Lisa's SNAP Challenge Journal

With Week 1 completed, I wanted to share some of my reflections on the experience so far. Below are some of my biggest takeaways from Week 1 and my daily SNAP journal:


  1. There is SO MUCH free food in spaces of privilege. So much. I’ve been feeling a really deep sadness this week around the issue of free food. How there is so much free food for the people who need it the least, and yet our society blames and shames people who actually need free food.
  2. Eating on this type of food budget is hard, but for so many of our clients and DC residents, it seems to be one of the least stressful aspects of poverty. Imagining piling on additional hardships to this level of hunger makes my heart break.
  3. What do you do when your food stamps get cut off? I’m trying to imagine if this $134 budget was suddenly cut to $0 because of an agency error. It’s unimaginable, but it is a frequent reality.

Monday, 11/26 – Groceries Bought:
18 eggs
1 pound rice
1 pound black beans
1 sweet potato
1 cucumber
1 bag baby carrots (on sale)
1 can chickpeas
1 can diced tomatoes
2 tomatoes on the vine
1 red onion
2 apples
2 bananas
1 jar peanut butter
1 jar strawberry jelly
1 box spaghetti
1 big tub of yogurt

TOTAL: $23.50

I’m not spending the full $30/week to account for the coffee, olive oil, and spices that I am not buying, and the half salad I had on my first day that was leftover from before the challenge.

DAY ONE - Tuesday 11/27

Breakfast: yogurt w/1 tbsp peanut butter, 1/2 tbsp jelly
Post-Breakfast Snack: 1 banana
Lunch: ½ Chopt salad
Dinner: 1 PB&J sandwich
Post-Dinner Snack: 1 scrambled egg w/ ½ tomato (diced)

Today felt weird because of how many colleagues and friends were asking me about how I was doing. I really appreciated everyone thinking of me and asking, but at the same time, the attention felt out of place and unwarranted. So many people do this every day and don’t have people checking in on them like I did. It felt almost dishonest to get “publicity” for it.

Another weird moment was that I went to a lecture in the evening at UDC. After the lecture, there was free dinner. I decided not to eat, because I only knew about the event from working at Legal Aid, which inherently puts me over-income for SNAP. Also, technically the food and event weren’t free - because I had to spend $5 round trip getting there on the metro. If I were on SNAP, would I have those $5 for the metro? So I awkwardly stood there and sipped water while everyone else ate.

It felt really wrong to have all that free food sitting there for a ton of lawyers who don’t need free food. It just felt like the epitome of inequality - all this food there for people who totally have enough money to go out to eat or make something at home. It was also a perfect example of why I chose to not accept free food, because wealth begets wealth. You’re more likely to have access to free food if you don’t need it.

DAY TWO - Wednesday 11/28

Breakfast: Yogurt w/ 1 tbsp peanut butter; ½ tbsp jelly
Lunch: 2 pieces of bread; 2 scrambled eggs w/ ½ tomato
Dinner: Rice, ½ sweet potato, ¼ red onion, 1 scrambled egg, ¼ cucumber

Not going to lie, I was hangry by the time I got home from work today. It really started to set in. I got really frustrated by how long it took to make dinner. If I were to have rice and beans normally, I would buy the instant rice that you can microwave, and black beans in a can. But this time, I bought normal rice that has to cook for an hour, and black beans in a bag, because they’re cheaper. I had NO idea how to make beans from a bag and didn’t realize you have to soak them overnight. It made me think about how much we pay for convenience when it comes to food. What would I do if I didn’t have time to cook these cheaper but time-consuming foods? Getting to just “pop something in the microwave” is actually a huge privilege.

DAY THREE - Thursday 11/29

Breakfast: Yogurt w/1 banana
Lunch: Rice; black beans; ½ sweet potato; ¼ red onion
Dinner: ½ PB&J; ½ cucumber; 5 baby carrots; 4 tbsp homemade hummus (chickpeas, yogurt, salt, pepper, garlic powder, paprika)

I thought today about how my eating during this challenge is not happening in a vacuum. How even though I’m eating on this low budget, I have:

1) a 9-5 job that does not involve physical labor;

2) a short commute;

3) no children;

4) the extra money to metro or Lyft around if I want;

5) clothes to keep me warm;

6) a stable, safe, and warm place to live;

7) no worries about how I’ll pay my rent and other bills this month; and

8) the tons of other things I probably just not thinking about.

I’m trying to imagine dealing with any of those things on top of this food budget and I literally can’t - focusing on eating is all I feel like I can handle. And for a lot of people in poverty, if their SNAP benefits are working properly, their food budget is one of the more consistent and reliable things going on. I just can’t even imagine.

DAY FOUR - Friday 11/30

Breakfast: ½ PB&J; ½ apple
Lunch: Rice; black beans; ½ tomato
Dinner: 1 PB&J; 2 tbsp homemade hummus (see above recipe); ¼ cucumber; 10 baby carrots

Today I’ve been thinking about an article I read while researching to do this challenge, called “The Day I Bought Steak with my Food Stamps”, which I would really recommend reading. Here’s a quote:

“You know what? I was still ashamed of myself for being on food stamps, even though at this point I was working... I was obsessively drawn to arguments about food stamps online...I couldn’t stay away from comment boxes about food stamps. And every single one told us that we were shit, because we needed help buying food. So I went out and bought a freaking steak. And pop tarts, and ice cream, and chips, and asparagus, and mangoes, and all the things that we had trained ourselves to stop even looking at. And with the cash I saved from using food stamps, I bought a giant carton of cheap beer. Everything else in our material lives was completely awful. There was no hint of luxury anywhere, no wiggle room, nothing simple or easy. Everything was dirty and sour, and everything was a struggle. Everything we tried to accomplish was impossible because six other impossible things had to be fixed first. The one and only expansive thing was the food budget. So I bought a freaking steak, and it was so juicy and good.”

First of all, I can TOTALLY see how you could go and buy a steak with your SNAP benefits. There are so many people out there judging SNAP recipients for being “freeloaders”, but heck, after eating rice and beans all week, I would KILL for a steak (and I’m usually vegetarian!). I’m also trying to imagine being in that mom’s situation, and having this small food budget still be the most luxurious thing in her day-to-day. I’m trying to imagine having a million other stressful things on top of this. I think I would go and buy myself a good meal too.

DAY 5 - Saturday 12/1

Brunch: 2 eggs, rice, black beans, tomato
Early afternoon snack: 1 PB&J
Late afternoon snack: ½ PB&J
Dinner: rice, black beans, hummus, ¼ cucumber, 8 baby carrots

I am so sick of undercooked rice and beans I could scream. It’s also getting to me that I haven’t felt full since this challenge started. Going to a holiday party last night, and a friend’s house tonight, and not eating at either place, is really making me think about how much of my social life, the activities I choose for it, and the enjoyment I derive from it, is centered around food. What would I do instead if food wasn’t something around which I could be social? What if I wasn’t able to make food for people as a way of showing affection?

DAY 6 - Sunday 12/2

Breakfast: 1 PB&J
Lunch: 1 apple with peanut butter
Dinner: homemade Pad Thai (normal spaghetti noodles, tofu, frozen veggie medley of cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots, ½ red onion, 2 cloves garlic, 3 scrambled eggs) with homemade pad Thai sauce (soy sauce, peanut butter, lime juice, 2 cloves garlic, brown sugar, cayenne)

I went grocery shopping tonight to get some fruits and vegetables for this week, and some ingredients to make Pad Thai tonight. When I got to the store, a lot of the shelves were picked over, and the cheapest brand of tofu was sold out. Only the organic tofu, which is an extra dollar, was left. I literally almost started crying in the middle of the store. My emotions were also exacerbated by the fact that I was so hungry by that point that my stomach was making noises. I asked an employee to check if the cheap tofu was in the back, but it wasn’t. I was already second-guessing my choice to buy tofu, because it felt like such a huge luxury at the $1.99, but could I swing $2.99? It felt like too much. I ended up getting it, and they actually ended up only charging me $1.99, so it worked out. But it made me think - what do you do if the store doesn’t have the things that you need and are in your budget? It must be so stressful.

I’ve also been deducting money from my weekly budget to account for coffee, spices, oil, and for the brown sugar and cayenne for my Pad Thai, that I already have at home. I was thinking - what do people do for these types of “kitchen basics”? Those things last a while but are huge up-front costs. A jar of spices can be like $3, which is more than the most expensive items I’ve bought. And that doesn't even start on olive oil, which is like $6 for a small bottle of store brand. What the heck do you do if you can't front that? I don't usually factor things like that into my grocery budgets but they are so significant.

Sunday, 12/2 – Groceries Bought: 1 block tofu
1 lime
1 bulb garlic
1 apple
2 bananas
2 bags frozen veggies (broccoli, carrot, cauliflower medley)

Total: $7.45

DAY 7 - Monday 12/3

Breakfast: 1 banana
Lunch: leftover homemade Pad Thai
Dinner: leftover homemade Pad Thai

Oh man so I did not bring enough Pad Thai to work for lunch and was so hangry throughout the day. I also went to the gym for the first time on the challenge - not counting the 8 mile or so hike I did over the weekend. It actually wasn’t too bad, but it was definitely tough already being hungry on the bus over to the gym, and not having any way to get a snack before my workout. It made me cut my workout a little short to go home and eat dinner. Even so, now that I’m a week in, it’s starting to feel a little more normal. I’m kind of leaning in to the hunger, if that makes any sense. It feels less foreign than it did a week ago.