08 March 2011

It's a SNAP.

I went to the kickoff for the SNAP into Action Against Hunger 2011 event last night. The idea is to try living on the SNAP benefit of $1 per meal for a week or more.

People can also track what they usually spend and donate the difference to Hands on Hartford, which was chosen as this year's beneficiary. I've started doing this as part of my blogging about the event, and I will be sharing the numbers with Charter Oak and the other sponsors. Just as an idea, I counted up what I would usually eat in a day for yesterday (I ate the rice and beans at the kickoff, but counted up what I usually would prepare in the evening) and was $5.98 over the SNAP amount, not including beverages. I'm someone who cooks at home and brown-bags lunch, so a person who buys meals would have a much greater difference.

"SNAP" stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and it has replaced the food stamp program. The maximum benefit in my state is $200 per month for one person - which works out to about $15 per day. That is for someone with a net income well below $900 per month. Most people receive less than $200 per month, with the minimum being the $90 per month that our challenge amount would equal. Based upon my accounting from yesterday, assuming that is an average, my spending is closer to $270 per month. I could probably drop to $200 for the month, we'll see how I do on $3 per day.

Also, according to information handed out to applicants, the SNAP benefit is limited to three months in a three-year period for able-bodied adults who are not working, and who do not live in a household with a minor child or disabled person for whom they care. This is a federal rule; even though the states administer the SNAP program, the funding and guidelines are set by the federal government.

One downside of SNAP is that you can't really stock up. If you are lucky and find something very inexpensively, you might be able to buy an extra. For example, finding dented boxes of pasta marked down to 60 cents each. You might be able to buy an extra one, but not many. This is due to the way SNAP works. You get a debit-type card and it is loaded every week, not once a month. So you really do have only $21 (or $50 or whatever) to spend that week. I think that if legislators who try this would be limited in the same way, it would be a great reality check for them.

I can buy ahead, I can stock up. I can get a lot of beans or pasta or canned fruit one week, and the next week pick up eggs or milk or tomatoes. I can buy in bulk, or buy sizes that usually don't work for a single person (such as a box of milk powder, which is about $4-6, or a carton of something at the warehouse club) because I can stock up one week and not have to shop for the next two or three. I just signed up for a CSA. The cost works out to about $8 per week for an individual's quantity (one-fourth of a share), but you have to pay for the whole summer in advance, about $175. Even though it would be a great benefit to get that type of produce, it's not possible for someone on SNAP to accomplish. Foodshare makes an effort to include produce on the trucks that go out to the neighborhoods, and someone at the event last night told me how much he appreciates getting it, since vegetables are hard to buy on the SNAP allowance. Another person at the event said that even though SNAP can be used to buy soda pop (not possible in all states) she doesn't recommend it because it's empty calories.

Among the rules we were given for the time we're trying to live on the SNAP allowance is that we can't take free food at work. If it's something commonly available such as tea and coffee, that's OK because a lot of places offer that to their employees. But if there's a pizza party or someone puts out leftover donuts after a meeting, no. Those are not something upon which a person on SNAP can rely. Next week I'll talk about my pantry and what meals I am making. I decided that pasta and potatoes and rice would be too much starch when I have cereal and bread also on the menu, so I am skipping the pasta since I already have a bag of potatoes. I guess instead of mac and cheese I'll have potatoes au gratin.

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