Food Stamp Failure
A Week Simulating the SNAP Program

By Bailey Berg
I might as well have been drunk.

I weakly paddled, my strokes completely out of sync with the other eight rowers in my boat. I heard my coach’s voice ripple across the water, but I couldn’t make out the words, though I was sure it had something to do with my poor performance. I nodded feebly, watching my shoelaces as my vision faded in and out. Dear God, I thought. Don’t let me black out in this boat.

I’d spent the last six days simulating what it’s like to live on food stamps, and the lack of calories was taking its toll on my collegiate rowing performance and my life. My body wasn’t just extremely hungry — it was shutting down.

The Food Stamp Program

In the United States, 47 million people are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps. “Approximately half the recipients are children, with one in four of all children in the U.S. receiving benefits. Almost 90 percent of SNAP households have children, seniors or someone with a disability,” said Jamie Dollahite, a professor of community nutrition at Cornell University.

Per week, the program allots $31.50 for each recipient — only $4.50 a day. Funds can only cover food — no vitamins or medicines, hygiene supplies and certainly no booze or cigarettes.

But the federal food aid program was cut in February by $8.7 billion over the next 10 years when President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill into law. That one pen stroke meant that 850,000 households would lose on average $90 per month. Those impacted are panicking, wondering if they can adjust to survive.

Starting the Simulation

To better understand the program, I spent a week living on a budget equivalent to food stamps.

I allowed myself $25 for a trip to the grocery store, which would leave another $6.50 for any additional food I might need during the week. My usual diet staples, like hummus and yogurt, wouldn’t fit my new budget, but I wasn’t too worried. So what if I had to buy off-brand items? How hard could it be?

Very hard, it turned out. As I paced the aisles, I realized I wouldn’t be able to sustain myself for a week. Even milk and canned tuna were luxuries. As I put items in and took items out of my fairly barren basket, I grew progressively more panicked. I knew fresh fruit wouldn’t fit the budget, but not even canned fruit? Meat, even the smallest package, was absolutely out of the question.

I started looking for items that would keep me fuller longer. I swapped out bananas for eggs and a small bag of almonds for a big bag of prunes. Even after an hour of going from one end of the market to the other, switching items, recalculating and debating, my basket still looked modest. How would so little food keep me full and energized throughout the week?

I ended up getting a lot of carb-heavy foods and a few precious fruits and veggies. I figured I would eat a couple eggs or oatmeal for breakfast, a PB&J sandwich and an apple for lunch and would round out the day with pasta and a small salad. I’d snack on prunes between meals.

Arriving at the checkout line, I emptied the meager contents of my basket onto the conveyor belt. The freckle-faced teenaged cashier tried to make small talk with me, but I was too distracted to listen. My eyes were zeroed in on the register, watching the total tick higher and higher. As he rolled the last can of corn through the red beam and plunked it in the bag, he hit the total button with a flourish.

“$28.43 is your total,” he announced.

Shit, I thought. I miscalculated and now had a decision to make. Should I buy everything and be left with only $3.07 in emergency money? Or should I make some last-minute cuts?

I decided on the latter and rummaged through the neatly packed paper bags, wondering what to nix. As I weighed a couple cans in my hands, I glanced at the woman behind me in line. She glared at me, the corner of her upper lip raised and her brow furrowed. Clearly she was annoyed with me for wasting her time. Embarrassed, I made a half-hearted joke about being a broke college student, but she just shook her head and moved over to the next lane.

My cheeks burning, I placed a can of peaches and oatmeal to the side and handed the cashier my cash. I spent just over $25 and left with two plastic bags containing two boxes of pasta, peanut butter, jelly, bread, lettuce, eggs, a small bag of apples, three cans of veggies, prunes, popcorn, olive oil and rice. I headed home and unloaded the food into my cupboards, confident I’d made some good choices.

Hungry, Already

By 5 p.m. the next day, I realized my strategy sucked.

Not having my usual cup of joe to start the day left me feeling unfocused and sluggish. I was already debating using my leftover funds for much-needed caffeine, but knew even the smallest canister would deplete what I had left. My first day was off to a rough start, and it didn’t get much better.

Even before practice, I was famished. I’d eaten two eggs and a sandwich that day, but neither meal left me satisfied. And as I looked over the workout — a grueling 12-mile row — I realized the few calories I’d consumed throughout the day probably weren’t enough to make it through my classes, let alone a workout burning upwards of 1,000 calories.

The average woman, ages 19 to 25, needs about 2,000 calories a day to maintain their weight. I’d consumed only about 600 with my meals and snacks, and would get maybe another 400 at dinner, meaning I was consuming only half the calories I needed to function. Considering the 1,000 calories I’d lose at practice, I was down 2,000 calories.

And it was just the beginning.

Breaking Down

In the days that followed, I noticed drastic changes to my body, energy level and general health.

Going from drinking coffee every day to having none left me lethargic, irritable and with a throbbing headache. I snapped at everyone around me, often for no real reason at all. In those few days, I was grumpier than I’d been during my teenage years.

Additionally, my carb-heavy diet left me incredibly constipated. The few vegetables I’d purchased did little to help.

It wasn’t long before I realized purchasing vegetables was a poor decision; they lacked substance. My body burned the fuel from them immediately, leaving me even hungrier. I ended up blowing my emergency fund of $6.00 on another box of pasta, a loaf of bread and some sweets purely for the calories. That’s the cruel calculus of the SNAP program; to survive, one needs to buy food for the calories, not the nutrition. Dollahite explained that, “food insecurity exists among a large percentage of the SNAP population.” It’s just not enough.

The challenge corresponded with a particularly strenuous week for my rowing team. During hard practices, my vision cut in and out and I’d get dizzy. While driving home from practice the last day, I almost passed out behind the wheel. Some days, I’d be short 2,000 or 3,000 calories, and it took a physical – and mental – toll on me.

In seven days, I lost eight pounds.

Calories Over Nutrition

After a week, I realized I couldn’t keep eating like this without developing some poor eating habits. The healthy food choices I usually made just didn’t have the calories needed to keep me running. If I were to continue, I’d have to start eating more calorie-heavy, cheaper foods like chips, bread and candy. These foods will keep the body running without spending a lot of money, but they’re high in fat, refined sugar and sodium. The fact is, cheaper foods are typically less nutritious.

Studies show a low income increases the likelihood of obesity, especially in women. In households that make less than $10,000 a year, 26 percent of men and 35 percent of women are classified as obese, whereas in households that make more than $75,000 a year, 24 percent of men and 15 percent of women have that classification.

My rowing schedule demands a high-intake of calories, but I can normally afford to eat healthy, purchasing enough that would sustain the energy I need to push through a two-hour practice. Sticking with my usual choices left me spent and weak — I couldn’t function.

With my weekly budget for groceries slashed dramatically, I found myself desperate for energy of any kind. It’s no wonder healthy habits take the backseat when scraping up enough money just to find anything to eat becomes a part of your daily routine.

Calling It Quits

The morning after I concluded my simulation, I met a friend for breakfast. I ordered a huge meal of pumpkin French toast, fruit and my first cup of coffee in days. When the server dropped off the bill, I slid my credit card in the holder without even looking at the total. After a minute, I flipped the check presenter open and looked at the receipt. My breakfast was $10. It was a third of what I’d spent the prior week, and I’d blown it all on one meal.

That’s when it hit me. For me, the challenge only lasted a week. But for others, it’s a daily struggle with no end in sight.

Image modified from photo by Wikimedia Commons




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Think magazineThe Food Stamp Failure