3SquaresVT Challenge: What Our Family of 4 Learned Eating on $99 for a Week


Food insecurity, or the lack of resources, often financial, to acquire nutritious food for every meal on a consistent basis, impacts one in ten Vermonters. The federal government sponsors an entitlement program, known as food stamps or the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), that provides financial assistance to eligible individuals and families struggling with food insecurity. In Vermont, this program bears the name 3SquaresVT, referring to its goal of allowing those receiving benefits to eat three square meals per day.

Hunger Free Vermont promotes the 3SquaresVT Challenge annually in the week prior to Thanksgiving to raise awareness about hunger, homelessness, and food insecurity in Vermont, but you can take it any time of year.

The challenge involves a commitment to eating for one week on the budget of an average 3SquaresVT benefit based on the size of your family. Our family of four took the challenge in September 2017, and we attempted to eat on $99 that week.

3SquaresVT, Hunger Free Vermont
Photo used with permission of Hunger Free Vermont

As I prepared for our challenge week, I noticed how much of my brain space got consumed in planning to feed a family of four on less than $100 for seven days.

cash, money

I felt less present with my family as a wife and a mother due to my focus on how to feed us on such a limited amount of money.

I mentally ran through the list of items we consider “staples” that are not necessary, affordable, or, in some cases, allowable, on this budget. For example, my standard weekly grocery run includes a bottle of wine for me and a 12-pack of beer for my husband. Since 3SquaresVT benefits prohibit the purchase of alcohol, our weekly relaxants disappeared.

Additionally, my husband recently discovered Ben & Jerry’s new product, pint slices, which he eats at a rate of two boxes per week. My children regularly consume a carton of Breyer’s ice cream topped with Cabot whipped cream each week. At a cost of about $16.50, their desserts made up 16.5% of our weekly budget and food allowance without any real nutritional benefit. Their desserts came off the grocery list, as well as my Newman’s Own mint chocolate cream cookies.

Non-alcoholic drinks added up quickly, so I next axed my husband’s IBC root beer and my San Pellegrino Grapefruit soda, which amounted to $10.

soda, beer, ice cream

To avoid the cost of my $5 chai tea latte mix and accompanying $2.60 half-gallon of milk, I also switched to drinking coffee with my husband for the week and used the whole milk we buy for the kids instead of spending extra money on the light cream I prefer.

After the process of culling out these dietary extras, my task got harder. I started reducing the quality of our “real” food.

Instead of organic, cage-free eggs, I opted for the lower cost store-brand. We really do eat organic everything, including Amy’s frozen cheese pizza. While my daughter’s favorite meal is pizza, our budget could not absorb the $8, so it also came off the list. My son’s favorite Ian’s gluten-free chicken nuggets at $9.99 per package soon followed.

Finally, getting frustrated, I sat down and drafted a dinner menu for the week: pork chops with rice and in-season corn on the cob, chicken fajitas, grilled cheese and tomato soup, Thai curry chicken with vegetables, and tortellini with red sauce. Reviewing the list, I realized my children would not eat half of these meals unless modified, so I implemented kid-friendly downgrades for them. For example, instead of chicken fajitas, they got cheese quesadillas. Instead of Thai curry sauce, they got plain cooked chicken and rice.

One of our challenge week meals

While we do grow a small garden, the constant rains last summer meant few- and far-between late tomatoes, even fewer cucumbers, ruined cilantro, and basil, so we did not eat much out of our garden during our challenge week. When I shopped, I used a $5 off coupon at Hannaford, which allowed us to go 5% over budget.

Luckily, I pulled up our school’s web site and learned that school-age children in families receiving 3SquaresVT benefits automatically qualify for free school breakfast and lunch.

While I still needed to budget for and pack morning, afternoon, and activity snacks for my kids, this two-meal per day budgetary savings definitely helped – in theory. In reality, free breakfast and lunch didn’t go exactly as planned.

cafeteria, lunch, tray, kids
Photo credit: Hunger Free Vermont, Photographer: Finn Yarborough

My kids ride the bus to school, which allows me to get to work on time. The bus drops off shortly before classes start, so my kids do not have time to eat breakfast at school and still arrive on time to class. I wonder how families who rely on free hot school breakfast for their kids actually receive those two free meals? Do they drop off their kids at school early specifically for this purpose, possibly risking a late start to their work days? Do their kids take the bus and then hurry to bolt down school breakfast before literally running to get to class on time?

As one more school benefit, we got to enjoy dessert for free one night during our week by attending a school-sponsored ice cream social. Additionally, while my son eats hot lunch almost every day now, my daughter’s picky eater issues and her anxiety about standing in the lunch line alone deter her from partaking of hot school lunch. After explaining the 3SquaresVT challenge to her, she forced herself to purchase hot lunch twice that week.

Because of this challenge, I felt grateful for how our school handles payment for lunch.

Each child gets a laminated card with a barcode kept in a central location in the school cafeteria. After selecting a hot school meal, the child presents the card at the register, where a cafeteria employee scans it. For those who receive free or reduced-price school meals, no one need ever know. For kids whose parents pay for school breakfast and lunch, scanning the barcode automatically deducts funds from the child’s electronic account, prepaid by parents via a website. This system represents a thoughtful way to preserve dignity for those children eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.

Towards the end of the week, I realized I miscalculated our budget and how far the snacks and meals I planned would stretch. This miscalculation left us one day short on food.

I brought this teachable moment to our dinner table and asked my family to present their solutions to this problem. My daughter kept running to our pantry and pulling out the food in there, so my husband and I repeated the rules of the 3SquaresVT Challenge to her. When she comprehended the “non-existence” of the pantry food, since I did not purchase it for our challenge week, she visibly deflated. I gently explained to her the reality of this exact dilemma for many families in our community and emphasized our need to figure out what to do. What would families facing our situation do?

My son then recommended that we hunt and kill animals to eat. I pointed out our lack of the proper weapons, permits, or training for this option and the not insignificant cost of butchering an animal. My daughter recommended we visit one or the other set of grandparents for meals. I applauded her for this realistic suggestion for us and then explained that some people do not live near their families and thus lack this option.

My husband recommended we go through dumpsters at schools, grocery stores, and restaurants, since many people throw away perfectly good food every day. The children expressed horror at this suggestion and grew more aghast to learn people actually do address their hunger and food insecurity by looking through trash. At this moment, I remembered buying spaghetti as part of our allotment and proclaimed that we could eat spaghetti for breakfast, lunch, and dinner the next day. My family groaned in response.

I appreciated the opportunity to expose my family to the 3SquaresVT Challenge, since I hate it when my kids waste food without understanding how lucky they are to have reliable, healthy meals.

While I frequently tell them about the kids in our community and our state who lack enough to eat on a daily basis and how it insults them to refuse to eat perfectly good food, this message did not become real for them until our challenge week.

This experience gave me the additional opportunity to open up a conversation with my mother who spent part of her childhood on welfare. She told me the food allotment used to come in the form of powdered milk, Velveeta-like cheese food, white bread, and other similarly less than appetizing and not optimally nutritious food items. The option for funds to select and purchase food for a family did not exist.

While I never directly experienced food insecurity growing up, I became more aware of the generational impact on me as I listened to my mother’s account of her personal experience with food insecurity as a child.

You cannot eat well on a 3SquaresVT budget without cooking food from scratch. Eating out and frozen foods are too expensive to fit within the budget. My grandmother and my mother taught me to cook at a very early age. To this day, I cook all but one or two dinners per week for my family, and I usually make breakfast and lunch from scratch on weekends.

3SquaresVT, fun, cooking, daughter
Cooking chocolate chip pancakes with my daughter on a weekend morning

My family’s grocery bill averages $160 per week, including alcohol, desserts, sweetened beverages, organic items, and frozen foods. Ironically, my husband and I spend almost that exact amount ($160) eating out each week. The comparison is striking.

Our family’s 3SquaresVT Challenge week required better meal planning, less waste, an emptier refrigerator and pantry at the end of the week, fewer options, and a higher consciousness of food as a limited resource by every member of my family.

Have you taken the 3SquaresVT Challenge? Did you involve your family? What did you all learn together?


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