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Crossing the finish line: we wrap up the Mazon SNAP challenge

My husband and I took the Mazon SNAP Challenge from 7/16/12-7/22/12. That means that during that week, we ate no more than $63 worth of food, which is the same budget allotment as two individuals receiving food-stamps (now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP).

SNAP/Food-Stamp Factoid That I'll Bet You Didn't Know #6: 

The Associated Press surveyed more than a dozen economists, think tanks and academics, both nonpartisan and those with known liberal or conservative leanings, and found a broad consensus: The official poverty rate will rise from 15.1 percent in 2010, climbing as high as 15.7 percent. Several predicted a more modest gain, but even a 0.1 percentage point increase would put poverty at the highest level since 1965.

Sources:  US Poverty on Track to Rise to Highest Since 1960s, Associated Press, 7/23/12

Before we talk about this astounding uptrend in poverty, first, let's get through the bookkeeping.

Days 4 and 5, Thursday and Friday, were as uneventful as the previous days. Breakfast was the usual egg white omelet (Joshua's with cheese, mine with mushrooms), coffee with soy milk (Joshua still griped about not being able to use the Keurig), and a banana each.  We snacked on carrots, chummus and popcorn during the day (both days).  Lunch was split pea soup on Thursdays with my homemade croutons, garlic knots, Diet Coke (from MyCokeRewards, free and not part of the SNAP budget) and small romaine and tomato salads with Target Italian dressing.  Lunch on Friday was tuna, romaine salad, soda, and pineapple.

Dinner on Thursday night was baked salmon.

And here's where I cheated.

I have about four different ways of making salmon.  One of them is my citrus recipe, which calls for an herb rub and a sauce made out of orange and lemon juice.  Herb rub, no problem, since spices are "free" on the Mazon SNAP Challenge.  I completely forgot to buy lemon or orange juice or lemons or oranges.  Now, I did have some extra unspent money in my budget and I could have run out and bought some, but truth is, we were hungry and I was lazy. I had orange juice in the fridge and I just measured out a quarter cup, and yes, that was a cheat.  I did skip the lemons.

Here's my salmon recipe. It's very simple and very good.

  • 2 center cut salmon fillets (I use Costco frozen salmon fillets)
  • 1/4 c. orange juice or the juice of two oranges
  • dash of lemon juice
  • lemons for garnishing
  • herb rub:  combine a few shakes of basil, onion powder, garlic powder, onion flakes, sea salt, dill weed, parsley, celery seed, and paprika in a small bowl.
  • olive oil cooking spray
If you are using frozen fillets, make sure they are completely defrosted before cooking or they won't cook through.  Wash and pat dry each fillet.  Line a pan with parchment paper or foil and lay the fillets down. Cover with the orange juice and lemon juice.  Rub the tops with the herbs, creating a nice herb layer.  Spray the herb crusted tops with a quick spritz of olive oil spray.  Put under the broiler and broil for about 20 minutes. If you are using parchment paper, make sure the paper is far enough away from the broiler element so that it doesn't catch fire (been there, done that). 

That's it.  The olive oil and herbs form a nice crust.  The orange/lemon juice mixes with some of the oil from the salmon and forms a wonderful, slightly sweet and acidic sauce.  Because the fish is sitting in a bath of juice, it never dries out, even if you overcook it.  It's pretty hard to mess this recipe up (oh, I've tried).  

Ok, back to SNAP.

Friday night (still on Day 5), I made a chicken soup with carrots, onion, dill, and chicken.  I cooked it for about 18 hours, and it was pretty tasty, even though I usually use turnips, parsnips, and leeks, none of which were in my SNAP budget.  I made challah with the remaining Rhodes dough, and we had grape juice for kiddush and drank seltzer from our SodaStream.  It was just my husband and me, and it was a quiet Shabbat meal. As I predicted, it was constraining not to be able to have guests for Shabbos.  We had cherries for dessert. 

On Day 6, Saturday/Shabbat, we skipped breakfast, as we usually do on Shabbos morning.  Lunch was substantial:  we ate a nice big salad of romaine, tomato, avocado, carrots, and shredded chicken that I had grilled on Friday.  I missed the roasted cashews and strawberries that I often use to top my grilled chicken salad.  I also could not use the balsamic vinegar and sugar that I usually put in the dressing.  No big deal.  We had the Rhodes dough challah, the grape juice for kiddush, SodaStream seltzer, and saffron rice.  We were too full to eat any dessert. 

For our light dinner (called "Shalosh Seudot"), we had the remaining brown rice, challah, carrots that I had parboiled and mashed up with pineapple (sort of a "tzimmes"). 

After Shabbat, my husband made Havdallah on the remaining grape juice, and we had some popcorn as a snack.

On Day 7, Sunday, I surveyed my leftover food.  I had saved some onion and mushrooms for my tofu stir fry, so that would be our dinner.  I make a mean tofu stir fry.  Breakfast was, once again, omelets, coffee and soy milk, and we split the remaining banana.  Joshua and I took the dogs and went for a drive, so we skipped lunch (or actually, just completely forgot to bring anything with us, not realizing we'd be gone for so long).  We were famished come dinner time. 

And for the second (and last time), I cheated.

My tofu stir fry absolutely must be made with soy sauce. No getting around that.  It's almost flavorless without it.  So I "stole" a few shakes of soy sauce, because I forgot to include it in my menu.  Guilty.  I actually know how much I paid for the bottle:  $0.19, because it was $1.19 and I had a $1 coupon (I bought 4 of them).  But ok.  A cheat is a cheat.  

Here's my tofu recipe.  Please keep in mind, my husband is a serious meat-n-taters kinda guy, and not the tofu type at all, and yet, he loves this.  So even if you are a little afraid of tofu, try this one out.  I had only a half of an onion and four mushrooms left, so I made do, but the recipe really calls for more.

  • 1 block (19 oz.) extra firm or firm tofu (I use the Costco brand, which is a huge bargain at $2.29 for 38 oz.)
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 8 mushrooms (any variety), sliced.
  • a few shakes of soy sauce (I use Kikkoman low-sodium)
  • spices:  garlic and onion powder, basil
  • extra virgin olive oil for frying
Cube the tofu by hand. I use this amazing chopper, which is, without a doubt, my most used kitchen tool, and makes the chopping and dicing go by in minutes. (Don't put the tofu in the food processor, or you'll end up with paste.)  After you cube the tofu, saute it in a little bit of olive oil for about 10 minutes until it has a slight crust. All the while that you're cooking, keep your spoon moving. Add the diced onions, and keep frying until the onions are translucent.  Add the sliced mushrooms last and cook them until they are lightly browned.  Keep the oil hot.  Add a few shakes of soy sauce, a few very liberal shakes of garlic, and light shakes of the basil and onion powder.  Cook for a few more minutes, and keep stirring things around.  Keep the olive oil sparse and hot and if you overdid it, drain the stir fry on paper towels before you serve it.

Voila.  Tofu stir fry.  You can also toss in bamboo shoots, almonds, pine nuts, brocolli crowns and rabe, water chestnuts, etc. (none of which were on my SNAP budget).  I served this once on Sukkot to a vegan friend and he told  me it was the best tofu dish he'd ever had.   I take that as high praise.
We inhaled the tofu stir fry, washed it down with seltzer, and had the remaining cherries and pineapple for dessert.

That pretty much wrapped up our SNAP week.  I had $8.70 left in my $63 budget, and soy milk, brown rice, half a pot of chicken soup, half a brick of cheddar, and salad dressing left.  I cheated with some orange juice and soy sauce.  

Did we feel deprived?

I'm sort of hesitating on whether or not I should return the answer that I know everyone expects to hear, or the brutally honest answer.  I'm going to go for honest.

No, we did not really feel deprived.  We missed a few things like our Keurig coffee, cashews in the salad, etc. but we didn't really eat all that differently than the way we usually eat.  I could have used some more lettuce and a greater variety of fruit.  I definitely missed being able to invite guests for Shabbat.   Just being restricted felt, well, restrictive.   But focusing strictly on the food, we missed very little and we ate healthy and well.

Does this mean that SNAP recipients have it made in the shade?  Of course not.   
  • I look for sales and use coupons.  It's my thing.  If I would have gone to the store and just spent the $63 thoughtlessly and without a plan, no doubt we would have eaten poorly.  But I'm convinced, having been exposed to the huge blogosphere of SNAP recipients, and hearing via email about some of the experiences of my readers that used to be on food stamps, that many of them are smart, resourceful, frugal and go to extraordinary lengths to use their ingenuity to eat healthy and well.  Not all, but many.  Most people living below the poverty level in the US have at least one car and a computer (a surprising fact), and have access to the same frugal resources that I do.  Can you eat healthy on a SNAP budget?  Looking through my own personal lens, my answer would have to be a definitive yes, but it takes some effort, strategy and planning. 
  • The Mazon SNAP Challenge is an artificial situation.  It doesn't really ask you to "be poor" for a week. The challenge is to try to eat well on a small budget for a week.  That's different.  While we took the Challenge, every other aspect of our lives remained in the middle class.
  • We ate on a $63 budget as a challenge.   SNAP recipients don't have a choice.  The $31.50-per- person-budget is their reality.  I think that's a game-changer in understanding those living in poverty.  
Just today, this shocking article came out from the Associated Press:   US Poverty on Track to Rise to Highest Since 1960s.  It's shocking because until the last few recent years, poverty levels have been mostly steady or slightly declining, especially after President Clinton's welfare reforms.   No more. "The ranks of America's poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century..."

I'm going to break away from my usual chatter and do something a little different.   I ask every single one of you reading this to take a moment out and give something (the amount is unimportant, but something), to your local food bank.  We just wrote out a check for Tomchei Shabbat of Denver, an organization that provides kosher food for Denver families living in poverty.  If you don't have a favorite local food bank, please make your donation to TS online here (via paypal) or send your check to:
Tomchei Shabbat of Denver
198 South Holly Street
Denver, CO 80224
These are the toughest economic times that our country has seen in years. Millions are unemployed and underemployed.   If you can help, even a little, please use this opportunity to reach out, even if it's just a little bit.  

People like you and me are truly suffering and are out of choices.     


  1. Anonymous7/24/2012

    I've been following all the posts you have put as well as Mara on this snap challenge. I hestitate to write this but I feel like I just need to after all this- SNAP is a great ASSISTANCE program for low-income people. They allot you your $31.50/week/per person. I think its a generous bonus and help to assist in affording food. I dont think the point of the program is to cover 100% of someone's food requirement (although you have proven that you very well could). Its a struggle being poor no doubt, with so many areas in one's life being limited by lack of available funds- everyone wants new things all the time, yet this is a great program that helps people afford food.

    I think we also have to appreciate that the program exists and that its a great charity from one american to the next, not just to say, oh how sad to have to be constrained to $31.50 but let's realize that other people are footing that bill and ultimately its hugely generous. America is relatively unique in this concept and the magnitude of the SNAP program.

  2. Anonymous, I don't disagree with anything you say. I do think we need to be grateful that we have a safety net like SNAP in place and that it's being funded by the tax dollars of fellow Americans (last year alone, to the tune of $76 billion, that's BILLION). Thanks so much for pointing out our American generosity and exceptionalism.

    I'm not sure where you wanted to go with this, or if this is what you meant possibly, but though I am tempted, I am trying as much as I can to leave politics out of this experience and just to make it about being empathetic for those in poverty and showing how careful budgeting can help in creating a healthy eating plan. I think political comments about the funding of this program belong in another venue. Would you agree?

  3. Anonymous7/24/2012

    Not trying to get political. You keep emphasizing how hard it is and how many little things you had to sacrifice like your cashews and strawberries to stay w/in the $63/week. I was just feeling too much overwhelming empathy and felt that it should be pointed out that the program is not ment to support one's food purchases 100% just a supplement.

    1. Anonymous, sorry for misunderstanding. So two things: 1) assuming that were true, that SNAP is just a supplement and not supposed to cover our entire food budget, I still had to follow the rules of the Mazon Challenge, which was to only eat $31.50 worth of food. I could only report about my experience. That said, I still appreciate your pointing this out. 2) What is your source for the idea that SNAP is only meant to supplement recipients' food budget? (Is there anything online that I can look at?)

    2. Anonymous7/24/2012

      the program SNAP stands for SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM! if you don't believe me, google it!


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