Eating on $4.50 a day


Last week, several members of Congress and other government officials enjoyed a breakfast of generic brand cereal and canned fruit and lunches of peanut butter sandwiches. It is all part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Challenge, where participants buy their groceries for the week on a budget that SNAP recipients live on. Those participating in the challenge are doing so in response to the farm bill that will be presented to the House later this week, which includes more than $20 billion in cuts over 10 years, which will affect the SNAP program.

Ellen Teller, director of government affairs at the Food Research and Action Center, did her shopping at the Giant on Falls Road in Potomac.

“I spent an hour going through coupons and fliers and creating my list for the week,” Teller said. “I tried to make a list that would give me the healthiest options possible.”

Teller’s budget was $31.50, the average amount a single resident would get from SNAP. Teller pointed out several advantages she had compared to many SNAP families despite the fact she was on the same budget.

“I don’t have to bring my kids with me or ask someone to watch them while I go shopping. I also have the luxury of having a car and flexible work hours to go do this, while some people may work a few jobs and have to rely on public transportation,” she said.

About 83 percent of SNAP households have a gross income at or below 100 percent of the poverty guideline ($19,090 for a family of three in 2012) and 61 percent of SNAP households have a gross income at or below 75 percent of the poverty guideline ($14,318 for a family of three in 2012).

On her shopping list, Teller had basics like cheese, bread, tuna, fruit and vegetables. One extra challenge she had to face was buying kosher with her budget.

With the only kosher chicken available being huge bulks that cost $19, which would be two-thirds of the week’s budget, Teller had to settle for kosher ground turkey.

Out of the items Teller bought for the week, only the Kraft cheese, Dole salad, and Starkist Tuna were not generic brands thanks to sales. The only fresh fruits and vegetables she could afford were two bananas and two tomatoes.

While shopping, Teller thought about the differences between her shopping trip and that of SNAP recipients, which she planned on sharing with members of Congress who were also taking part in the challenge.

“If I had little kids with me, they would probably be really upset that I wasn’t buying the bright-colored sugary cereals they see on commercials aired during their Saturday morning cartoons,” she said as she picked out her generic brand of honey-toasted oats.

Teller also pointed out that in another challenge some politicians participated in called the “Walk a Mile” program, where they followed people receiving government assistance for a day, they were incredibly impressed at how resourceful these families were with their money. There is a whole network of communication on where to find the cheapest foods, where the best second-hand stores are, how to get discounted bus passes, etc.

“It may not take them as long as it took me to figure out the food that could fit into my budget if they do it week after week. However, if I were to lose my job and start receiving benefits like SNAP, I wouldn’t be in this network and that would be more of a struggle,” Teller said.

According to, SNAP’s responsiveness to unemployment proved it to be one of the most effective government programs during the recent recession, providing newly needy families with a stable source of food.

The most serious shortcoming in the SNAP program is its inadequate benefit levels. Current benefits average about $4.50 a day per person, which is not enough to get most families through the whole month, let alone allow them to buy the foods needed for a quality diet.

After looking at her grocery cart when everything was purchased, Teller realized how much smaller her portions would be for the week.

“The farm bill [if passed] would make this amount of food even smaller,” she said.

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