A few years ago, inspired by a post I read on Goop, I decided to take the Food Stamp Challenge. My work as a food writer has been primarily focused on budget-friendly cooking, so this seemed like a worthy endeavor to test my skills. Additionally, I care a great deal about fighting the hunger crisis in the U.S., and I wanted to understand what it’s like to be limited to government-issued funds in a grocery store. So, I spent a week living on $29 worth of groceries.
It was … not easy. I had to consider every bite that passed my lips, and many of the random little indulgences I often enjoy like lattes, smoothies and snacks were nixed, as were restaurant meals and take-out.
I started the challenge by going shopping at my local Trader Joe’s, where I picked up dry beans and rice, wheat bread, tortillas, some cheddar cheese, a few canned and fresh vegetables including garlic and onions, a bottle of hot sauce, their least expensive bottle of olive oil and a dozen eggs. I was surprised by how quickly the items added up (I just barely made it, with a total of $28.77), and felt grateful to have access to a TJ’s, where things tend to be relatively inexpensive. My haul definitely would have been more expensive if I had purchased it at another large grocery chain.
Throughout the week, I focused on beans and eggs for protein, with the other ingredients serving as sides. Because I didn’t have room in my budget for spices, I focused on adding flavor to my meals using garlic, onions and hot sauce. It was somewhat repetitive and required a lot of creativity on my part, but I managed to put together some simple, tasty meals.
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The Trump administration recently announced that it wants to change the model of the SNAP program from a funds allotment that goes directly to recipients to a USDA Foods box containing “shelf-stable milk, ready-to-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables,” which would account for at least half of a recipients’ benefits. The boxes would not contain any fresh produce.
When I reflect on my experience with the Food Stamp Challenge and my relationship with cooking in general, this news is troubling to me. First of all, when you’re spending less than $30 per person per week on food, it’s extremely important to be able to shop strategically, both to stretch the limited funds as far as possible and to best accommodate your family’s food preferences. These boxes don’t take either of these issues into account, and severely limit recipients’ ability to choose what to cook for their families. Additionally, their contents sound nutritionally questionable.
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Having to grocery shop on an extreme budget — especially when you’re feeding a family — is objectively challenging. And replacing the freedom to choose what one buys on that budget with a predetermined box of ingredients is not a step in the right direction.
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