The Snap Experience

Trying to eat on $4.06 per day

Is the SNAP Experience the same as the SNAP Program?

The other day, I received an e-mail from someone who brought up a valid point about the SNAP Experience.

(For those who aren’t following my  intriguing and insightful tweets where I detail when I’ve eaten a banana or a bowl of pasta, the SNAP Experience is a 5 day challenge to eat as healthy as possibly on $20.30, the average amount one person receives on the Food Stamp Program.)

The  ‘S’ in SNAP stands for Supplemental, which means it should supplement a person’s income, not be the sole source. So, that begs the question, is the SNAP Experience–which only allows you to eat on $20.30 a day– a fair interpretation of what people on SNAP actually experience? Should that money be viewed as a supplement to your budget, rather than your only way to buy food?

To qualify for SNAP, a lot of factors are taken into consideration, such as a person’s income, how many people live in a household, if a member of the household is a senior citizen, or a child. Every situation is different, so it’s difficult to quantify how many people are supplementing their food budgets with SNAP money, and how much of a boost it actually is to a person’s normal food budget.

The Nevada Department of Welfare says it doesn’t keep statistics on how many SNAP participants depend on the food stamps as the only portion of their food budget. Although a study from the Food Research and Action Center found 25-33% of American households could not contribute extra money to their food budget, the stat is from five years ago. Jocelyn Lantrip from the Food Bank says it’s hard to say how that percentage has changed.

An employee at the Nevada Department of Welfare sent me a list of the 14,625 households in Nevada that would lose benefits if Congress approves proposed cuts to the Food Stamp Program. These households are essentially the most well off participants in the program. Remember, the numbers are so varied because it takes into consideration a person’s income or unemployment, rent, utilities, day care, etc., but here are a few examples of what some SNAP participants are getting on a monthly basis:

One household of five with a monthly income of $3,078.48 receives $18 per month in SNAP benefits. Meanwhile, another household of three has a monthly income of $2,752, but receives $284 per month. A household of one with an income of $1,215.99 receives $57 per month, while another household of one with an income of $1.827.9 receives $16 per month.

I spoke with one man today who went on the SNAP program for nine months when he lost his job. He and his wife took care of their four nieces, who ranged in age from two to eight years old. They received around $400 per month. Although he said he had very little cash to supplement and his family basically lived entirely on the SNAP benefits, it is impossible to gauge from the Department of Welfare’s information just how much of this money is a supplement or how much is their entire budget.

So what does this mean for the SNAP Experience as a whole? It shows every situation is so completely different that it would be impossible to organize a challenge like the SNAP Experience without giving a base number to use as a guideline. Jocelyn Lantrip with the Food Bank says the ultimate goal is to generate discussion and open people’s eyes to the concept of eating on a very limited budget.

Personally, the challenge has made me rethink a lot of the purchases I’ve made before I started. A $5 coffee seems much more outrageous than it has in the past, and a lunch out at a restaurant–even a fast food joint–is a quarter to half of a $20.30 budget. So if the goal is to make people reflect upon their choices, for me, the program seems to be working.


Day Three: Eating More Than Before

This morning, I woke up and my stomach was growling. I scrambled three eggs before heading to work, brought the left over rice and beans and a can of tuna to work, prepping for a long day.

15 hours later, I have to say I’ve eaten a lot today, and I’m extremely bored with my food options. Rice and beans, again?

I ended up eating left over rice and beans, two bowls of salad, another cup of plain pasta, and lots of cheese. For some reason I can’t even bring myself to open the tomato sauce–it just doesn’t look appetizing at all.

I think one of the things to note about this experience is that while I was able to buy enough food to feed me for 5 days, the quality is not great. I wonder what it’s like to eat the same, low quality food for more than five days?

Day Two: A Day at the Aces

I ended up staying at work later than expected today (5 p.m.), so I was without food from about noon to five. I ate the pasta a little too early(about 11:30 a.m.) and around 4 p.m. my blood sugar dropped, I became extremely tired and had a hard time concentrating.

When I went home, I made a cup of brown rice, finished the can of beans and filled two tortillas with rice, beans, cheese and lettuce. I then headed to the Reno Aces game, to briefly cover the team’s first ever game in the Pacific Coast League Championship series, and also enjoy the game.  I watched my friends consume hotdogs and french fries. I admit, I had some soda–I was so thirsty and couldn’t bring a water bottle into the stadium– but I passed on food(and beer).

I will definitely need to pack more food for tomorrow.


Day Two: Reporters Need Their Coffee

Yesterday I drank two cups of coffee to keep within my spending limit of $20.30. I crashed at 4 p.m., felt nauseous and dizzy and had to lie down.  I need my coffee.

According to the guidelines from the Food Bank, I am not allowed to accept free food, which includes coffee at work. However, I wake up at 4 a.m., and work an average of 10-15 hour days. Although I want to follow this as closely as possible, I need to do my job. Therefore, I am letting myself drink coffee made by my co-worker, as well as the coffee I purchased with my SNAP budget.

Other than an unhealthy amount of coffee, the only other food I brought to work with me today is a banana(about to be eaten), and a cup of cooked, plain whole wheat pasta. I think I may have to wake up a little earlier to prepare food for the day so I don’t get hungry, since most of the food requires preparation.

Day One: Shopping on SNAP

My food for 5 days, as part of the SNAP Experience


Last week, I received a press release from the Food Bank of Northern Nevada to participate in the SNAP Experience, a five day challenge to eat as healthy as possible on $4.06 a day, or $20.30 per week, the average amount a person receives on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the United States. I decided to challenge myself–a food lover, constant snacker, and Starbucks addict.

The project is part of a week-long focus on the SNAP program in Nevada, where I work as a reporter for Reno Public Radio.

According to the Nevada Department of Welfare and Supportive Services, 355,349 Nevadans participate in the SNAP program. That’s 1 in 7 Nevadans. Since 2007, the department has seen a 165% increase in the number of people who need food assistance across the state.

To qualify, a household of one(like me) must make less than $1,862 per month, before taxes and other deductions. Based on how many people live in a household and the total income of the people living together, people on the program can receive $16-$526 per month.

The general guidelines are to eat healthy on $20.30 for five days. I cannot accept free food, I cannot go to fast food restaurants because they do not take SNAP benefits, and I could not buy alcohol, cigarettes, household products, paper goods or pet food.

The first task was to go food shopping. I chose to go to WinCo for cheaper prices. I spent more than an hour in the store, trying to plan meals for the week while staying under budget. At first, I thought I would splurge on peanut butter. I thought I could buy some bananas and celery and use it as a snack. But I quickly learned $20.30 does not really provide enough money for snacks. I had to focus on making sure I had enough money to cook three meals a day.

I walked around the store with a calculator, deducting money as a I placed food into the shopping cart. I constantly found myself going back to double check prices, put food back and weigh my options. I found the easiest way was to pick foods that I could easily combine to create a variety of meals. At first, I had put some tofu($1.48) in my cart, thinking it would be a good source of protein. However, I soon realized it would not go with anything else I had in my cart, and put it back. Everything I purchased was the cheapest brand possible.

When I got to the cash register, I quickly realized I went over my limit. The total was more than $24. I had to ask the cashier to take the peanut butter($3.48) and celery ($1.88) out of my cart.

In the end, I purchased a dozen eggs and two bananas for breakfast food, a box of rice, pasta, tomato sauce, two cans of black beans, a bag of ice burg lettuce and salad dressing, a block of cheese, tortillas, and a can of tuna, along with coffee and half and half. The coffee was the only thing I spent an extra $1, because nothing is worse than a bad cup of coffee.

One thing to note, those who use SNAP benefits on an EBT(Electronic Benefit Transfer) card do not have to pay sales tax on food and beverages, which I did pay because I don’t have an EBT card.

When I got home from work, I was starving. I quickly made myself two soft tacos with a half can of black beans, some cheese and some lettuce.