Panera’s CEO Ron Shaich has become the latest public figure to embark on a challenge to find out what life is really like living below the poverty line by restricting his daily food budget to roughly $4.50 (or $31.50 per week). That is the amount that the average single adult living on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) received in 2012—also known as the “food stamp” program. SNAP is the only way millions of Americans are able to feed themselves and their families every month, even moreso now thanks to a bad job market that makes it possible to hold a job (or two) and still not be able to make ends meet. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 72 percent of SNAP participants are families with children, and more than a quarter are households with seniors or the disabled.
Shaich has only been doing the “challenge” for four days now and wrote that he “can’t stop thinking about food.” Indeed, living on $4.50 per day is hard (actually, the numbers come out to more like $4.45 per day, or $31.14 per week, although most SNAP participants get the whole month at once). “When is my next meal? How much food is left in my cabinet? Will it get me through the week? What should I spend my remaining few dollars on? What would I eat if I had no budget at all?” Shaich wrote on his blog this week.
Unfortunately, Shaich is only continuing this “challenge” for a week, which is not nearly enough time to feel the true effects of being on food stamps. One week for a CEO who knows he’ll be going back to his comfortable life in a few more days is not really a lot more than a half-assed “diet” on his part, but I appreciate the sentiment behind his actions. The real people who live on the SNAP program don’t have the comfort of knowing that in a few more days, they can go back to buying wild-caught salmon and figs. They barely have the comfort of knowing that they’ll even have SNAP benefits again next month.
Despite all this, I’ve been meaning to make a post for a (very) long time now that outlines a healthy but strict grocery budget for a single adult that can be done on the $31.15 weekly SNAP budget. This is not at all meant to show that poor people can totally bootstrap it and/or that they shouldn’t need any more assistance, because I definitely believe that they do need more. However, as both an enthusiastic home cook and thrifty shopper myself, I have helped numerous people online who are struggling with money figure out a way to make meals for themselves and still get a decent level of nutrition. A lot of times, people need help with budgeting AND help with meal planning; most Americans don’t cook very much anymore, which is part of why this can be a very large two-pronged problem.
While I have mentioned my own background in some past posts, I actually used to live on a grocery budget of about $30/week when I was in college (I was saving aggressively for a vacation), so I spent two full years shopping and cooking on a very similar budget. I, of course, did that voluntarily, so I did not experience the same struggles as the people living on SNAP. But I also wasn’t starving to death, so I obviously figured out some way to be both a savvy shopper and a decent home cook.
Anyway, this morning I put together a grocery budget for $30.99, leaving me with 16 cents leftover. It’s hardly the most exciting week of meals in the world, but it’s food and squeezes healthy options into every meal. And there are fruits or vegetables in every meal, too!
Again, the purpose of this isn’t to prove anyone wrong on anything. The purpose of this is to help people—perhaps even some of you reading this—figure out how to make ends meet in a hard economy while not eating ramen noodles every day. I based the prices off the store where I get my groceries (Peapod), which is actually sort of known for having higher prices than most. (Though when I went to compare prices for some of these base items against the prices at Aldi, like dried beans or bananas, the prices were actually the same at Peapod. So there, Peapod haters!)
When in doubt, I erred in favor of paying/buying too much—that way, if things are cheaper in your store or you want to buy less of a particular item, you have even more “extra” money to play around with. And there are certain items that won’t all be used in a single week, like a 3lb. bag of onions or an entire pound of butter, so you wouldn’t necessarily have to spend money on those same items the next week. (A pound of butter can last me well over a month in my normal cooking, and I use butter more than most people probably should.) As such, you’ll get some savings there too if you were to put together a different shopping list for another week.
(I also bought way more chicken than I think one person needs in a week, but that’s from my perspective. I tried to give a little extra to the people who might really need those extra calories/protein. This list includes 52 ounces of chicken, which averages out to almost 7.5 ounces per day. That’s actually kind of a lot.)
The shopping list
Again, these prices are based on what I found at Peapod. Some items were “on sale” at Peapod, but the sale prices ended up matching that of Aldi, so I kept the prices as they were. Your own supermarket prices may vary, hopefully by being lower. (I often find rice and beans for VERY cheap at local supermarkets, especially at the Mexican and Chinese markets.)
Oh, and I didn’t necessarily go for the organic chicken because it’s organic (although I do when I shop for myself today), but it was actually the cheapest chicken at the time when I was “shopping.” In real life supermarkets, I often see chicken for as cheap as 99 cents a pound (the organic chicken in my list was $1.29 per pound), so you may have some luck there too.
White rice: 32oz bag: $1.99
Black beans: 16oz bag: $1.49
Eggs: 1 dozen: $1.50
Onions: 3lb bag: $2.49
Bananas: 1 bunch: $1.79
Organic chicken drumsticks: 1.5lb: $1.93
Organic chicken thighs: 1.75lb: $2.26
Generic oatmeal: 42oz: $3.49
Carrots: 1lb bag: $0.99
Generic wheat bread: 16oz: $1.00
Deli turkey: half pound: $2.49 <—- deli meat is actually very expensive per pound! Considering cooking chicken or turkey on your own and cutting slices for sandwiches instead
Fresh spinach: 10oz bag: $1.99
Butter: 1 lb box: $2.09
Apples: 3lb bag: $2.50
Potatoes: 5lb bag: $2.99
Like I said, it’s not the most exciting menu in the world, but when you’re on SNAP, just getting enough to eat and getting enough nutrition in each meal is the main concern. I sorta planned this out so you’ll never be cooking a meal at lunch (since people might be working 7 days a week), but you can certainly swap any of these meals around. There ain’t no rules on what you have to eat at different times of the day.
Breakfast: oatmeal w/ butter and a banana
Lunch: Sandwich with wheat bread, deli turkey, fresh spinach. Apple on the side.
Dinner: Chicken drumsticks and mashed potatoes w/ butter
Breakfast: 2 eggs and a banana
Lunch: Sandwich w/ turkey and spinach, carrots on the side
Dinner: Black beans and rice, Cuban style (also involved in this recipe: butter and onions)
Breakfast: Oatmeal w/ butter and apple
Lunch: Sandwich w/ turkey and spinach, carrots on the side
Dinner: Roasted chicken thigh + roasted potato (butter!)
Breakfast: Omelette made w/ 2 eggs, onions & spinach inside
Lunch: Sandwich, same deal, banana on the side
Dinner: Black beans & rice with shredded chicken thigh & sauteed onions mixed in (or chicken thigh on the side, or no chicken if you prefer)
Breakfast: Oatmeal w/ butter and a banana
Lunch: SANDWICH TIME (let’s do turkey, spinach, and sliced apples in the sandwich this time). Carrots on the side.
Dinner: Roasted root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions), chicken drumsticks
Breakfast: Let’s do the omelette again, maybe you can even use some leftover chicken or something, or just spinach/onion
Lunch: Sandwich with apple on the side
Dinner: American fried rice! Rice + a little bit of chicken + egg + onion + butter (for greasing things up in the pan)
Breakfast: Oatmeal with whatever fruits you feel like using up
Lunch: Saaaaaaandwich with carrots on the side
Dinner: Roasted chicken, sauteed spinach (if you have any left), sauteed onions, and rice
I would not expect to have spinach leftover (and you shouldn’t either, cuz it doesn’t keep very well after a week), or carrots (just eat them all! They’re cheap). I would expect to definitely be out of deli meat once this week is over.
Things that I would expect to have left over after this week: maybe half a bag of onions, a lot of potatoes (probably a couple more weeks’ worth), more than half the canister of oatmeal, probably at least 3 of the 4 sticks of butter, and probably a few apples. There would probably be a few eggs left over too, and about a half loaf of the bread. The rice and beans could vary depending on how much you cooked, but I would expect to have at least half the bag of beans left over. If it were me personally, I would also have a good amount of chicken leftover, because I just don’t eat all that much meat, but your mileage may vary. (Oh, and I hope you save chicken bones for stock, because then you can make your own stock for use in soups and other recipes without having to spend a single extra cent on it.)
All these things can and should be used the next week, if you can, but since you already bought them, you can buy a bunch of new ingredients the next week to make different food combos. If I were to add different things to the mix for a week 2 menu, I would add things like a bag of bell peppers (which you can get for pretty cheap sometimes), more rice, more eggs, maybe a different kind of deli meat (ham?), peanut butter, celery, a bag of flour, things like that.
Things you could be making with your leftover stuff from week 1 plus the things I just mentioned: stuffed bell peppers, black bean soup (see? You need that free chicken stock), peanut butter and banana sandwiches, casseroles, your own bread and pancakes and any other stuff you can make with flour, etc.
Is this an assholish thing to post or do you want more?
When I help people online with this kind of stuff, they usually want more. In addition to the crippling poverty that affects so many people in our country, a complete cultural disconnection from food and cooking can also make meal planning very daunting. But I know that posting something like this on a Tumblr might seem out of context to anyone who follows me normally, and might come off a bit presumptuous. I totally get that, and I’m OK with it. A lot of my peers have problems with the word “privilege” for various reasons, but I recognize that I’m a privileged person in some regards, so that’s obviously the perspective I’m writing from.
That said, if enough people are interested, I could keep this going and put together shopping lists/general menus for a SNAP budget for an entire month. If that’s the case, erm, tweet at me at @ejacqui or shoot me an e-mail to email@example.com. I can’t guarantee I will respond, or that I can even do it forever, but I will certainly try!