I took the challenge where I could only spend $125 on food last month -- and it was easy

SNAPtember 1Cameron Merriman/Business InsiderHere’s what an actual week’s worth of food looks like. There are 2 pounds of organic frozen chicken under the oats.

I first heard about the SNAP challenge when Gwyneth Paltrow failed it in April 2015.

The challenge invites anyone to attempt to live on a budget from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for a set period of time — generally a week, or a month. Income inequality and food insecurity are two incredibly hot topics in the United States, and they are often mentioned together.

I decided to give the challenge a try for the whole month of September (SNAPtember) to see how hard it actually is.

The guidelines

The guidelines of the challenge are simple:

  1. You’re allowed $US4.40 per day for food and drink ($US132 per month). I chose to stick to the national SNAP benefits average in 2014, which was $US125 per month.
  2. All food purchased and eaten in the time period must be counted in total spending.
  3. You’re not allowed to eat food purchased prior to the challenge.
  4. Avoid accepting free food because these opportunities are not available to everyone.
  5. Eat as healthy as possible.

It was hard to explain some aspects of the challenge to friends and family, particularly guideline 2.

All food means ALL OF IT: alcohol is food, coffee is food, eating out is food, candy is food; and it all must be accounted for during the challenge.

Guidelines 3 and 4 I had issues with myself. Guideline 3 seemed wasteful and unecessary — I can’t imagine anybody would cheat by doing something like pre-purchasing food for the entire month and then say they ate nothing — and I ended up wasting 3 eggs and half a pound of spinach. (A much better way to word the guideline would be “be sure to account for the value of all food eaten regardless of when it was purchased.”)

Guideline 4 also seemed unrealistic for someone living on a restricted budget.

In San Francisco, there’s a staggering amount of opportunities to get free food. In fact, just the other day I passed some company giving out free breakfast bars to anyone on the footpath when I walked to work.

There is even a website devoted to chronicling all of the free things available in San Francisco: sf.funcheap.com — and many of the events will involve free food that anybody can take advantage of. Not to mention co-workers, friends, and family who are willing to help out a little. When you’re on a restricted budget, every little bit helps.

What I bought

Regardless of my disagreements with the guidelines, I followed them, except I allowed myself sugar packets for my morning oatmeal.

Here are all of my receipts for the month:

If you go back and check out all of my receipts you’ll find they only add up to $US114.52.

But the two words “I can’t” became a very common phrase in my vocabulary.

Despite the strict guidelines, I still participated in a few events. I had a friend get a new job, and went out to celebrate with him. I also attended a video gaming event in the city and had a lot of fun — I just brought my lunch instead of buying it there or taking advantage of the free food trucks outside the venue. I turned down a couple of happy hours, and quite a few work lunches. On a SNAP budget, going out to eat is completely out of the question.

Fast food actually isn’t cheap.

Another frequent conversation I had revolved around people’s perception of cheap food.

A lot of the food we’re told to believe is cheap isn’t at all. Almost all fast food is incredibly expensive (and terrible for you), even the dollar menu items. The calorie per dollar value just isn’t there.

For instance, each box of pasta I bought at Safeway was $US1 — they have eight servings, and 200 calories per serving. That gives me 1,600 calories for $US1. On the McDonalds dollar menu, a double cheeseburger only has 440 calories — about 1/4 the calories as my box of pasta AND it cost 19 cents more. It might seem like 19 cents isn’t a big deal, but on a restricted budget every penny makes a difference.

It’s not difficult to figure out that fast food doesn’t give you the same value as food from the grocery store. But once you get to the grocery store, spotting value becomes a little more difficult. I even fell into the trap when I bought canned beans for $US1 each instead of a 2lb bag of dried beans that would have lasted the month. I would have saved myself $US3, but I chose to go the easy route instead to illustrate that there is a bit of flexibility when eating on a budget.

The point is that it’s important to stay mindful of the choices you’re making as you shop for food.

What I cooked

Actual cheap food includes things like pasta, canned vegetables, dry oats, and rice.

For breakfast I ate quick oats with cinnamon and sugar. (Funnily enough, Whole Foods had the cheapest deal on them.) Not including the Reese’s Puffs that I splurged on during the last week, my breakfasts for the month cost me $US3.72 total — and I still have some left over.

I found chicken to be the cheapest protein, but at $US6/lb for organic chicken, it was still fairly expensive. I also mixed in some smoked sausage links and splurged on chicken meatballs in the last week when I had a lot of money left over.

Eggs are another very inexpensive protein, but I don’t like them. I bought a carton of 6 for the last week to make carbonara. I choked down the last two in an omelet for breakfast on my final day.

All of these inexpensive foods can be combined very easily to make some delicious and healthy dishes. Here are a couple of meals I made:

SNAPtember 5Cameron Merriman, Business InsiderVegetable pasta with a can of diced tomatoes, half an onion, garlic, and spinach. This is one plate — I had enough for 5 meals.
SNAPtember 6Cameron Merriman, Business InsiderThe same vegetables as above, but with a chicken breast cut up and added in. Delicious over pasta or rice — I got a lot of compliments about how good it smelled when I cooked it up for lunch.

I also made some spicy chicken in my crock pot and served it over rice.

There’s a huge misconception that cooking a delicious and healthy meal takes a very long time. These dishes took maybe a half hour to prepare and lasted about half my week. I’m not exactly Gordon Ramsay. Anything I cooked took the absolute minimum amount of effort and time. And the compliments on my lunches were endless.

Not once during the month did I find myself even the slightest bit hungry.

It’s not about money — it’s about mindset.

I believe food insecurity is due to a combination of issues, but after living a month on such a strict budget I don’t believe money is one of them.

The average SNAP benefit for California is $US141.99, and for the City of San Francisco it can be as high as $US194. I completed the month on far less, and it was easy — you just need to have the right mindset and resources. Completing the challenge for one month satisfied me that SNAP provides more than enough for a month’s worth of food, and that food insecurity is more of an education issue than a money issue.

I think lack of education about good choices and how to prepare healthy meals is a big part of it. People constantly told me, “oh you must have eaten McDonalds and tons of processed foods.” They were often shocked when I told them that these foods are way too expensive to include when cooking on a budget.

Here are a few resources that helped me through this challenge quite a lot.

  • Leanne Brown has a free cookbook on how to live on a SNAP equivalent budget. The book is loaded with cost saving tips and tricks, as well as quite a few extremely healthy, fast, tasty, and cheap recipes.
  • Budget Bytes is a blog run by a woman named Beth. I made her Slow Cooker Taco Chicken bowls for lunch almost every day. Some days I skipped the cheese though, because cheese is expensive.
  • SNAP benefits used at farmer’s markets count DOUBLE — meaning you can get twice as much food for the same price! The USDA keeps a list of all farmer’s markets. Just type in your zip code and it will show you the nearest ones. They’re often inexpensive, and you can get great produce and directly support farmers at the same time.

Would I do it again?

That’s the real important question I faced at the end of the challenge.

I’m confident I could do it again. During this challenge I only made one trip to the farmer’s market, bought some very expensive ingredients, and made very minimal use of coupons.

But I wouldn’t be interested on living for another month on $US125 without a very good reason.

My reluctance is primarily due to the arbitrary rules of the challenge — not being able to use leftover food, and not being able to accept free food.

I still have salt, olive oil, oatmeal, cinnamon, chilli powder, and rice left — as well as a few bucks. That may not seem like a lot, but it represents an extra $US17 that I could use for another month if it weren’t for those rules. I’ve already proven to myself that it’s possible; even in one of the most expensive cities in the country where groceries are 23% higher than the national average.

Finally, while I don’t need them, I enjoy expensive foods like hamburgers, steaks, and sushi.

SNAPtember 7Cameron Merriman/Business InsiderHere’s the milkshake I enjoyed at the end. Now I’m at $US125 for the month.

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