Lessons learned from food stamp challenge

BY RABBI ANDREA GOLDSTEIN & ANN MAYER EISEN

During the week of Nov. 10 – 17 members of Congregation Shaare Emeth and Central Reform Congregation were invited to participate in the Jewish community’s Food Stamp Challenge, where we were asked to try to provide meals for ourselves and our families based solely on the budget that an average SNAP recipient receives.  SNAP stands for the federally sponsored Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps).  An average SNAP recipient receives approximately $31.50 per week, which averages out to be just $1.50 per meal per day.  Both of our families participated in the Challenge and spent time during that week recording our observations.  Here is some of what we discovered:

Planning ahead was essential.  We had to map out most of our meals at the beginning of the week and stick to our schedules in order to make sure our food would last.  Even with good planning, we found ourselves constantly worried that our food would run out.

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It was harder to eat healthy – especially when it came to vitamin rich fruits and vegetables.  We could only afford to buy a few types of produce like grapes, bananas, broccoli and just enough salad fixings to have salads on two different dinners.  We ate a lot more carbs and a lot less meat and fish.  Our diets were definitely less varied and less healthy.

We were more conscious of using things sparingly.  We put less butter on our bagels, shared one can of tuna when we would normally use two, and were thankful for leftovers.  We were hyper-aware of the need to make things last.

“From Scratch” was economical and healthy.  We put flour, sugar, milk and butter on our lists.  We made pizza dough, pie crusts, soups and banana bread from scratch.  All would have cost a lot more had we bought ready-made versions, and ours did not have artificial or unhealthy ingredients.

While we were not as hungry as we expected to be, we were much more tired than we thought we would be.  Between planning and preparing each meal, making almost everything from scratch, packing lunches for every member of the family, eating less nutritiously and worrying about how long our food would last – we were exhausted.  It was easy to understand why people would choose pre-packaged convenience foods over healthy foods that take longer to prepare.

The economics of large scale packaging worked against us.  We wanted to buy the large jar of peanut butter because, per ounce, it cost less.  But we only had enough money for the cheapest and, therefore, smallest jar.

We were grateful for free food.  Whether it was free samples at the grocery store or the light snacks served before Shabbat services at Shaare Emeth, anything free was a welcomed sight.  When on a tight budget, free food was more than just a small treat.  Sometimes it was a whole meal, and it helped us stretch our SNAP budgets further.

Eating out was not possible.  Our families normally eat out at least once a week, but we found that even at restaurants where “kids eat free,” we couldn’t afford this small luxury on our limited budgets. 

Our eyes have been opened.  By participating in the Challenge we have learned a great deal about the issue of food insecurity here in St. Louis and in our nation.  We understand how many parents work to feed their families on limited food budgets, and we admire their strength and empathize with their struggle.

We take so much for granted.  From our normally full pantries to an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, from being able to eat out when we like to feeling full and satisfied – we realized how lucky we are and how much we take for granted.  Even while missing some of the foods we normally have access to, we have still felt an enormous sense of gratitude for the meals we prepared and ate during this SNAP Challenge week.