Food Stamp Challenge

Initial Shop

Recently in the news, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey attracted attention by declaring that he would spend a week living off of food stamps, meaning that he would only spend the amount of money that the average SNAP participant receives. (SNAP stands for supplemental nutrition assistance program, and is the official term for the food stamp program) For him, this amounts to about $30/week.

A week on food stamps? Challenge accepted! This summer, I had a similar assignment for my dietetic internship. Not only was I asked to spend only $21.90 for 5 days worth of food, but also the meals had to be nutritionally sound, and we had to analyze our diet for the 5 days to see if there were any nutritional gaps. For those of you that think it is too difficult to eat healthy on a budget, keep reading.

The Challenge: To make sure that I stayed within budget, I made a grocery list of things that I would need. I figured that peanut butter sandwiches would be cheap for lunch because I know that meat is expensive. I also decided to have pasta for dinner, because pasta is notoriously cheap, and one pound of cheap ground meat would last me the week as well. I opted for frozen vegetables because they were very inexpensive, and I selected inexpensive fruits such as bananas or seasonal peaches. The non-organic milk wasn’t too expensive, and I opted for fruit juice sweetened regular yogurt instead of Greek yogurt. For reference, I did my shopping at the HEB in the Hancock Center in Austin, TX, during June of 2012.

Initial shop: $27.89 worth of food

Initial Shop

Leftovers after 5 days: $5.17 worth of food (milk not pictured, about 3.5 cups left)


Total Spent on Food: $22.72 (27.89-5.17). Only $0.82 over budget!!

The grapes were the most expensive things I bought, followed by the peanut butter. I think the peanut butter was a good investment though, because it is filling and will last a long time. It is also nutritious, because I selected an organic peanut butter with no added sugar, salt, or oils. It is just peanuts. There were also cheaper yogurts that I could have selected, but I didn’t want any with artificial sweeteners, fat, or an excess of sugar or calories. If I were to do this again, I would have been more careful with the fruit. One cup of bananas is only $0.16, while one cup of peaches is $0.47, and one cup of grapes is $0.87. That is a huge difference! Bananas are practically free, but grapes are almost a dollar per serving. I would also look more at coupons. I did not use any ads or coupons during this assignment, and that is another thing that I could have utilized.

Typical Meals:



Breakfast: 2 packets Apple Cinnamon flavored instant oatmeal (prepared with water), 1 cup skim milk


Lunch: PB Banana Sandwich on Wheat, 1 cup fruit (either 2 small peaches or 1 cup of grapes), 1 non fat yogurt cup


Dinner: Spaghetti noodles, 1 cup green veggies, ½ cup marinara sauce, 3 oz ground turkey (85% lean, fat drained), 1 cup mixed veggies, 12 oz skim milk

The Results: To me, nutritionally sound means following the general guidelines of the food pyramid. So I made it a priority to get 2 cups of fruit, 2 cups of vegetables, and 3 cups of fat free dairy each day, as well as making half of my grains whole. The only nutrients that I got less than 50% of my RDA in were Omega-3’s (26%), Omega-6’s (17%), and Vitamin E (25%). I can imagine that omega-3’s are hard to get in the food stamp population because they are found in more expensive foods.

This diet was a bit challenging to follow at the beginning, because I was hungry after dinner and wanted to snack. Breakfast was definitely too small for me, but I packed a big lunch that I snacked on throughout the day. By the third day, I was used to my new eating pattern and wasn’t hungry anymore.

As you can see, it IS possible to eat nutritionally sound meals on a budget. You just have to have a game plan.

  • To learn about eligibility requirements for SNAP, click here.
  • To learn how to apply for SNAP benefits, click here.
  • The USDA has four food plans for different income levels: liberal, moderate cost, low cost, and thrifty. For recipes and tips from the USDA on how to eat healthfully on a thrifty food plan, click this link, and scroll down to “Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals”.



2 thoughts on “Food Stamp Challenge

  1. ollie204 says:

    I’m glad you took the challenge but I’m a bit disappointed in your results.

    Your challenge shows that you can do it for a week, but I take issue with the extrapolation. How would you manage to keep it up for a month or a year? How would you add variety to your diet? (because let’s face it, no one likes eating the same thing every single day)

    Also, low income families don’t really have the option of going over budget. Their money is tightly allocated. So, how would you do your challenge again if you were forged to do it for 30 days without being allowed to spend a penny over? Would you still think that $30 a week provides sustainable nutritious meals for low income families?

    Looking forward to your response.

    • KellysHealthyKitchen says:

      You bring up an excellent point. While it is true that many people on SNAP benefits don’t have the luxury of spending over their allotment, SNAP benefits are allocated monthly. This allows people to purchase “investment pieces” such as peanut butter that will last longer than a week, allowing for fewer purchases in the following weeks.

      Regarding variety- this meal plan is not meant to be repeated every 5 days. That would get old very quickly, not to mention the nutrients that you miss out on by not practicing variety. I am not going to write out an entire menu for you on how to use SNAP benefits for an extended period of time, but if you are looking for inexpensive meal plans, you should look at the link to the Thrifty Food Plan tips and recipes in my post.

      If I were to continue the challenge for an extended period of time, I would try to mix it up. I would likely keep lunch the same, changing it up with only the type of fruit or the flavor of yogurt, or perhaps getting string cheese instead of yogurt. For breakfast, I am very oatmeal loyal, but a bag of inexpensive cold cereal could also be another way to add variety. Most people have somewhat of a routine with breakfast and/or lunch. Dinner is where I would make the most changes. Even though there are plenty of spaghetti noodles left, I would likely keep those in the pantry for a later date. Instead, I might try making a chili beans over rice, or perhaps tacos with ground beef (fat drained) and vegetables. A vegetable omelette with toast would be another idea for a balanced meal. I would have to look carefully at the pricing on various ingredients, but the point is that variety is possible. The link I referenced earlier has plenty of inexpensive recipes.

      Living off of SNAP benefits is by no means easy. But eating healthy meals IS a possibility if you make it a priority. The purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate that it IS possible to eat healthy on a budget, whether or not you receive SNAP benefits. As mentioned in the post, this type of shopping requires advanced planning. If you are struggling to make SNAP benefits last through the entire month, I recommend that you contact your local food bank. They oftentimes offer classes on thrifty meal planning, and can direct you to additional sources of assistance.

      I hope this helps!

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