Healthy Eating for a Low-income Family: SNAP

Catherine Elizabeth Luedtke
Suzy Weems*
Janelle Walter*
Baylor University

Keywords: SNAP, low-income, budget, planning, purchasing, preparing


The purpose of this study was to investigate healthy nutrition options for families living at or slightly above the poverty level. A hypothetical scenario was created and used as a basis for investigating food prices and determining the availability of healthy foods using SNAP allotments. Data were collected from local chain supermarkets. Then, a budget, shopping schedule, and meal plan were developed. A SNAP allotment of $468 per month was calculated for the hypothetical family of four, and our study found that healthful food could be provided for under $440. The results showed that SNAP allotments could indeed provide adequate resources for the purchase of nourishing foods for families on a low income.


In our society today, much emphasis is being placed on nutrition and healthy living. Overall, healthy foods are considered to be more expensive in the minds of consumers. This is a common misconception that has not been supported in a convincing manner. Numerous studies and publications contain effective strategies on how to eat healthy within a budget (Langford, 2010; Palmer, 2009). However, a majority of these studies make suggestions targeting the middle and upper economic levels – those who can afford to adjust their grocery budget. This paper looks closely at families living at a low-income level.

The state of Texas currently has a 17.2 percent poverty rate (Castro, 2010). This is partly due to its large population of Hispanic and African American residents. People living at these low-income levels are often at a greater risk of being unhealthy due to lack of education and resources. For instance, low socioeconomic status has been shown to be positively correlated to obesity (Combs, 2011). Because so many underserved people are being labeled unhealthy, steps must be taken to educate and enable this sector on how to eat healthy at a low cost.

In order for low-income families to be successful in obtaining adequate nutrition at a low cost, they must know how to plan, purchase, and prepare meals. These individuals must look at their financial resources and develop budgets and meal plans. They must also make the best use of the food dollar when grocery shopping. Lastly, they need to put forth the time and effort required to prepare homemade meals. Families and individuals that develop and master these skills will be able to eat nutritiously on a low income.


Families struggling to provide food for their family are often eligible for federal assistance. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal program designed to provide assistance to help with food cost. The program is available to persons or families who have less than or equal to $2,000 in countable resources (USDA, 2011). Countable resources are determined by totaling all forms of income and valuable property and deducting monthly expenses. SNAP eligibility also depends on the number of people in a household and ages of family members. Based on the household’s earned income and size, the program allocates a monthly allotment. SNAP benefits can aid in buying any food products, seeds, or edible plants. Benefits do not provide assistance for spending on medications, nonfood items, or restaurant visits. This program has been extremely successful in increasing the quantity of nutrition, but not necessarily the quality of nutrition (Frazao et al., 2007). Therefore, it is beneficial to inform SNAP participants on how the food dollar can be effectively spent to obtain adequate nutrition.
The following hypothetical scenario will be used as the basis of the research throughout the remainder of this article.  Consider a family of four – dad, mom, and two children ages seven and ten. This family lives at 100 percent poverty level on an earned income of $1,838 per month (FHCE 2010). They rent a property costing $500 dollars per month and spend $160 each month in after-school childcare. They are well under $2,000 in countable resources and will, therefore, qualify for SNAP benefits. Based on a sample calculator found at www.gettingsnap.org, the family will receive a monthly SNAP allotment of $468 to use for grocery shopping. This monthly allotment provides $117 per family member, which equates to $3.90 per day.

Planning involves developing a budget and creating a menu plan. A budget should reflect the family’s monthly income and any additional monetary resources such as SNAP allotment. When dealing with the low-income families, roughly 35-40% of the net income should be reserved for food expenses (Frazao et al., 2007). In addition to a monthly budget, it is wise to create a weekly budget to ensure enough money is available for groceries toward the end of the month. Once a budget has been created, the family can construct a weekly meal plan.

With a budget and meal plan in place, the family can now purchase food items. When purchasing groceries, it is important to get a sense of food costs in the area. Knowing food costs will help individuals make the best use of their food dollar. For this study, food costs were gathered at chain grocery stores in Central Texas, a city of roughly 120,000 people. Prices were collected for inexpensive, nutrient rich items. It is important to consider a variety of food items in order to provide a balance of nutritious foods. One helpful hint in purchasing is to shop the perimeter of a grocery store, which contains a variety of nutrient-dense food products such as dairy, produce, and meat. Another hint is to buy based on what items are in season (a useful guide for produce can be found at www.picktexas.com). After collecting data on the cost of food, the family should determine items that will be purchased on a weekly basis and items that may last several weeks to a month. Based on the characteristics of this family, the children are likely to be eligible for free/reduced breakfast and lunch at school. This will expand the family’s food dollar due to less consumption of purchased food items.

Now the family can use these groceries to prepare appetizing and wholesome meals. It is important to understand that in order to achieve the best balance of health and cost, the family must know some basics of cooking. Cooking is not difficult, but does require time and practice (Walter et al., 2011). Homemade meals have many benefits including low cost, good health, and great taste (Walter et al., 2010). Foods made from scratch often turn out to be less expensive than their processed, convenient counterparts. Furthermore, home cooking eliminates consumption of excess calories, sodium, and sweeteners (Walter et al., 2010). Lastly, preparing meals at home is a wonderful way to spend quality family time and produce unique, delicious creations.


Finally, the family of four in the above scenario has all of the tools and knowledge needed in order to plan, purchase, and prepare low-cost, healthy meals. It is imperative that this information be spread to more underprivileged families in order to curb the prevalence of inadequate nutrition among the low-income sector. First of all, families who are eligible to participate in SNAP must enroll. Currently, SNAP enrollment in Central Texas is only averaging fifty percent, and similar statistics appear state-wide (CAFBT, 2009). Being enrolled in the program greatly increases the amount of food that families can afford. Second, families must use their SNAP allotment wisely in order to obtain optimal nutrition. This requires families to commit to weekly budgets and meal plans, be aware of food costs in their area, and be willing to prepare meals at home.

Implementing these practices will greatly increase the nutritional value of foods eaten by underprivileged families. In conclusion, people who are living on a low income can eat healthy within a budget! However, further research could look at important factors such as the geographic location of families, ethnicity of families, or the availability and size of grocery stores near the family residence. Changes in these factors can lead to fluctuations in food accessibility, food preferences, and food choices. Despite these different factors, healthy eating on a budget is always attainable when knowledge and resources are provided!


Capital Area Food Bank of Texas. (2009). Central Texas SNAP (Food Stamp) Enrollment. Austin, TX.

Castro, E. D. (2010, September 28). Poverty 101. Retrieved from http://www.cppp.org/research.php?aid=96

Combs, S. (2011, February 4). Gaining Costs, Losing Time. Retrieved from http://www.window.state.tx.us/specialrpt/obesitycost/

Foundation for Health Coverage Education. (2010). 2010 Federal Poverty Level [Data File]. Retrieved from http://www.coverageforall.org/pdf/FHCE_FedPovertyLevel.pdf

Frazao, E., Andrews, M., Smallwood, D., & Prell, M. (2007, September). Food Spending Patterns of Low-Income Households. Retrieved from http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib29/eib29-4/eib29-4.pdf

Langford, Stephanie. (2010). Real Food on a Real Budget: How to Eat Healthy for Less. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: KOTH Publishing.

Palmer, S. (August 2009). Smart, healthy eating on a budget--it's within your reach. Environmental Nutrition, 1+. General OneFile. Web.

United States Department of Agriculture. (2010). MyPyramid.gov: MyPyramid Plan. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www.mypyramid.gov/

 United States Department of Agriculture. (2011). Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/

Walter, J. M., Soliah, L., Weems, S. (2011). Barriers to Home Food Preparation. Poster session at 2011 Texas Family and Consumer Sciences Annual Meeting. Dallas, TX.

Walter, J. M., Soliah, L., Weems, S., Monroe, C. (2010). Motivators and Barriers to Home Food Preparation. Poster session at 2010 American Dietetic Association Annual Conference. Boston, MA.

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