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It's a SNAP: Living on Four Bucks a Day



Author Peter Biro is the husband of Nova Biro, a participant in LeadBoston, YW Boston’s experiential executive leadership program which explores key equity issues facing Boston. As part of its examination of poverty, LeadBoston 2013 participants undertook the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)  Challenge (feeding yourself on four dollars a day for one week). To support Nova, the entire Biro family participated in the Challenge to better understand food insecurity. Here, Peter reflects on the experience:

Living on Four Bucks a Day LeadBoston

I rarely decline a cappuccino any time of day, and certainly never first thing in the morning, but last Thursday I had no choice.  To support my wife Nova, our family went on a diet.  We were trying to shave not calories, but dollars: her mission was to complete the “SNAP Challenge” as part of her LeadBoston program, and experience issues of poverty firsthand by limiting our daily food spend to what poor families can afford.  That number, per person, is only four dollars a day.  

So, the Thursday morning cappuccino that rang in at $4.25 was not in the budget.

If you are lucky enough never to have thought about the breakdown on four bucks a day, as many reading this have not, you eventually arrive at a few other non-obvious conclusions.  First, you have to allocate the $4 among your meals - say, 50 cents for breakfast, 1 dollar for lunch, 2 dollars for dinner, and 50 cents for “other”.  50 cents for other is just not a lot.  In that world, if someone offers you free food, whatever the kind, you probably take it.  Second, as characters in Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” about growing up poor in Ireland could tell you, alcohol is a budget-killer.  Say your addiction is on the opposite end of the spectrum like mine and you need a cup of coffee.  Cheap will do.  That’s about $0.25 if you make it yourself.  

The issue in both cases is that the $0.25 has to come from somewhere.  So taking your children out for a ice cream or a treat is a non-starter.  

What are some cheap nutritious foods?  In no particular order, the Biro family’s diet last week consisted of rice, beans, potatoes, inexpensive meat (specifically split chicken breasts on sale, and stew meat on sale), bananas, eggs, carrots (but you have to peel them yourself - having the factory do the work for you and turn them into baby carrots costs too much), pasta, homemade pancakes, nuts, oatmeal and super cheap granola bars we bought in bulk (more on this later).  We bought a small crate of “Clementine” oranges on sale for $6, or $0.20 apiece.  We made homemade pizza one night, with dough from scratch costing roughly $0.40, the sauce about $1 and mozzarella at $3, totaling not quite $5 for 2 pizzas, with leftovers for lunch.  We did buy fresh broccoli, which is expensive at $0.30 per serving, so we didn’t have much.  Frozen vegetables are usually cheaper, but not always.  Lentils are cheap and high-quality calories but we didn’t get those in.  

Greasy tortilla chips are cheap - low quality, to be sure, but cheap.  It is true, as has been noted many times by those studying childhood obesity, that 2 liters of soda (for about $1 on sale) are much cheaper than a half gallon of orange juice (about $3.50 on sale) or milk.  

Besides designer coffee served by a disgruntled barista, other luxuries were out.  Berries.  Flank and high-quality steak.  Lamb.  Brand names.  Good apples out of season cost $1.33 each.  So, you can eat a granny smith in March, but you have to give something up.  

My daughter Sophie and I typically spend Tuesday afternoons together and share a piece of cake ($4) and bring one home for my wife and other daughter ($4).  We knew this had to go.  So, last week, Sophie and I split a mini-cupcake for $1.  

We worked over the crumbs for a while.  This was a theme all week.

This experience with my daughter really got my attention.  My wife and I know how to improvise in the kitchen, and the convenience of leftovers makes them a way of life for us already, so fitting different ingredients into this model didn’t jar us.  For Sophie and me to go without our usual dessert was not that big of a deal either, because in truth, we knew we could resume it next week.  It was temporary.  But poverty is rarely temporary.  And on the best day, you can either have a cup of coffee yourself, or give your child a treat, but never both.  

My family adapted.  Sophie resiliently offered, “That’s OK dad, I don’t need the big piece anyway.”  I checked the daily sales at our local supermarket and, for example, bought a “Five Buck Cluck”, a pre-roasted chicken on sale on Thursdays for $5.  That’s meat for 4 of us, plus a little extra, plus the basis to make stock instead of buying broth at $0.80 per can.  We used things that we had bought before in bulk -- on a per-serving basis, much cheaper.  A granola bar from a small box cost $0.40, but from a Costco-sized box, it’s about $0.10.  

But families in poverty, I imagine, cannot adapt this way.  They might not have time to check in at  the market every single day.  Yes, shopping at Costco saves money in the long run.  But if you are poor, it’s not in your neighborhood.  How do you get there?  How do you have the money upfront to pay for everything?  How do you get it back home?  Where would you store it?  And  you can’t spend, in the form of foregone wages, nearly $22 to make the 3-hour round trip.  $22 is food for 6 days.  At the same time, you probably have to shop for food much more frequently, which is a tremendous time burden for people already stretched to the limit.

This made us think about the broader issues.  

Tight food budgets bring the pervasiveness of cheap processed foods into sharp view.      
I don’t know what happens to the economy if the minimum wage goes up $1.  I do know, that an extra $1 equals $40 per week and would increase the food budget of a family of four by almost 35%.  A huge impact.    

Most importantly, I remember the anxious feeling after exhausting the daily $4.  Not hunger pangs -- we had full pantries in a warm spacious house in a safe neighborhood. The anxiety was rooted in this: for someone on $4 per day for food, food insecurity is rarely the greatest of their challenges.


Excellent article, Mr. Biro. I think the diverse impacts of poverty that become cumulative and exponentially disruptive (that you cited - such as having to shop several times a week because you never have enough money to achieve those cost-saving trips to a money-saving place like Costco, and the amount of time that food shopping takes out of your week for doing other small but important things) - those are key factors that make poverty more disruptive to a life than just the lack of money or the smaller portions on your plate - these are understandings we should all remember forever about what poverty means for those who live with it and for its impact on all of us.
Posted @ Tuesday, March 19, 2013 11:44 AM by Adam Gibbons
Thank you for taking a political issue and bringing it home. I will never think of SNAP the same again.
Posted @ Tuesday, March 19, 2013 11:46 AM by Kat
I appreciate your willingness to try to see what folks in poverty live like. I grew up in poverty and saw in both my immediate and extended families' and friends' lives my entire life. I know, therefore, first hand that most folks in poverty aren't working so hard that they don't have time to prepare a meal. Most folks in poverty that I know are in poverty BECAUSE they don't work hard. It's the exception, rather than the rule, when you have a very hardworking person who's poor. I wish more folks like you would understand that. I wish more folks like you personally knew people in poverty. But I appreciate the effort.
Posted @ Thursday, March 21, 2013 3:51 PM by Amie
I feed my family of 5 on $25.00 a day. We have to take advantage of the free lunch program (Not the healthiest selection of food you've ever seen, and that is if the kids will actually eat it.) We never eat out unless someone else is paying for it...or we have saved up specifically for that event. I never buy anything unless it is on sale. You have to be very savvy to be able to buy brand names for less than the store brands, but it can be done. Coupons are a life saver and my supermarket's gas points system has made it possible for me to afford gas in my 10 yr old car. SNAP is not a desired way of life, people believe it is some sort of easy way out. It is not. You have to renew your application every six months, you have to disclose alot of information to the gov't. You certainly cannot save money for a rainy day, they check your accounts. This is all okay, really, because it is a program of last resort. My friend put it perfectly, though. "People wonder why "On the local news report, they stated that RI is up in arms that the food stamps usage had gone through the roof and can't figure out why. Is this a joke? The state's minimum wage is $7.40. A box of cereal is $5, and this is a shocker? Something is horribly wrong." I couldn't have said it better...
Posted @ Thursday, March 21, 2013 4:29 PM by Trish
Frankly if I had $4 per day for food I would be happy.  
In California you get $854 on SSI and if you are on SSI you don't get SNAP. Believe me,
Posted @ Friday, March 22, 2013 12:07 AM by Nancy
I personally know of a family in Oregon who comfortably lives on exactly $4.27 of good quality food per person per day. I wonder how they would do if they tightened their belts a little more?
Posted @ Friday, March 22, 2013 12:43 AM by Jeb
Actually, when you live in poverty and get SNAP benefits you don't shop every day. You might shop weekly but not daily. And you hit the stores that are close to your house, not the Costco or Sams Club down the street which have membership fees. 
You clip coupons and buy on sale, and if the store you shop at happens to have a rewards club card like mine does--You take advantage of it (I can save on both groceries and gas using that). 
You learn when your local grocery store has the best sales (the one near me is Thursdays)so that your not wasting gas running around town to hit the different sales. 
I buy meats when they are on sale typically buy one get one in the large family packages, break them into smaller family size portions and put them in freezer bags and freeze them that way.  
I've been known to buy roasts on sale at the buy one get one price and then cut them in half when I get home and again put it in freezer bags as smaller family portions, I do the same w/ chicken..I can buy a family package of legs and another package of thighs and mix them into family packages of both. 
I don't waste my money on buying chicken broth, I precook the chicken (with skin on it) and get the chicken broth that way. I can take the broth and freeze it or use it to make homemade chicken noodle soup (break up some spaghetti noodles into the broth debone the chicken add some salt to taste)makes a great inexpensive meal on a cold night. 
I can purchase a large package of hamburger (which is typically cheaper by the lb) than the 1 lb packages and I do the same, break it down into smaller family portions. I can typically get three meals out of it that way. 
I can do the same w/ pork roasts, pork chops and other such things. 
For example, a family package of pork chops have about 10 chops each, so at buy one get one I get 20 chops, I break them down into 4 packages of 5 each and I get four meals--for the price of one family pack typically at about $6 or $7. 
If I buy two roasts cut them in half, again I get 4 meals for the price of one. My freezer is full of meats to last quite awhile, and I don't need to purchase it as often so that other weeks I can buy more of the other things, like fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, orange juice, fresh oranges, apples, strawberries, or snack foods. And I don't have the fees for Costco or Sam's club. 
Per a family of four gets about $668 a month in SNAP benefits. If a person shops wisely they should be able to eat well on that for a month. But then, it is Massachusetts and the price of food is probably higher than here in Florida. 
Last summer, my husband and I planted a garden so we had fresh vegetables from there, and we bought a few backyard chickens so now we have fresh eggs. 
We even planted a potato tower and grew our own potatoes to save some money. Those are pretty simple and can be done in a small backyard. I did the same with onions. 
Posted @ Friday, March 22, 2013 1:00 AM by BC
While I compliment you and your family for your "experiment ", a weekis not really long enough to understand the daily struggles we the low income have day to day. When you attempt to live on $1000.00 total for a month income. Including natural gas, electricity, rent, water, babysitter, doctor copays, bus or taxi fare, and a prepaid $10.00 phone card for the month for all your phone needs. Then you can really understand what we go through. A week experiment is nothing but a joke. Just my opinion. Thankyou.
Posted @ Friday, March 22, 2013 1:18 AM by Jennifer
Eating healthy on $4 a day becomes easier if you have time, foresight and live like a farmer. You need to not only make your meals from scratch, but grow the food that makes the meal. Roast a chicken which then becomes soup, and throw in the vegetables you froze last summer. As I write this, I'm enjoying a smoothie made from blueberries, rhubarb and strawberries that I put up last August. The only cost is half a cup of milk. Where does one buy time in an urban setting? Give up the gym for planting seeds, eliminate TV for weeding the garden and trade time at a movie theater or shopping mall for watering the garden. Live in an apartment? Join a community garden or put up fruits and vegetables when they are in season and less expensive.
Posted @ Friday, March 22, 2013 7:18 AM by Mary Davis
A piece of cake for $4? Two for $8? 
What happened to baking one
Posted @ Friday, March 22, 2013 10:42 AM by Jo
Only one week is too short, I agree, but it seems to me from your piece that you had several large "learns" even in that week and make it well worth it. I, too, am glad you did it. And I hope that every Congressman does it as well. It would really give them a clue that they dont currently have! The fact that a $1 increase in the minimum wage would increase the food budget by 35% is an eye-opener that Congress needs to wrap their brains around. Yes, I know that the argument is that employers won't hire anyone if they have to increase the wage they're paying to peons by $1/hr, but I say take the rest of the money from the CEO's salary!! He can afford it!
Posted @ Friday, March 22, 2013 12:51 PM by Jody
Someone said a family of four gets over $600 a month...our family of four gets $130.00 and that gets us a few days if we shop in our town. I can't afford healthy food and stretch it all month. A large tube of hamburger is around 30.00 and it's the 75-80% so it shrinks and doesn't leave much meat. A bag of chicken, which feeds us longer, is $10.00. It depends on where people live and what they live by as to how much they get and where they can buy food and what they can buy. In my area,
Posted @ Friday, March 22, 2013 1:09 PM by Katherine Terriquez
Another "Hello!" moment-Thank you!
Posted @ Thursday, April 04, 2013 8:18 AM by Christine Stewart
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