End of the SNAP Challenge

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I’m catching up with my end of the year work and realized I never wrote a final post for our Food Stamps Challenge.  It also just so happens that today we were in the newspaper; the Gillette News Record ran a story about our challenge, along with some pictures of Chris cooking (taken by Daniel Brenner). 

If you are interested in reading it, I uploaded a PDF of the article here.  (By the way, I forgot to mention a couple of weeks ago my blog was written about in the Gillette News Record  (being in the paper twice in one month is how you know Gillette is a small town…).  That article, about local food bloggers, can be read here.)

As far as the challenge went, we ended up doing much better than we thought we would.  For the month of December, excluding the one free pass date night, we spent $388.16 on food, which was significantly under our $4/ person/day budget ($4 x 4 people x 31 days = $496).  I’ll be the first to admit that I was surprised at how easy this was.  There were some sacrifices but if you look at the list of what we bought, you’ll see that not once did we have to resort to ramen, peanut butter, and canned vegetables.  We did use some things we already had, but I wouldn’t put that at more than $40 or $50 extra dollars.

On our SNAP budget, we still bought only organic dairy and cage-free eggs.  A lot of our produce was organic.  We spent the money ($19!!) on REAL maple syrup rather than the cheap high-fructose corn syrup concoction most people buy.  I was able to bake three dozen cookies as a donation to P.E.O./the Parade of Homes.  And though we did not eat those cookies, we still had a dessert/treat every week, like Nora’s special request for banana split ice cream cones


with homemade fudge, strawberry, and pineapple sauces, yum!

Don’t get me wrong, we did sacrifice during the challenge and we did make some pretty significant changes, it just didn’t require us to be under-nourished or eat junky food.

The biggest change came after I went out and priced our staples at the two main grocery stores.


I realized that I had been shopping at the wrong store.  I started shopping both stores instead of one to get the best deals in town (Chris did not always do this if he went shopping on his own) and we switched from shopping completely at Albertsons to shopping mostly at Smith’s.

For the sake of the budget, we gave up things like fancy cheese and a lot of convenience foods, such as baby food pouches I was buying for something quick to feed/entertain Zara while I was cooking dinner or otherwise occupied.  Chris cut his meat consumption down to once per week, and tried to curb his tendency to snack.

I’m almost ashamed to admit the biggest change… before December came around, we were spending sometimes upwards of $150 per week in restaurants.  If I’m being honest, eating out was one of our biggest monthly expenses.  When we moved to Gillette, we were in the position of having a lot more expendable income between Chris’ increased salary and the lower cost of living, and we used a big part of it on eating out for convenience (convenience is all it really was considering how bad most of the restaurants are in this town).  With the SNAP Challenge, we really had to cut back on going to restaurants out of laziness.  I’ll admit, there were moments that I sort of hated that, but at the same time I’m glad that it made us get back into the kitchen and go back to the basics — like when I ran out of bread and instead of going to the store to buy more, we used what we had on hand to bake some.  


When we lived on Nantucket I never bought bread.  Never.  But for some reason I really don’t know, I didn’t go back to baking my own bread after we got settled.  Until I did this as part of the challenge, I had forgotten how much I love baking my own bread…perhaps that’s something to get back to in the new year?

There were a few instances last month when I ran out of an ingredient and had to get creative.  Once I was out of butter, but wanted to make an apple pie to feed friends we had invited over for an impromptu dinner (black bean soup and dill rice with cheese, sour cream, onions, and jalapenos as topping choices), so I ended up substituting some canola oil and yogurt in the pie crust.  It turned out fine, though not as flaky as a butter crust so I probably wouldn’t do it again unless in a similar pinch.  Another time, I needed to make cookies for a cookie swap but didn’t have eggs so I used yogurt instead, and those turned out to be the best sugar cookies I have ever baked.  (Once I get a chance to remake them, I’ll try to share a recipe.)  And, of course, a lot of creativity was required the week that I couldn’t go grocery shopping because we had spent nearly all our budget eating out at restaurants down in Cheyenne.


I wouldn’t say that we had a ton of variety over the month.  We saved money by buying the largest unit (with the lowest per unit price) of each food item, which means there were a lot of repeats.  There were a ton of black beans, and I mean a ton — we might have eaten them four or five days out of every week.  Rice and potatoes were common.  Breakfast all month was a choice of oatmeal, plain yogurt, or oatmeal mixed with plain yogurt.  Frozen peas were a staple for the kids, and since I had canned tomatoes over the summer many meals had a tomato component.  Lentils were a fairly regular staple, too.

Most of our meals were fairly simple (especially if I was cooking them), but we also tried to use spices, sauces, and toppings to make meals using the same ingredients seem different, for example:


roasted sweet potato and cauliflower over rice, fried tofu and scallions with soy sauce and sriracha (not on the kid’s)



sweet potato, cauliflower and rice, but this time with black beans, monterey jack cheese, and salsa.   In some ways it was the exact same meal, but changing up the sauce/toppings made it feel completely different.

When the reporter asked me what my biggest takeaway from the challenge was, I told her I was most surprised by how easy it was for us to eat real food and stay so far under budget.  I keep hearing over and over in the media about how one of the challenges for low-income families is being able to afford real food…that it is cheaper to buy pop and chips and the like than it is to buy vegetables, but after doing the SNAP Challenge I am honestly mystified as to how that can be true.  We never once bought “cheap calories” or fake food and we were always feeding our family for less than $100 per week.  The one week that I went over budget was the one week I let Nora pick out a bunch of snacks in an attempt to stop her from eating chips before I got out of bed in the morning, which tells me that it’s the snack food and convenience foods that are expensive, not real, raw ingredients.  Last week, for example, I spent $98 on groceries and this was what I got:


All real food.  Lots of organic food.  A few splurges like the ravioli and taco bowls.  And several items that will last us more than one week: that amount of milk, butter, sour cream and cheese will usually last our family two weeks; the oil, sugar, onions, potatoes, frozen peas and corn, black beans, ketchup, peanut butter will last us three or more weeks.  (We always have “carry overs” because I buy the biggest containers for the most savings over time.  We had veggies left from the week before plus some staples so there were things I did not have to buy but that we ate last week.)  Having seen this first hand really makes me wonder where the information (myth?) about junk food being cheaper is coming from.  It makes me think people would benefit from more education on scratch cooking as a way of saving money and eating healthier.

Overall, I am glad we did the SNAP challenge, mostly because it helped us get our spending back under control.  We are food people; we’ll always spend more on food than others might because we take so much pleasure in it, but it was good for us to remember that there are sometimes better places to spend our money than at a restaurant just because we feel too lazy to cook.  Doing the challenge has also gotten me more interested in the education aspect, and Chris and I have been brainstorming ideas about ways we might be able to get more information out there about eating real food on a budget.

I’d love to hear what you think about all this!  Leave me a comment and let me know what your grocery spending looks like.  Do you think I’m right about real food being affordable or am I missing something?

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13 responses

  1. lindsay watt Avatar
    lindsay watt

    I think its awesome you guys did this. I dont know I would know how to cook so much from scratch… Also I wasn’t raised eating things like black beans or lentils and haven’t ever developed a taste for them although I know they are healthy budget friendly options…. I would peobably get caught in a trap of pbj grilled cheese and soup if i did this challenge… lol

    1. I know what you mean about not being used to eating beans. The only beans I ate growing up were baked beans. It wasn’t until I met Chris that I learned to cook and eat beans (I was a bad vegetarian before then just eating lots of veggies and not a ton of protein). Now I eat all sorts of beans, lentils, and things like hummus, and I am converted. Not only is it considerably cheaper but they are actually quite delicious. Maybe I should try to share more bean recipes?

  2. Hi Amber! I don’t usually comment but wanted to say hello. ๐Ÿ™‚ Reading about your experience with this challenge is really interesting. Kudos to you for trying this out for a whole month – it seems like you really learned a lot! I think that knowing how to cook is a big part of the picture – so many people really never learned how. I think another huge factor is time. For single parents or families where both people are working multiple jobs or tons of working hours, the conveniency foods or junk foods can feel like the most they have time for. Have you ever seen Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution? It was a really interesting show centered around these kinds of issues. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Laura. I think you’re right about the time thing. I know I even felt that way sometimes between everything I was doing and I wasn’t even working full time. There were definitely times when I could understand why people buy frozen food to cook at home rather than scratch cooking (if you look at my shopping list there was a day when I broke down and bought frozen pizza). It’s been a long time since I saw Jamie Oliver’s show but now that you mention it, I do think I remember him trying to tackle some of these issues. I think I might go try to find some of teh shows now. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I think there are some other issues that you’re missing about the larger context of life in systemic poverty. Many people living in poverty have a hard time accessing healthier foods (no car, no grocery stores selling affordable produce nearby). Time is also at a premium – if both you and Chris were working 60-80 hours per week with grueling public transit commutes, you might not have time to do a lot of scratch cooking, nor a lot of energy once you get home. You might live in substandard housing where pests make food storage difficult, and you might not have a comprehensive stock of kitchen appliances, utensils, etc. that facilitate food preparation. There is also the psychology-of-poverty aspect, that it’s cognitively taxing to be poor, and it’s demonstrably much more difficult to make good, rational long-term choices when you are living in poverty.

    Now, I think that many people – at all income levels! – could benefit from learning to eat more real, whole foods and cook from scratch. Our society would be far better for it. But I also think there’s a danger in overgeneralizing from your particular, fairly privileged situation to what everyone else should be able to do. It’s just not that simple.

    1. Thank you for stating this so clearly Becky. I had many similar thoughts but was unable to formulate a comment that was so informed without sounding unpleasant.

    2. I agree – this is a really well-stated comment. There are a lot of neighborhoods where fresh produce is just not available, and time is such an important consideration. Some guys in Boston are starting a produce truck to sell vegetables and fruits in areas where they aren’t available. Such a great idea: https://www.facebook.com/thefreshtruck

    3. I really appreciate your input, Becky, and I agree you make some great points about people living in extreme poverty.

      I’ve sometimes wondered what poorer people in Gillette do to go grocery shopping if they don’t have their own vehicle — there are no buses here. When we lived on Nantucket I always walked or biked to the grocery store (bringing groceries home in a stroller or bike trailer), but the weather is a lot more harsh in northern Wyoming and I’m not sure that would be possible year-round in this part of the country. I also agree that access to fresh produce and more than just convenience stores is a real problem in some areas of the U.S. — both inner city and very rural areas. This part of the country has something called Bountiful Baskets which is a food co-op that provides a basket of fresh produce intended to feed a family of four for $15/week. While we ultimately decided it wasn’t for us,it is a great way to save over shopping at the grocery store. I would hope more and more programs like that will come into existence.

      As far as time, I have mixed feelings about the validity of that as an argument. Sure, there are plenty of fancy meals that take a lot of time to make, but if you are willing to eat a lot of more basic things there are plenty of meals that can be made from scratch in a short amount of time. There are whole websites devoted to crockpot and freezer cooking that have recipes which can be made in minutes. Also, a big thing I have always done is make huge batches of food and then eat leftovers for days. It gets a little boring, but it saves time all the following days when meals only have to be microwaved. Salads are inexpensive, very healthy and only take minutes to assemble. I cook most vegetables, whether fresh or frozen, in the microwave which cuts down on time and effort. Even homemade bread can be made in a small amount of time (look up “artisan bread in five minutes a day”).

      I agree that people in extreme poverty, especially those who are homeless, have additional challenges when it comes to food storage and preparation tools, but while I’ll be the first to admit that we have more than our fair share of fancy kitchen gadgets, I don’t want anyone to think that we relied on a lot of those fancy kitchen tools during the challenge. Most of our meals were cooked with some very basic implements – a cutting board, a knife, a pot and/or pan, a cookie sheet, a rubber spatula, a cheese grater, and the microwave were the main things we used. I cooked with my stovetop and microwave much more than often than my oven. I’m not going to argue that people living in homeless shelters or hotels don’t have significant barriers to cooking real food, but I think anyone with a basic kitchen (or even a hot plate and microwave) can’t do it if given the right education and knowledge to do so.

      The psychological aspects of poverty are truly a concern and impediment, and I’ll be the first to say I don’t have some grand solution to that. I’m also not sure how we get more of the cooking information out to people, especially if they don’t have access to the internet and can’t look up recipes on the fly. Perhaps we need to add gardening and cooking classes back into our school system and make them a significant part of every child’s education? Perhaps we need to allocate more of our tax dollars to offer free cooking classes to individuals and families receiving SNAP, WIC, and food bank benefits? Maybe we should use tax dollars to write a cookbook that includes very simple, fast recipes which can be cooked in a variety of under equipped settings, that we can handout for free to people who cannot attend the classes? I think we also need to make sure that we are doing our best as a community to help lift people out of poverty in other ways so that food becomes less of an issue.

  4. While I also think there are a lot of underlying issues those in poverty face, it is a general misconception that healthy food is significantly more expensive. I love this challenge! Grant even mentioned we should do it (any by “we” he means “me” ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). While I’m not quite at that point, I have at least sat down and planned out dinners for the week and intend on making one grocery store trip today for the ENTIRE week! Yeah… go me! ๐Ÿ™‚ Ps… the apple pie was delicious even with a “not as flaky” crust!!

  5. Christie Elliott Avatar
    Christie Elliott

    Hi Amber! I read your article in the News Record and read that you are a web designer and graphic designer. I am interested in finding a web designer to help me with my current website. If you could contact me that would be great.


  6. Would you mind sharing your bread recipe? Thanks! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Unfortunately, I don’t really have a recipe for this particular bread since I winged it, but I do have a couple bread recipes on my recipe page.

  7. myhealthychef Avatar

    That’s awesome that you were able to feed your family for a month on less than $400. That’s my goal for just my husband and I and we don’t always succeed… I’m inspired to do better!

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