My "What if" Food Challenge: Introduction

What if:

  • you had only the SNAP* allotment to use on groceries every month, and
  • you wanted to eat as healthfully as possible, and
  • you wanted to purchase as many organic and local foods as possible?

Could you do it shopping only at The Wedge Co-op—and if so, how would it work?

In 2010, Kevin Winge, Executive Director of Open Arms of Minnesota, blogged as he did a 7-Day SNAP Challenge. I read his posts and looked at the photos of his meals. When it was over, I emailed him to say that he could have eaten better by shopping at the Wedge. His response was immediate and warm, and during our exchange I started considering taking such a challenge myself.

Kevin remembered. He contacted me in August to say that Open Arms is discussing a challenge for this November, and was I still up for trying it out? Absolutely.

I've worked here for 30 years. Most public discussions around food issues during that time routinely included the presumption, if not the outright declaration, that nutritious (or organic, sustainable, Fair Trade, local—or all of the above) food is not within reach of households on tight budgets.

Yet our co-op has always served members on limited budgets. I wonder how many people know that many of the food co-ops were started in response to rapidly rising food prices in the 1970s. Certainly the Wedge was one of those. Check out the flyer, pictured left, that circulated in the Wedge neighborhood in the summer of 1974, inviting neighbors to organize a food co-op. The title is "Tired of High Food Prices?"

My family tested a very limited food budget for two years in the early 90s recession. I fed us almost exclusively from the Wedge during an extended period of spousal unemployment. Even adding back my staff discount, we rarely spent more than $50/week for two adults and a child.

With all the changes in the food system since then, I've wondered what is it like to shop here on a limited income these days. The feedback in casual conversations with members and shoppers who depend on SNAP for a food budget is pretty good, but I want to determine how well I can do it.

I explored web sites about budget eating, especially those that focus on organic or local foods. Linda Watson's web site, Cook for Good, is outstanding. She took her own "food stamp challenge" a few years ago and has developed eating organic food on a tight budget to an art form.

I used Linda's experience to shape my own approach to a food affordability challenge, but with some crucial differences, which make the "what if" challenge different from other "food stamp" challenges out there.

Rules for the "what if" food challenge

1. Spend only $367, the maximum SNAP allotment for a two-person household, for groceries in October, 2011

Most SNAP Challenges described on the web are based on an “average” allotment, and last only a week or two. I choose the maximum allotment for a full month, because that is what the lowest income households get. Those are the households least likely to have other cash for groceries. (Think about all the people who have exhausted unemployment and are still jobless.) SNAP is disbursed in full at the beginning of each month, too, not dribbled out weekly.

2. I will shop exclusively at the The Wedge Co-op...

as a member of the co-op, using the monthly member discount of $3.75 and any member specials or coupons as relevant. This isn’t a generic test of all natural food grocery stores, after all. This is about our co-op.

3. I want to test the affordability of the kinds of foods so often dismissed as “elitist”

SNAP is a USDA subsidy program. To my mind, there is no better use of this money than spending it on health-promoting products grown on family farms, local and organic if possible. That’s how we get the most bang for our buck. 

To the extent possible, the products will meet one of these criteria:

  • certified organic (or other reliable sustainability certification)
  • locally grown and/or produced (5-state area definition of “local”)
  • fair trade certified
  • produced and/or distributed by a co-op
  • available in bulk

Other things

I'll track our meals to see if they meet the dietary health guidelines of a commercial weight loss program with the initials WW, which target daily servings of fruit and vegetables, whole grain, lean protein, dairy/dairy alternative and healthful oil.

Here's another what-if: What if the belief that cooking at home takes "too much time" is the product of carefully honed advertising by the convenience food industry? I will note the time spent on food preparation during this month.

What if there is food in my house on October 1? No budget-conscious shopper tosses out perfectly good food just to make a point, so I'll continue to use any food already open. We shopped carefully the last week in September to minimize food on hand.

I'll post a photo of my pantry on October 1 and mention any pre-Challenge items I use during the month. I'll also photograph anything left at the end of October from posted purchases.

What the "what if" food challenge is—and is not

This is just one test to see if, all other issues being non-issues, food championed by the natural food movement, at the Wedge, is within reach on a tight budget.

We're testing whether enough good food is available to nourish one healthy, able-bodied aging couple (experienced cooks), within the boundaries stated above.

My "what if" challenge does not address food access, mobility limitations or a lack of culinary knowledge. The experience will not make me an expert on any household situation other than my own, nor on federal policy.

I encourage you to live your own "what if" food affordability challenge.

*SNAP—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—the federal program formerly known as "food stamps"

The rest of the journey

How does Elizabeth do in her "what-if" food challenge? Find out as she chronicles her journey in the following journal entries:

This article is courtesy of The Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For more info about The Wedge, or to view other articles from them, please visit

Tags: budget