SNAP Challenge

Last year, I spent an average of $302 on food each month.

That’s probably a bit off, since it doesn’t take into account anytime I used cash to buy coffee, pie, or fast food. It doesn’t include all the weeks I was traveling for work and had my food provided, either. It’s probably closer to $350 or $400 per month.

That’s a lot of money.

I was marginally employed for half of last year, so $350/month varied from 9% to 35% of my income.

That’s right in line with the average – in 2013, the average American spent 9.9% of their income on food. But my food expenditures last year mirror more than the average: that 2013 study ( breaks the population down into income brackets: those making the least money spent 36% of their income on food.


Food needs don’t change that much whether you make $10,000 or $45,000 a year. Everybody needs to eat.

Everybody needs to eat, but not everybody can afford to do it very well. One in every nine people in the world doesn’t get enough to eat on any given day. In the U.S., 14% of the population is food insecure, and in North Carolina – where I live – the number is 17%. Here in Durham, those food insecure people include 27% of our county’s children.

The SNAP challenge has been around for a while. You might have heard about it. SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the program formerly known as ‘food stamps.’ As of July 2016, 43 million Americans participated in the SNAP program. In North Carolina, the SNAP allocation is $4.20 per person per day. The ‘challenge’ is to those of us whose income provides sufficient funds to use on food and don’t need the benefit. For one week, we’re challenged to eat on a SNAP budget.

$4.20 per day would add up to $29.40 each week, or $117.60 each month. That’s a third of what I am accustomed to spending on food.

My sister, who spent the last eight years working for Roanoke County as a benefits specialist, helping people take part in SNAP and other government programs, reminds me that SNAP is not actually meant to be a family’s entire food budget. It is meant, just like the name implies, to SUPPLEMENT a household income, so that food expenses don’t sink the perilously balanced ship that is the budget of a family in or near poverty.

And, as long as we’re pointing out inconsistencies with the challenge, friends who have lived in and near poverty remind me that even doing this as a ‘challenge’ implies a certain level of food security. My boyfriend, who saw lean years as a church planter and ate on less than this out of necessity, was distinctly non-plussed when I asked if he was interested in participating with me.

Friends who’ve experienced poverty also remind me that dollars and cents do not actually tell the whole story. In places where no one has enough on their own, people share food and people share meals. The $4.20 per person per day does not take into account the generosity of neighbors and strangers, the ways that cooking for larger groups can cut down costs, the simple, everyday sharing economy that nourishes relationships as well as bodies.

Nonetheless, I’m taking the challenge. I’ve done the planning, the shopping and a bit of the meal preparation for the week. It’s only Monday morning, and already things have gone all wonky with unexpected schedule changes and budget constraints. We’ll see how this goes.

The idea behind the SNAP challenge here in Durham is that for five days, I’ll attempt to eat on $4.20 per day. I’ll donate the rest of the money that I would have otherwise been spending on food to the local CROP walk, which fights hunger here and around the world. And I’ll be blogging, instagramming and snap chatting all week long.

Join me, y’all.

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