SNAP Challenge

My wife approached me and wanted to do a SNAP challenge for a week. Aside from her involvement in Junior League of Little Rock, this also plays into some graduate work she is doing so it came with a doubly invested reason.

If you are unaware, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program is the replacement for the “food stamps” program and offers a supplemental payment to individuals who are unable to afford sufficient food for themselves and their family.  The average weekly amount for a recipient in Arkansas is $30.43.  I know that it can seem like a “game” or could be insulting to individuals who require this program to do this for a week. I hope you, the readers, will understand this is an attempt to shed a little light on food insecurity for people who may not have faced it and to provide a hands-on experience with the kind of stress and difficulties many of our fellow citizens face.

A few caveats on how I approached the week: 1. I limited myself to going to the closest grocery store, which happens to be the one I go to the most often.  I could have planned for a few weeks and found a number of places selling different things around town at different prices, but the spirit of this challenge would, I think, be undermined. 2. I only allowed myself use of parts of my pantry.  I tend to keep a significant stock of food in the pantry because I like to cook and being a boy scout in my youth left me with a desire to be prepared to feed myself, and possibly large numbers of people.  Herbs and flavoring agents are okay; oils and vinegar are not.  Oils, like the olive oil I use almost constantly, are a source of calories and using the different flavorful oils I have as a crutch to sneak additional calories in seemed contrary to the goal of the challenge.

The biggest challenges I saw ahead of the week were my tendency to eat large portions of food and my coffee addiction.  I was going to be cutting back on my coffee, and would not be using the office coffee pool as a crutch either.  I don’t usually eat large breakfasts in the week; I don’t have time in the morning.  That was one easier step, but my wife does like her morning eggs.  She is also in a graduate program, so several dinners and snacks had to be portable for her.

Originally, we had planned to do an entire seven days, but then I got the unfortunate news that The Food Truck was shutting down.  I feel a distinct need to say one last goodbye to The Food Truck and couldn’t square cheating on the SNAP Challenge with that.  We opted to go with 5 days instead of 7 for that reason. For 2 people over 7 days, the SNAP challenge budget was $60.86.  With only 5 days, we were limited to $42.50 for two people. We spent $40.73 on the following:

SNAP Shopping Receipt

Part of the larger plans involved using a modified Roast Chicken recipe for the main protein for several different meals, baking the bread myself so that we got more than a loaf or two worth out of the same price, and paying attention to the veggies. With the bread baking, I have a “pet” in the form of a bread starter recently passed on to me that is over 3 years old.  I was going to have to “feed” the starter anyway so used it as part of the dough in the bread I baked.  I bought fresh yeast packs instead of using the yeast I had, and the starter was fed with flour from the SNAP challenge shopping trip.

Saturday

We started on a Saturday night, and made pizza with unleavened flat breads I made, spinach, and some Italian sausage.  The marinara sauce we used was put into the fridge for repeated uses this week. Before going to sleep, I started a double batch of a modified “No-Knead” dough.

The unleavened flat bread was a bit of challenge to get right.  It is just flour and water mixed up and poured in a cast iron skillet to bake until cooked through.  That is, however, hard to judge. The marinara sauce was a heavily herbaceous tomato sauce making full use of the dried herbs kept in my pantry for such recipes and allowed a long slow cooking to let the flavors combine.  It wasn’t quite the Red Sauce I’ve posted before, but that should give you an idea.

Sunday

Sunday morning, I made the wife scrambled eggs & sausage with a little shredded cheese while saving my eggs for later in the week. Instead, I had generous slices of fresh baked bread with my sausage. I dipped it in olive oil and cracked black pepper for slight flavor enhancements and to get the calories in the oil.

My loving wife’s breakfast

My breakfast

 We ate breakfast so late that we decided to coast into dinner.  Both of us ate pieces of bread repeatedly throughout the day going through an entire loaf by the time dinner was done. I spent a lot of time cooking Sunday in preparation for the week.

In the early afternoon, I prepared the Roast Chicken.  A few things had to be modified from that recipe – I lightly rubbed the chicken with a little olive oil and had to skip the stuffing the cavity.  The chicken was broken down and all the pieces, save one thigh, as well as the veggies roasted with it were saved for later use including the carcass and lemony fat rendered from the cooking.

I also prepped the wife’s breakfasts for the week.  She found this recipe and requested I make it work for her breakfasts in the SNAP Challenge week, so I did.  I made a half dozen of these gems in the muffin tin using a quarter pound of the sweet Italian sausage, six eggs, cheese, and some spinach instead of broccoli.

Arroz con pollo with garlicky spinach

Sunday Dinner was arroz con pollo.  I shredded the two chicken thighs from the roast chicken and placed them over an herbaceous rice enhanced with a few tablespoons of the marinara sauce.  Pieces of crispy chicken skin were used to add flavor and visual interest to the plate. On the side was sautéed garlicky spinach with a little lemon zest.  I put some olive oil in the pan and heated it with a few garlic cloves to get the flavor of garlic in the oil.  I added the spinach and sautéed it with a pinch of salt until wilted.  I used my bar zester to create the little strips of lemon that also left a light aroma of essential lemon oil over the spinach.

The leftover arroz con pollo was placed in the fridge for use in upcoming lunches and I may have sneaked a few scraps of chicken from the carcass while cleaning up the kitchen.

Bread for the next few days

Monday

Monday morning breakfast is emblematic of the entire week.  My wife grabbed an eggy cheesy muffin thing while I just tried to find the time to drink my coffee.  I probably should grab a slice of bread or some of the yogurt in the mornings. I tossed a nice handful of black beans to soak as I made my coffee, a little weaker and a little less than usual.

Lunch – The arroz con pollo was such a hit that my wife claimed one of the leftover servings for her lunch. I cooked the black beans that I set to soak with a chopped tomato.  I added the vegetables roasted with the chicken and had a makeshift ratatouille.

Makeshift ratatouille

Dinner – It was a class night, so my wife packed a sandwich with half of a roast chicken breast on the

Pasta with onions, garlic, and pepper flakes plus half a chicken breast.

bread baked Sunday morning(She declared it not pretty enough for blog posts). Since she was gone, I could indulge in two things I enjoy far more than she does – onions and a little heat.  I took my half of the chicken breast and crisped the skin a bit before serving over a southern Italian style dish of pasta with sautéed onions, garlic, and heavy on the red pepper flakes.  Because of how quickly I was going through my olive oil, I used some of the chicken fat when crisping the chicken skin and starting the onions.

We had gone through most of the two loaves of bread baked Sunday morning.  I started another double batch of my half-knead bread late at night.  It would sit for the next 18 hours.

Tuesday

Breakfast was the same as before.

Tuesday Lunch – I took most of the arroz con pollo leftovers and made a quick fritatta with two of the eggs. I was again told her lunch was not pretty enough for posting.

Tuesday night  was chicken noodle soup. As soon as I got home from work, I started a stock.  The chicken carcass, including the bits of chicken still on it, with some herbage, half an onion, and garlic was set to simmer to infuse the water with some wonderful flavors.  If I had stretched a few more dollars, I would have added more rough chopped veggies.

While the stock was simmering, I kneaded the bread and added some more flour to get it to the consistency I wanted and let it have a second rest. I am usually loath to break noodles, but one pound of pasta has to serve many purposes this week. I also added some carrots, more herbs, and a touch of the leftover arroz con pollo rice.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Finally, I added a little bit of lemon zest to wake up the flavors and bring it together.  Yes, I love my lemon zest. While this was happening, the bread also went into the oven to bake.  Fresh baked bread is a wonderful smell.

Wednesday

Breakfasts are the same.  The morning crunch does not leave much time for improvisation.

An egg salad made with fat free plain yogurt, and a heavy dose of dill for my wife while I put together a Sweet Potato Hash.  Sweet Potatoes, Onions, carrots, the last of the spinach, and garlic came together for a light, but flavorful lunch.

Dinner is a nice sized mound of pasta in the marinara sauce using the last quarter pound of the sausage.  I like my sauce thicker or chunkier but my wife likes it smooth as velvet so it was blitzed to her preferences.

Pasta with leftover marinara sauce

Thursday

Breakfast was the same.

Honestly, even I didn’t think my leftovers were pretty enough for a picture for Thursday lunch.  Suffice it to say that I had more pasta, bread, and olive oil.

I did get a cup of coffee from the doctor’s office midway through the week and my wife used some of our meager cushion in the food budget to treat herself to a sweet tea.

On the SNAP challenge, it takes a lot of effort to preplan not only the meals but the value of the components of the meals.  Each shopping item needs to be able to be used for multiple dishes to maximize the bang for your buck in the shopping.  I wasn’t  feeling underfed, but I did feel a little nagging hunger more often than usual.  The plans for the remaining days involved using leftover marinara sauce to make eggplant parm served with leftover pasta, another batch of bread, and similar combinations. The rice and beans were staples with which we stretched the other components.  To get from our seven days to five, the eggplant was dropped from the shopping list as was the corn that was going to be roasted in husk, reduced the amount of carrots, reduced the amount of tuna, and used some of the eggs, rice, and beans earlier in the process than planned.

 It was doable for the short period, but over time it would really constrict what you got to eat.  Some of the staples I got in large enough quantities that they would roll over like the flour and rice but “treats” seemed few and far between in the budgeting.  The fact that I was able to do all of this as cooking from scratch is one of the only reasons that the meals were as full as they were.  If we had tried to buy premade or processed food it would have been more expensive and certainly reduced the amount we ate.  This goes into the two luxuries I had on this challenge – confidence in my cooking knowledge and time. I walked into the store knowing how to roast a chicken and what I could do with all of the different components.  I have absolute faith in my ability to bake loaves of bread.  Everyone doesn’t have these skills or the confidence in these skills to put together a shopping list that lets the grocery list stretch. I also had the luxury of having the time to do all of this cooking.  Sure, I put off extracurricular activities – some reading, some blog writing – but how does a family or a couple that doesn’t have the luxury of that time handle the tightrope of prepared foods on this kind of a budget?  Think about how you approach your food every week and then think about how so many people have to approach it as a restriction.

If you can consider food a luxury or a stress reliever, try to do something to help alleviate the stress and restrictions food insecurity and hunger cause for so many. I’ll be taking part in the Arkansas Food Blogger Bake Sale, partnered with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and No Kid Hungry, on May 4th.  I hope to see you there.