Could you live on just $32 worth of food a week?

This week’s post was contributed by Maureen McGonagle and is a cross-post from VT Engage:

DSC07598-BANNERHow much do you spend on food each week? According to 2013 USDA numbers, “the cost of feeding a family of four a healthy diet can run $146 to $289 a week”. Hokies using the “Major Flex” meal plan at Virginia Tech, spend an average of $150/week (based on 10 meals.) So what if you only have $32 a week to spend?

As an AmeriCorps VISTA serving the Blacksburg Farmers Market, I qualify to receive full SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps). Living on poverty-level wages calls for very careful budgeting, and early on in my VISTA term, it became apparent that SNAP benefits were hardly ‘Supplemental’—instead, since I was earning so little money, what I received from SNAP became my monthly food budget—a reality for many Americans living in poverty.

The Blacksburg Farmers Market has worked hard to develop programs that foster inclusivity, allowing low-income folks greater access to affordable healthy foods. While farmers markets provide valuable services to communities, they often have the perception of only being available to the elite who can afford the ‘exorbitant’ food prices. Despite the lack of evidence for this claim, this perception alone has created a barrier to engagement for folks in the lower-income bracket.

The Market has been working to combat this misperception since July 2011, when we began to accept SNAP benefits as payment. A year later, we implemented the “SNAP Double Value Incentive Program”, which provides additional incentives to low-income customers who have not yet discovered the Market, or who feel that their limited budget may prevent them from shopping there.

Tokens1Each time their benefits card is used, they receive double the amount of wooden market ‘tokens’ to shop with up to $10. For example, $10 off a SNAP Card = $20 worth of Farmers Market tokens. Since its inception,127 households have enrolled in the program, bringing over $23,000 to the Market. I’ve experienced first-hand the power of the Double Value Program by stretching my food budget by an extra $80 per month.

As a way to highlight the importance of our SNAP Double Value Program, Virginia Cooperative Extension partnered with the Blacksburg Farmers Market to create the Farmers Market SNAP Challenge, which ran the week of October 11-17.

This exercise in empathy challenged Virginia Tech Students and the surrounding Blacksburg Community to get a sense of what life is like for millions of low-income Americans facing hunger by pledging to live on the same limited food budget as an average SNAP recipient–$32 for one week.

Participants in the Farmers Market SNAP Challenge were asked to spend part of their SNAP Challenge food budget at the Blacksburg Farmers Market, allowing them to experience the power of the SNAP doubling program for themselves. By shopping at the Market on the Saturday and Wednesday of the Challenge, participants will be allowed to expand their SNAP budget by an extra $20, permitting them $52 to spend on food for the entire week.

What the Double Value Program allows is the opportunity to afford the freshest, healthiest food available, even within a limited budget. We hope that the SNAP Challenge helped bring awareness to the importance of this program in broadening access to healthy, local foods.

We also hope the challenge will help educate the public on who receives SNAP benefits and how they are used. The SNAP beneficiaries I’ve met have come from varied walks of life and circumstances. This Challenge is a great way to help break down the stigma and shame associated with government assistance.

Once we had a customer come into our office to quietly inquire about our SNAP Double Value Program. Upon talking to him, he began to share his story—in his previous life he was a successfully employed, making over $100,000 a year, and living comfortably and autonomously, until he got sick. Unable to work, he spent all his savings and eventually ended up needing SNAP benefits.

In my year as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I have come to the realization that there is no one face of SNAP, just as there is no one face of poverty. SNAP recipients are as diverse as America is, encompassing the colors and generations of our culture.

Many of the faces of SNAP have stories of unemployment, disability, old age, and minimum wage—a landscape of unexpected life situations that leave folks with no other option but toBlacksburg-Farmers-Market seek assistance.

As we work to reach more SNAP beneficiaries with our Market programs, we hope to keep breaking down barriers between “us” and “them”, as we educate the NRV community on how tenuous the line is between getting by and living in poverty.


Maureen majored in Humanities, Science, and the Environment at Virginia Tech. During her time as an AmeriCorps VISTA member, she helped expand the Double Value Program, along with building two other Market programs, MarketKids and The Roost: Farmers Market Store. Maureen’s year as an AmeriCorps VISTA member has come to an end, she now works as the WIC Garden Coordinator for the New River Health District and as an independent massage therapist.

About the Blacksburg Farmers Market: since its inception, the Blacksburg Farmers Market has worked to provide economic opportunity for small farms and food businesses, while promoting public health by providing an access point for area residents to obtain and learn about locally produced and sustainably grown food.