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Food Depository CEO Kate Maehr takes on the SNAP Challenge

Here is what my $35 dollar shopping budget could afford. This will be my only food for the entire week.
On Sunday, I went to my local supermarket with just $35 to spend on a week’s worth of meals. Several obstacles, which were quickly apparent, underscored my purpose for participating in the SNAP Challenge – to offer a glimpse into the life of a food insecure person. The rules of the SNAP Challenge are simple yet demanding: eat for seven days on only $35 – the average individual weekly benefit for a SNAP recipient, accept no free food, and eat nothing you already own.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – formerly known as Food Stamps – is an essential component of our nation’s nutrition safety net and is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Every year, SNAP helps thousands of people in Chicago afford food.

Our nation’s Farm Bill, which guides funding for SNAP and other nutrition assistance programs, is currently under debate in Washington. This summer, the Senate has proposed cutting SNAP by $4.5 billion over 10 years. The House Agriculture Committee followed with a proposal to reduce SNAP funding by $16 billion during the same period. While development of a new Farm Bill stalled in September, Congress will continue pushing for these cuts after the November elections.

Any reduction in SNAP funding would be devastating as 1 in 6 U.S. households currently struggles with food insecurity. This is why food banks across the country are advocating for the future of the program while encouraging elected officials, media figures and citizens to take the SNAP Challenge.  I am taking the SNAP Challenge and would like to share some of my observations so far.

First, timing and planning are serious considerations for people who buy food with SNAP benefits. It took twice as much time to buy a small basket of food for myself as it does when I shop for my whole family. When you are on such a small budget, you need to consider each item very carefully. Also, even though larger packages of food tend to offer a better value per ounce, you find yourself limited to smaller packages because you cannot afford the big jar of peanut butter or the big bag of rice when you have only $35 for the week.

Shopping in a store where many customers rely on SNAP, certain sale items sell out very quickly. And convenience foods such as peeled vegetables, prepared meat and ready-to-eat sauces are far more expensive than their raw, individual ingredients. Finding the time to cook a whole chicken or a pot of pasta sauce is difficult for people who work one or more jobs while struggling to make ends meet.

It’s also very difficult to eat healthy when your options are limited. Fresh produce is quite expensive – I could only afford one bag of unpeeled carrots, two apples and an onion. When I was finished with my shopping trip, my basket had far more carbohydrates than fruit and vegetables. If it hadn’t been for specials, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the brown rice and whole wheat organic pasta. Milk is also a very precious commodity with a short shelf life at $3 per gallon.

After I filled a basket with my carefully budgeted shopping list, I headed to the self-checkout lane. Because of the unfortunate stigma around the SNAP program, self-checkout is important to people who shop with benefits. I had gone over my $35 limit, but I was able to discreetly return some tomatoes to the display, bringing my total to $33.30. I saved my final $1.70 for a cup of coffee I knew I would want on a long drive Monday night.

Throughout this week, I will continue to update you on my experiences in getting by on a $35 food budget. I also invite you to join me on Twitter this Thursday from 3:30 – 4:30 p.m. as I will be hosting a live chat on @FoodDepository using the #SNAPChallenge tag.

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