Today was the first day of my participation in the SNAP Challenge. Naturally, I started the morning by going grocery shopping. I don’t have a car on campus and didn’t want to buy food from ETC or another campus location because the prices here are heavily inflated and I wanted to be able to buy as much food for as low a price as possible. I think that this is a common mentality for people relying on SNAP benefits for their grocery money. $4.40 a day doesn’t get you very much so you have to spend it wisely and try to get as much bang for your buck.
I considered walking to the nearest grocery store, in the Village Shopping Center, which was just over a mile away. But I woke up later than I planned and ended up renting a Zipcar and driving to Walmart, which I thought would be cheaper than the Martin’s in the Village anyway. Right away, I already felt like I was cheating the system. The whole point of the SNAP Challenge is to lead a lifestyle similar to those who live off of the benefits from the program. People living on SNAP don’t have the luxury of renting a Zipcar if they wake up late or don’t feel like walking. They often have to take public transportation when they go to buy groceries. If they wake up late, they’re probably not going to make it the grocery store that day because they have to go to work; maybe even more than one job and/or shift. I really felt like I should have walked to make the experience of the SNAP Challenge more authentic but I also really didn’t want to be late for the meetings I had that day. My urge for promptness won out.
The transportation issue set aside, I was actually looking forward to going grocery shopping. I do a fair amount of the shopping when I’m home because my mom works full time with hour and half commute both ways (hooray for DC traffic). I do generally enjoy getting to be out and about, running errands and the like. But this was a whole new experience; for several reasons. First of all, I decided to shop at Walmart because it was close to campus and fairly cheap. My family never goes to Walmart. We usually go to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or the Fresh Market because they carry food that follows our no-gluten, no-dairy, no-sugar diet. But people on SNAP aren’t able to shop at these high-end grocery stores. It’s just too expensive and often out of the way. For example, the nearest Trader Joe’s is 20 minutes by car from campus. So Walmart is was. Secondly, I walked right past the fresh fruits and vegetables. You know how stores generally put the fresh produce right in front? Its the first thing you see in almost every grocery store and it’s usually where I spend the most time (and money) shopping–trying the find the freshest, ripest, prettiest produce. Not this time. I walked past and went straight for the bulk items. I figured that, once I picked up the other stuff I needed, I could revisit the produce if I had enough money left over. And did I make it back? The answer is no, I did not.
So what did I buy? What does one purchase to make sure they have enough sustenance for a week? Well, here’s the list, with the individual cost of each item:
- Raisin Bran Cereal, $3.98
- Milk, $2.02
- 4-pack of individual easy-mac, $2.96 (I bought 2)
- Peas, $0.68
- Pork and beans, $2.38
- Bread, $1.48
- Peanut butter, $4.37
- Family-size Lay’s potato chips, $2.50
In the end, I spent $23.33. I had some money left over ($6), just in case I really really need coffee or a late night snack one day. While I was shopping, I was surprised at how cheap some things were but also realized how quickly one can spend their SNAP benefits. I definitely had to put things back on shelves. I had to prioritize what I was going to buy and I realized that I was probably going to eat the same thing for each meal every day of the week. Cereal with milk for breakfast. A peanut butter sandwich for lunch. Mac & cheese and/or pork and beans for dinner. I know I’m going to get bored but I also know that this how so many people relying on SNAP have to eat.
In studying food justice and the issue of food insecurity, we often learn about how people on SNAP or otherwise don’t have great access to food eat lots of junk food because its cheap and filling. One of the things I noticed while shopping was that the bulk cereal for sale was all sugary crap. It was all Cocoa Puffs and Fruity Pebbles and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. The closest thing to healthy was the Raisin Bran, and even that wasn’t available in a big bulk bag. In addition, I straight up couldn’t buy anything branded. The Kraft mac & cheese was $1.50 more expensive than Walmart’s Great Value brand. Now, I’m not someone’s who has to have branded things. But that is important to some people. Having the choice to buy the branded things is something most of take for granted. Only having the option to buy the value brand is psychologically demeaning to people experiencing food insecurity.