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Your take: Could you live on food stamps?

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Could your family make it on food stamps?Today the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, popularly known as food stamps, will take a fairly substantial hit, with the maximum benefit from a family of four falling from $668 to $632, amounting to $432 less per year in benefits. Overall, the cuts will shrink the average payout per meal from around $1.50 now down to about $1.40, according to CBS Moneywatch.

SNAP has become something of a political football in recent months. Republicans in Congress want to make deep cuts to benefits, especially when it comes to food benefits for able-bodied adults, to get rid of some of the U.S. government’s red ink. Democrats generally want to keep in place additional SNAP funding originally packaged with the 2009 stimulus, citing its positive effects on the still weak U.S. economy and the needs of the millions of Americans still unable to find work.

This year celebrities and politicians on both sides have done the “SNAP Challenge,” which involves trying to live on the food those benefits will buy for a short period of time, either to call attention to how difficult making ends meet on a SNAP food budget is, or to try and prove that it’s no big deal.

I don’t know if I’m quite ready to take on the SNAP Challenge myself, but the cuts taking effect today definitely had me wondering if my family could make it on even the maximum benefit of about $1.75 per person, per meal.

We consider ourselves fairly thrifty people when it comes to grocery shopping. We always eat all our leftovers, we rarely waste food thanks to my wife’s ability to salvage food that may be close to past its prime, we clip coupons and we almost never buy premium brands of anything. Still, this month my family spent $655.09 at Publix. That’s already more than the maximum benefit, and most families on SNAP get far less because they have some money coming in.

In addition to our Publix purchases, we participate in a discount produce-buying club that costs us $50 a week. By the time you add that in, we’re spending $855.09 a month on food, or $2.38 per person per meal, nearly a third more than the maximum monthly benefit for food stamps as of today. And although we have two kids, they’re 5 and 2, so they don’t have the appetites they will when they’re in their teens.

For me it’s telling that almost the entire amount I went over was the fresh produce we get every week. It suggests to me that if we ever have to take advantage of SNAP, we’d be on our own when it comes to furnishing our kids with fruit and veggies.

It’s true that the S in SNAP stands for “supplemental,” meaning it’s designed to shore up your grocery budget rather than be the sole source of food for families. But however the program is intended, there are tons of people who are still hurting from the worst financial crisis in 80 years, and they rely on SNAP to put food on their tables, a task that will be a little harder from now on.

What do you think? Could you make it on $1.75 per person per meal, the maximum SNAP benefit for a family of four? What do you think you’d have to give up? I’m especially interested in hearing from people who have received SNAP benefits.

(Photo: Clementine Gallot)

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24 Responses to “Your take: Could you live on food stamps?”

  1. Cindy says:

    Some months, our grocery budget for our family of 2 adults, 5 kids (and one on the way) falls below the amount a family of four would get. Last month wasn’t one of those months, as we spent closer to $800, but the month before that, it was $500 and change. So yes, if we had to, we could do it on what SNAP provides. I wouldn’t enjoy it, but I’m pretty sure these programs aren’t supposed to make life easy, just keep you alive until you can (hopefully) do better for yourself.

  2. christine says:

    I never understand what people are buying when I read that this is barely scraping by. I spend about $75 a week for 2 adults and one teenage boy. We eat inexpensive meat most days, mostly fresh produce except peas/corn, organic milk. Leftovers for lunch. I will occasionally make brownies or cookies. Don’t buy soda or chips. Nuts, yogurt for snacks. Eggs, bacon, pancakes for breakfast in weekends. I buy mineral water on sale and make iced tea with lemon simple syrup.

    This is not a money problem, this is a COOKING problem. It’s a junk food and prepared food problem.

    As an aside, kids in this scenario probably also get free school lunch and possibly breakfast.

    • Karl says:

      I agree. We spend $450 for 2 adults and one child. Buy basics and learn to cook. Oatmeal is 6 cents a serving and is higher in complex carbs, higher in fiber and lower in simple sugars than cereals. Eggs are something like 10 cents a piece. Vegetables are relatively inexpensive especially when you buy in season and on sale or at cheaper stores. Very little processed foods. No high fructose corn syrup dominated snacks.

      Lets teach ourselves and fellow Americans to be smarter, more resilient, more creative and responsible.

      It seems obvious to me that covering 100%+ of a persons needs is a mistake. I know people on food stamps and they told me that it is too much so they sell the excess for cigarettes and alcohol (true anecdote).

      Please don’t think I’m ignorant of real needs. I think we should have these programs. They should be given to less people and less $/ person

      Also, before my points are muted by accusations that I am an out of touch political zealot: let’s cut the military, farm subsidies, and reduce corporate tax loopholes while we’re cutting food stamps.

  3. Claes Bell says:

    Cindy: Yes, there are definitely times when we spend less, and times when we spend more. We could probably cut back if we were willing to eat less healthy food and fresh produce.

    christine: $75 a week … that’s great! We also don’t buy much in the way of junk food or prepared food, and we cook just about all our meals.

  4. Clearly there’s no way to eat a healthful, nutritious diet for $1.40 (or $1.50) per meal. (Kraft Dinner is not health food.) In the long run, society will spend more on healthcare as a result of poor nutrition. Like so much our wonderful politicians do, ideologically smart but fiscally stupid.

    • Jordan says:

      Clearly you don’t know what you’re talking about. One example out of a thousand: a cup of brown rice and some frozen fresh vegetables with a dash of low sodium soy sauce and a squirt of sriracha is less than $1.40 and will make more than one meal. I’m afraid you may be ideologically and fiscally stupid.

  5. Wilma says:

    I grew up in a low income family and then ended up a single parent. I got through by being smart with my money. You can eat well on less. The oatmeal mentioned above me was one way. You don’t need meat at every meal. Omelets make the eggs go further.

    You can buy fruits & vegies at your local farmers market that are about to expire for $1. You may have to freeze them right away or make smoothies but it’s nutritional. Day old bread is cheap and can be frozen. Just thaw & toast. One pot meals like chili, spaghetti and soups can help out your budget too. Have cereal or pancakes for supper once a week. Get creative.

    When I see what’s in the cart of some of the EBT card users I can understand why they can’t make it. You have to be disciplined, make foods from scratch and learn to like left overs.

  6. annette says:

    live in New York — very generous with taxpayer money for social programs. SNAP is rife with fraud and many sell their food stamps for cash. At one time there were restrictions on what one could buy with food stamps — no more — so many could care less about eating “healthy”.Social justice organizations would have you believe that hundreds of thousands of children go hungry each day in spite of billions spent on free breakfast & lunch programs in poor school districts. SNAP should be a hand up not a permanent hand out except to the elderly, sick & disabled. I grew up in a low income family where pasta and old bread were staples but we got thru without government help. A family of four receiving up to $7500 in SNAP benefits with the cut is still very generous

  7. Carol Ann says:

    I could not make it on SNAP alone. I try to save on groceries by cooking most of my own meals and using leftovers but, fruit juices, and fresh fruits and vegetables bust my budget every time. I have read the stories about what people who tried and did live on SNAP benefits bought and ate and for the most part they bought crap that my Grandparents would not consider food or even feed to their pigs. The only way I could see living within my means on SNAP would be to grow my own vegetables and barter for eggs and meat.

  8. 3billygoats says:

    The author spends $50/week for fresh produce? That # makes me even more thankful for my garden–we eat fresh vegetables year round for pennies. I realize that everyone does not have time (yes, I work full-time) or space for a garden, but $50 seems a little excessive. Are there no “pick your own” farms where you live? Trust me, I’m not judging anyone’s grocery bill. That figure made my jaw drop.

  9. I could live like a king on that amount. My partner and I don’t spend that much on food now. We use coupons and take advantage of sales. We eat out occasionally. Last month we spent $120 on food. The most we spent was in July: $377. We don’t buy much processed food, either (usually the only processed foods are just the free stuff we get after coupons). Mystery shopping also helps mitigate the budget.

  10. Holly says:

    I could (DO) live spend less on food than is covered in the SNAP program.

    I am a single person household. I closely control portions. Eat at least 2 decent servings of quality protein, 1 fruit and 4-5 servings of veggies/day.

    i eat a LOT of chicken (leg quarters, whole) & cottage cheese and infrequent lentil or bean meal. i will buy clearance meat and day old bread or rolls.

    I spen less that $150/month on ALL food, cleaning supplies, cat food & litter and personal care stuff.
    NOTHING but food is covered by SNAP.

  11. I just calculated that out and they are counting 12 meals per day multiplied by 30 days = 360 meals. That’s $1.75 per meal. However, in most cases when a family is on food stamps, the children are eligible for free breakfast and lunch at school. That’s ~40 less meals per month. That changes it to $1.97 per person per meal, about $8 per meal. Or $24/day. If you eat “real” food and leave the processed foods at the store, the soda, and other empty calories, that is not too bad. Still, it means careful planning and limiting food purchases to what’s on sale at the store, plus omitting “empty” calorie foods like soda and cake and cookies.

  12. Rose says:

    I am on SS – so rented two rooms to foreign students. One had a job awaiting until just after she arrived…the sequester elimated the contract to provide prostectics for veterans. She has worked all day to find another job for three months…facing considerable bias – OMG -a beautiful woman in the SE. She was properly raised but has been forced to get food stamps for her and her 5 yr. old. I feel I could not throw them out into the street – she is so bright and so far from her homeland. Now, she needs a job to pay for flight-tickets to go back to England. We struggle with the help of Must Ministries whose shelves are becoming bare from the overload of the unemployed. ‘TIS disgusting that the Congress continues inaction in the face of robber-barons that put us into this mess. Repubs let our gov’t services suffer to deny that the US gov’t and big business owe back monies stolen against the laws of the land :(

  13. dojo says:

    Cook at home, watch for the sales, buy smart, don’t waste money on soda and other crap things. The food stamps are meant for the family to SURVIVE and, from what I read from other past commenters, it’s quite possible to stay within this budget even if you’re not on food stamps.

  14. jestjack says:

    MAN…I’m torn. On the one hand I’m no fan of waste especially when it comes to tax dollars. But I see the prices at the grocery store….especially red meat. I’m thinking feeding a family of 4 on $5.60 a day is a real challenge. In my neck of the woods several legislators took the “Snap challenge” … with one lawmaker sharing that he found himself “worrying and thinking” about food all the time. Wondering if he was going to stay under budget. I could live on the budget but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be easy…

    • Gus says:

      I’m not sure that is the correct question-one would have to look at the entire budget,how long on foodstamps,efforts to get work etc.

  15. HenryB says:

    Unfortunately, the food choices for SNAP recipients who are homeless are pretty limited. The folks we work with prior to entering Family Promise had issues with access to a kitchen, so they were stuck with processed food.The local food pantry has had an ongoing issue keeping food on their shelves, so these cuts cannot be easily absorbed at the local level.

  16. voiceinthewildnerness says:

    It is very dependent on where you live. If you live in the inner city, food prices are much higher than if you live in a small town in the Midwest. I travel a lot for my work and the differences are amazing. Fresh produce can cost 3-5 times as much. Other basics don’t vary as much, but can still be considerably higher. There are not farmer markets readily available every where and most don’t accept SNAP.

  17. Elizabeth says:

    I hate that many people whol work full time have to turn to SNAP because multinational billion dollar corporations refuse to pay a living wage.

  18. Ginger says:

    When I was in college and working my way through school I received benefits briefly. It was a joke no one can feed a family of four on snap without using about cash on top of the benefits. It is a joke as the person receiving benefits is penalized for cash earned. I had to cut my hours at work just to break even. These cuts are definitely a BAD idea.

  19. freeby50 says:

    Couple points. First the figure they cite at $668/month for a family of 4 is the MAXIMUM benefit amount. Most people don’t get the maximum. Average SNAP benefit in July 2013 was $132/month per person. Thats still averages out to $1.47 per meal which is ‘doable’. Even the max is $1.85. You can feed yourself at that amount but it can be a challenge.

    Also keep in mind that if you eat out at all then thats another meal you’re not buying groceries for. Most people do eat out some so that should be figured in. THe average household in the US spends just about as much money eating out as they do spend on groceries.

    And lastly the people reading personal finance blogs are probably among the more frugal and do a much better job with food budgets than average. Sure you can feed yourself on 50 cents a day or whatever but thats really not the norm.

  20. adam carolla fan says:

    just shop at the 99 cent store. for 99 cent i bought 3 1-litre bottles of zico chocolate coconut water. spent 20 bucks…bought 60 of em. still ain’t done with em yet. some good drinking.

  21. Suz says:

    I could not live on 1.40 per meal. Our family of three spends, on food, about $85 per week or $340 per month. But if would be a once chunk out of our bill. Food must be healthy and tasty so in order to do that, you must make most of it by hand. Limiting mixes and convenience packed foods is important. I portion out my own snacks for lunches. It takes work, effort, and diligence. We only earn about 50,000 per year and own a house and 3 used cars! and never buy on credit. Why do we do these things? Because we would never take a hand out. We live in New Jersey and it’s expensive here, but we choose to live a frugal life so we can take care of OURSELVES. I too feel food stamps are a hand out. Yes I want to see lil one eat 3 squares a day and elderly too, but when you add in the fact that the adults in charge often are not working, smokers, over weight, “religious” and won’t work, and in my opinion making poor choices with their buying, and collect other monies from the government and most of them are able to work at some job, I wonder how well my tax money is being used. Not to mention the corruption in the govt. I some times feel resentful. Just my opinion.


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