Today, Newark Mayor Cory Booker begins a week-long experiment in frugal living, with the goal of sustaining himself for at least seven days on the price of an average steak dinner (minus wine and desert). Specifically, Booker will limit himself to spending no more than $1.40 a meal, three times a day, for a grand total of $4.20—the average daily allotment provided to New Jersey beneficiaries under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, colloquially known as food stamps.
So-called SNAP Challenges are a fairly common way for politicians, pundits and policy makers to show how in touch they are with the plight of their less-fortunate constituents. Earlier this year, the Hunger Coalition sponsored a seven-day Food Stamp Challenge to draw attention to a controversial new SNAP asset test in Pennsylvania that attracted Mayor Michael Nutter, Congressman Bob Brady, and WHYY’s Marty Moss-Coane. Even celeb chef Mario Batali recently got into the game, turning his meager allotment into what I can only imagine was the tastiest dish of rice and beans $1.48 can buy.
In Booker’s case, the challenge stems from a Twitter feud.
The timing couldn’t be better. A Gallup poll released in August found that one in five Americans has struggled to pay for food at some point this year. As of September 28th, there were 1.8 million Pennsylvanians enrolled in SNAP (nearly half a million of them in Philadelphia). The average recipient receives less than $4.25 a day for food.
Having been on food stamps briefly in the late 1990s—when a medical issue made me temporarily unable to work—I know firsthand how difficult it can be to maintain a nutritionally sound diet each day for the price of a specialty coffee at Starbucks. I mention nutrition because, ironically, it’s actually fairly easy to maintain adequate caloric intake on a pittance if you don’t care what you eat or drink.
But what if you want to eat fresh, wholesome foods and cook them yourself?
To find out, I took a stroll down to my local Thriftway to see what I could buy for my $30 in weekly benefits. Assuming I would already have a stock of certain staples—like sugar for coffee and cooking oil—here’s what I came up with.
My “Food Stamp” Breakfast
I decided on a box of generic cereal ($3.29). I added a half gallon of two percent milk at a cost of $2.11 (at $4.19 a pop, my usual almond milk was out of the question), a loaf of bread for toast ($2), butter ($2.39) and a can of coffee ($2.99 on sale). I decided to forgo juice since I don’t typically drink it and probably couldn’t afford it anyway.
My “Food Stamp” Lunch
I figured I would alternate between peanut butter and jelly, and turkey and cheese sandwiches. I already had the bread, so I found some generic crunchy ($2.99) and a jar of store-brand strawberry preserves (a luxury at $3.29). Then I went to price the meat and cheese. At $6.49 a pound, the cheapest turkey breast was well outside my budgetary limits. American cheese was on sale, however, so I picked up a half pound for $1.99 with the intention of making grilled cheese sandwiches.
My “Food Stamp” Dinner
Dinner would be a bit more tricky. I decided on a pasta dish, which turned out to be such a good deal I doubled down (two boxes of spaghetti and two jars of sale-priced sauce for under $4). Assuming I could eat the leftovers the next day—and assuming I could stand eating pasta four days out of the week—I might have hit the jackpot. I’m a big salad eater, so I needed some roughage; but with my usual arugula twice the price of a head of romaine ($1.99), I simply couldn’t justify it. So Caesar it would be. Add dressing: $1.99. For protein I usually eat fish and occasionally chicken. At $7 a pound, I skipped the salmon filet and went for store-brand chicken breast—enough for three meals for six bucks! Not a bad deal, except that it required abandoning my aversion to factory-farmed meats (food-consciousness is not a luxury afforded to low-income carnivores). The cheapest rice I could find was a pricey $3.49 a bag, and while I could have chosen a box of mac and cheese for 88 cents, or some broccoli-cheese rice from Knorr for $1.39, I prefer food I cook myself. So, I opted for two potatoes ($1.29) and a half pound of fresh broccoli (69 cents). The grand total: $37.01.
Operating on the assumption that items like peanut butter, jam, coffee, butter and bread were likely to last more than one week, I decided could probably afford some turkey breast after all. And I threw in a half gallon of cheap chocolate ice cream as a reward my other sacrifices.
So, what did I learn? In short, I learned it is definitely possible to eat “adequately” on $30 a week. I also learned I am eternally grateful I’m not required to do so.