By Suzanne Cullinane
The GardenWorks Project Board Member, Director of Development
I had often heard of celebrities participating in “the food stamp challenge” and wondered if I would be able to sustain my household on a food stamp recipient’s budget. Would I, someone who views going out for dinner as a competitive sport, really be able to survive on $250.00 a month for all food? Full disclosure - I spend close to that on just a week’s groceries!
While I realize that simulating one aspect of a financially insecure person’s life does not really provide adequate insight into their daily struggles, I do think there is some value in attempting to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” – even if it’s only one facet of their life. So, armed with this notion, I set off to see if I could in fact live for one month on the typical food stamp budget. Here is my story…
Many of the families that I’ve built gardens for as a volunteer (and now board member) with The GardenWorks Project receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. Based on researching typical SNAP benefits, my household of two adults would be eligible for $250.00 for the month. Initially that sounded do able but when I broke that figure down it worked out to $1.48 per meal. Right away I realized there would be no going out for dinner for 30 days.
The other aspect that took me by surprise was how much planning was going to be involved. There was no way that just putting a rough menu for the week together and then going to the store to see what “inspired” me was going to work. I had to ensure that whatever I cooked had that potential to be transformed into three to four different meals.
Fresh produce also provided a challenge. While it wasn’t totally off the list, it certainly was not organic. Fortunately, I had my herb garden. Right in my backyard were basil, chives and cilantro – items that could be used to modify my meals and that I didn’t have to pay for! I also realized while making my first grocery list how happy I was going to be once the other vegetables in my garden started producing. Then, not only would I have herbs but I would also have tomatoes, zucchini, kale and broccoli – all organic and right at my fingertips. I imagine that our GardenWorks Project clients are thrilled when their backyard garden starts producing too.
I survived my first trip to the grocery store and actually came in slightly under budget. I had my meals planned for the week and even convinced my husband to get excited about this process. You would think being equipped with this much enthusiasm we were certain to last the month. We lasted a total of four days. That’s right FOUR days. I completely underestimated what this experience was going to be like. By the fourth day of trying to stretch some chicken into something interesting I completely gave up. I was tired after working all day and didn’t have the energy to create a new meal. It was easier to go out for dinner. Trust me; I realize this is a luxury most of our clients don’t get to experience.
While it was certainly a challenge to plan every meal to the dollar, I think the biggest comfort we missed was spontaneity. Forget about being able to go out to dinner - even just ordering a pizza was out of the question. That would have been a third of our weekly budget on one meal.
While I was disappointed in our performance, I do feel we gained some insight in to what it’s like to live on the SNAP budget. This process also helped me realize how truly valuable a garden can be. I realized that in less than four days! While we certainly won’t solve all of our client’s food needs, the gardens that we give them can really help to supplement what they receive at the food pantry – adding nutritious fresh produce that might not be available there. So, on behalf of everyone at The GardenWorks Project I would like to thank everyone who participated in any way to the 2015 builds. From this experience, I know how valuable our work is to the families who need help putting a healthy meal on the table.