Photograph by Getty Images
By Mitch Rothschild
April 10, 2015

How much did you spend on breakfast today? Even better, dinner last night? If you’re one of the 47 million Americans on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), your budget for any given meal is around $1.44. Yes. Just over one dollar.

While these federal benefits are designed to be supplemental – there are numerous families whose sole resource is the SNAP money they receive. What are they able to buy with that money? Can it be nutritious?

These questions are important as states, such as Missouri, bring up bills to restrict food assistance and as we move ever closer to the perils of summertime where families (without school lunch/snack assistance) are ever more reliant on the program. The irony is that the while the government spends $80 billion a year on SNAP, we spend more than 15 times that ($1.3 trillion) on health care. If SNAP can’t provide proper nutrition, those billions might actually contribute to an increase in long-term healthcare costs.

And so, as the founder of Vitals, a healthcare company focused on enabling consumers to make better choices around there care , I challenged myself to eat on a budget of $31 per week (the average amount individuals receive in New York under SNAP) for 14 days to find out.

The first inkling of how difficult the next two weeks would be occurred when I set foot in the grocery store. Organic? Forget it. The 20% to 30% premium makes it completely unattainable. More surprising, was not being able to afford conventional fruits and vegetables. During my first week shopping in the Bronx, NY, I couldn’t buy carrots, bananas or cucumbers.

But why? As far as farming goes, growing carrots is relatively easy. Once picked from the ground, they go into a bag and get shipped to the store. And yet, foods that have dozens of ingredients and are highly processed cost less because of farm subsidies for foods like soy or corn.

I found that on days where I went from work to home, adjusting to my new eating habits was relatively easily, if not exciting. But a simple shift of schedule could cause panic. With $0.59 left in my food budget after my first week, I had no margin for error. And yet, on day four, I left my food at home. Should I go back and get it (extra fare)? Go hungry for the day? Buy a day’s worth of food at a higher-priced location and have a tight budget?

In February, NPR interviewed Sara Martin, a mother who fell behind on her children’s immunizations. She wanted to vaccinate – but logistically, couldn’t. The doctor’s office was two buses across town. A long day with toddlers, she needed to bring several snacks with her – and she was on food stamps. The reality was that getting to the doctor was just too disruptive to the day-to-day business of eating and living.

Living on a low budget makes you really plan, and think about, every single meal. What you’ll eat. Making sure the food lasts. It takes time, which might otherwise be spent composing symphonies, writing novels or doing hostile takeovers. When operating on a SNAP budget, the overriding goal is to not be hungry. Other eating priorities – balanced diet, nutrition, calorie control – count for way less.

Nutritionists often advise to “eat a rainbow” of food, but the bulk of what can be bought with food assistance is brown. In other words, it’s heavy on carbs and low on nutrition.

Inarguably there’s a link between the food we eat and how we feel. On $4 a day, I didn’t feel much like myself. After three days, I noticed a distinct loss of energy. I was heavier, groggier. Worse, by day 10, I felt the start of winter sickness. Sore throat. Sniffles. Weaker constitution. And while it may be hard to prove, it certainly is plausible that 10 days of high carbs, low protein, and virtually no fresh fruits and vegetables has a health impact.

While many of my peers thought the experiment to be cool and thoughtful, I saw it for what it was, a short-lived learning experience. After all, I lived all of these challenges – fatigue, sickness, inability to plan – fully knowing I had a light at the end of my two-week tunnel in the form of an immediate return to my mid-day latte, dinner out or a smart start your day breakfast.

To be sure, change is coming to the folks that navigate SNAP every day. Farmers markets across the nation are doubling dollars for people who pay for produce with SNAP. The government is even supporting these programs with $100 million to support doubling bucks spent on fruits and vegetables. Although they cut $8.7 billion out of the program at the start of 2014 – reducing the average family’s assistance by $90 per month.

The government may choose to cut deeper into the SNAP budget, but they’re essentially paying more by having to cover the costs related to diabetes, obesity and heart disease. In a land of plenty, eating well shouldn’t be reserved for the elite. Expanding the double-dollar program to supermarkets, bringing farmers markets into inner cities and restricting highly processed foods are ways we can prioritize nutrition in government funded food programs. Because in the end, cheap foods aren’t so cheap.

Mitch Rothschild is the Chairman and co-founder of Vitals, an online resource for patients to find doctors and medical facilities.

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