Time For Another Food Stamp Challenge?

by Katy on September 13, 2012 · 82 comments

The Oregonian newspaper recently ran a profile on Christian and Amy Piatt, whose family of four who just completed a week-long food stamp or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) challenge. The family participated in this project to bring attention to issues of poverty and hunger, and blogged about it on Patheos.com.

They allowed themselves $112 to feed themselves and their two children, ages three and eight. Or, $4 per person per day.

They ran out money before they ran out of days.

I poured through The Oregonian article trying to find their fatal flaw, and easily identified where the family was spending too much. (Pre-made hummus vs. can of 50¢ garbanzo beans, pre-made spaghetti sauce, pre-made salad dressing, Kraft Easy Mac macaroni and cheese, soda, frozen pizza, etc., etc.)

My initial reaction was to be critical of the family’s mistakes.

“Did they put zero research into how to do frugal cooking?! Were they unwilling to cook from scratch?!”

I admit that I may have ruined my co-workers’ lunch breaks, as I was at work when I first read the article.

But then I got home and read the Patheos blog posts, and gave the issue more thought. Christian and Amy Piatt are both Pastors, and were experiencing what many actual SNAP recipients experience, which is that it’s very difficult to balance busy family life with frugal cooking. People run out to work without remembering to eat breakfast, and life will often get in the way of our very best of intentions. Yes, they could have been cooking legume based meals in the crock pot, serving oatmeal for breakfast and cooking more from scratch, but they didn’t. The important thing is that they attempted the experiment in the name of bringing awareness to hunger issues.

And since 22% of Oregonians are receiving some degree of SNAP/food stamp benefits, this is a conversation that needs to happen.

I have twice spent an entire month doing my own version of the SNAP Challenge, (June 2010 and July 2011) and even asked participants to donate money saved to their local food banks.

It’s not a huge stretch for my family to stay within $112 for a week’s worth of food, but then again I am not your average American. I think constantly about how to put amazing meals together while spending very little. (Dinner last night was a huge grilled sub sandwich on homemade french bread made with a thin layer of cold cuts and melted on-sale Tillamook cheese.) Very few people cook like I do. (Tonight’s dinner will be black bean chili, made with bulk-purchased beans I cooked in the crock pot yesterday, to which I will add a 1/4-pound of bulk sausage meat, with homemade cornbread on the side.)

I didn’t do a food stamp challenge this year as my family hates them, sure that I am starving them in the name of a blog stunt. (Although in actuality, I end up cooking awesome meals, as I put a huge amount of thought into how to cook cheaply without losing taste or nutritive value.)

But I’m thinking I might put together another week-long SNAP challenge in the near future. Because Non-Consumer Advocate readers are always amazing about sharing their ideas and tips, and because we all need to be doing something about hunger within our own communities. And I might not even tell my family until after it’s over.

Shh . . . .

Would you be interested in participating in a week-long SNAP Challenge? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 79 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary September 13, 2012 at 9:10 am

I would definitely participate in such a challenge!

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Maggie September 13, 2012 at 9:14 am

I would be up for that for sure!

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Megyn @MinimalistMommi September 13, 2012 at 9:14 am

I’m game! We usually spend around $100/week for our family of 4 and eat mainly organics. Bring it on!

As a side note, we actually got approved for SNAP, despite trying to decline and just get health insurance (they cut healthcare benefits for the majority of adults in our state). I’m amazed, after speaking with DES about the program, that people can buy so much “crap”! We’ve never been on food stamps (only WIC), so I’m interested to see the ugly stares we’ll get in the checkout lane now.

P.S. I did a month long challenge buying green/eco friendly shopping for $100. It was amazing ALL that I got with coupons (over $400+ of items). I also did a month of buying only local items for $100/week which worked too. It CAN be done!

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Kelly Sangree September 14, 2012 at 1:03 pm

You actually get fewer dirty looks with SNAP than WIC – with SNAP, no one but you and the cashier knows what you’re paying with. With WIC, they always had to call the manager over to the lane and approve the transaction.

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Mel September 15, 2012 at 9:43 am

I disagree with only the cashier knows. While a normal credit card runs through automatically, the EBT SNAP card does not and they have hit a separate button for it so you have to actually say “Did you hit the food stamps card?”

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Mel September 15, 2012 at 9:43 am

Food stamps BUTTON I meant to say.

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Paula in the UP September 17, 2012 at 8:13 am

I am completely impressed with what you are able to buy for so little. Your statement of “It can be done” , is definitely based on where you live.

We don’t have any double coupons in our area, we get one coupon flier in our Saturday paper, which has little actual food coupons(mainly for processed foods) or they are for non food items. Our local grocery stores have minimal amounts of organic foods and are more expensive. There aren’t many veggie/ fruit stands and the ones we have often purchase their produce from the same place as our grocery stores do. It may be a more local place but it is still trucked in, it is not always from a local grower and the prices are about the same as the grocery stores.

So it maybe able to be done by some, we are fortunate to have a garden that gives us tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Although we would should for go some peppers for carrots, potatoes and lettuce in the future.

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Carla September 13, 2012 at 9:21 am

$4/day per person. 6 in our family = $168. That’s $8.00 more than what I currently budget for groceries… so I think I’m doing pretty good!! 🙂

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tonya September 13, 2012 at 9:23 am

I think this is a great idea, Katy! Bringing more awareness to the issue is important. There are so many “judgemental” types who insist that people who are using public assistance are just living the high life at taxpayers’ expense. $112 to feed a family of 4? I hardly think that’s luxury. Thanks for what you are doing to raise awareness.

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tonya September 13, 2012 at 9:24 am

My family of 4 wouldn’t be very hard pressed to stay in that budget amount, but we are much like you. We spend a lot of time cooking from scratch and using bulk bin type ingredients to make healthy meals.

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Katy September 13, 2012 at 9:25 am

I highly recommend this Oregonian article from a few years ago:

http://www.oregonlive.com/foodday/index.ssf/2010/02/thin_budget_smart_choices.html

Katy

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tonya September 13, 2012 at 2:53 pm

I LOVE the idea of this article, but the prices she paid to stay under $100 are now woefully outdated. Chicken at $.88/lb, fuggedabouit! Pork at $.99/lb, I don’t think so . Also, many of the other staples she purchased have gone way up in price in the last few years. She priced a jar of PB at $1.32, but the lowest I’ve seen it at my grocery lately is $2.25. Ditto for eggs, beans, bread, and even “cheap” produce like apples and bananas have gone up!

Not to say that a family can’t eat well for little money, but the way that prices are rising across the board it makes it even more difficult.

Also, many families in our city who qualify for SNAP benefits do not have good access to a nearby store with fresh food. I walked into a “grocery” store in one of these neighborhoods recently and was appalled to see only highly proccessed offerings (canned meat, candy bars, chips, ding dongs). Not only are they unhealthy, but they are so much pricier than bulk bin foods.

So, all this to say that it’s quite a complex problem and I’m so glad you are resurrecting the food stamp challenge!

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erin September 13, 2012 at 9:29 am

Crazy, we are able to stick to $100/week with a family of four, plus 3 extra kids at breakfast and lunch! (as I watch a few friends kids during day)

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Denise P September 13, 2012 at 9:47 am

I’m totally game for it. I would have to say though that this is a slightly easier for those of (like me) that have young children. The USDA Guidelines just count bodies, they don’t take into account whether that body is a pre-schooler or a teenage boy.

Also, my mantra for meal planning? “Cheap, Easy, Nutritious: pick any two”

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Katy September 13, 2012 at 10:02 am

Actually,

The Oregon WIC website states that “WIC vouchers provide an average of $44 in nutritious foods to each participant monthly.” Those served by WIC are pregnant women, breastfeeding women whose babies are 12 months or less, non-breastfeeding women whose babies are six months or younger, and infants and children under five years old.

Katy

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Megyn @MinimalistMommi September 13, 2012 at 7:10 pm

WIC & SNAP are two different things though. SNAP does NOT account for age whereas WIC is ONLY available to younger age groups. Thus, those who eat the least actually get the highest benefits because they can get both WIC and SNAP benefits. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, personally.

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Denise September 13, 2012 at 7:22 pm

It’s important to note that there are two different food aid programs.

First WIC, which is for Women, Infants, and Children (kids younger than 5 I think, but I’m not totally for sure.) WIC has higher income requirements, somewhere around 150% of poverty level (there are various income exemptions and stuff, blah de blah blah) and of course you need to be a new (ish) mom and/or a child. No dads, no teenage boys, not even elementary kids. However, it has more restrictions on what you can buy. For WIC you get vouchers, not cash. This voucher for whole grain bread, that voucher for certain types of dairy, this one for produce. Being behind a WIC mom in the checkout line is worse than being behind a Krazy Coupon Lady. (I say this with love people, being a Krazy Coupon Lady myself, and having many friends on WIC.) As of 2012 almost half the babies born in the US are born to a mom getting WIC benefits. My friends on WIC were all young, married, and poor college students. http://www.ct.gov/dph/cwp/view.asp?a=3137&q=395460&dphNav_GID=1862&dphPNavCtr=|#48077 This is the link to the WIC program for the state of Conneticut, w/the 45% stat.

The 2nd program is SNAP or food stamps. That one has much stiffer income requirements, you need to be closer to federal poverty level (various income exemptions apply, yada yada yada). For SNAP you just get a debit card which gets reloaded with a certain amount each month, and you get the per person amount, for EVERYONE in your household, whether they are a 4 year-old preschooler or a 17 year old teenage boy (those most likely to have the stereo typical hollow leg). This you can spend equally on apples or ding dongs.

I know families with teenagers that get the assistance of SNAP, and it’s tough, they usually use *some* of their own money for food and are grateful for the additional SNAP assistance. But of all the bloggers I’ve seen do a Food Stamp Challenge, none have had kids older than 10. Maybe I’ve missed one. I also know of a couple single adults to do it too, not easy without the “small appetite supplement”. lol

Either way, even with the small appetite supplement, it’s not all that easy, and it bucks American norms in a major way.

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Tonya September 14, 2012 at 5:20 am

This is a great explanation, thanks. The one thing you forgot to mention is that WIC is not only income-based, it is nutrition based. When I was a dietetic intern and worked at WIC, we did anemia testing on all the clients (hence the strict requirements for O.J, iron-fortified cereals, and dry beans). So someone could conceivably qualify for both, but to stay on WIC, would have to continue to have not just a financial need, but a nutritional need. It’s an excellent public safety net, as children with anemia are more likely to have problems with learning and brain devpmt.

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Breanna September 13, 2012 at 9:49 am

I’d be up for it, though I’m not into judging food choices. Many people don’t have ideal cooking facilities (rentals and stoves or electricity that isn’t reliable, no oven, no crockpot, etc.) or cooks (sometimes a nine-year-old is starting dinner because mom won’t be home until 7pm). In that case, a box of instant mac n’ cheese might be all you can manage.

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Katy September 13, 2012 at 10:00 am

True, but this was not the case with the Piatt family.

Katy

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Breanna September 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Yeah, wasn’t thinking of you so much–more the checker at the grocery store who makes faces at me while ringing up the order for the food-stamp user ahead of me!

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Hallie September 14, 2012 at 2:44 pm

If I witnessed a checker doing that to another customer–or to me (I’m a SNAP user)–I’d be talking to the manager ASAP. There’s no excuse for an attitude like that. FWIW, it’s never happened to me.

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Juhli September 13, 2012 at 9:54 am

I’d give it a try but think $56 for the two of us would be a real challenge. Hubby has to eat certain foods due to allergy issues so I’m not sure how I would get around that or if he would be interested in trying.

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EcoCatLady September 13, 2012 at 10:03 am

I’ve always wanted to participate in one of these challenges… the problem is that I can’t remember the last time I prepared a meal using just what I got at the grocery store. I buy in bulk and have a very well stocked pantry, as well as a freezer full of leftover garden produce etc. How would I ever sort it out?

It seems sorta silly to me to simply go out and replace things that I already have, just for the sake of a challenge. Plus, even though the price of the ingredients for a certain meal might come out to less than a dollar per serving, if I actually had to go out and buy full containers of everything that went into XYZ meal (you know, buy a package of butter to use a tablespoon in the meal, a bag of flour to use a spoonful to thicken the sauce, a whole bag of beans vs. the handful I sprinkled in the soup, etc. etc.)

Am I over thinking this? How do you deal with that sort of thing, or do you even worry about it? It would be really easy if the challenge just consisted of not spending more than $4 per person per day on groceries… but what about CatMan who’s only here a few days per week and what about…

OK see why I’ve never done this? Help!

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Sue September 13, 2012 at 10:21 am

My thoughts exactly.

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Tina September 13, 2012 at 3:57 pm

That is what I was thinking. It seems like what you would buy on a paticular week wouldn’t be “rock bottom” prices.

Now if I could use my pantry…..

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Reese September 14, 2012 at 7:50 am

I’m not sure this is exactly the point of the challenge. If I were to start now, I would take my $56, go out, and buy what I need for the week. Most people have at least SOMETHING leftover from food they ate the week before and wouldn’t have to start from scratch. Pantry staples, garden crops, etc. are all fair game. You just can’t spent more than the allotted amount on bringing new things into your place.

Over time (say you only spent that much, each week for a year), you’d be closer to having a real experience.

Unless you were someone living on their own for the first time and trying to cook for the very first time…. buying 100% of the stuff you’d use for the week isn’t the food stamp scenario. And it’s not realistic. When I was on food stamps, they didn’t limit me to eating only what I bought new…. I supplemented what I already had on hand, and homemade items.

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Another Rebecca September 13, 2012 at 10:05 am

Im up for it, but then again, I do what you do already. I think if you do decide to do one, you should also include your meal plans, even after the fact, for all meals and include your thoughts that go into those meals when you are planning to be extra frugal. Planned leftovers etc, subbing ingredients to use what you have. many people have just never been taught to cook or think this way, and that can be the hardest thing about limiting your food budget.

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Jennifer B. September 13, 2012 at 10:10 am

We’re having a money-fast month at our house this month: $75/week for groceries, $25/week for gas for my car, and no extra purchases. The groceries cover my family of four, though my husband is out of town 4 days a week; he gets his own budget for those days as his cooking opportunities are limited. I get a little blowback from my teenager (“mo-o-o-m, there’s nothing to eat!!!”) so I try to make plenty of cheap snacks available.

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Lea September 13, 2012 at 10:18 am

I’d enjoy giving it a go, but like the comment from EcoCatLady above, what would rules be for digging into your pantry and freezer? Mine is pretty well-stocked after freezing/storing summer produce.

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tonya September 13, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Good point. That had crossed my mind as well.

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Sue September 13, 2012 at 10:20 am

A British perspective. I have 5 in my family including 2 teenage boys, so I’d allow $140 a week which is £86.77. I spent £87 last week which included two bottles of wine and two bottles of beer plus non-food items like soap and tissues. I bought two chickens (special offer) but one is in the freezer for the following week and I will buy less meat that week. I buy 2 UK gallons (2.5 US) of milk a week, 3kg (6.5 lb) of flour for bread-making, 700g (1.5 lb) cheese and 18 eggs. We eat meat at only at weekends usually and fish once a week. I do however rely heavily each week on what is already in my store cupboard and freezer to build our meals. Presumably if one were to do this challenge one would have to calculate the cost of everything used from the store cupboard as well as everything bought that week.

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tna September 13, 2012 at 10:39 am

I’ve been spending 20 bucks a week on food for the last four years. In fact my total weekly spending budget for everything is 20 dollars. So my clothing and personal items come out of that too. My roomy on the other hand is just the opposite. He buys what he wants to eat, when he wants it and wherever he wants it. He has learned to cook though, I guess I should say heat premade stuff up and grill a steak or chicken. And he never throws out food, he eats what he has before he buys more. So we all do stuff a little differently and it’s all good. I enjoy the challenge of living this way and for him that’s the last thing he wants to deal with when he’s hungry.

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Trish September 14, 2012 at 5:50 am

tna, would you be willing to share a little about your $20/wk food budget?

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tna September 14, 2012 at 5:27 pm

I eat very simple foods at the lowest cost I can find and cook everything from scratch. If fresh is cheaper than frozen that’s what I buy. I have some bulk staples like whole grains, beans, flour, oil, and spices that I don’t buy each week. I bake my own bread, cookies, brownies, etc. I buy bulk green tea bags and drink that or water. I consider 3-4 oz. of meat, chicken or fish a serving so I get 4 servings per pound or stretch that even more in a casserole with vegetables and a grain. If I make a large recipe I freeze most of it in single serving sizes for quick meals. When I buy large bulk meat or vegetables I prep and freeze it in single servings so nothing goes bad.

this might be stuff I buy in a week….
chicken 1.70 lb
beef 3.50 lb
sardines 1.80 lb
eggs 1.25 dozen
onions .50 lb
broccoli 1.25 lb
carrots .50 lb
sweet potatoes .75 lb
brown rice .75 lb
tomato .85 lb

menu might be…..
breakfast: toast and egg
lunch: hamburger on bread with tomato, mustard, onion
dinner: chicken, broccoli, sweet potato
late snack: cookie and hot tea
I’ve done it so long I don’t even think about it. I put the twenty in my purse on Friday and buy stuff as I need it. I always have food left over at the end of the week.

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Susan September 13, 2012 at 10:39 am

I’d do it, too. I’m trying to get my monthly food budget down from $400 to $300 in a household of 1 adult, 3 teens. I think we eat pretty well, but my kids love, love, love packaged/processed foods. I, too, would like some more posts on how you cook and deal with your teenagers.

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Teri September 15, 2012 at 4:01 pm

With teens, a food budget is always difficult. When my boys were teens they ate enough for four people each! There is just something about the bottomless tummies of male teenagers! LOL

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Stacy September 13, 2012 at 10:45 am

Definitely! I try to keep my groceries to $100 a week but it’s those little trips to the store for “a couple of things” that kill me.

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Amy September 13, 2012 at 10:53 am

Well I’m in… Except I’m pretty sure my current food budget is lower than the foodstamps we could get if we quailfied.

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Kristen | The Frugal Girl September 14, 2012 at 5:37 am

Same here. We’d get $168/week for the six of us, and that’s more than what I spend right now.

Of course, I only have one teenager in the house, so this would be easier for me than for someone who is trying to feed four football-playing teenage sons.

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Mr. Everyday Dollar September 13, 2012 at 11:40 am

What a great idea! Even though I am frugal I still enjoy the challenge of walking in other peoples shoes who have even less than I do. In fact, I just watched a great movie about Sudanese men given the opportunity to move to the U.S., which was a real eye-opener about the differences between Third and First Worlds, monetary and otherwise (http://mreverydaydollar.com/the-third-world-perspective-of-the-u-s/).

Keep us posted, I would participate!

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Lindsey September 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm

I am going to sound like McScrooge, but I have a job that involves going to people’s homes and looking at their finances. I would say that 90% of the folks who say they are poor are not financially poor, they are poor at making choices. Last week was very typical. I saw a family that depends on food stamps and public assistance, but they have cable TV, both adults and all three children have iPhones (I don’t even have an iPhone!), and televisions in every bedroom. Yet, they qualify as poor and are always going to the food bank because they have spent through their food stamps; the kids were complaining that they only get to go to McDonalds the week their welfare check comes in. I have recently given my notice, in part because I have run out of sympathy—which is not fair to clients because I think it is starting to taint how I evaluate folks. I very, very seldom see anyone truly poor, anyone going hungry. And I am sorry if life interferes with them being able to make things from scratch, like soup or beans, but life interferes with my efforts, too. So, instead of watching TV at night, I fix lunches and put on beans to soak…Well, actually, I don’t have cable and can’t get TV, so I put the video on pause and do what I need to do. I think people need budgeting assistance more often than they need sympathy.

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Rachel September 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm

I hear you Lindsey. We have family members who claim they have no money but won’t sacrifice their “luxuries” (yet they call them necessities) because that is what they have become accustomed to, yet their income has changed now. I don’t feel sorry for them and feel no obligation to help them when they won’t help themselves. Everyone has the right to make their own choices but they get the consequences that go with them too. I really think that no one has ever taught them how to properly budget their money, how to live within their means and how to better themselves. It’s like they have no idea how to prioritise their spending – bills, necessary living expenses and food first, then whatever is left is “play money”.
I agree with the above poster who wondered about the pantry/freezer items already owned and how to calculate that? My average would be $120-$140 per week for all grocery items (food, cleaning products, personal care, etc) but some weeks it’s more, others it’s less. I have a fairly well stocked pantry and freezer – I shop me meat in bulk and freeze it in meal size portions. If I were to go and buy individual items for the week (small portions and all ingredients) there is no way I could stick to my budget – it only works because I already have the spices, flours, cans, etc, then only have to buy replacements of the ones that have run out. I remember going on my first shopping trip when we moved to our own home – I don’t think I got change out of $400 and that was just to buy all the basic pantry staples.

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EcoCatLady September 13, 2012 at 9:01 pm

Gotta say you struck a chord with me too. I haven’t worked with the poor, but I spent 16 years running a music school and working with musicians… which is practically the same thing. One day I was counseling one of my teachers who was literally in tears because her student load had dropped off and she was in desperate financial shape.

We sat and planned how to get her more students and more income, and when the session was over I complimented her on the outfit she was wearing. Her response was something like this: “Oh thanks! I just got it… and it was a steal! The blouse was only $75 and the pants $150.”

I literally had to pick my jaw up off the floor! That’s more money than I spend on clothes in an entire year… in several years actually!

So Lindsey, I totally agree – I’m sure there are folks out there who genuinely need financial assistance, but by in large, what most people need is a bit of education on how NOT to spend their money!

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Poor to Rich a Day at a Time September 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm

I wish I could but I also never do these challenges as there is no challenge here for me. While not on snap, we do live on a one worker minimum wage earner and for a family of 5 I usually only spend on average $250 for a whole month which includes personal products and toilet paper. a couple months a year maybe spend $400 but other months spend less than the $250. So I already spend quite a bit less a month here than the snap challenge. I am not typical either as I make many things from scratch and cold cereal is a rare treat! I also make our garden the Star in the summer months making main courses based off of what is coming in at the moment. But good luck to everyone who does this, as always I love reading those who do find this a challenge!

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Laura/ReaderWoman September 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm

I’d be willing to give it a whirl, in the interests of learning something new! We are two seniors, living on social security, and while I do pretty well, I get awfully bored sometimes!

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Paige September 13, 2012 at 3:20 pm

I’m all for it!! I have a blended family. Together my husband and I have 5 kids (yours,mine and ours). We are both first responders(he:firefighter, me:emergency dispatcher), and with school, living expenses, and extracurricular activities, sometimes the money runs out before the month. I cook from scratch all the time, so I’m ready to get into it!

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Loobie September 13, 2012 at 4:12 pm

I hear you Lindsay! I recently stayed with relatives who claim poverty when it comes to putting good food on the table but who each had an iphone AND an ipad and who proudly showed me their new 55 inch TV. In the five days I stayed with them, I bought $250 worth of groceries and cooked four out of the five meals. It was good, basic, simple and nutritious food with lots of fresh fruit and veggies, and by their reactions (and their children’s reactions) stuff they never eat. I guess some people just have different priorities in life, but it is hard to see them making some of the choices they do.

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Kim c September 13, 2012 at 4:20 pm

I am always so inspired by your blog. I was never taught to properly handle budgeting growing up. I have worked hard to figure things out on my own and I feel like the one area I fail is in spending too much on groceries. I am going to give this challenge some thought and try to come up with a better plan for my family. Thanks for lighting a fire under me to make much needed improvements!

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Kyrie September 13, 2012 at 4:58 pm

These types of “challenges” to show how “easy” it is (and the accompanying comments from all the people who assume they know all the choices that people on food stamps make) always make me sad and defensive about my own choices, food and otherwise. Our circumstances have changed over the past year, requiring us to live on 1/3 of our previous income, and we are making the best of it.

We are a family of six. Five of the six of us are celiac. We rely on food stamps and the charity of our friends who are farmers for the full extent of our food. Our rent alone (for an 840sqft home) eats up half of our paycheck, and we are usually able, after paying for gas for my husband and I to go to work, to pay about 80% of our essential bills. Meaning, water, electricity, and garbage. We have no TV, and our phones are paid for by my workplace. I’m grateful that we are fed, but we find it challenging just to purchase things like personal products.

I am able and willing to cook from scratch, and I think we eat pretty well. There are no little bellies hungry at my house, but there are also NO luxury purchases or convenience purchases, ever, and frankly, I think everyone deserves a modicum of luxury and convenience. EVEN POOR PEOPLE.

Food is not a moral choice. Using food stamps isn’t either. It’s hard to see these types of discussions come up and not feel judged.

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Rosa September 13, 2012 at 6:34 pm

well, I for one am in awe. I fail the foodstamp challenge every time. Having to always be in control of every penny is really freaking hard – when I had to do it, there was always plenty of food (yay dumpster diving) and it was STILL hard. And I didn’t have a kid then.

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EcoCatLady September 13, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Kyrie – you make some excellent points here… and I certainly don’t begrudge ANYONE public assistance, or think that raising such a big family would be “easy” under ANY circumstances. It sounds to me like you are doing a remarkable job.

My perspective is this… I have lived very near to the poverty level for most of my adult life. Granted, I have done this by choice because I’m pretty much unwilling to play the societal games required to earn a bigger income. But I really, really do understand not being able to afford basic things like food and personal products because I’ve been there.

My frustration is that I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by people who have SOOOO much more money and resources than I do, yet always seem to be broke. It gets REALLY frustrating when people who make 4-5 times the amount of money that I do are always asking me for loans and complaining about how hard they have it. I’ve even been accused of being a “trust fund baby” because apparently people assume that’s the only way I could be living happily on so little income!

I can’t speak for anyone else, but reading some of the comments here, my guess is that some of the “what’s wrong with these people?” sentiments that you’re reading here, are coming from people with a similar perspective to mine.

Anyhow, that’s my take on it.
-Cat

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Rachel September 13, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Where I live in Australia we have a social security system where you get paid if you are unemployed or studying, and family benefits for those raising kids (which offsets the tax paid by the income earner(s)) but no “food stamp” system. You get the payments from the government fortnightly based on your income (for a family that is a combined income) and low income earners are eligible for concession cards to give discounts off utilities, entry to places, public transport, etc. When my husband and I got married and moved into our own place we were both still full time students and while my hubby did some casual work to supplement, we relied on the government assistance to live. I don’t say it’s easy but we survived. In fact, I often think we lived a much less complicated existence when we had no mortgage, no car payments, and we were forced to “get by” with what we had – no credit cards. We never ate out (and still rarely do), we had no pay TV (and still don’t), we didn’t go on expensive holidays (and still don’t – we go camping) but we were happy to be content with what we had.
The comment I wrote earlier related to people – in my case people who are related to me – giving me their sop story about being in debt and who “can’t afford” things when they have pay TV (in excess of $100 per month), expensive phone plans (combined amounts to hundreds per month), expensive car loans, etc, and then cry that they are broke and can’t afford this or that. Other family members have offered their advice to cut out some of their expenses but they basically took offence that they would even consider suggesting that they cut some of these expenses. These are not people who receive government benefits, but I guarantee there are people who do who would have a better financial health.
I do have regard for those who make it work on benefits – we used to ourselves but again, a lot of people have no idea about financial priorities.

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Mary@Everyday Baby Steps September 15, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Kyrie, thank you so much for putting it so succinctly. Everyone does deserve the luxury of convenience. I wrote an entire blog post about it recently entitled, “I Buy Pizza and Soda With My Food Stamps.” It was in answer to a debate I had with a “friend” who thought someone who would buy those things was taking advantage of the system. She was quite surprised when I informed her I do the same thing with MY food stamps. I hoped in my post to give an account of what the average food stamp recipient is like. It’s very frustrating to hear the judgements.

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Anne September 13, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Kyrie,

“I think everyone deserves a modicum of luxury and convenience, EVEN POOR PEOPLE.”

Of course, they do, no one disagrees. Just not at someone else’s expense.

The vast majority of people want to help those who are truly in need. We only get our noses out of joint when we realize we have completely different definitions of “need” than some people.

I work at a food bank. There are those people you want to take home and nurture and love and stuff with good things to eat.

And then there are a few others………..

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Amanda @ The Fun Mommy September 13, 2012 at 6:15 pm

I would definitely do a challenge like that! I agree with many of your points. It’s easy for some people, like myself, to say that eating within a $112/week budget is doable. But I also stay at home with my children and one of the main reasons I’m able to do that is that I cook everything from scratch, so I’m used to a small food budget.

Perhaps a challenge done with limited time, like someone with a busier schedule and full time job might have? Hmmm…

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Margaret September 13, 2012 at 6:17 pm

I can’t promise that we will participate. We have a new baby in the house and do our very best to stick to the grocery budget, buy in bulk, cook from scratch, etc. But I am letting myself off the hook and taking baby steps back to my super efficient frugal cooking routine.

However, I have really enjoyed reading these in the past. I think the challenge really brings to light the complexity of this issue. I love reading your posts as well as all the comments from readers. I learn a lot of practical stuff for my own life and I gain a deeper understanding of others. I love that.

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Rosa September 13, 2012 at 6:36 pm

I’d sign up! I have been struggling with our food budget all year – got it down near $500/mo but that required effort.

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susan September 13, 2012 at 6:39 pm

I would be interested in taking part in the SNAP challenge as well.
I’m almost 60, early retired w/ a bad heart – a pacemaker/icd keeps me alive.
I get food stamps ($83.00) per month and have food restrictions which make it hard. I am limited to 5 total fat grams per 24 hours – when my heart went bad, my pancreas went along for the ride.
But I do make it work – quite well as a matter of fact.
Thanks for reading!

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Shelly September 13, 2012 at 6:43 pm

I read the food day article too. I was thinking how could they not get by on that amount. But I have to come to realize that many people just don’t know how to cook or shop frugally. I learned to shop frugally from my mom and I also learned to can and freeze food as a child helping my mom. Also I think many people nowadays don’t know how to cook from scratch. My mom did a lot of what I call box cooking. But I did learn some basics from my great grandma.

I would really like to participate in a food stamp challenge. Right now I feed our family of 4 on $300 a month. I stick within that budget by using a cash only system. We eat mostly from scratch foods and lots of fruits and veggies. I do purchase some boxed foods but always only on sale. I usually stock my pantry well, But I would be up for trying a challenge with only what I purchase for the week.

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Lucy September 14, 2012 at 4:21 am

Figuring out how to do the challenge would be too much of a challenge for me. In June I planned meals (not assigned to each day, but loosely assigned to months) for the period of September to June. I started stockpiling in July when my freezer and pantry were nearly empty, only buying items that were on sale at a good price. I have a very few items left to fill out my list of needs, and spent between $700 and $750 doing it (hard to figure exactly how much of that we ate during the summer). In general I am not happy unless the “total saved” on my store receipt says 35% or more. Only fresh items needed going forward and I’m pretty happy. It’s just my hubby and I now, but he has a special diet for health reasons and I have multiple food allergies. Anyway, I’m calling this my planned pantry. We’ll see how it works out!

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psmflowerlady/Tammy September 14, 2012 at 4:28 am

I did this when you did it in 2010? Anyway – it was very eye-opening. My pantry and freezer are pretty well-stocked. And very importantly – that didn’t happen for free and without effort, nor did it happen without being raised in a home that was a good example. I wonder how many people on SNAP have had that luxury? I honestly believe that we ALL should be required to take Home-Ec in High School. Seriously. Where do we expect young people to learn these skills? If your only grocery is the convenience store that sells convenience food and that’s all you’ve ever eaten, how would someone know about canning, freezing, etc.? I agree that many people who use public assistance aren’t making as good of choices as many others – but where would they learn to make better choices? Certainly not on TV where they are bombarded with marketing of the choices that make someone else money! It’s very easy to judge others, but I try to remember that not everyone learned how to be frugal. I think we forget that people don’t get financially “poor” by necessarily making great choices. Sometimes people’s financial situation is a result of conditions beyond their control, sometimes a result of poor choices. The benefits go to both – but to expect people to magically begin making good decisions is just not rational. I think that people who receive the benefits ought to also be provided/required to learn how to use them wisely. Think about a chicken. You can get a nice roaster for about the same price as you can get an 8-piece container of grocery-fried chicken. I can guantee that a frugal person could get about 3 meals or more (depending on family size, etc.) from that roaster chicken but if you’ve never learned how to roast a chicken, make stock and combine exsting food into casseroles, soups, etc. then you likely will look at both options as being the same and might opt for the pre-cooked option which really is not frugal at all. So, I guess my point is that the system is set up for failure if we only “give” people food and not the resources to use it to nourish their families. I have a crockpot and use it constantly. I have many, many options. Unfortunately, the people who need the tools and options that I already have don’t receive that – they only get money for food. I think they and everyone would be better served if when receiving asssistance – the first debit card were accompanied by a crockpot, couple pounds of rice, roaster chicken, milk, some flour, salt, sugar, oil, eggs and some recipes/meal plans and a coupon, offer for cooking lessons. Completion of the lessons could include the supplies for additional pantry loading or fresh produce. I know, it’s pie in the sky and I’m rambling. I just honestly believe that if we always do what has always been done, that we’ll always get what we’ve always got. We’ve created a system that gives people food money but not the skills to use it wisely and then blame them for it. Frustrating.

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mrs.p September 14, 2012 at 5:19 am

My daughter is taking home ec and they learned to use the microwave. LOL They didn’t even make a complete meal.

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Kayla Kramer September 14, 2012 at 11:29 am

A microwave lesson does seem funny to frugal people like us. But my students come from such a variety of backgrounds that a meal made in the microwave is sometimes their best choice.

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Tonya September 14, 2012 at 5:28 am

Great points. People don’t just wake up one day and start making “better choices”. THey have to be taught and nutured along.

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Alexandra September 14, 2012 at 6:02 am

Really great points. Most of the young people I know today rely on convenience foods and have no thought to cooking, freezing, stretching the food dollar. I didn’t read the Tightwad Gazette until I was in my late 20’s but it taught me more than I ever learned at home about frugality especially regarding food. From there i became proud of my frugal homemaking skills. I love to share my knowledge with young people and many have been interested.

A great book on this subject is “Radical Homemakers” by Shannon Hayes. One of her points is we MUST teach cooking to our young people. This is a fabulous book. Don’t worry, it isn’t trying to keep women at home!

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Jen September 14, 2012 at 8:32 am

I agree. I see young couples wandering the store and their carts are full of convenience foods, because they don’t know how to cook. Our alternative high school began offering a cooking class on Mondays this year–the students cook a big pot of soup and make rolls or cornbread that they eat for lunches. Many of the kids had never eaten soup that did not come from a can. To those of us who grew up with cooking grandparents or parents, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to put beans in the crockpot, but I think to many of today’s teenagers it’s an incomprehensible project. It’s not that they aren’t smart enough, it’s that they are completely unaware of the option.

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Ellie September 14, 2012 at 9:06 pm

I think this is a great point, and it’s not about “judging” people.

I understand why Katy made the more recent post about not judging poor people’s food choices, because we never know the whole story.

BUT…there is another issue here, that I don’t think is about “judgement”, at least not exactly.

It’s about the fact that often, people LACK SKILLS AND INFORMATION to make the best choices, and it’s detrimental to them. There is a pervasive lack of basic cooking and budgeting skills, and that lack hurts many people. It’s not just poor people either – I see it just as much in middle and upper-middle class people who lack cooking and budgeting skills.

I have friends who are middle-class but living on a tight budget, who buy unhealthy convenience foods because the partner who works part time actually just has no idea how to cook – nobody ever taught him, he’s clueless (and his wife, who works full time, doesn’t know either, and couldn’t teach him even if she had time). I have friends and relatives who have upper-middle class incomes but who seem to live paycheck-to-paycheck and struggle with debt because they lack budgeting skills in genreal, and they also foolishly waste a lot of food. They don’t seem to know any better. And then of course, there are the people on public assistance, who often may not be getting the full value of the little money they have to spend in part because they simply lack budgeting knowledge and cooking skills.

I don’t know what the answer is either…I think my main point is that I don’t think it’s being “judgemental” to say that there are people of all income levels who may be making worse choices than they need to – and hurting themselves – because they are uninformed and untrained/unskilled in certain necessary areas…and I’m not sure we’re doing people any favors if we choose to just ignore this problem. But I don’t know the solution either…sigh….

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Katy September 14, 2012 at 9:55 pm

My solution is to just provide money saving content almost 365 days per year for almost 4-1/2 years.

I am constantly learning new ways to save money, and hope other people are as well.

Katy

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Ellie September 15, 2012 at 5:47 am

And Katy, I think you are doing an excellent service! I’ve gotten numerous ideas and inspirations from you!

My point is just that I think the original poster was right – we need a little more substantial and far-reaching public education than just blogs. Not targteted at poor people to save “us” tax money – targeted at everyone, for everybody’s benefit!

I tend to agree that the removal of home economics from our schools was a mistake. I do think that our society could benefit if home ec were a required course in EVERY high school, whether it’s a low-income public scool or an expensive private prep school! And it should certainly be a co-ed requirement, not something “for girls”! I do think good quality home economics education has at least the potential to help a lot of people of all income levels manage their money better, and make cooking less of a “niche” skill that too many people lack….and maybe even serve to counter the constant consumer messages to over-spend a bit.

But of course…there is always “no money” for education, students always have “more important” things to learn, a lot of schools are in so much trouble as it is…hence the feeling that it’s a “pipe dream.” And let’s face it – as a consumer society, we probably just lack the collective will to encourage less consumption / less wasteful consumption on any kind of “official” level like a school curriculum. I guess I just find this kind of sad and depressing sometimes, is all.

None of us make perfect choices all the time…but if you have budgeting skills and know how to cook, you’re lucky to have those tools, and have an advantage in taking care of yourself and your family. I wish we had more than just blogs – as wonderful as your blog and many others are – to spread this knowledge to more people.

Hope this wasn’t ranting (at least not too much).

Somebody upthread mentioned the book “Radical Homemaking”, and I think it’s a very interesting read – even if you don’t reach all the same conclusions as the author, she summarizes a lot of interesting information about American family life and economics and how we got to this point as a consumer society, and makes some thought-provoking arguments. I think what I was trying to get at (however inarticulate I am) is related to her points in that book.

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Laure September 14, 2012 at 5:09 am

Interesting. As a household of 1, I spend $100-$125/month. Does that mean I already meet the challenge? For a certain medical reason, I cannot eat meat, so that instantly cuts out a more expensive category.
Also, your post made me think back to era before there was frozen pizza, and individual skinless, boneless chicken breasts to buy…seemingly everyone was forced to cook from scratch, which was both healthier and cheaper. Your blog made me think that maybe the “advances” in the area of food weren’t really advances at all.

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Robin September 14, 2012 at 5:30 am

Sometimes when I read your posts I think, oh yes I could SO totally do that! But then I remind myself – wait I have two YOUNG children and work 40 hours a week – Katy has a lot more free time. So, now I’ve changed my mindset and am just letting decorating and all the fun craft projects kinda of stew in the back of my head. When I see the peeling wallpaper in the kitchen I just think – that’s a project for when the kids don’t need/want me as much any more. Right now they want mommy ALL the time. I try hard to remember that the days are long, but the years are short and I really want to enjoy these short younger years. So, sadly, no – I am not interested in participating in a week long snap challenge – NOW — give me … oh ~5 years and then I might have the time!

Robin
Cary, NC

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Alexandra September 14, 2012 at 6:07 am

Another great book/resource about eating well but frugally is “The Feast Nearby” by Robin Mather. She lives singly on$40 per week. Great recipes included!

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Jennifer September 14, 2012 at 7:37 am

My family of four lives in Florida. (Boys ages 12 and 3) My husband is a truck driver, so he plans meals separately from our family meals approximately 5 days each week. Our budget is $110 per week for all of our food (including his eating out occasionally). Some weeks are a bit tight, but most weeks I have a few dollars left over for a splurge, or to roll-over to the next week. This includes toiletries, and some organic products. Seems perfectly feasible to me!

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Mary September 14, 2012 at 9:25 am

So after all these posts, can I get a few things straight? $4/person/week, for food (not toiletries). Using pantry items is ok; stocking shelves prior to challenge is not. Cooking from scratch is most frugal but not required. Simple approach: take challenge allowance to the store Sunday and spend it on items for the week, and don’t go back to the store until the challenge is over. (if necessary). Did I forget anything?

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Dave Blake September 14, 2012 at 10:17 am

Willing Compacst member. Single-family household, so no economies of size. Like you, I buy on sale and/or in bulk for non- or low-perishables, so I would prefer to do the difficult math (I like math) and keep track of the dollar value of my used-up stock, rather than replace it at immediate retail.

One problem: I run political campaigns, so the days before the first Tuesday in November in even-numbered years are stressful for me, and, depending on lots of factors, I may have to forgo participation.

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Mindy @ Debt Free By 26 September 14, 2012 at 11:40 am

I would participate in this challenge, however we already spend way less on our food budget than this would allow. It’s just my husband and I = $56/week per this challenge. In reality I only spend an average of $26 a week on groceries for us. But, I will follow along and see if I can pick up any tips from other readers!

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Katy September 14, 2012 at 11:42 am

Great, I look forward to hearing how you keep your expenses so low!

Katy

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Dawn September 17, 2012 at 3:06 am

Hi..new subscriber here.just wanted to share a little about this ch allenge . As the mother of a devlopmentaaly disabled daughter who receives food stamp it is always my challenge to help her purchase food to last through out the whole month. However the one thing people need to remember is that food stamps are meant to be a supplement to your budget..NOT..your whole food budget for the month…many people complain that they can’t make it on what they receive on food stamps, and well, the truth is your not suppose to..it’s to supplement your food budget for the month….With that being said…It is VERY easy to strech your foodstamps to last the month….but it requires alot of planning, stocking up during sales, a few meatless meals. and very few convience foods. I will post a few ideas for you that I have used to help my daughter. We usually shop once a week and stick to the sale items..we also stock up on items when they are on sale..it will take a few months to build up a pantry supply but it does work.We also do alot of weekly cooking and package up meals in single serving size meals and freeze. I am not a huge couponer, but I do take advantage of them to help reduce cost if the store brand is not cheaper. Also if you plan your meals around the loss leaders you can really save some money! Eggs are a great source of protien and are realatively cheap. Farmers markets in our area afford double food stamp value for low-income…so if you want to spend $20.00 on produce….you give them your snap card and they give you a extra $20.00 voucher…so you can get $40.00 of produce for $20.00..which is a awesome deal..and the farmers love it because they are able to sell more of there produce and end up with less waste..it’s a win win situation for all. I don’t want to right a book here and will post again later with a few easy recipes that strech your dollar!

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