LiveWell Northwest Colorado: SNAP Challenge more challenging than expected

Barb Parnell/For Steamboat Today

Last month, I wrote an article inviting the community to take the SNAP challenge for up to seven days with my husband and me. The challenge was to consume no more than $4.50 worth of food or beverages per person per day.

Why did I invite you to take the SNAP Challenge with us? It was an opportunity to gain a better understanding of what more than 10 percent of our community experiences every day as they are making food and beverage choices.

SNAP is the federal nutrition program 569 households in Routt County depend upon for their food each month, and $4.50 is the average amount of money people on SNAP benefits have to spend on food and beverages every day.

What did we learn from this experience? My husband and I did a brief SNAP challenge for three days, and it was one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had.

Food choices are more severely limited than I expected.

• Budgeting only goes so far. I regard myself as a very thrifty shopper and thought for sure we spent less than $9.00 on food and beverages for the two of us each day. We do not. I found myself meticulously counting the amount we had spent for breakfast, lunch and snacks, trying to figure out what we could have for dinner with the “little” money (averaging $4.30) left for the rest of the day.

• Eating five servings of fruits and vegetables each day on this budget is almost impossible. Carrots were the cheapest vegetable at 79 cents per pound. Bananas were the cheapest fruit to eat at 52 cents per pound. A typical apple costs about 30 cents, and this is buying them in season at 99 cents per pound.

• You need to be very creative with protein. Turkey lunchmeat on sale costs about $4.99 per pound (or 31 cents per ounce), while a serving of peanut butter is about 14 cents. We would easily use three ounces of turkey on one sandwich, which is a whopping 93 cents just for the turkey. We opted to eat much less protein than we normally eat so we could have more vegetables for dinner. Steak was never on the menu.

• Variety comes at a cost. Since we don’t eat cold cereals for breakfast, we ate the same “cheap” breakfast every morning — oatmeal costing about 15 cents per serving — instead of two eggs with a cost 25 cents each or Greek yogurt at 60 cents for a large serving. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich costs about 44 cents, while a turkey sandwich was $1.15.

We could not “afford” some things we like to indulge in every day as “treats.”

• I like a specialty tea mid-morning and fruit and vegetable snacks throughout the day.

• We like an adult beverage or snack at night.

• My husband likes peanut butter filled pretzels for a snack, really grainy breads and craisins in his oatmeal.

• We like to eat protein with every meal and lots of it.

• We like to avoid eating low-cost carbs.

The $4.50 allotment per person does not seem to be “fairly” distributed.

• I found myself giving my husband some of my $4.50 allotment so he would have the energy he needed for the day.

• This, I now understand, is very typical of families on SNAP; parents tend to eat less so their children can have more food.

I became obsessed with food.

• I was hungry, or at least told myself I was hungry, all day long.

• I literally exhausted myself with planning, calculating how much money we had used already, what I could “sneak” in as a snack and how much we had left for dinner or to carry over into the next day.

I am embarrassed to say I was glad we agreed to do the challenge for only three days, and it did not include a weekend day. While I now have a better understanding of the difficult food choice decisions many families in our community face every day, I cannot imagine having to do this day in and day out.

Believe me, there was no room in the “budget” for high cost foods (e.g., steak) that many of us believe those on SNAP can afford.

Thank you for allowing me to share our SNAP challenge story. I hope this gives you a better picture of what more than 3,000 in our community experience every day. I encourage you to continue to support efforts through the Northwest Colorado Community Coalition that works to address food access issues for our community.

Barb Parnell, Ph.D., is community coordinator for LiveWell Northwest Colorado.

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