As 2012 came to a close, I decided to set what I believed to be an achievable goal for my New Year’s Resolution: to complete one personal “challenge” each month in 2013. For February (yes—the shortest month), I took on the “food stamp challenge,” for two reasons:
- To gain a better appreciation for how difficult it is to eat healthfully on a very restrictive budget.
- To determine whether the diet I ate during the month would provide the daily recommended intake of nutrients, vitamins and minerals on what some have deemed to be a less-than-adequate budget.
While I always knew I could complete the challenge in any month, February turned out to be a great month in which to complete it because the month is exactly 4 weeks, which helped keep my numbers neat when comparing my weekly nutritional variances.
How did I go about it?
First, I contacted Claire Lane, Food Security Program Manager for Seattle-based WithinReach, a private nonprofit organization that works with the Washington State Department of Health, Department of Social and Health Services, Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and other public agencies to connect Washington residents with family resources through public-private partnerships.
Claire helpfully explained that although the federal Food Stamp Program was renamed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008, not all states refer to food benefits as SNAP benefits. In Washington State, food stamps are now called “basic food benefits.”
Claire pointed me to the Washington State Basic Food benefits estimator to help determine my budget for the month.
According to this limited tool, a single person in Washington State who makes $800 a month and pays $400 a month in rent is eligible to receive approximately $193 in monthly food benefits. A single person who makes $1,000 pays $400 in rent is eligible to receive approximately $145 in monthly food benefits. A number of factors other than income and housing costs are incorporated into the equation with which families’ SNAP benefits are calculated, but this tool gave me a good starting point.
I gave myself a budget of $145, or about $5.15 per day with an understanding that SNAP benefits are not meant to account for a person’s (or family’s) entire food budget—hence the word “supplemental” being the first word in the acronym. Nevertheless, I was determined to use the budget I had given myself to make all food purchases in February and I knew accomplishing that goal would be hard.
According to a 2012 Food Research and Action Center report:
The [SNAP] program’s most important weakness is that benefits are not adequate to get most families through the whole month, let alone to allow them to buy the foods needed for a quality diet. Benefits are inadequate, in part, because they are based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) impractical Thrifty Food Plan, the lowest cost of USDA’s four food cost plans.
The Thrifty Food Plan is USDA’s estimate of what it costs to purchase a minimally adequate diet. I was on a mission to see if my diet on this budget would be nutritionally sound, and planned to use Diet Analysis Plus, a computer program I’d purchased when enrolled in a nutrition class several years ago, to track my food intake and analyze my nutritional profile.
The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) provides food stamp challenge guidelines that I was able to incorporate into my own. Other than sticking to my budget, the three most important rules I established for myself were:
- During the challenge, only eat food that you purchase for the project. Do not eat food that you already own (this does not include spices and condiments). If you eat food you already own, you must account for that food in your budget as if you had purchased it during the month of the challenge.
- If you attend a potluck or other event and contribute a food-item, you are free to partake of the food others prepare and contribute, as well as your own.
- Measure the foods you eat and keep an account of your nutritional profile. Note any nutrient, vitamin or mineral deficiencies and make adjustments to your diet to achieve a well-balanced nutritional profile.
In mid-February, my sister and I co-hosted a baby shower for our sister-in-law. The shower date had been scheduled for months and I hemmed and hawed over whether to eat at the shower or not.
After suffering some angst, I decided to partake in the food at the shower. After all, I was told repeatedly, a person who receives SNAP benefits probably doesn’t hold back from eating food provided at a baby shower. Besides, I was ultimately footing the bill, so it seemed absurd not to eat anything.
Next up: Shopping
Two days before I started the challenge, I spent about an hour going through my cupboards. I made a spreadsheet with one column titled, “have at the house and plan to use” and another titled, “need.” Foods I had at the house and planned to use included eggs, sugar, butter, flour and yeast (I originally planned to do A LOT of baking during this challenge). Foods I thought I needed included peanut butter, oats, buttermilk, black beans, bread, cheese, apples and bananas.
Then, it was off to bargain-shop.
Until I started my food stamp challenge, I’d never set foot in a Grocery Outlet, even though one is located just about a mile from my house. I’d heard about the good deals you could get, but don’t think I was quite prepared for just how intimidating a store full of sale items was going to be. After about 2 hours of combing the aisles, entering food-prices into my spreadsheet (for both foods I was purchasing that day and foods I thought I might purchase in the future) as I went, I left with most of the ingredients I’d need to make stuffed peppers, enchiladas and oatmeal pancakes, which would be the mainstays of my diet for the first 2 weeks of February.
I spent about another hour going to other stores, picking up a few groceries and writing down the prices of the foods I had at home and was planning to use. The month hadn’t even started and I was down to $87.44 left in my budget.
I was a little nervous.
February started off on a Friday, which was significant for me because I typically spend more money on food on the weekends. I had no problems getting through the weekend without cheating or giving up, so by the time Monday rolled around I was feeling pretty good about the foods I’d purchased and prepared as well as where I stood with respect to my budget.
I was, however, noticing the symptoms of what I deemed to be a nutritional deficiency. I had developed dark circles under my eyes.
After checking the Mayo Clinic and a few other websites and determining that a specific nutrient deficiency probably wasn’t causing the dark circles, I satisfied myself that my problem was a lack of vegetables in my diet.
I had survived the weekend mostly by eating fruit, black beans, eggs and oatmeal pancakes and had been avoiding eating vegetables since the only ones I believed I could afford were frozen.
I’m not the only person who has encountered this problem. According to another report by the FRAC, in 2011 at least one in ten people (10 percent or more) from 95 Congressional Districts reported that it was not easy to get affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. The rates were worse for households with children: 133 Congressional Districts had rates of at least 10 percent, and 22 had rates of at least 15 percent of respondents who said it was not easy to get affordable fresh fruits and vegetables.
Since I didn’t believe I could afford fresh vegetables, it was time to add in some of those frozen vegetables I’d been avoiding cooking.
Beyond the dark circles under my eyes, 4 days into the challenge I realized that although I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t consuming enough calories to maintain my weight. That was fine with me since I wanted to lose a few pounds, but I knew my diet wasn’t sustainable, so I started making adjustments to add both more calories and frozen vegetables into my diet.
The dark circles started to disappear within a couple of days. Whether the change in my physiological symptoms was due to the addition of vegetables to my diet or the addition of calories overall, I may never know.
- Omega-6 fatty acid (15% DRI)
- Omega-3 fatty acid (41% DRI)
- Vitamin E (26% DRI)
Also notable was that the oatmeal pancake recipe I used calls for 1/8 teaspoon of salt for what I made into 3 servings of 2 pancakes each. Pancakes were the highest contributor to my sodium intake, which was at 145% the daily recommended value in week 1.
Incorporating foods to round out my nutritional profile
During the second week of February, I incorporated more frozen vegetables into my diet but that addition surprisingly (to me) didn’t make much of a difference in my profile. My diet was still notably deficient in essential fatty acids and Vitamin E, and still high in sodium. Since I hadn’t gone shopping for more food, it was difficult for me to correct those deficiencies.
In week 3, I reduced my sodium intake to just barely above the daily recommended intake (104%), which I felt really good about. My Omega-6, Omega-3 and Vitamin E intake remained woefully inadequate since the food I bought on my second “major” shopping trip at the end of week 2 wasn’t chosen well for purposes of reducing or eliminating those deficiencies.
I had purchased fresh blueberries, organic eggs, a steak and pork chops. I bought those foods before doing any research into how to boost my Omega-6 and Omega-3 intake, and now know I should have gone about this shopping trip differently.
I’m not much of a meat-eater in general, and with 1/3 of my chicken still unused in my freezer, this was quite an excessive shopping trip for me in terms of how much meat I came home with. Looking back (and knowing that the pork chops are still safely stowed in my freezer at beginning of April), I should have bought some fresh vegetables with the money I spent on the steak and pork chops or combined the money I spent on the steak, pork chops, and blueberries to buy some grass-finished beef and get more essential fatty acids into my diet.
I still had enough money left in my budget and food in my fridge or cupboards that by the end of week 3 I had $33.79 left to spend and knew I would not go hungry, but again did not shop with boosting my Omega-6, Omega-3 or Vitamin E intake in mind.
By the time week 4 rolled around, I was feeling pretty good about where I stood with respect to my budget. I had only $9.57 left for the week, but had a fridge full of food and was committed to saving enough money to pay for a meal out. Since my diet wasn’t changing drastically, I had little hope that I’d be able to round it out in that last week—and didn’t. That’s something I’m making a conscious effort to do now.
Where does food safety come into play?
We know that a large number of fooborne illnesses can be attributed to foods prepared in homes. Sometimes those foods are fresh fruits and vegetables that are rinsed in running water and eaten raw. It’s hard to prevent foodborne illness from foods that come into your house and don’t undergo a “kill step” before you eat them.
During this challenge, my intake of fresh fruits and vegetables was limited. I thoroughly cooked all the frozen vegetables I bought. I cooked the meat products I ate myself, and measured the internal temperature of those foods with a digital thermometer to ensure harmful bacteria were killed before I ate the meat. I also avoided cross-contamination in my kitchen and thoroughly cleaned all surfaces, cutting boards and even my sink after handling raw meat products.
I am an obsessive hand-washer in the kitchen.
I certainly didn’t expect to fall ill with a foodborne illness in February, but of all months for that to happen in, it would have been the most ironic since it’s the month in which I exercised the most control over the safety of my food—partially because I couldn’t afford many foods that didn’t require a kill-step to eat. The food I ate at potlucks was the only food I didn’t have some hand in preparing, and because it was often fresh, could have been the most risky food I ate all month.
Beyond microbial food safety: Sodium
When in doubt about the amounts or identities of ingredients used in a food I ate at a potluck, I defaulted to entering in that I had eaten a few slices of Papa Murphy’s pizza. I did this on multiple occasions because I know Papa Murphy’s accepts SNAP benefits cards and because I had planned to buy a pizza at some point if I needed to increase my fat intake.
In week 4 of my challenge, I consumed more than my fair share of pizza. I bought a pepperoni pizza for $5 to share with a friend and ate leftovers of that pizza on a couple of occasions in addition to pizza provided for lunch at work one day.
My sodium intake spiked to almost 2 times more salt than the daily recommended intake (195%) in week 4.
Unsurprisingly, the main source of sodium in my diet during week 4 was pizza. The other main source of sodium in my diet was Chicken Tagine, an amazing Moroccan dish a friend introduced me to. Next time I make it, I’ll reduce the amount of salt I add and will use reduced-sodium stock.
What did I learn?
- It was possible for me to eat a (mostly) balanced diet and to consume enough calories to maintain my weight by eating only foods SNAP benefits provide. When it was all said and done, I had food leftover and my nutritional profile showed that my diet overall was fairly balanced. However, if I was a 6 foot man instead of a 5 foot, 5 inch woman, or if I was a growing teenage boy, I don’t know that $145 would have been enough to meet all my nutritional needs, let alone my calorie needs, for a month.
- It’s hard to make the right choices on a very limited budget, and the amount of time a person has to spend to shop around for bargains is a deterrent to getting the best deals on healthy foods. I own a car, but if I had had to take the bus or borrow someone else’s vehicle to do my shopping, I would have spent significantly less time shopping and probably would have spent more money on certain foods to save myself from having to go from store to store to store. My budget could easily have dwindled if I couldn’t afford either the time or the gas-money to shop at multiple places.
- Pizza is an attractive option. I can see how a $5 pizza that would feed a person several meals would become a viable food choice for anyone. It certainly was for me since it provided both cost and time savings, but now knowing how high the sodium content of pizza is, I’m less likely to buy one or over-indulge like I have in the past.
- Without the use of a program to track your nutrient intake or symptoms of a deficiency, you may not know when your diet is lacking or what you’re consuming in excess. Claire Lane at Within Reach told me her agency doesn’t offer SNAP-Ed nutrition-focused services, but that her agency refers individuals to organizations that do provide nutrition education services. These services are extremely important when you consider most people have never taken a nutrition class and likely don’t understand which foods provide the best sources of nutrients.
- I either need to find a good food-source of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids or I need to start taking supplements to boost my intake of them. The multi-vitamin I take daily will boost the intake of any other nutrients I’m not getting 100% of—like Vitamin E—from food.
- Because I completed this challenge over a one-month period, I got tired of eating the food I’d prepared pretty quickly. If I had spent more money at the beginning of the month to make several different meals and frozen them to eat throughout the month, I think I would have been more satisfied with the variety of foods available to me.
- A challenge lasting only one month was not a long enough challenge for me to feel I had come anywhere close to “mastering” how to eat on a budget of $145 for a month. I think that I could have improved my diet overall if I had stretched the challenge out over several months. When March started, I had enough food (meat, flour, sugar, olive oil, etc.) left over that I could have afforded to buy some fresh vegetables and probably a few other foods I’d refrained from purchasing in February.
- Finally, eating a balanced diet is not rocket science, but it does take a significant effort—no matter what your budget.