Challenge Accepted: Eating on $28 for a Week

March 10, 2014 | Christine Hradek


Occasionally I see articles on the news or social media about a politician or celebrity taking “the SNAP challenge.” It sounds like a new reality show, but it’s actually a fascinating process. During the SNAP challenge participants limit their food budget to what they would receive if they participated in SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). I’ve always been interested in people’s motivations for doing this and the realizations they come to while trying to eat well on a very tight budget.

I coordinate two nutrition education programs for Iowa families who are trying to eat well and stick to their budget. The programs are called EFNEP and FNP. We help families build their knowledge and skills so they can make the most of limited food dollars. You can find more information about these programs on our website.

I decided to turn my curiosity into action and take the challenge myself. As a single person, my budget for the week was approximately $28. SNAP is meant to be supplemental, but for many low-income families it is their primary source of food dollars so I limited myself to the $28 amount. My goal was to buy seven days’ worth of healthy meals, snacks, and beverages for that price. I have spent several years working to understand the needs and desires of the families we serve and going into this I felt pretty confident that I had a good handle on what eating well on a budget was like.

I came to understand that the knowledge and skills we teach are vital, but knowing what to do and how to do it are not enough. Time became the most important piece of the puzzle for me. In order to stay within my budget and eat healthy, I had to commit significantly more time to planning my meals, shopping, and preparing food from scratch than I would typically do. I did this for a week and I recognize it doesn’t compare to families who do it on a continuous basis. As I wrapped up my challenge, I reflected on the experience and a few realizations rose to the top for me.

  1. SNAP ChallengeCooking is a critical skill. I could not have done this if I was dependent on convenience foods. It’s as simple as that. I had to cook and I had to get creative about meals. If I did not feel confident to prep food myself and make the most of ingredients, I would have gotten far less for my money. I had to stretch my more expensive ingredients like meat and vegetables with less expensive ones like brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and beans.
  2. Shopping smart takes skill, time, and strategy. I started my shopping trip with a rough plan for what I wanted to buy, but I had to stay flexible at the store as I saw prices and sales. I figured unit prices for items sold in different forms (fresh/frozen/canned) and calculated my total as I moved through the store.
  3. Food nourishes our bodies, but it does more than that. It tends to be central to our family traditions and a huge part of our routines and lifestyles. I did not go hungry during this challenge, but I did find myself fixated on the foods I could not afford and the things I couldn’t do because of my limited budget. I worried about running out of food and found myself referencing my meal plan regularly to make sure I was covered for the rest of the week. I can see this stress being magnified if I was responsible for feeding a family.

The SNAP challenge is an eye-opening experience. As I planned, shopped and prepared meals on a limited income, I fully appreciated the resources we make available on the Spend Smart. Eat Smart website.

Our blogs for the rest of the month will focus on experiences others have had with the SNAP challenge – including a dietitian and nutrition professor, and a very well-known Ames family. Try the challenge yourself; you can find more information at the Feeding America website.

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Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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