The SNAP Challenge, Day 5 (and what I learned)

Yesterday was leftovers day. Breakfast, store-brand rice crispies with half a banana; lunch, leftover tuna pasta salad and an apple; dinner, leftover rigatoni with meat sauce and sautéed escarole on the side.

After another rice crispies breakfast this morning—my last meal on the SNAP Challenge—I survey what’s left over: one apple, a few stalks of celery, a quarter of an onion, an inch of olive oil, a few slices of too-soft, packaged bread, most of the can of the generic coffee.

I told a social-worker friend I was doing this, and he laughed: “Julia Child takes the SNAP Challenge!” Then he started running down all the reasons—that I hope I’ve pointed out over the past four days—why he thought it was a ridiculous exercise: “You know how to cook! You have time to do it. You have a car. You have access to stores like Apple Farm that don’t exist in poor neighborhoods. You don’t have any kids at home clamoring for stuff they see advertised on TV. People on food stamps lead entirely different lives.”

But it wasn’t a ridiculous exercise. No, I didn’t go hungry. The cupboard wasn’t really bare; I just ignored what was in it, and other than a little mayo and catsup, only cooked with what I was able to buy for $5 a day each for two people. All along, I hoped that my descriptions and pictures of food didn’t seem like I was preaching or showing off: “Look what I can make in five days for $50!” Because I grew up with a mom who put nutritious meals on the table for a few dollars every day, I did want to show that with a bit of planning, extreme-low-budget cooking doesn’t have to be all rice and beans.

What did I miss? The stuff that adds color and interest to our food: spices and fresh herbs, scallions, balsamic vinegar, lemons, dried fruit and nuts. Things that come in jars and bottles: roasted peppers, Dijon mustard, olives, pickles.

What did I learn, or re-learn? Discipline. I ate less food, smaller portions, no seconds. No desserts. I ate at regular times. No snacking. Because I didn’t consume a big snack in the afternoon, I ate dinner at 6, not at 9, so I didn’t go to bed with a full stomach. I lost four pounds.

What was most surprising and disappointing was that hardly anybody seemed to care about the SNAP Challenge. My Facebook posts only got a few “likes,” and the only comments on my blog posts were from a guy who wanted to use them as a forum to complain about how people on food stamps cheat the system and eat better than he does. My blog posts, however, about celebrity gardens in the Hamptons and about what a chef went through when he competed on “Chopped” are evergreen. Lots of people are interested in a private garden with an original Richard Serra Tilted Arc sculpture and whether contestants know beforehand what’s in the mystery baskets.

Here’s an idea. Maybe I should get a celebrity spokesperson and re-cast the whole story as The SNAP Diet: Snap your fingers and lose four pounds in five days for only $5 a day. The rules are simple:
– Eat smaller portions.
– No seconds.
– No snacking.
– Other than black coffee, your only beverage is tap water (ice cubes allowed).
– No dining out.
– No desserts, chips, cookies or candy (even on Halloween?).

Oh, and please have compassion for people who live and eat this way, not by choice, but because they have to. Donate to your local food bank. Volunteer at soup kitchens and hunger-relief organizations. Instead of sending your clients holiday gift baskets, donate to Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign in their names.

Your clients will appreciate it, I promise. And so will the kids. Now I’m thinking about lunch. At the local Chinese restaurant … roast duck wonton soup with tofu and scallions …

About writedesigner

Graphic designer, writer, and gardener Ellen Shapiro is based in Irvington, New York. A frequent contributor to design blogs and magazines including Print, Imprint,, Communication Arts, and Etapes, she writes about trends, issues and personalities in design, illustration, photography, and visual culture around the world.
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4 Responses to The SNAP Challenge, Day 5 (and what I learned)

  1. daeja says:

    I’ve read your SNAP challenge journey and I think it was an interesting experiment – a very good experiment – and really puts it in your face regarding the reality of what it costs to feed people on foodstamps.

    Of course, it’s true, you have gourmet cooking skills.

    The reality is that kids are not going to want to eat the salads readily, that a growing boy (or girl) is going to want a second chicken thigh, that people without access to transportation and mothers that are home all day with the kids are going to want/need that second cup of coffee, will want to graze during the day, will crave some salted chips, like most of us do. The kids are going to want snacks in their lunch boxes. The Chex mix is going to call to you from the isles of CVS. It seems to me that people could or will go to bed hungry.

    Why no responses….I think your usual blog content probably attracts those upper class and upper middle class people who visit gardens, go to the Hamptons, eat in fine restaurants…..and perhaps that is why you did not get the real responses your experiment was aiming for – because this situation is not real to most people who are above the poverty line. That, or maybe we just read it and thought “wow”….
    I think you did a good job with it Ellen.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response, Daeja. I think the whole experiment would work better with more people in the family. I could certainly do more at the supermarket with $20 for four than $10 for two. I’d buy economy-size packages of stuff like chicken parts so the kids could have more than one piece. Good idea about the Chex mix — I’d make my own with store-brand cereal and pretzel sticks. I deleted the reference to only one cup of coffee, no reason you couldn’t have more. I just didn’t care for that brand. Let me go check out your blog…

  2. Ellen, Thank you for taking the challenge and providing for us an example of the possibilities when great care is taken in the purchase and preparation of food. I think this has been an important experience for all of us who have taken the challenge. I hope to see you on November 10. Blessings, Alistair

  3. chefcatreana says:

    Facebook page last week and reposted it on my own blog.

    The response i got regarding your post on my Facebook page were… This sounds easy and i have to many kids to eat on $50.00 and my kids are teenagers they eat alot. Then most people were anxious to see what i would fix.

    F. Y. I. I came across your post while googling my fustration about being a single mom who didn’t qualify for SNAP.

    1st I wanted to say that I am a professionally trained chef…. But just because i am s chef it doesn’t mean i don’t struggling with what to cook for my family. My daughter’s taste buds are not as sufisticated as mine

    So i don’t think the fact that you have cooking skills made it any easier for you to complete the challenge.

    Everything takes planning… I think the fact that you preplanned your meals was the major contributor to the ease of you challenge… This is why personal chefs make so much money…

    My number one phone call as a chef is a stressed out mom just wanting recipe ideas.
    My clients typically fall off when they realize they can just take a few minutes a week with some cookbooks and prepare more affordable meals.

    Across the board… Every blog I’ve read regarding this challenge mentioned small portions reduced snacking and weight loss

    I was shocked to read Daeja’s comments that kids would not want to eat those foods because i work with children and i have learned that it’s not as hard as we think to wean out children of such sugary foods…. And here in the south our kids have cravings for fatty foods.

    But most importantly…. I have learned that if you include the in the preparation… They’ll eat darn near anything… When I’m teaching i love to assign one of the kids to the food processor… And let 2 boys tear up the lettuce.

    Then ask them how would the Incredible Hulk eat this salad is he was here.

    I think the only think i would have dinner differently is eat 2 days leftovers and prepared a casserole or a crock pot meal..

    Thanks again for sharing your experience.

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