Coming to college is a part of growing up for Penn students. We have busier schedules and more independence but most of us still take certain things for granted. No time for breakfast? Stop at Starbucks on your way to class. Studying late in Van Pelt? Grab sushi from Mark’s Café. Didn’t have time to do your usual Fresh Grocer run? Hit up food trucks until you have a chance to go.
Whether through a dining plan with its $10-$15 meal swipes or a combination of overpriced groceries and regular BYOs, Penn students, myself included, spend a lot of money on food. And for the most part, we don’t give it a second thought. But for many people, careful planning goes into each week of food. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) works on a state-by-state basis to provide low-income families with a set amount of money to spend specifically on food. SNAP benefits in Pennsylvania are around $4 per person daily, and about $5 in my home state of Illinois.
That’s not a lot of money. I could easily spend $4-5 on a Frappucino. But when I got an email from the food pantry I volunteer at back home, I noticed that Sept. 13-19 was the week of its annual SNAP Challenge. The challenge is to spend no more than $5/day, or $35 for the week, on food. Other rules include to only eat food purchased for that week and to avoid accepting free food.
I knew from the beginning that this would be hard because I’m vegetarian, so eating balanced meals is already challenging; also, my schedule often means I’m not home most of the day so I would have to plan meals in advance.
The week had a difficult start already because I didn’t have time to go grocery shopping before Sunday, so I started the challenge on Monday 9/14 and ended it on Sunday 9/20. I ran to Fresh Grocer in between classes on Monday – technically my breakfast of previously bought burnt toast broke the rules – and the unexpected length of that grocery trip meant I didn’t actually eat lunch. I’ve never had to calculate the cost of everything I’m buying so precisely; I carefully scrutinized brands for the best value and often opted for the generic item over the familiar name brand.
To add to that I woke up feeling sick, which lasted the whole week. This affected my plans because I often didn’t have the energy to cook a real meal – on Monday I “cheated” again with a free pretzel and snack food I had, being too tired to make dinner.
The week only got harder. On Tuesday I managed to bring a very small lunch with me but was very hungry and sick after class so I also bought soup and chips from the Nursing school café. On Wednesday I went straight from working at my lab to classes and then had a meeting during dinnertime, so I couldn’t resist free food opportunities without spending more money or going hungry. I bought dinner on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from Desi Chaat House, Hip City Veg, and Pattaya respectively.
This all sounds like it would add up to a lot of money, and it did. In terms of groceries, I spent $23.50 on groceries and then tallied $5.29 in recently bought food I didn’t want to go bad. I didn’t use a lot of the food from Fresh Grocer but what I did eat included peanut butter and banana toast breakfasts, pita and hummus lunches, milk, orange juice, Greek yogurt, and several meals of black beans and rice. I realized belatedly that I should have gotten frozen veggies because my fruit and veggies consumption was very low, but I barely used what I did buy. I also didn’t buy snacks or desserts, not realizing how often I ate them. I estimated an actual cost of what I ate as $9.25.
However, I spent $30.10 on additional food, and that doesn’t even include the free stuff. At a total of just under $40, I definitely didn’t fulfill the SNAP challenge. In fact, I think I spent more money at cafes and restaurants than usual because I had such few options at home, most of which involved a decent amount of preparation and energy.
The restricted budget also became monotonous very quickly. I used a single loaf of whole wheat bread for breakfast every day, a grilled cheese sandwich, and more. I had three meals of black beans and rice with cheese. I can only imagine what it would be like to eat like this every week, trying to balance variety with cost and time. And I knew everyone gets sick and has busy days so while I considered redoing the challenge during a better week, I ultimately didn’t because picking and choosing when to watch one’s budget is simply not possible for people on SNAP.
For me, the SNAP challenge ended up being a tradeoff between strictly following its guidelines and actually eating proper meals. With a full time job (or two) and kids, for instance, and without the flexibility of “cheating,” this week would have been many times more difficult.
It’s incredibly important to understand the hardships people go through for such a basic necessity. Being so focused on my next meal or my growling stomach made it hard to think about anything else. I’m so grateful that I’m able to afford nutritious, filling meals but I’m also glad I got a hint of what I would experience if my situation were different. I already put a fair amount of thought into my meals but this week has increased my awareness even more.
If you’re curious about the SNAP challenge, definitely check out SWIPE Out Hunger’s $4 challenge, which you can do for just one day or up to a week. Details can be found on our website and we would love to hear about your experiences and realizations.