Friday, December 30, 2016

How To Get The Most Out Of Your SNAP Food Benefits

Vegetables 0006
By Biswarup Ganguly (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Popularly known as 'food stamps,' the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program services 21,372,935 households in the United States as of May 2016 (source). If you are a member of one of those households (as I am at the time of this writing), using these benefits in lieu of cash presents unique challenges. These benefits generally only apply to groceries that are not sold hot and don't come from the deli section of a grocer. Further limiting the usefulness of SNAP is the fact that not every grocery store accepts it. That said, food stamps are still a wonderful resource for low-income individuals and families and can be stretched nearly as far as cash with some smart planning. Below are some tips on how to make the most of your benefits.

  1. Make a tiered list of your grocery needs, and apply your benefits in order. First tier is staples to build meals around (starches like rice, pasta, potatoes, cereal, corn or cornmeal, oats, and flour; cheap protein like beans, lentils, eggs, chicken, and pork). Second tier is cheap vegetables and fruit to fill out meals with. (Often, frozen or canned vegetables are much cheaper than fresh, but this depends on the vegetable. Salsa provides a serving of vegetables and can be bought or made cheaply. Bananas, oranges, and apples are usually the cheapest fruits.) Third tier is cheap dairy (cheese and milk are great sources of calcium, and yogurt and cottage cheese are relatively cheap protein sources). Fourth tier is accents like spices/herbs and oil to make meals more palatable as well as 'meal accompaniments' like juice, sugar, and butter. Fifth tier is luxury foods like chips, soda, and desserts. The fifth tier could also be replaced with good pantry-building foods that will last long-term in case your household loses benefits. Fifth tier foods should ideally be purchased at the end of the month to make sure there are enough of the first four tiers to last all month.
  2. Eat simple, cheap meals until the end of the month. Generally, it is better to save special meals for the end of the month to make sure your money stretches throughout the month. When my family first entered a financial situation where applying for food assistance became necessary, a total mental shift was required. Rather than eating our favorite meals throughout the month, we tend to subsist mostly on cheap meals like beans and rice with vegetables and a small amount of shredded chicken. The last week of the month, we'll get the ingredients for 'special' meals like spaghetti and meatballs with parmesan or ravioli and pesto. Breakfast the first three weeks of the month is usually eggs and fruit or vegetables with a cheap starch (like fried potatoes or oatmeal), and the last week we'll have biscuits with jam or breakfast casseroles a couple of times.
  3. Even if you don't have time to cook entirely from scratch, try to make the things that are low-effort instead of buying them. A few examples of this are roast chicken if you have a crockpot (a whole chicken or chicken pieces can roast during the day or overnight with very little prep time), soda bread if you don't have a bread maker or sandwich bread if you do, and self-mixed spice blends instead of preblended (like taco or fajita seasoning). Cooking beans from dry in a crockpot is also very low in effort and prep time, and saves a bit of money over canned.
  4. Make larger portions than you need to have leftovers on hand instead of buying cold prepared food. When there's nothing in the fridge, the premade sandwiches, salads, and wraps available at most grocery stores are tempting. They're less so when there's food in the fridge that can quickly be warmed and eaten or packed along to work or on outings.
Although these tips may seem obvious, they're things that my family had to learn the hard way. Hopefully they can help another household get through their season of scarcity as they have helped me.

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