Why You Suck At the SNAP Challenge

Every September is “hunger action month” and, during that time, no small number of writers will take part in the SNAP challenge. This usually entails someone who is not actually poor who spends a week eating on the food budget of a person receiving those benefits. Most of them suck at it and they have no idea that they do. They just recount their hardship, pat themselves on the back for their empathy, and express the impossibility for them of continuing on such a lifestyle. The latter is the most condescending portion of the challenge as it looks only at the self-centered aspect of it and doesn’t dig any deeper into how people who have no choice but to survive on those benefits manage to do so.

The amount of benefits you get on SNAP varies per state based on cost of living and politics. In California, where I am presently living, people get $141.99 per person per month. The first way to get the challenge closer to reality is to consider that the money isn’t given daily or weekly, but monthly. You have to approach it from the viewpoint of stringing out the funds for a very long time and make careful choices as a result of how the money is dispersed. Once you use it up. It is gone and you’re left high and dry for the rest of the month. There is no toughing it out and then going back to “normal.” That is your “normal.”

One of the biggest mistakes many SNAP challengers make is trying to the extent that they can to live the same lifestyle they live with a higher income. You don’t get to eat ethically (cage-free) or with higher order concerns for health (organic) if you want to eat enough to survive. You also don’t shop at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or the local farmer’s market. You shop at discount places like Aldi’s, Grocery Outlet, or Winco, and you focus on the sales those shops have. Their “everyday prices” aren’t good enough. Nearly expired and dramatically marked down items are your most welcome friends.

The outcome of how you must shop when you are poor is that you eat less healthy food because that is what you can afford. You’re not really understanding the lifestyle of poor people if you’re trying to shoehorn in your nut milks, limes, and kale for a week while going hungry each day knowing you’ll be able to eat more when the challenge is done. SNAP recipients have to make concessions and live with the effects on their bodies over the long run.

Most SNAP challenge takers also set a budget based on one week’s amount of benefits. They spend the paltry amount of money on things which are too expensive for actual poor people and then they run out of food or eat terrible tasting, poorly prepared meals. This is not how it works for real poor people because they don’t spend their money one week at a time. They spend it largely in one lump when they get the monthly benefits and stock up on food. That means they are creating a pantry, not a week’s worth of food for $27-$33 a week. Those who do the challenge don’t want to do it for long, so they fail to recognize this distinction and it’s a very important one as you have a strategy as a poor person when it comes to shopping for food.

Buying for a month means you look for long-term supplies rather that what will last for a week. Buying a huge pack of four dozen eggs will save your more money compared to one dozen at a time. Also, buying a two-pound block of cheese that will cover weeks for $6.99 (Grocery Outlet’s normal price point) is a lot more of an option if you’re working with a month’s income rather than a week’s. Your fridge is a mess and hard to navigate for awhile, but at least that’s better than it being empty.

My mother used to buy cases of soup, huge family packs of cheap cuts of meat that could feed an army, and bulk staple food like flour and sugar. The dainty little supplies that I see people getting for the SNAP challenge would have been completely outrageously priced per portion for us. As a result, food storage and care was a burden we had to take on. I hated the “processing” (repacking, wrapping meat, etc.) and stocking after each monthly shopping trip, but it did help us survive. If you’re just listening to your rumbling tummy for a week, you’re not taking on a huge part of the effort and mental energy that goes into living on a indefinite limited food budget. There is a lot more stress than being hungry that you have to manage.

The monthly dispersal of benefits meant that my family always had a feast, then famine experience throughout the month. In the first week, we’d eat very well from the well-stocked pantry with more meat, fresh vegetables or fruit, and sometimes cut-priced bakery items that were from the “day old bread store” or on sale at the market. By the end of the month, we were scraping together the dregs as we counted down the days to the next check. The famine would end with new benefits and we’d start all over again. Coming off of the lean final week probably informed the relative “indulgence” of the first week when the huge sacks of groceries came into the house from the next month’s shopping. There is a sad rhythm to your life when you are poor that those taking the challenge for such a short time have no idea about. You are literally counting the days until you can afford to buy milk and bread again while you make spaghetti from ketchup and whatever dregs are left in the pantry.

Another mistake is treating the SNAP challenge as if you could only eat what you buy in that one week’s allotment of benefits and can’t have seasoning on your food. Real poor people aren’t eating without spices or oil because there wasn’t enough room in a single one-week budget to afford those “luxuries.” A far better approach to any SNAP challenge is to consider a setting aside a small amount of cash to cover pantry-maintaining supplies. In a weekly challenge, you may want to deduct $3 from the allotment and allow yourself to use salt, pepper, oil and spices that you have on hand. That would allow you to consider that an actual person on SNAP budgets about $10-$12 a month for pantry staple replacements that they are constantly drawing upon (like salt, pepper, vegetable oil, etc.). When SNAP challengers do their bizarre and distorted versions of the challenge, they look like Paris Hilton in her reality show slumming it badly at someone’s farm or shop. They are cluelessly flailing around doing something which is an odd mockery of what really needs to be done to cope with an ongoing impoverished lifestyle.

What most of the SNAP challenge writing that I see shows is that the people taking it have never actually been poor and lack the survival skills for living in poverty. Part of me finds it inconceivable that they live in such a bubble that they don’t know about a poor person’s real lifestyle, but part of me also knows that people rarely stray outside of their socioeconomic bubble and lack the curiosity to find out the truth. They’d rather take part in mock challenges that keep them safely away from actual poverty. This distance means you are safe from the suffering, but it also means that a social chasm in which poor people look at people of means and know they will never understand them even when they are trying (seemingly quite hard) to do so.

The bottom line is that living on SNAP amounts of money for a week is not a challenge. It’s a middle class dalliance with deprivation and endurance of hardship. If you want to really challenge yourself, do it for a month. Better yet, do it for three months and learn about the longing, the limits, the emotional rhythms, and the health consequences that actual poor people cannot escape. And, even better than that, go out and associate with actual poor people, or, you know, even help some of them.