Over a million Tennessee residents rely on SNAP benefits to eat. To better understand how the program works and what it’s like to live off of SNAP, a group of our food bankers took part in the SNAP Challenge.
For three days, participants could only spend $8.28 on food per person per day. That includes everything they ate—breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, snacks, and drinks.
Challenge participants also had to follow the same purchasing restrictions that SNAP holders adhere to.
Items you can purchase with SNAP: produce, canned goods, meat, dairy products, dried goods, bread, cereals, baby food, infant formula, soda, chips, candy, and seeds.
Items you cannot purchase with SNAP: alcohol, cigarettes, hot food, prepared food, medicine, vitamins, household items like paper towels, and any restaurant food.
Got it? Let the challenge begin!
When you can only spend $2.76 on a single meal, an item that costs as little as $5 is a major purchase.
The participants who were the most successful meal planned. They decided exactly what they were going to eat for three days (like this yummy chickpea salad!) and shopped accordingly.
They also stretched their dollars by choosing meals where ingredients in one recipe could be used in another recipe later in the challenge.
This approach was effective but took a lot of time. In everyday life, it’s difficult to stick to such a structured plan.
“Choices and spontaneity are gone,” Linda, our Data Entry Clerk, said.
Participants who weren’t as successful, forgot their lunch or had something unexpected pop up that interfered with their planned meals. When this happened, they could run to the store or a nearby restaurant for food. Of course, they were breaking the rules of the challenge, but they could eat.
SNAP participants don’t have this luxury.
Beginning of Challenges
A limited budget and purchasing restrictions are only the beginning of hurdles SNAP holders face when accessing food.
Many SNAP participants take the bus to the grocery store. They have to contend with inconvenient routes, bringing their kids along to shop, and only purchasing what they can carry back with them.
“This challenge was hard, but we dealt with a small, small portion of what SNAP users deal with every single day,” Paige, our SNAP Outreach Counselor, said.
SNAP is the country’s largest hunger fighting program, and it gives 16% of Tennesseans access to food they couldn’t otherwise afford. But even with benefits, many SNAP holders can’t provide enough food to feed themselves or their families. After the SNAP Challenge, our participants could see why.
“Once you experience the challenge, it makes you so much more aware of what needing food assistance would be like and how hard it would be to rely completely on it.