What It’s Really Like to Cook on a Food Stamp Budget

updated May 24, 2019
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In 2013, 49.1 million Americans lived in households struggling with hunger, a stark number which includes 15.8 million children and 4.8 million seniors. Food insecurity is a daily reality for about one in seven households. So why do we only seem to talk passionately about it when a celebrity is involved?

If you paid any attention to the recent controversy surrounding Gwyneth Paltrow’s $29 SNAP grocery shopping challenge, you know what I mean. When she posted a photo of the groceries she purchased with the weekly budget of a typical SNAP (food stamp) recipient, Paltrow inspired a lot of snarky editorials poking fun at the actress’s cluelessness and comments naming all the ways her charmed life is not like the typical SNAP recipient’s, but in the end, it was just more media coverage of a wealthy celebrity.

What are the challenges of shopping, meal planning, and cooking when your budget relies on SNAP benefits? Someone who spends a week trying it out isn’t the right person to ask. Instead, I spoke with regular people with real experience with SNAP — some who receive benefits, others whose jobs involve working with recipients — to learn more about the individuals behind the statistics and the realities of feeding yourself and your family with the help of SNAP.

What Is SNAP?

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is a federal aid program administered by the USDA that provides food assistance to low- or no-income Americans. Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, it now uses a debit card system to distribute benefits, so recipients pay for their purchases with an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card. The amount that households receive depends on several factors, including location, but often averages to about $4 per person per day.

Recipients can only use their EBT cards to buy food items, which means non-food items — like soap, paper products, pet food, alcohol, cigarettes, and prepared foods — cannot be purchased with SNAP funds.

Some farmers markets also accept EBT cards, and state programs such as Market Match in California give recipients additional funds to spend on fresh produce.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP is the country’s most important anti-hunger program. Over 70 percent of participants live in households with children, and in 2014 more than 46 million Americans fed themselves with the help of SNAP.

Who Receives SNAP Benefits?

Carolyn, a graphic designer living in Baltimore, decided to apply for SNAP when she was laid off in the spring. “It seemed like a program that was worth taking advantage of in this time of transition that I find myself in,” she says. “These programs are around to help people in situations like this.”

Ouida moved from the South — where she owned a small business — to Pennsylvania so her partner could attend school full-time, but their financial plans changed drastically when she was unable to find a job after the move. “It’s like you had the rug pulled out from under you,” she says. “When we found out we could apply for the SNAP benefits, it was a hard decision to do it, but when you don’t have any money coming in, you have to do something.”

Elisa is a single mother with a 12-year-old daughter diagnosed with two medical conditions that have so far required four open-heart surgeries and four spinal surgeries. She left nursing school in order to devote her time to caring for her daughter and because of the uncertainty of her daughter’s health, is not able to work full-time. “[My daughter’s social worker at school] said to me, ‘Listen, I see you struggling. You can go on these benefits — they apply to you and your situation,'” she says. “I’ve been on them for a year and a half now and they are so helpful. Because the last thing I have to stress about now is feeding my daughter and myself.”

These are just three stories of the 46 million across the country, of course. But they offer a small glimpse of the realities of grocery shopping, meal planning, and cooking with a SNAP budget.

(Image credit: Zsolt Biczo)

The First Problem? Grocery Shopping Without a Car

You might think that the main grocery shopping challenge for SNAP recipients is having a very limited budget, but for many people, the difficulties start before stepping foot in the store.

Jacqueline Stevens, a registered dietitian and SNAP-Ed educator with Healthy Northern Kennebec in Maine, has been working with SNAP recipients for the past three years, offering free classes that teach the skills needed to shop, cook, and eat healthy food on a budget. Many of the people she works with don’t have cars, which makes grocery shopping much more difficult. “So they have to walk, but a lot of them can’t walk because they have health problems and they don’t have health insurance to help them out,” she says.

Some recipients live in food deserts, she notes, so the closest grocery store is miles away and walking to it can mean risking their safety, either because they have to use busy roads with no sidewalks, or because they live in unsafe neighborhoods. And once they buy the groceries, they then have to carry them home by themselves, which limits what they can buy. “It’s a big problem,” says Stevens.

Carolyn doesn’t have a car, so she relies on rides from friends. “My roommates and I go to the grocery together because they both have cars, but before that, I would take public transit to a grocery store and only buy as much as I could carry back,” she says. Her neighborhood, which is adjacent to the Baltimore area where unrest broke out at the end of April, has no grocery stores within walking distance.

Elisa also lacks a car, but she works part-time as a caregiver, and her patient takes her to the grocery store in his car. This allows her to do a big shopping trip at the beginning of the month when the SNAP benefits come in. “I do have a great support system,” she says. “I’m very blessed.”

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

You Have to Have a Plan for Everything You Buy

A major challenge when planning meals on a SNAP budget is the lack of flexibility; every item you buy must have a place in the weekly rotation of meals or you risk wasting it.

Leanne Brown — the award-winning author of Good and Cheap, a free downloadable cookbook created with SNAP recipients in mind — hears feedback about the difficulties of meal planning from current and past SNAP recipients who use her recipes, and for one reader who spent a year on SNAP while he was unemployed, the lack of flexibility was especially difficult. “He said, ‘We didn’t buy anything that didn’t have a plan,'” she recalls. “That was not only difficult to plan, but there was this negotiation with the people he was living with, where he would have to put the groceries in the fridge and say, ‘Okay … we can have three meals a day if no one grabs the peanut butter and makes a snack for themselves.'”

Ouida is the primary cook in her household and she makes a meal plan every week for what she wants to cook. Because she shops for produce on a weekly basis from local farm stands — they don’t accept SNAP, but are inexpensive enough to make it worth it — she finds the biggest challenge is having the vegetables she needs on hand and not letting them go to waste. “You can’t just decide you want, say, a salad that has watercress in it today and tomorrow I’m going to have something that has red cabbage,” she says. “[Doing that], you can’t use up the rest of your watercress. If you’re going to buy it, you’ve got to figure out how to use it.”

Elisa agrees. “My secret is being able to use something to its fullest extent,” she says. “So I’ll make, say, a roasted chicken and it’s not just the chicken that I serve that night, but I’ll make a chicken salad the next day for sandwiches. Then whatever is left on the bone, I use to make stock.”

Another Challenge Is Having the Time to Cook

The SNAP recipients I spoke with have one advantage over many who receive these benefits: they know how to cook. And because of their employment situations, they have more time to cook than those who work full-time hours or more for wages so low they still qualify for benefits. This is important to note because SNAP benefits are calculated with the assumption that recipients will be cooking almost everything they eat from scratch.

The amount that each household receives in SNAP benefits is calculated based on the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, which reflects the lowest cost for a nutritious diet. “If you look at the types of food in [the Thrifty Food Plan] and what they say would be typical, it really would take a lot of time for people to do all that preparation,” says Amy Headings, a registered dietitian and Director of Nutrition at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank. “The tough thing is that if you’re on SNAP, you’re usually working a job that isn’t paying great, which usually means you’re working two jobs that aren’t paying great.” Expecting people in that situation to cook all their meals from scratch is slightly unreasonable, she says.

So, What Do Recipients Think About the SNAP Challenge?

The SNAP Challenge asks people who are not receiving SNAP benefits to try living on a food stamp budget for a week, which is roughly $4 per person per day for food. The challenge raises awareness about the difficulties of feeding yourself and your family on a SNAP budget, and over the years has been undertaken by members of Congress, governors, mayors, journalists, chefs, and — of course — celebrities.

Especially in the wake of Gwyneth Paltrow’s unsuccessful attempt, I have heard the SNAP Challenge criticized for not painting the full picture of poverty, and that just having a small budget isn’t reflective of the full experience of living off of SNAP benefits if, for example, you have a car to drive to the supermarket, or only work one job and have enough time to cook everything from scratch. So I was curious to know what actual SNAP recipients think about the challenge — do they appreciate that it raises awareness? Is it too simplistic? Is it patronizing for a well-to-do person to pretend she is poor for a week?

Ouida points out that if she had to take the SNAP Challenge, she would probably fail. The benefits she and her partner receive are not enough to cover all of their groceries every month, even though they cook all their meals at home from scratch. “We can rarely use coupons because we don’t use most processed foods,” she says. “Maybe it is that I am not a good manager of money, but I don’t really think so. No matter how good the managing, you can only stretch funds so far.” But she appreciates that even if participants fail, the challenge raises awareness about how difficult it is to live on a food stamp budget.

Carolyn also acknowledges that it gets people thinking about some of the realities of relying on SNAP benefits, but is bothered by some of the aspects of poverty the challenge ignores. “A lot of people on SNAP are living in food deserts, so they don’t have access to a grocery store to buy the kinds of things people doing the SNAP Challenge would be purchasing,” she says.

Elisa welcomes anything that brings some awareness to the experience of being on SNAP. She hopes it will make people less judgmental of SNAP recipients. “It really does hurt me. Sometimes it makes me feel the shame of being on food stamps.”

• Learn more about hunger in America, find your local foodbank & take action at Feeding America