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This blog is devoted to my attempt to eat well and healthfully from October 24-November 25, 2009 on the maximum allowance (which assumes no other income) a single person can receive under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, colloquially known as 'food stamps.'

Please check out these posts first:Throughout the month, I will be posting thoughts, articles, and essays about food, nutrition, eating cheaply, and other food security and nutrition-related content, as well as my daily menus with recipes and photos.

I've learned a lot about what kinds of foods make me feel the best and help my body work at its best. Last year I did an experiment with a One Touch Ultra to see how different foods affected my blood sugar (I am insulin resistant). Whole grains and refined flours affect it almost the same, rapidly and badly. Fruits and vegetables by themselves drive it up very quickly. My meals must have good quantities of protein and fat.

My diet isn't perfect, nor is it a pinnacle of any of the traditions or programs you hear about. I am emphatically not vegetarian, and I definitely do not follow all USDA nutrition guidelines.  I'm a bit of a food Unitarian Universalist. A little bit of Weston A. Price, a little bit Glycemic Index, a little bit Zone, a little bit Locavore, a little bit "I am so hungry right now I don't &^^&$ care." Less of that last one, though, I hope.

I encourage everyone to listen to their bodies and find what works for them. I know people who maintain a healthy weight eating mostly grains and no meat; likewise, I know people who are vegetarian and quite overweight. I know people who live off raw milk and dairy products and pork and are very thin and in terrific health.

Therefore, the recipes and meal structure you find in this blog is heavily tailored after years of working to figure myself out. Your own mileage will vary, considerably, and as always, please work in consultation with a health professional of some description when making major dietary changes.

To contact me, you may send an email to snapchallenge AT  livejournal DOT com.

An interesting week

Well-intentioned people often argue that people on a food stamp budget cannot afford anything but empty calories, and that helps fuel the obesity epidemic in this country.

I did my challenge to see if that was true.

Along the way, I learned a fair bit. I was alerted to some excellent resources, like Cook For Good, an excellent website for people who can eat wheat to eat well (and, meat free, for those to whom that is important) on much less than a food stamp budget.

I never promoted my blog to anyone outside of my friends and family. Along the way, Jessica Gould from our local NPR affiliate stumbled on it and asked if she could talk to me. She liked that I did it as a run-up to Thanksgiving, since one of the many themes of my challenge was gratitude and appreciation for the many things I have and that others may not.

After that, someone from the New York Times website contacted me, and asked me to write a little piece about my experience doing the challenge, so I did.

The lesson I hoped might come out of my challenge was that even with a food stamp budget, you can buy more than empty calories, that you can get some whole foods and produce and even gluten-free stuff if you have celiac as 1 in 133 Americans do. You can make some changes that will help improve your health. You're not doomed to shop from the center of the supermarket as Michael Pollan asserted (and don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Mr. Pollan's). You can arm yourself with some information, set aside some time to prepare food from scratch, allow yourself to enjoy it and be grateful you have it, whether it's from food stamps or from your paycheck (something else to be grateful for). You can enjoy fresh apples from a farmer's market, a savory beef stew, or eggs scrambled with spinach and peppers or teriyaki stir-fry.

Along the way, if you are fat, you'll lose some weight for doing so, feel better, and halt the climb toward metabolic syndrome and diabetes that many of us are on. Like I did, and have continued to do (4 more lbs gone), and will continue to do.

I'm a fat girl. I don't hide that fact. It's not exactly something easily hidden, no matter how much black you wear or how much you try to shrink into yourself. I'm a fat girl just like many in poverty and many receiving assistance are. Just like many Americans are. In 2018, 43% of Americans are projected to be obese.

Just because it is common doesn't mean it's acceptable.

I'm not interested in fat acceptance. I don't accept that I was made to be this way. If it's a lifelong fight, then a lifelong fight it is.

I also do not accept that only thin people can talk about food security, nutrition, processed foods, or obesity. Fat people, perhaps more than anyone, need to be thinking about it, talking about it, and acting on it whether they receive food stamps or not. I am really grateful to have been asked to contribute a lay perspective to the discussion.

Finally, I don't accept that this blog should become an internet episode of the Biggest Loser, with strangers voting on how well I am doing or not doing. There are plenty of websites where you can follow along as people make positive changes for weight loss. This blog was a challenge to eat on a food stamp budget for a month.

I'm not losing weight for random strangers' enjoyment. I'm doing it for me, and it feels fantastic. I've learned from interaction with old friends, new friends, even from people who had little positive to say. In fact, given a few days to consider, those comments were probably the best of all.

Thank you to those who followed the challenge from day one. Thanks to those of you who took the time to read after the fact, regardless of what conclusions you reached. I can't know what I will take from this long-term, but I can guess, and I'm really excited for it.

The New York Times Blog: Room for Debate

Last week, I was asked to share a food words about my food stamp challenge with the New York Times website.

250 words is not a lot of space to get into what I found to be the myriad issues and problems with the SNAP program and modern American foodways and all the political, economic, social, spiritual, philosophical and ethical concerns therein.

For those coming here from NYT, have a look around. I've written about them, some of them in depth, on this blog, particularly from October 24-November 25 when I was doing the proper challenge.

Another one of the commenters made a good point: if poor people eat too well on food stamps, they're accused of living off the taxpayers' dime. If they choose processed foods, the same people will denounce them as lazy or uncaring about their health or the health of their children.

Here's what I learned from my challenge: it's possible to eat well on a food stamp allottment. It takes a lot of skill, a lot of work, a lot of planning, a lot of time, and a lot of social capital. I have those things, but I am also not living in poverty. My experience was only a faint facsimile of what it's really like, and I'll never judge an assistance recipient again based on their choices.

A bit absent

Howdy, folks. I alluded to this, but wanted to make a proper accouncement. The SNAP challenge is on hiatus for December. Not because I am suddenly reverting to old habits (I'm not; I roasted a chicken and made a ham and bean stew this week, and made my grocery shopping list from the sale fliers), but because of the holiday season. The holidays after my dad died, and then while my mom was sick and then she died turned my favorite season into one filled with depression and anxiety.

This year, I want to reclaim some of the joy I used to find in this season. Part of that involves a truly collosal number of parties, social events, and out-of-town guests I have on my agenda, all of which will include refreshments I do not partake of when "on challenge."

I recognize that people on food stamps don't have the chance to "take a break" over the holidays, and that if I were really up to the challenge, I would figure out a way to enjoy the holidays on a food stamp budget. As it is, I am pretty sure I won't spend more than $200 of my own money, but the tracking and reporting will be tougher this month. I can't exactly go up to my coworkers and find out how much their dish they contributed to the potluck cost, or ask the waitstaff at our holiday party how much the chicken satay sticks and apple martinis work out to per serving.

On the other hand, I am purposefully rejecting the consumerism of the holiday season in other ways. I've scaled back my gift-giving, opting for one well thought-out gift over a few less meaningful ones for my goddaughters and niece. I'm writing longer and more personalized messages in my cards, and reaching out to friends and family with whom I have let relationships slide. I'm making a lot more homemade treats to give out, and am volunteering to deliver meals to terminally ill patients.

January 1-January 31 I will do the challenge again, properly, and put some of what I have learned into better practice.

In the meantime, a link to my appearance on Morning Edition, recorded before I finished the challenge. Also, in a few days' time, I'll link to an NYTimes.com forum that will explore some of the issues raised in last week's New York Times article about food stamp usage in the current economy.

Finally, here is an interactive map that accompanies the New York Times article, showing food stamp usage by different population segments across the United States. I know I try to avoid getting too political, but I find myself fascinated by the districts where usage is highest. They are in many cases districts that bang the "no government handout" and "socialism is the devil" drums.

I'll check in from time to time in December. In the meantime, have a joyous season, filled with more love and friendship than batteries and wrapping paper.

Day Thirty-two

Food today:

Breakfast: Frittata (eggs, sausage, pepper, onion, potatoes)
Lunch: yesterday's beef, vegetable and beans with a corn tortilla
Dinner: Chicken vegetable soup, some ham, a bit of leftover risotto, pineapple, and the last of the cheddar cheese. That is a seriously cobbled-together meal.


I've written a little of what I learned about food through my travels. Here are a few photos to go along with those reflections.

Gardening in Niger

Kola nuts and dates were an important feature of a naming ceremony for the BU Study Abroad students. Although I was just a guest, I was baptized with an African name as well: Haisa.

Traditional farming in Guilin, China

A mother expressed her frustration that the community school in her makeshift village in Hyderabad, India do not provide meals for children. They need food to be able to learn, she pointed out.

If the cheetahs only knew how much nutritious stock they could make with their discarded bones! South Africa.

This service station in West Holmes, MS is for some the only source of food within 20 miles. Local farmers will bring their produce there sometimes to sell, as well.

Even the dog knows french fries are not good for you. He was limping and whining but turned his nose up at the fries my grandmother and I left for him. Sydney, Australia

I am sure it is not surprising that I love eating in Brazil.

Sometimes food feeds your soul, not just your body. Belfast, Northern Ireland.

All photos copyright Caryn Sweeney, 2002-2008. All rights reserved.

It was difficult to find photos to accompany my reflections. I don't take a lot of photos of food, apparently. Now, if you want mountains, temples, school children, rivers, quirky signage and places of worship, I'm your girl.

Day Thirty-two

I woke up late this morning, and had to dash out of the apartment with my hair still wet. Fortunately, I had leftover frittata in the fridge. I snagged it along with my lunch that I got ready yesterday night, and had breakfast at work. These are moments when leftovers become less annoying and more a lifesaver.

Ed Bruske over at The Slow Cook featured my challenge on the blog today. Thanks, Ed!

It's interesting, seeing other people write about my story. I don't regret sharing it, but I am having odd moments of surreality when I realize that many of the things I have shared in this blog were things that no one else knew as recently as last month.

Tomorrow morning, my challenge will be profiled on Morning Edition on WAMU, National Public Radio, 88.5 here in Washington, DC.


Also, the pantry

I calculated yesterday that I used about $180 of my $200 budget to this point. But I also need to note that I used some things I had in my pantry. This is a really rough calculation of those ingredients, to get a better picture of how I fared against the budget.
  • Tamari soy sauce. The bottle was $4 last month, and I used about 1/10 of it. $.40
  • Olive oil. I bought that on sale in September for about $5, if memory serves. I used 1/2 of that bottle, so $2.50
  • Coconut oil. I bought a gallon of Tropical Traditions Expeller-Pressed coconut oil a few months ago for $39 with a free shipping deal. I used about 4 tablespoons, so...um...(excuse me while I google) $.15 (256 tablespoons in a gallon, by the way)
  • Chili powder. I have no idea how much, but the spices I buy average $4 a bottle, and I used about 1/8 of the bottle, so $.50
  • Blueberries from the freezer. The bag was $2, and I used about 20 berries. I'll call that 1/10 of the bag, so $.20
  • Salt and pepper: most food stamp challenges don't include this since most people have it around. I use sea salt I grind myself, though, so factor in a dollar for that to be generous. The can lasts me about a year and is $10 or so.
  • Basil: I used about 1/10 of that bottle, so .40
  • Oregano: the same
  • Brown sugar: $1.29/lb, and I used about a cup over the course of a month, and there are about 5 cups in this bag, so $.26
  • Baking powder: 1 teaspoon. Peapod has this for $2.69 for 50 teaspoons, so $.05
  • Bay leaves: 8. Peapod has these for $4 for about 30 leaves, so $1.06

Total: $6.92 added to my $180. Still well within budget.

Day Thirty-one

So, dinnertime on Day 31. No month is longer than 31 days, so I suppose this means I have officially "made it." I still have enough food for a few more days, though.

$6.67 a day, with room to spare.

The monthly benefit that eligible people receive is not pro-rated for the number of days in a month. You get the same amount for 28 days in February as you do for 31 days in January.

As an able-to-work, single woman under age 50, I would be restricted to 3 months of food stamps out of every 36 months, so calculating the daily average for a year isn't possible. If I were a mother with two children, for example, I could receive benefits for up to five years at $526/month. For 12 months, that is $6,312. Divided by 365 days in a year, and that family of three needs to eat on $17.29 per day, or $5.76 per person.

Can it be done? Yes, it can. Is it difficult? I am not sure I can say. It was difficult for me, certainly, but it is hardly the most difficult thing I have ever done. The things I found challenging about it had more to do with lifestyle and priorities than actually being able to procure enough food to feed myself healthfully. Again, though, I owe a lot of that to access and friendship and ability to plan and shop thoughtfully and creatively.

Could I do it for a whole year? I suppose I would do, if it was this or starving. It would not be easy, though. Imagine if I had children and wanted them to have birthday cakes, or it was my turn to provide treats for the Girl Scout meeting, or we wanted to have a nice dinner for a holiday celebration. None of those of essential to survival, but surely life is about more than just surviving, even when you are poor.

My parents are no longer alive, or I would ask them how they managed to send me to school with cupcakes, how my mom managed to get caramel apples and popcorn and apple juice for my Girl Scout troop, and have big steaks and chocolate cake every June 8 when we were living with so little. My mom always told me she just wasn't hungry in the mornings, so she never had breakfast, and that she genuinely enjoyed plain canned tuna. I wonder, now, if that was actually true or if she, like many mothers do, went without so that the kids could have more. I guess it's too late to find out now. I suspect my siblings and I owe her a thank-you.


Tonight's dinner was slightly improvised. I know I said I was sick of quasi-sort of Mexican food, but it is easy and it reheats very well. Also, I was too hungry tonight to wait for a meatloaf to bake. So, a sort of stew made of the last ground beef, onions, peppers, a few black beans I had left over (dry beans need to soak, and I hadn't planned on making this), the last of the tomato sauce, garlic, cumin, chili powder, topped with a few shreds of cheddar cheese (I have a "fancy shredder" which shreds so fine that it makes your cheese looks much more voluminous than it is. It's great) and a tortilla that I sliced into strips with a pizza cutter and toasted in the oven at 450 degrees.

I also had some dessert; one of the frozen GF brownies I made on Halloween, along with some pineapple and a few more of those frozen blueberries that have been in the freezer for who knows how long.

Also today:

Breakfast: Leftover frittata (egg, sausage, pepper, onion, potato, sour cream, cheese)
Lunch: Risotto with red onion and asparagus and a cup of chicken soup. Risotto does not microwave as well as I would like, but it's still pretty good.


So, I did it. 31 days, and not a single Ramen noodle, strand of spaghetti, or bite of dry cereal to be found.

I did have bread, thanks to the GF bread mix I bought, but it came out to one serving of bread every other day. I had very little if any transfat, although I didn't check the GF chicken fingers from early on, and I bet they had some in there. Processed foods often do.

I got quite a lot of fruit and vegetable, and calcium, and I cooked with only natural fats like olive oil, coconut oil, and butter, which I know from past bloodwork do not bother me. My bloodwork was at its worst when I was eating a low-fat diet back in 2002. I have had bloodwork 4 times since I stopped cooking with soybean and corn oil in 2007 and my lipid panel has always been outstanding, so I am pretty confident it will be fine at my next office visit.


Some miscellaneous trivia:

Number of times I set off the smoke detector: 4, including tonight
Number of eggs I broke by dropping them: 2
Number of times I cut myself while slicing onions before I finally searched for a youtube video on how to do it properly: 3
Number of times I ate something anyway after dropping it on the floor and washing it off: 5
Number of times I had an internal argument with myself about going to the soda machine: immeasureable
Number of black beans that I had to fish out from my garbage disposal so it would unstick: 9
Number of sponges worn out due to increased dish washing: 4
Number of coupons: 0. I had thought coupons would help me, but in reality, coupons are often for convenience foods and/or name brands that end up costing more than generic and/or scratch ingredients. Not a single one from the Sunday paper was needed for this challenge.

My blood sugar this morning was 89, which is outstanding for someone with insulin resistance. It's actually pretty good, period.

Thank you to everyone who commented, emailed, or just read along. I'll still be here, but it seems like a good time to say it again.

Day Thirty

You know, I obviously can't add very well. Today is Day 30. I thought I was doing this for 32 days, but that would mean Tuesday was the end. Wednesday is the end.

However, today is 30 days, which is a month. I've lived a month on a food stamp budget.

I spent $199.87 this month. Let's look at what I still have left:

-1 large italian sausage from Angel Food
-8 oz of ham from Angel Food
-1 cup of beef stock
-1 lb ground beef
-16 oz lima beans from Angel Food
-8 oz frozen peppers
-some potato
-20 corn tortillas
-4 oz of cheddar cheese
-3 eggs from Angel Food
-celery greens
-half a can of pineapple
-3 carrots
-2 servings of quiche
-2 servings of pork and rice made with Angel Food
-2 servings of risotto
-most of the box of milk from Angel Food
-beef strips in wheat gluten from Angel Food
-Chicken lo mein frozen meal that came with the Angel Food
-Spaghetti and sauce that came with the Angel Food (seeing the pattern?)
-1 stick butter

Calculating that up: almost $20 of food I didn't consume in 30 days, some of it because of the hidden or not so hidden wheat; some of it I just didn't need to eat; some of it was unpalatable.

Also, a lot of the stuff I ended up not eating was from Angel Food Ministries. As they say, it doesn't save you money if you buy it cheap but don't need or use it. I have lots of praise for the Angel Food Ministries program, and how it makes food affordable for people from any walk of life or amount of income, but it's obvious it wasn't the best choice for me. The experience of ordering and picking it up, though, was pretty valuable to the spirit of this challenge.

$180 for 30 days. It hasn't always been pretty, but I managed to eat a nutrient-dense, animal protein-based, wheat-free diet for $180 in 30 days.

I've lost 8 pounds. I was a bit under the weather last week, but seem to have staved off what I feared was a flu. I've reached some people I didn't expect to reach, made some new friends, and reconnected with old ones thanks to this blog.

All in all, a journey worth taking.

Tonight, I had company for my meal preparation, which I will share more about later in the week.

Food today:

Breakfast: Eggs, pineapple
Lunch: I ate breakfast late, and was busy this afternoon, so I didn't eat lunch! :/
Dinner: Fritatta with sausage, potato, peppers, onions and cheese, and some chicken, vegetable and rice soup.
Snack: I still have a couple GF brownies in the freezer. Maybe they taste good reheated?

Chicken stock, onion, rice, vegetables

Frittata with eggs, milk, veggies and sausage

The fridge is getting a little sad.

Facelifts and a re-challenge

It's Day 28, and suddenly this little project is getting a lot of attention.
So, in the next few days, I am going to be sprucing up this blog, and hopefully moving it over to my own domain name. I am going to add various resources and links, and in general just make this blog more professional in appearance. I really only ever expected that my friends, family, colleagues and people on my Facebook would check it out.

I did this challenge for a few different reasons, but it was mostly for myself. I felt like I had something to prove to myself. My attitudes towards food and money run very parallel at times. If I don't pay attention, I can be very wasteful, and spend too much and eat too much, and both of those things are things I can't afford to do anymore. By factoring in the food stamp component, I also have been able to gain some new insight to childhood memories that still trouble me, and attain some peace about them. Layered on to all of that was the hope that maybe I might be able to share a little bit of what I have learned about food and the food system in the United States. I thought maybe a couple of readers would try something new based on it.


When this ends on Thanksgiving, I am going to take a few days and eat things I couldn't afford during this challenge.

Then, I am going to go again. In applied research, which I used to do for a living, you always wanted to pilot-test your study. Figure out what works, what needs to change, and then refine your plan.

I've learned a lot about what works and what doesn't in this first go-round.
  • I should have taken it a little easier in the first week or two and saved some good stuff for the final week.
  • Angel Food Ministries is a valuable program, but the hidden wheat in many of the products resulted in my being unable to use them
  • I really don't like porkchops
  • Or Italian sausage
  • It is not possible to overplan
  • Beef stew reheats really well. Gluten-free pizza crust does not. Nor do pork chops, but then those poor chops never had a chance.
I plan on taking this information and starting again on November 28, until Christmas. Since that is only 28 days, I will go with the amount of $186.76, or $6.67 x 28 days.

I want to see if I can do a better job, now that I know more about what I am doing.


Food yesterday:

Breakfast: skipped (not because I had to, I just genuinely was not hungry)
Lunch: Chicken and vegetable stir-fry
Dinner: Sausage with peppers, onions, tomato, and cheese
Snack: cheese and half an apple