What It’s Really Like to Cook on a Food Stamp Budget

What It's Really Like to Cook on a Food Stamp Budget

In 2013, 49.1 million Americans lived in households struggling with hunger, a stark number which includes 15.8 million children and 4.8 million seniors. Food insecurity is a daily reality for about one in seven households. So why do we only seem to talk passionately about it when a celebrity is involved?

If you paid any attention to the recent controversy surrounding Gwyneth Paltrow’s $29 SNAP grocery shopping challenge, you know what I mean. When she posted a photo of the groceries she purchased with the weekly budget of a typical SNAP (food stamp) recipient, Paltrow inspired a lot of snarky editorials poking fun at the actress’s cluelessness and comments naming all the ways her charmed life is not like the typical SNAP recipient’s, but in the end, it was just more media coverage of a wealthy celebrity.

What are the challenges of shopping, meal planning, and cooking when your budget relies on SNAP benefits? Someone who spends a week trying it out isn’t the right person to ask. Instead, I spoke with regular people with real experience with SNAP — some who receive benefits, others whose jobs involve working with recipients — to learn more about the individuals behind the statistics and the realities of feeding yourself and your family with the help of SNAP.

What Is SNAP?

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is a federal aid program administered by the USDA that provides food assistance to low- or no-income Americans. Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, it now uses a debit card system to distribute benefits, so recipients pay for their purchases with an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card. The amount that households receive depends on several factors, including location, but often averages to about $4 per person per day.

Recipients can only use their EBT cards to buy food items, which means non-food items — like soap, paper products, pet food, alcohol, cigarettes, and prepared foods — cannot be purchased with SNAP funds.

Some farmers markets also accept EBT cards, and state programs such as Market Match in California give recipients additional funds to spend on fresh produce.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP is the country’s most important anti-hunger program. Over 70 percent of participants live in households with children, and in 2014 more than 46 million Americans fed themselves with the help of SNAP.

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