Can two reporters survive on $5 of food a day?

September 11, 2013

Monica Eng and Natalie Moore

WBEZ/Monica Eng
Two days worth of food costing $9.99.

Every September, hunger groups ask politicians, community leaders and journalists to take a break in their normal diet and try to live on $5 a day, or roughly the amount allotted to users of food stamps (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP).

This year’s “SNAP Challenge” comes as the USDA conducts a rare review of the rules that govern the federal food assistance program. It also coincides with another push by Congress to renew the Farm Bill, which expires on Sept. 30, and ultimately determines how much money is allocated to the program. WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore and producer Monica Eng have been following these developments closely and decided to take the SNAP challenge themselves this year.

First, a few caveats: we know that taking the SNAP challenge for two days is not the same as putting ourselves in the shoes of those who truly rely on the program. Our cooking knowledge, kitchen equipment and access to a car are not shared by all low-income Chicagoans. We also realize that surviving on $5 a day for two days is not the same as doing it for months or even years.  And finally, we know that $5 is not a perfect figure for comparison as SNAP funds, in most cases, are supplemented with other income.

That said, in the course of a few days we learned a lot about the difficulty of translating these meager funds into healthy, fulfilling meals. We figured out how much extra time and planning this can take, and how many of the daily foods and treats we take for granted suddenly become unavailable when your budget is cut back so severely.

Our SNAP Game Plan

We began preparing for the challenge last Saturday at the 61st Street Farmers Market in Woodlawn, where we interviewed real SNAP participants on how they use their money. We chose this particular farmers market to enjoy the “theoretical” benefit of double value for all SNAP purchases up to $25. This is the only market in the city that doubles benefits up to $25 and it was a huge help in making our dollars go further. Shopping with a friend allowed us to split items, for example buying two bunches of kale for $5, instead of $3 a bunch.

We continued our shopping at Pete’s Fresh Market in Brighton Park and the Atotonilco Tortilleria and El Guero supermercado in Back of the Yards. These stores offer a greater selection and, in some cases, better deals than many of the substandard convenience stores, liquor stores and gas stations that pepper many of Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods (we hope to address the challenge of using SNAP at those stores down the road).      

In total, it took us a whopping four hours to shop and plan our meals – and stay on budget. Next, we had to prepare our meals and then, of course, eat them!

Click on the following links to see our individual grocery lists and food diaries for Monday and Tuesday of this week (Sept. 9-10).

Monica Eng's SNAP food diary

Natalie Moore's SNAP food diary