SNAP Challenge

Introduction to the Challenge

The SNAP Challenge is, essentially, a week-long challenge to live on $5 a day. According to Feeding Illinois (a great organization of Illinois food banks), $5 per day is the average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit for someone living in Illinois. They have explained the Challenge eloquently as “an exercise in empathy—a call to live in someone else’s shoes for one week. By raising awareness of the barriers to accessing high quality, nutritious food on a food stamp budget, we hope to mobilize the public to end hunger in Illinois. Please join us.” I’m writing this after a day of the SNAP Challenge, so Feeding Illinois’ words have a more visceral impact now than they did the first time I read them. But more on that later.

I’m participating in the SNAP Challenge because hunger is a real problem in Illinois. It’s easy to say that – we all know hunger is a problem. We don’t all know it by experience, though; it’s simpler to sympathize with hungry people than empathize with them. Sympathy is, of course, important in this situation, but empathy is what causes action: when you feel how another person feels -even just slightly, for a brief period of time- you have more insight into their life, their struggles, “the mile in their shoes” that you have walked. Of course, it’s only a mile, and it’s still from your perspective – but it’s a path you wouldn’t otherwise take. You’re going to see and feel some things you wouldn’t otherwise. It’s a little easier to see what the rest of this hypothetical person’s path in life looks like after that mile – and from that mile you just walked, that path might look a little frightening. Maybe this -or a specific experience you had, or a new insight, or a feeling- will lead you to improve the path conditions, or shoe designs, or whatever other variables you can impact (to carry the metaphor about as far as it can go).

Of course, you can never understand the entirety of another person’s experience from a few days of slightly changed behavior, but you’ll probably have a broader perspective. That, in any case, is my hope, and why I’m participating in the SNAP Challenge. Even if you aren’t doing the Challenge yourself, I hope you leave this series of blog posts with a changed outlook on the issue of hunger.

My Approach

To help you understand how I’m approaching the SNAP Challenge, let me give you a little background information: I planned for the SNAP Challenge so well that I forgot to write it on my calendar. Come Sunday the 18th, I’d planned my next two weeks of meals and purchased all my food – for a regular week. So, I’m trying to do the Challenge with the food I already bought and the recipes I already picked. My plan is to do modifications and substitutions to meet the SNAP Challenge $5/day limit without radically changing my meal plan. This may be, and probably is, impossible, but I’m going to try it. I had planned to only do the SNAP Challenge for one day, so my goal is to build up to spending only $5/day on food by Thursday or Friday.

Before we get to the actual meals, a few more things:

  • Food items I purchased from Common Ground may be priced differently than you’d expect. As a staff member, I have a store discount, and I entirely forgot about it until I had finished pricing out my meals. I haven’t had the time to un-discount the appropriate items, so I’ll try to keep that in mind and keep my daily food total further below $5. Ideally, I’d remove the discount on the items to reflect actual prices, but I don’t think I’m going to find the time.
  • I don’t purchase water from the store, so I’m not going to count it when it’s needed in recipes.
  • I use a few different tools to help me. One tool is cookbooks, online and print. The specific ones I use are New Cook Book: Prizewinning Recipes published by Better Homes and Gardens, Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe (1976 printing), Food For All recipes from Common Ground, class and sampling hand outs from Common Ground, and recipes I’ve collected from random places. If you’re interested in seeing any of the latter ones, I can make some photocopies or direct you to the originals. Another tool is spreadsheets. You may determine I’m a little obsessive compulsive from the detail I put into these, but they really helped me understand where my money was going. SNAP Challenge price sheet is my specific meal plan – breakfasts, lunches, snacks, dinners, and substitutions all priced out. It’s a work in progress, so things will change on it. Food Price Comparisons is mostly so I don’t have to keep scrolling around to find out how much butter costs per ounce, and it’s already saved me a bunch of time. The final tool I used was a cooking conversion website (this specifically). The thought of weighing every single ingredient out nearly drove me nuts (truth be told, cooking stresses me out), so this tool was a great find. It will probably make my SNAP Challenge inaccurate, but it made me calmer, so I can justify the tradeoff to myself.
  • I am sure I have messed up my math somewhere in the spreadsheets. If you notice a mistake, email me and I’ll fix it.
  • Because I purchased my food before I remembered the Challenge (and am therefore at the end of my personal food budget!), I’m not going to go purchase more food. This will warp my results pretty significantly, but I am still going to try to do it on $5/day. You have been warned: this will probably be the least successful SNAP Challenge in Champaign-Urbana.
  • BUT… I will provide tips. Where my poor planning caused me to fail, it can help you succeed. Look for the tips.
  • One last thing.  I am a Common Ground employee, but I am also an individual: not everything I write here will be Common Ground canon. Just because I hold a certain perspective does not mean Common Ground and everyone affiliated with it holds the same perspective. This blog is more about a free flow of information and ideas than co-op doctrine (if there is such a thing) anyway, but I wanted to put that out there so no one gets confused.

Alright? Great. On to the Challenge.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I didn’t have time on Sunday to adjust my Monday meals, so I went with what was on my regular schedule. So, Monday was a more-or-less accurate portrayal of how I normally spend my food money. Here goes:


  • Quaker Oats Chewy Granola Bar – $1

Yeah. Great start to the day, week, SNAP Challenge, etc. I woke up 30 minutes before my dog needed to be at the vet, so I grabbed what I could. $1 down the hole already. Next!


  • Meat soboro – $0.82
  • Onigiri – $0.43
  • Apple salad – $0.87
  • Total: $2.12

This was my bento (Japanese lunchbox) day, so I had some ground meat, rice balls, and salad (I cut my apples into bunnies – a skill learned from our bento class last fall!). I was pretty surprised that the salad cost as much as the meat component. No fresh fruits from now on, I guess. At this point, I would have had $1.88 left for the day.


  • Cashews – $0.41
  • Bread with Nutella – $0.26
  • Iced tea – $1.35
  • Cookie – $1.05
  • Total: $3.07

Yikes! What happened? I forgot to bring in my water bottle to work, and I didn’t want to drink out of a paper cup for the rest of the day. So, I bought tea, drank it, and then refilled the bottle. Not economically efficient, but it worked. The cookie just kind of happened – the Chewy Bar didn’t set a good precedent. I can make all kinds of excuses, but the fact is that if I was using SNAP, I would probably be $1.19 into my own limited pocket. At this point, I consoled myself that I wasn’t actually doing the Challenge that day, and hoped dinner would be cheap.


  • Pizza Bianco with Chard – $3.70
  • Squash bread – $0.30
Pizza Bianco with Chard

Pizza Bianco with Chard

Well, so much for cheap dinner. For half of a homemade pizza, that’s pretty inexpensive, but it’s not truly affordable on SNAP. The squash bread – well, I was visiting family, and the squash bread came out of the oven shortly after I arrived. Supposedly it didn’t taste good, so I had a taste. And then another. So, I’m estimating it was 30 cents’ worth to keep myself honest. (Side note: summer squash works really well in place of zucchini in zucchini bread. You might have to increase the dry ingredients if your squash is really moist. Because summer squash isn’t green, it hides in the bread really well, and is just as sweet as zucchini – great for sneaking veggies to the kids!) If I was doing the Challenge, I would be $5.19 over my budget now, with a grand total of $10.19 for the day – not exactly affordable.



  • I wrote a note to myself “bring more snacks.” With $10.19 for Monday, I don’t think I’m going to be able to afford snacks on Tuesday.
  • The chard on the pizza came from my garden, which saved a bit of money. My garden’s small – I’m pretty sure it could work in an apartment via container gardening, so I’m using what I’ve grown. I might post a picture to show how small it is sometime. Update 9/23: picture posted below.
  • Sushi rice is surprisingly more expensive than brown rice – $2.39/lb and $1.69/lb, respectively. Long grain brown rice doesn’t work for sushi, but if you cook it well (not to the point of mushy goopiness – just well), short grain brown rice will work. Also, brown rice is more nutritious than refined rices like sushi rice – brown rice retains the grain’s endosperm and bran, which give you more fiber and healthy minerals and fats than are added back in to refined sushi rice. Takeaway: buy whole grains like brown rice, which are cheaper and more nutritious!
  • Tomato paste wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be, but you could probably substitute ketchup to make it cheaper. I know this sounds gross, but I’ve done it before -adding a little tomato paste or sauce- and I couldn’t tell the difference.
  • Using cheaper olive oil would help a lot. The same goes for cheese – just substituting the Oaxaca cheese for the mozzarella would have saved me $0.38.
  • I had no idea I spent $10 a day on food. That’s more than I thought.

    My garden

    My garden - tomatoes and chard


One Comment on “SNAP Challenge”

  1. Rhea Balaski says:

    You have mentioned very interesting details! ps nice site.

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