Sunday, October 3, 2010


One of the most talked about cultural happenings in the U. S. today is the growth of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) – an Entitlement Program that used to be the Food Stamp Program. SNAP recipients get a plastic debit card to use at grocery stores. The average amount banked to the card each month is $101 for individuals, and $227 for households. Right now, the SNAP program is feeding 41 million people. SNAP participants can use the money to buy groceries, but they can’t buy alcohol, tobacco, pet food, supplements, paper goods, or hot prepared foods.

Today, more people have this kind of food assistance than had any similar program in US history. That includes the more traditional recipients - the disabled and what were called the “chronically poor” people - and now covering the “new poor” – those who have lost their jobs or have accepted work, often only part-time - where the pay doesn’t allow them to leave the ranks of poverty. While it used to be considered a social stigma to receive Food Stamps, now with the growing need for economic help and the “discreet” plastic SNAP card, fewer people feel embarrassed to apply for and use this benefit.

As a matter of fact, those of us who never thought much about this kind of assistance now are looking at it in a different light. We aren’t sure that we won’t need help from SNAP or some similar program in the future. It’s clear that our current salaries are unlikely to increase, at least not anytime soon, along with the ever-growing fear that we might lose our jobs and face prolonged unemployment -like so many people we know about. See, for example, the NY Times news story about the poor prospects for job hunters over age 50:

Or, for those of us, “Golden Agers” - there are worries that the benefits of Social Security and Medicare (that don’t really cover our needs) may be further reduced in the next couple of years. Also, in many cases, extra family members - facing hard times- have returned to our homes, just at a time when we aren’t sure how to meet our existing obligations. So, the idea of eating mainly on a SNAP-sized budget is not so far-fetched.

Minimal food costs and a healthy diet - Is it possible?Those who complain that SNAP assistance allows the poor to purchase a lot of cheaper, calorie-laden food ought to remember that the general population also has these same habits. The key issue is that many unhealthy foods fill you up and are cheap and tasty. The healthy foods cost more because they are not subsidized and not available in the same supply as the unhealthy ones. You also have to know how to prepare them correctly and have the time to do it.

So, the easy way for most of the population, including many of us who aren’t receiving SNAP, is to buy a lot of processed foods and prepared meals. If we tire of those foods, we can of course, head off to a restaurant – nice ones with better meals for the rich and for the rest of us, fast food places where we feel filled-up (but, overtime, end up malnourished and overweight).

The fact is that the cheapest food in America is often really bad food for long-term health. It is so cheap (and so unhealthy) because it is made from the by-products of subsidized corn. The extra calories from these corn-based products - that make us a nation of obese - come mainly from beverages sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, along with the cheap fast-food burgers from cattle fattened with low-cost corn feed. While the food and fast-food industries continue to bolster up Wall Street, it’s clear that continual agricultural subsidies have been the major factor in generating so much cheap grease and sweets (and the profits to go with it).

Food, Inc. is an important documentary that illustrates how much of the food we eat in America has become a hazardous, industrial product. It chronicles the transformation of family farms into factories of corn-fed cattle, all made possible by non-stop lobbies that have led to massive government subsidies for corn. And, that is the same beef that is slaughtered and ground into ''hamburger meat filler”, so that everyone, even those with a mini-food budget, can afford the double cheeseburger for 99 cents. You can see the trailer for this movie on the Internet:

Remember that all those subsidized, over-processed foods and saturated greases are not only unhealthy but also have heavy carbon footprints. We are being more eco-friendly when we make the effort to eat a healthy diet based primarily on wholesome, unprocessed grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. (Yes, as stressed at least a dozen times in these posts - eating vegetarian meals can make you healthier, if you know how to plan and prepare them correctly. Grandma has offered some recipes and ways to save money on the food bill that can be helpful to you.)

But, whether or not the quality of foods purchased by SNAP recipients at the grocery store is good, bad, or indifferent – a lot of people of all ages (estimated to be one person in seven) would be very hungry should this benefit disappear. And, even if we consider ourselves to be super-savers at the grocery store, it would be a good idea to seriously consider what would happen to us if we had to feed ourselves on a SNAP food budget. What would you go for? - Quantity (food volume per dollar)? Or quality (nutritional value per dollar)?

Take the SNAP challenge
In the state of Illinois, people who qualify for SNAP have $4.50 a day to eat on, and that’s still more allowance than what a lot of states provide. This past September (2010), a group of Illinois food banks sponsored a challenge to all state residents to try to live for 7 days on the equivalent of a SNAP allowance. (They were also asked to become active in donating food and time to food banks.) You can read about it at:

A lot of people took up the food banks’ dare and some wrote comments about their experiences in local newspapers and on the Internet. As you can imagine, the consensus was that it’s really difficult, but maybe not impossible, to eat healthy on that amount of money.

For many people, the attempt to get through even 20 of the 30 days on a SNAP monthly budget would be overwhelming. To begin with you could try to follow the USDA’s “Thrifty Food Plan” and buy only food listed on its menu plan – but according to some sources, SNAP money doesn’t buy enough of USDA meals to last a full month. You could also try to be creative: checking the sale fliers, reviewing your recipe books, favoring lower price protein (such things as eggs, nuts, beans, and small amounts of dairy products and meats) and including frozen along with fresh fruits and vegetables. It would also be helpful to be a first rate home-style cook of stir fries, soups, and rice and noodle casseroles.

So, here’s your chance to personally attempt something like a SNAP diet challenge (if you choose to take it). Try to feed your family on the equivalent of SNAP assistance for one month while maintaining nutritionally balanced meals. Calculate about $4.00 per person per day (actually somewhat above the national average for food assistance) for thirty days – that would be your entire food budget for the month.

So, if you take the challenge, you’ll probably find, before the end of two weeks, that it’s no easy task to eat healthy on a SNAP allowance. And, if you manage to do it, tell others about your experience – for better or worse. (Yes, I know some of you are already eating on extremely modest food budgets, with and without food assistance, so you already know something about food economy and home-style cooking.) Tell us how you’re doing it. We all could use some advice on how to drastically cut our food costs, be eco-friendlier, and still be healthy at the end of the month.

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