Last month I participated in the SNAP food stamp challenge, an awareness program sponsored by Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The organization sent out notices to all Central Florida chefs to take just one day and eat only the allotment that would be available on the average daily food stamp allowance of $6.67. Five chefs accepted the challenge. I asked if I could participate, too.
The idea of a restaurant critic, someone who routinely spends more the $6.67 on a single cup of soup served as part of a multi-course meal, having to restrict himself to a full day of food for that amount was an interesting challenge. Actually, the hardest part of accepting the throw-down was finding a day that I didn’t have to visit a restaurant and thus violate the rules of the game. Those rules included not accepting free food from friends or family members, and not using food already in the home, except for condiments and spices.
I said “rules of the game.” Let’s be clear: this was a game, an amusing “what if” exercise designed to raise awareness of the plight of people on food stamps, and to possibly show that with creativity and food knowledge, one could eat nutritionally on a limited budget. I’m fortunate that I make enough to keep me out of the food stamp line. But let’s also be clear about something else: few of us are immune from the cascading events that can quickly toss one into financial ruin. The loss of a job, catastrophic health setbacks, even bad investments of what we thought were safely secure savings -- any number of situations can change our good fortune.
No one knows that better than Ed Murrieta, the former restaurant critic for the Tacoma News Tribune, who left his job at the newspaper in 2008 to start his own restaurant related website. (Sound familiar?) When the economy went south, so did his nascent business. So someone who had a monthly budget of $1300 just to eat in restaurants suddenly -- frighteningly suddenly -- found himself with a total income of $200 per month. The food stamp program was his only choice.
Murrieta wrote about his experience on food stamps for an article published May 30, 2010, in Seattle Times Magazine, and republished on his website.
I did not find myself shopping the dollar stores for cans of mystery meat, or for packages of food with questionable ingredients. But I did wander the aisles of Publix looking for options that would keep me within that $6.67 budget. And I had to stop myself from considering items that, though cheap, contained dubious ingredients. It’s easy to grab a pack of hot dogs and other highly processed foods that will fill the belly but which will ultimately have an effect on nutritional health.
(I get a bit riled when people comment about overweight people who appear to also be poor. Invariably there will be a snide remark that “apparently she has enough to eat.” It isn’t always how much people eat, it’s also what they eat that is making us a country of fat people. But that’s a discussion for another time.)
Here’s what I had for my day on the food stamp diet.
I began with a single hard-boiled egg. This was not a hardship, it’s what I have for breakfast almost every day of the week. I did not buy a single egg, but from a dozen eggs purchased at $1.89, the egg cost was 16 cents.
For lunch I made a turkey sandwich on a ciabatta roll with a bit of pepperjack cheese. The two slices of turkey were about 60 cents; the roll was an extravagance at 89 cents. I had one ounce of the cheese from an eight-ounce package purchased at $2.50, so 31 cents worth.
For a mid afternoon snack I had a fresh fuji apple, which cost $1.06 but may have been one of the most nutritional things I ate all day.
For dinner I had purchased a pork steak for $2.46, which I grilled and served with half a sauteed onion (40 cents), half a can of black beans ( 40 cents), the only canned item I purchased, and about 20 cents worth of rice.
Total for the day: about $6.48.
Dinner was quite filling, and I did not go to be hungry.
But I knew that the following day I would be having three -- three! -- full restaurant meals. But now I’ll look at those “professional” meals differently, knowing that the day after that, things could be quite different.
The chefs who participated in the SNAP challenge included Kevin Fonzo of K restaurant, Marco Colon and Ed Colleran of Universal Studios, Jamie McFadden, Cuisiniers, and Hari and Jenneffer Pulapaka of Cress. The Pulapakas, by the way, extended the program to a full week, and they calculated the cost of gas to drive to the store into their daily allotment.