SNAP benefits are $4.20 per person per day in North Carolina. The challenge lasts 5 days, my household is 1 person, so $4.20 x 5 = $21.00 for the week’s food budget.
I have a little experience planning and cooking on small food budgets from my time spent in Brethren Volunteer Service and living in intentional community. I have a repertoire of cheap and relatively easy meals: beans and rice, lentils, eggs, lots and lots of potatoes.
In the BVS house where I lived, we had housemates who were vegetarian AND gluten free, and we ate on $3/day. There were 9 of us in that house, though, so the pennies stretched a lot farther. The cooking had to be creative to accommodate diets, but we almost never had a problem with affording enough to feed us all.
Cooking on a budget gets a lot harder when you’re doing it alone, though. $21 is not very much money.
I usually shop at the Target superstore, ten minutes from my house. My neighborhood is something of a food desert – there is a supermarket on the corner called Los Primos, but I have yet to gather enough courage to check it out. There are bars on the windows, people always loitering in the parking lot, and the big banners advertising their prices are mostly for cheap soft drinks. One of my goals this week was to walk over and explore the neighborhood grocery, but I confess that it did not happen.
The next closest grocery stores are Harris Teeter and Whole Foods, both about 3 miles away and both with sky-high prices.
In terms of groceries accessible to someone without their own car, in my neighborhood it’s either Los Primos (renewing my commitment to walk over later today) or the various convenience stores scattered across street corners.
Target is the cheapest of those stores, but even Target’s prices aren’t low enough to make eating on $4/day possible. So, I drove all the way to the other side of town, to Aldi – 13 miles away.
Aldi has rock bottom prices. I got *almost* everything on my list for $20 even. I forgot, though, that Aldi is able to keep their prices so low because of the little tricks they do to keep overhead low: no bags, no bagger, pay a quarter to get a cart. I forgot both a quarter and my bags. Luckily, as soon as I got out of my car, a kind woman gave me her cart, quarter-free. I did end up having to buy a bag, though, in order to get everything from the cart to my car and my car to my apartment, which tacked on $2 to my total bill.
meal planning // 12 mile journey to Aldi // $20 on the nose
So. I’d spent $18 on food, and still needed coconut milk, regular milk, and tahini for the homemade hummus plan. I drove back across town to the Food Lion by Duke – cheaper than either Harris Teeter or Whole Foods – and spent another $2.29 for milk, $4.18 for 2 cans of coconut milk and a whopping $7.29 for a bottle of tahini. $13.76. Adding that to the $18 Aldi expense, I’d already spent $31.76 for the week, $10 over budget before I even began.
I shared my meals with three other people on Monday alone, which I think might make up for $3 of that overage.
$7 over budget.
And, I have filled my fridge and freezer with leftovers. The food I made will easily feed me and/or others for 7 more meals, beyond this week.
The challenge is manufactured, of course. That $31 didn’t include all the pantry staples I’ve taken advantage of over the course of this week, and I also had plenty of money in my checking account to buy all the other essentials I needed – toilet paper, gas for my car, dog food, new socks and dishwasher detergent. Going over budget on my grocery shopping trip didn’t affect any of my other financial needs this week, unlike someone whose checking account has many fewer expendable dollars. I have so many stopgaps that are inaccessible to people qualifying for SNAP.
It’s the tiny, taken-for-granted things that I am forced to appreciate this week: access to reliable transportation, a cupboard full of sugar, flour, peanut butter and dried fruit, a no-fee checking account, the layer upon layer of safety netting piled under me – friends, family, quality insurance, middle-class privilege, etc., etc., etc.
This challenge is manufactured – I don’t need SNAP benefits, and I’m not even entirely relying on them this week. But it is also allowing me to see my life incrementally more as it actually is, to acknowledge my privilege and begin to think about ways to own, leverage, and use it for good.
pb&banana oats // lentil curry…AGAIN // date night = CHEESEBURGER (almost as excited about getting to eat off a PLATE)