I Spent $4.50 On Food Per Day For A Week To See For Myself How Hard It Is To Live On Food Stamps

by Morgan Greenwald
Morgan is a writer on the branded content team who loves breakfast food almost as much as she loves dogs.

In America, millions of households don’t make enough money to afford basic necessities like food. To alleviate some of that financial burden, the government has set up a benefits program known as SNAP — but on that program, recipients only receive an average of $4.50 a day for food. It’s still an incredibly difficult budget to keep.

Enter the Food Stamp Challenge (or SNAP Challenge), in which people are called to experience life as Americans on food stamps do.

In 2015, actress Gwyneth Paltrow took the food stamp challenge and publicized the difficulty of living on such a small budget. For her experiment, Gwyneth attempted to survive on just $29 worth of food for the week, and failed after just a few days.

“My perspective has been forever altered by how difficult it was to eat wholesome, nutritious food on that budget, even for just a few days — a challenge that 47 million Americans face every day, week, and year,” Gwyneth wrote on her website, Goop.

After reading Gwyneth’s article, I was inspired to put myself in someone else’s shoes for a few days and take the Food Stamp Challenge myself.

Of course, the SNAP program is supplemental and is not a person’s entire food budget. Still, the challenge is intended to demonstrate the daily struggles that millions of Americans face on a tight budget.

Thus, I set off on my five-day challenge with just $4.50 to spend each day.

What is SNAP?

<u>What is SNAP?</u>

As of July 2017, over 42 million Americans participated in the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This program provides low-income households with monthly supplements that can be used like cash to purchase food.

The amount of money a household receives is determined by several factors, including income, number of dependents, and assets.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the average SNAP household receives supplements of $253 a month.

My Budget

<u>My Budget</u>
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Some people choose to take the challenge with a weekly budget of about $31.50, but I decided to use a daily budget and plan my meals accordingly.

That being said, my groceries cost a little more than $31.50 because I didn’t shop only for this week.

However, about 90% of the food I ate came from a single shopping trip, and only accounted for about half of what I bought.

Day 1

<u>Day 1</u>
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I started the first day of the challenge with a bowl of cereal and some almond milk, which surprisingly was well under budget at just 50 cents.

A bowl of cereal is one of my go-to weekday breakfasts, so this meal was nothing out of the ordinary for me. It gave me a bit of confidence that maybe this challenge would be doable after all.

By the time noon rolled around, though, I was ravenous and more than ready for my packed lunch. Usually, I grab a free snack from the office kitchen around 10:30 a.m. However, the Food Stamp Challenge prohibits eating free food, so I couldn’t snack like I normally do.

For my first lunch, I packed a small wrap with hummus, half a cucumber, a few grape tomatoes, and a sprinkle of feta cheese, totaling $1.45. Since I didn’t spend a lot on breakfast, I had some money left over to spend on a bag of Pirate’s Booty as well, which brought my lunch total up to $1.95.

My biggest mistake from grocery shopping was going for the low-carb wraps over the filling, full-calorie ones. The low-carb wraps are tiny, and just one was not enough to satisfy me. However, one wrap was all I had the money for, and so I made do with what I could afford.

My tiny wrap was bad enough, but my minuscule lunch was made even worse by the sight and smell of my co-workers eating Taco Bell next to me. It didn’t help that they all laughed at my meager meal, either!

Morgan Greenwald for LittleThings

I wasn’t able to eat dinner until 7:30 p.m., and by then I was practically running to the freezer for the frozen mushroom risotto I had planned to eat.

Since an egg is only 17 cents, I was able to add a bit of satiating protein to my dinner for a total cost of $1.67, putting my first day’s total slightly under budget at $4.12.

All in all, my first day on the food stamp challenge wasn’t unbearable, but I knew I was in for a long week after realizing how expensive fruit and vegetables are.

This is the point when I started to think that some of my grocery store purchases weren’t the smartest.

Day 1 Total: $4.12

Day 2

<u>Day 2</u>
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Today for breakfast, I decided to eat one of the two 99 cent yogurts I bought, though that didn’t leave me any money left in my budget for my usual granola.

Naturally, a tiny yogurt wasn’t especially filling, so I was thinking about food throughout the entire day. I had just enough money left in my budget for a small snack, and so at around 10:30 a.m. I caved and went for a bag of 50 cent brownie brittle.

This probably isn’t the most filling thing I could’ve eaten, but I was on a tight budget and I can’t resist chocolate.

Morgan Greenwald for LittleThings

My day two lunch was the same, and equally disappointing. After such a small breakfast, I needed something more filling than a wrap that felt like it was just big enough to satisfy a toddler. Unfortunately, it was all I could afford on my $1.50 budget.

Again, this is partially my fault for buying the more expensive low-carb wraps and wasting so much money on fresh vegetables, but at this point there was no turning back.

After seeing for myself how much fresh produce costs, I truly understand why people on tight budgets rely on cheap carbs like rice and pasta.

Morgan Greenwald for LittleThings

By 2:45 p.m., I could already hear my stomach growling again, so I drank as much water as my body could physically handle.

At 5 p.m., I finally gave in and ate my final meal of the day: the measly remains of my mushroom risotto. This did the job, but it was hardly enough fuel for my nightly workout, and it took everything in me not to raid my kitchen pantry after the gym.

It especially didn’t help that my gym is situated right next to a pizza parlor, a frozen yogurt shop, and a deli. I don’t even like pizza that much, and still it took everything in me not to order a slice.

Day 2 Total: $4.44

Day 3

<u>Day 3</u>
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At this point, cereal had become my saving grace. For just 50 cents, I could feel full and satisfied, and have money left over for snacks, which were hard to otherwise budget into my day.

I don’t mind eating the same things over and over again — in fact, I eat the same cereal even when I’m not on the Food Stamp Challenge — so I actually looked forward to breakfast during this experiment.

Morgan Greenwald for LittleThings

After two days of unsatisfying wraps, I decided to switch things up and make a salad with what I had in my fridge.

Though there wasn’t any money in my budget for dressing, I did have some hummus that only came out to 14 cents per serving, so I decided to use that as an impromptu dressing instead. Paired with feta (22 cents), tomato (38 cents), anchovies (7 cents) and spinach (48 cents), I had myself a salad, and there was even money left in my budget for a piece of toast (23 cents)!

Compared to the wrap I had on days one and two, this salad was a gourmet meal.

After three days, I finally had found a lunch that filled me up!

Morgan Greenwald for LittleThings

My walk to work every day involves a trek through New York City’s massive Penn Station. If you’ve ever walked there, you know that it’s filled with tempting food options in every corner.

Unfortunately, food chains don’t accept food stamps, so buying food from a restaurant or even fast food chain was out of the question. I just had to say no to my temptations and stick to making my meals at home.

Wednesday’s walk home smelled especially like Krispy Kreme donuts. I managed to overcome my cravings and make it home for a dinner of butternut squash soup ($1.50) while my friend ate her chicken tikka masala next to me. Sigh.

Day 3 Total: $4.50

Day 4

<u>Day 4</u>
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It probably goes without saying at this point that my breakfast consisted of cereal and milk.

As the challenge got close to wrapping up, I found myself struggling to avoid the free snacks in my office kitchen, which felt like they were staring at me, begging to be eaten.

However, I refused to give in, and instead of eating the free food, I opted to eat popcorn (50 cents) that I had packed as a snack.

Morgan Greenwald for LittleThings

Because my salad was such a success on Wednesday, I packed the exact same lunch on Thursday and was just as satiated.

Honestly, this salad is something I would consider eating even after the challenge, though I would add more protein and a dressing.

Morgan Greenwald for LittleThings

After an intense hour-long session at the gym, I was feeling ravenous and fatigued. Usually after training I will just order delivery so I don’t have to worry about cooking and doing the dishes, but seeing as that wasn’t an option this week, I scoured through my fridge for something filling, nutrient-rich, and within my budget.

What I ended up with was two eggs, some spinach, and a piece of toast, totaling $1.12. If I wasn’t so lazy, I would have (and should have) eaten more eggs throughout the Food Stamp Challenge, but I don’t have a dishwasher and cleaning pans is the bane of my existence.

Day 4 Total: $3.62

Day 5

<u>Day 5</u>
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On Thursday, I had started to notice that my nose was getting stuffy, and by Friday that had turned into a full-blown sinus infection.

Because of that I decided to work from home. Would this make my Food Stamp Challenge easier or harder? I was about to find out.

Morgan Greenwald for LittleThings

Since I slept for most of the morning, snacking wasn’t much of a problem.

When I woke up around 1 p.m., I tried to make myself feel better with the rest of my butternut squash soup ($1.50). This hit the spot for the time being, and so I crawled back into bed and did a bit of work.

Morgan Greenwald for LittleThings

I’m not proud of myself, but I need to be honest about my experience with this challenge, which is why I need to confess that on Friday, I bought a tea at Dunkin Donuts.

While outside to pick up tissues and some nasal spray at the drugstore, a craving for tea overcame me and I decided to stop at Dunkin for a black tea with milk. I figured that the tea would soothe my sore throat and sinus headache — which it did — but truth be told, I could’ve made the tea at home and stayed on track with my Food Stamp Challenge.

I’m not proud of cheating, but $2.49 for a tea isn’t terrible in the scheme of things.

Since I had already cheated at this point by buying a tea, I decided that I might as well eat something at home slightly out of my price range, and heated up a $3 frozen meal. I blame the sinus infection!

I came this close to ordering a $20 dinner online — I got so far as entering my credit card information — but at the last minute, I decided that it wasn’t worth it to throw all my hard work away when I was just hours away from completing my challenge. Yes, I technically cheated by going over-budget and buying a tea, but that’s nothing compared to the $20 I almost spent on Thai food.

Still, I began to realize that even a small splurge (in my case a $2.49 tea) could completely throw off the budget of someone on living on food stamps.

Day 5 Total: $7.49

Final Thoughts

<u>Final Thoughts</u>
Morgan Greenwald for LittleThings

Obviously, my experiment doesn’t accurately represent how families on food stamps live, but it gave me a chance to understand firsthand the everyday struggles they might go through. During my five days, here are a few things I learned:

Living on $4.50 a day is possible, but not easy. Such a tight budget leaves absolutely no wiggle room for snacks, sudden cravings, or lethargy, and it requires tedious planning every single day. It’s seriously not a fun way to live, but for millions of Americans, there’s no other choice.

Food was the only thing I thought about all week. Don’t get me wrong, I think about food a lot in general, but not being able to eat whatever I wanted this week made me think about food in a way I never have before. Instead of getting excited about ordering Chinese for dinner, I was stressing out over spacing my meals out and having enough food to keep me full throughout the day.

There are temptations everywhereIt was hard not to go on Instagram or even take a walk without gawking at all the food offerings. Usually, I am always scrolling through #foodporn or scouting out new restaurants to try, but this week I avoided delicious food as much as possible, because I knew I couldn’t afford it.

I spend way too much money on food. In a normal week, I probably spend over $100 on food, yet this week I was able to get by on just $32. This was definitely a wake-up call that I spend way too much money on unnecessary food purchases when there are millions of people struggling just to get by every day.

Do you know someone who might want to take up the Food Stamp Challenge? Make sure to SHARE this article with them on Facebook!