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Reliving my college days: A week with the SNAP challenge

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Jon Stemmle

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Let me start by saying that I’m glad it’s over. My SNAP challenge ended on Tuesday night before dinner. Since then, I’ve had a few days to load up on grapes and broccoli, Italian bread and Gouda cheese, a steak and mashed potatoes (although not paired together or all in one sitting!). Now that I’m back to eating as normal, I can say that I feel better, I have more energy and my mood is more consistent. I can work out regularly again without worrying that I couldn’t replenish the calories I needed.

However, I want to make it clear that I don’t feel like the SNAP challenge was too harsh to do. When I set out to do this, my goal was to find out exactly how much would I have to deviate from my normal eating and shopping habits to live on $28 per week. I’ll admit, I’ve become a pretty boring eater the last few years. I have the same cereal, often a few of the same options for lunch and the same few dinners all the time. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the time I used to have and maybe it’s that my kids aren’t quite ready for the spice of chicken tikka masala or rosemary chicken with pancetta and tomatoes (although their palates expand each year, thank God!).

So, armed with my $28 I went back to a bit of a college mentality. I had my box of cereal and my container of skim milk for breakfast, which lasted all week. For lunch, I was good with my whole wheat burritos, refried black beans and cheddar cheese or angel hair pasta. Dinner time was some pasta Caprese for a few days until I ran out of tomatoes and then it was either the remaining rigatoni or angel hair pasta. Snacks consisted of a bag of tortilla chips, some microwave popcorn and blueberries.

The good news was that I didn’t run out of food. By week’s end I had some tortillas left, some cheddar cheese and a little angel hair pasta.

The bad news was that I did get hungry earlier than normal before lunch and later at night and that I couldn’t have the variety of foods from which to pick.

As I said, though, I did harken back to my college days and improvise with some things. Just as I used to make Kraft Mac & Cheese with water when I couldn’t afford milk, I made some pesto with water instead of olive oil so that I could have some kind of sauce with my angel hair pasta. I also learned to have my late night snack as late as I could so I didn’t have to have my stomach growl and keep me up at night. Carbs became my best friend to keep me feeling full (at least for a while), just like it did when I’d order a medium pepperoni pizza at midnight from Chianello’s when I was an undergrad at Virginia Wesleyan (then it was a snack at night and breakfast the next morning!).

So what did I learn from this experience? That I’m incredibly thankful that I do have options and if I want to buy a nice block of cheese, or every kind of berry in the store, I can. I’m thankful that if I get a hankering for a Chipotle burrito or to take my family out to dinner that it’s a viable option. I’m thankful that I can buy organic meats or other products, like cereal, if I prefer without worry. However…

If I did this for a month or if the SNAP challenge became a lifestyle and not just a week of my life, I feel more confident I could do it with my family. I would change how I shopped, going to places like Aldi and Wal-Mart and chasing the sales and coupons. I’d stock up as things went on sale – like pasta or kidney beans – and make sure if I wanted fruits and vegetables I bought what was in season to keep costs down. I’d also save up to afford products I couldn’t buy each week – like ricotta cheese – and then make a meal, plus freeze leftovers of things like manicotti to use later on in the month.

Would it be easy? Hell, no! It would be an unbelievable change from what I’m used to, but I’ve lived on tight budgets before where dinners were red beans and rice and cans of green beans (and it wasn’t fun). I will say as hard as it was to do as a challenge when everyone around me was eating as they normally would and seeing food in the fridge you wanted (but couldn’t eat out of principle), I know it’s not in the same world as living with a fridge that’s empty, and knowing you don’t have a choice.  It is having that ability to make a choice that really makes all the difference.

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