My Week on SNAP, Part I

Brie Aronson

Brie Aronson › Brie Aronson came to Polyface from southern California. During college, she was diagnosed with food allergies ...


I recently watched the new documentary A Place at the Table, which sheds light on the enormous and complex issues of poverty, food, and the current welfare system. While many of the problems relate to intellectual concepts like access and distribution, I came away from the documentary feeling like I still didn’t understand the issue well, on a personal level. A fellow Polyface employee, Erin, and I decided we wanted to know what it was like to eat for a week on the SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly referred to as “food stamps”).

We did a little research, and found that SNAP benefits in our state of Virginia cover:

  • Food or food products meant to be eaten by people

  • Vegetable seeds and food producing plants, roots, and trees for family consumption

  • Baby formula, diabetic, and diet foods

  • Edible items used in preparing or preserving food such as spices and herbs, pectin, and shortening

  • Water and ice labeled for human consumption

  • Snack foods

  • Meals delivered to elderly or disabled SNAP recipients if the organization providing the meal is authorized to accept EBT cards

Items that cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits include:

  • Prepared hot foods in grocery stores

  • Any prepared food (hot or cold) sold and meant to be eaten at the store

  • Alcoholic beverages and tobacco

  • Cleaning products, paper products, toiletries, and cooking utensils

  • Pet foods

  • Items for food preservation such as canning jars and lids, freezer containers, or food wrapping paper

  • Medicines, vitamins or minerals

  • Items for gardening such as fertilizer and peat moss

The amount of benefits the household gets is called an allotment. The net monthly income of the household is multiplied by 0.3, and the result is subtracted from the maximum allotment for the household size to find the household’s allotment. This is because SNAP households are expected to spend about 30 percent of their income on food.

Armed with this information, the two of us went to the grocery store: Erin, representing a small family (her husband and one-year-old) and myself representing a single person. In our state of Virginia, the low-cost food plan and SNAP allotment for a single person came to $37.70 a week.

Perhaps the most constructive part of the experience for me was walking through the store and painstakingly accounting for every cent that went in the cart. Sure, I have a food budget I normally work with each week, but how often do I go over a bit because I just keep throwing whatever I want into the cart?

I bought rice, lentils, and dry navy beans. When it came time to purchase produce, Erin and I worked with the Dirty Dozen & Clean Fifteen lists of suggested foods to be bought with an organic or non-organic. I ended up with organic kale, organic apples, conventional cabbage, conventional sweet potatoes, bananas and an avocado. I purchased a small amount of raw almonds, one pound of grass-fed beef, 2 dozen organic eggs, and a can of SPAM. The Weston A. Price’s Nourishing Traditions shopper’s guide notes SPAM “offers benefits to those on a limited income or with limited access to better foods, and serve as a source of animal fat and meat when nothing else is available.” I had never tried it, so I gave it a go.

On day one I made up all the lentils, beans, and rice. These were great items to round out my meals with. I hard-boiled several eggs in preparation for lunches throughout the week. Overall the week went smoothly. I had enough food, but it took time to prepare everything. It took planning and careful allocation of food portions. Is it possible to eat well on SNAP? In my experience, yes. However, there are many factors that may complicate this further.

Going hungry is highly stigmatized, so people are not talking about it, making the issue shame-based and hidden. Having access to whole, unprocessed foods and the necessary kitchen utensils may not be possible; likewise, storage space for preserving and freezing foods may be limited. Basic pantry staples (I took these for granted) and the time to prepare foods may be in limited supply. Also, because I work in the food movement, I know about Weston A. Price and the Clean Fifteen/Dirty Dozen information. I have the resources to access this information. Not everyone does. I was very heartened to see that SNAP allows for the purchasing of vegetable seeds, as I think supplementing with homegrown food could be one of the better solutions to this issue. However, this is another area where access to information and tools would certainly be beneficial.

Our idea is nothing new, as several mayors in Newark, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Oregon have tried a week on SNAP in recent years. Most of them have commented that while living on this tight of a budget for a week was inconvenient, it doesn’t even compare with those who live this reality day-in and day-out.

By no means was this experience conclusive for me. It’s only opened the conversation wider.

What are other factors that make the issues of food and poverty complex? What are some possible solutions?

Click here to read Part II of this series.

Photo Credit: Brie Aronson