A Spiritual Journey into SNAP

One family's experiment living on a food-stamp budget

Delta Food

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My husband is a copious—some might say obsessive—record keeper. He logs every expense, every bill, every stitch of income in our Quicken archive. So I can tell you exactly how much we spent on almost anything, ever.

Since data is knowledge and knowledge is power (data = power by the transitive property…a lovely thought to the empiricist!), I can look back to last year and think about the difference in what we usually spend and this year’s Lenten discipline. That’s Delta Food—the dollar difference between what we usually spend and the budget under the SNAP Challenge.

The one caveat here is that our previous expenses have been logged not as an itemized list but as a sum of what we spent at the supermarket. Since this includes both food and non-food purchases (e.g., medicine, cleaning supplies, soap, shampoo etc.) there is some estimation involved. Based on our data from recent weeks (where I’ve been logging all purchases individually), I noted that about two thirds of each bill is food with the remainder being those other things. Let’s assume this is more or less the norm, although we could certainly test this assumption with more data…I love data! This is conservative, of course, because our spending on food is reduced this year because of our budget cap. So, to figure the weekly food budget for last Lent, I took the weekly food bill and divided by two thirds, then took the average over the six weeks of Lent.

Based on this calculation, we spent an average of $181 on food each week during Lent 2013. Last year, our family discipline was to avoid seconds, snacks and sweets on days that didn’t start with “S”. However, we were eating what meat is usually in our diet (not too much anyway) and our usual range of recipes with a try at lots of (mostly fresh) veggies. That said, we tried to buy mostly things that are not shipped too far…to the extent possible in upstate New York in late winter. That means more apples, squash and cabbage than strawberries and tomatoes.

Subtracting $147 from $181, that makes Delta Food a mere $34.  Add that up week after week and it certainly becomes real money, but it doesn’t seem like much to me, yet. A couple of important caveats before we try to interpret that number. First, that $181 estimate doesn’t count eating out, which we have included in our weekly SNAP budget. Of course, I have those records too! Last year during Lent we spent an average of $48 per week eating out. Add in the amount we spent eating out and that raises Delta Food to about $82 per week. I would add in another $25 per week for the bakery (paid in cash and so not scrupulously logged) and other specialty foods.  How about $10 per week for local meat. (We bought an emu last spring from a local farm.) Then there’s the average $15 per week for our CSA membership.  (That figure is an average over the entire year—most of the CSA season falls outside of Lent but it is still a food expense.) Now Delta Food is up to about $132 per week.

Now we’re talking about real money.

It has helped that the bakery has been closed due to the baker’s knee injury. The next round of emu will not be butchered for several more months so that money is still in our pockets. And although we paid our CSA membership back in February, we won’t start getting shares until after Easter. (Note: I’ve included $22.50 for CSA in next week’s expenditures because share distribution was supposed to have begun next Wednesday—during Holy Week. However, because of the very long and cold winter into early spring, there’s nothing to harvest yet and share distribution will begin after Easter. Despite this, I’m going to keep it on the list because that’s the deal with CSA: the consumer shares risk—including inclement weather—with the farmer.) And as the bakery reopened on Wednesday, we’ve already spent $12.50 on artisan bread. That habit would be a budget buster.

Delta food, when calculated honestly, tells me that we have made some significant adjustments to our diet in order to meet the SNAP budget. That’s the other component of Delta Food: What has changed and what hasn’t? As the girls noted in their interview, we haven’t gone hungry. That hasn’t changed. Nor have we resorted to highly processed, super cheap, high calorie density foods. That was a commitment I made at the outset. Rather, I discovered that some of our staples—like canned beans, quick oats and frozen veg—are pretty darn inexpensive at our local Wegmans. I give the company a lot of credit for making these basic food items affordable. But, let’s face it, if you don’t have a kitchen with a big rack of spices and don’t know how to cook creatively, oatmeal, canned beans and frozen peas, corn and spinach can be pretty darn unappealing as a staple diet.

A significant component of Delta Food has been a narrowing of our diet. Our intake of veggies and fruit, which is expensive at this time of year, has dropped. Bananas are a good value and a wonderful food for humans, but the girls aren’t big fans. (I personally never understood this.) The protein in our diet has both declined and been focused on beans and dairy. Our diet always gets more narrow in winter because we try to be locovores. But the SNAP Challenge has made this much more pronounced.

Is this terribly unhealthy? No, not really. Have we gained or lost weight? No. I wonder a little about blood lipids, but we didn’t collect those data. Do I feel well?  Yes. Do I have tons of energy and vim? Well, no. But it’s April in the academy and everyone is exhausted.

Bottom line: Delta Food is real money and a significant hit to dietary diversity. But, it has not been disaster. What does that mean for how we think about food stamps and hunger in America? Stay tuned.

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