case”:

  • It’s unlikely that most SNAP recipients have access to a farmers market, farm stand or CSA accepting EBT (this is quickly changing thanks to grants from the USDA) thus all shopping must be done at a EBT-accepting grocery store.
  • It’s unlikely that most SNAP recipients have access to a food bank served with organic, local foods.
  • It’s likely that many SNAP recipients are relying exclusively or close to exclusively on nutrition assistance benefits to purchase food.
  • It’s unlikely that most SNAP recipients have well-stocked pantry to use as a reserve well, and must build one on budget.

The Rules

The $227 budget must supply:

  • 3 Meals a Day for a Month for Our Family of Three
  • 2 Snacks a Day for a Month for Our Child
  • Only Whole, Unrefined Foods
  • Everything eaten during the month must be purchased that month. In other words: you can’t rely on your pantry!

Charting Progress

I’ll post each Monday through October outlining our trials, failures and successes – and for those of you who would like to follow along, I’ll be posting downloadable shopping lists, menus and recipe guides.