Tucson Food Stamp Challenge: A Teachable Moment


Food-stamp32-sig-sm72by Pamela Powers Hannley

September is Hunger Action Month. Locally, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona is encouraging Tucson residents to take the SNAP (food stamp) challenge by trying to live on $4 of food per person per day.

If you follow my blog, you know that I write regularly about poverty and imperiled social safety net programs, including food stamps and other nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels and school lunches. When the food bank called me and asked if I wanted to join the SNAP Challenge and blog about it, I jumped on board. I was intrigued by Cory Booker’s food stamp challenge blogging and video and wanted to try it.

My husband and I both participated in the SNAP challenge this week. Since there were 2 of us doing it, our allotment was $32 for the 4 days of the challenge. Read about our experience after the jump.

Broccoli39-sm72On Sunday, with SNAP in mind, we purchased $20 of food– mostly bulk grains and vegetables– at Sprouts in midtown Tucson and purchased a few additional items– like butter and ground turkey– at Fry’s on Monday. It was the first time in years that I looked at every price, weighed all of my purchases, scouted for items that were on sale, and looked for cheaper alternatives to regular purchases (like buying a 1 lb block of butter in a plain wrapper for $2.79 , instead of 4 quarters individually wrapped and boxed for $4.39 or buying Roma tomatoes for $.99/lb rather than vine ripened tomatoes for twice the price).

What we purchased (above) was almost as interesting as what we didn’t purchase.

We bought: a 5lb bag potatoes, 2 sweet potatoes, 3 Roma tomatoes, 1 head of broccoli, 1 head of Romaine lettuce, 2 ears of corn, 1 lb of brown rice, 1 lb of dried black beans, 1 cantaloupe, 1 package of whole wheat tortillas, 1 mango, 1 small bag of carrots, 2 Hatch chillies, 12 eggs, cheese, 1 lb of ground turkey, 1 block o’ butter, tofu, and $4 worth of coffee. Our most expensive food item was the ground turkey at $3.79, followed by tortillas ($2.99), and eggs and butter ($2.79 each). We spent about $10 total on all of the fruits and vegetables.

Food items that we usually buy– but didn’t– include: salmon, chicken breast, lunch meat, Kefir, Greek yogurt, expensive cheese, crackers, chips, good bread, milk, olive oil, prepared sauces, specialty foods, non-dairy ice cream, and a wider variety of fruits and vegetables. What’s interesting to note is the number of protein-rich foods we couldn’t afford to buy.

Having read many Facebook posts and the food bank’s communal blog written by other SNAP challenge participants, I think we did pretty well, compared to some others who tried this. Although we probably didn’t consume enough protein during the past 4 days, we didn’t go hungry, we didn’t run out of food, and, for the most part, we ate well and included many fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in our meals– not junk food.

Although we ate slightly different items at some meals (since I am a vegetarian and he isn’t), we cooked our usual 3 meals per day over the 4 days. Some food choices got repetitious– particularly the tofu and black beans– because it’s difficult to create a variety of meals with the same ingredients. Creativity helped a lot– in coming up with different combinations and with making substitutions based upon what’s available. For example, we always cook with olive oil, but since we didn’t buy oil with our SNAP allotment, we ended up cooking with butter. (The butter was a tasty change of pace for us, but it’s interesting to note that we had to make an unhealthy choice because of our limited food budget.)

Our dinner menus included vegetable and tofu fried rice on Tuesday; corn on the cob, steamed sweet potatoes, and salad with lettuce, tomato, and carrots on Wednesday; and cheese and Hatch chili omelette with sauted sweet potatoes on Thursday. Lunches consisted of a bowl of black beans with salad; broccoli, brown rice, and cheese burritos; ground turkey, brown rice, and cheese burritos; black bean, potato, and cheese burritos; or stir-fry leftovers. The stir-fry meal is a good example of a modified regular dish we make because we had limited veggies and no prepared sauces to spike it up. The $.22 worth of fresh chilies really came in handy several times– including in the stir-fry. Stretching small quantities of food is another skill learned on the SNAP challenge. It was amazing how my husband stretched that one pound of ground turkey out over 4 days– fashioning it into burritos for lunch and self-styled meat patties to eat with his morning egg and home fries.

There are lessons learned here on the SNAP challenge.

It takes a lot of planning, creativity, and home cooking to exist on the food stamp allotment of $4/day/person. For the most part, we made the SNAP allotment work for us by shopping frugally, cooking everything from scratch, and making trade-offs. But we have life skills and education that many food stamp recipients don’t have– like a masters in public health. An 18-year-old single mom would have a much harder time creating healthy meals for herself and her child on this meager amount of money than we did.

It’s easier to live on SNAP when you’re a couple (without kids). Getting $32 for the 2 of us enabled us to buy a wider range of food. I think it would be extremely difficult to live on food stamps if you are a single parent with a child because you would be constantly saying, “No, we can’t afford to buy that.” Prepared foods– cereal, peanut butter, cookies, chips, frozen dinners, soda, candy– are marketed heavily to children. It was easy for us to bypass all of those pricey items.

Buying bulk foods and shopping sales saves money. Sprouts has a wide variety of bulk grains, fruits, and vegetables at affordable prices. It was a good choice for the bulk of our SNAP shopping because we could buy one pound of black beans for $1.69 or one pound of brown rice for $.99, instead of large prepackaged bags.

Living on foods stamps is about making wise choices and trade-offs. The bottomline is: on SNAP you can’t buy or eat what you want when you want– especially meat, fish, and chicken. When you’re on such a strict food budget, you have to make tough choices. The lack of variety– particularly in protein-rich foods– got boring for me, but beyond “boring”, it’s not healthy to have such a limited diet.

The official 4-day challenge ends today– Friday– but you can still take the challenge and try living on a $4/day/person food stamp budget. Living on SNAP is anything but a snap. If you’re in the cut food stamps political camp, put your money where your mouth is and take the SNAP challenge.

Like what you read here? Check out my Word Press blog Tucson-Progressive.com, my Tumblr page, or my Facebook page.


  1. We don’t like margarine, and it’s a less healthy than butter. White tortillas are cheaper than whole wheat, but again we were willing to pay more for the healthier choice.

    Yes– that was one of my points: we both cook, and we took the time to plan and cook meals from scratch. If you’re working more than one low-wage job and/or going to school and/or taking care of little kids– you don’t have the time to do the amount of cooking we did.

    One of the Arizona Public Media reporters took the challenge and had a similar experience to ours, except they went to multiple stores shopping sales.

  2. Pamela, I’m gong to skip the challenge and defer to your conclusions. I’m already convinced that $4 per day is an absurdly low budget for food.

    Bruce’s point about the relative costs of butter and margarine is important. What we’re doing is forcing folks to make bad choices. Many will choose margarine over butter. But butter is the healthier of the two. What kind of society are we to force people into choices like that?

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