How a 24-Year-Old Medical Student Eats With EBT/Food Stamps in San Francisco

Illustration by Maggie Cowles

Welcome to The Receipt, a series documenting how Bon Appétit readers eat and what they spend doing it. Each food diary follows one anonymous reader’s week of expenses related to groceries, restaurant meals, coffee runs, and every bite in between. In this time of rising food costs, The Receipt reveals how folks—from different cities, with different incomes, on different schedules—are figuring out their food budgets.

In today’s Receipt, a 24-year-old medical student on SNAP benefits in San Francisco buys groceries with EBT and celebrates the end of exams with drinks. “Half of the fun of feeding myself as a medical student is trying to finesse as much free food as I can,” she writes. Keep reading for her receipts.

The finances

What are your pronouns? She/her/hers

What is your occupation? Medical student

How old are you? 24

What city and state do you live in? San Francisco, CA

What is your annual salary, if you have one? $0. As a graduate student with no income, I qualify for EBT, which provides $291 a month for groceries.

How much is one paycheck after taxes? $0

How often are you paid? (e.g., weekly) $0

How much money do you have in savings? Several thousand in a Roth IRA

What are your approximate fixed monthly expenses beyond food? (e.g., rent, subscriptions, bills)

  • Rent: $1,550 (I live in a three-bed, two-bathroom apartment with roommates)

  • Utilities: About $40 (We get discounted Wi-Fi with EBT)

  • Amazon Prime: $7.63 (With the student discount)

  • Spotify: $3.06 (I split a family plan with others)

The diet

Do you follow a certain diet or have dietary restrictions? My friends refer to my diet as “dirty pescetarian” in that I’m pescetarian 95% of the time but I’ll occasionally have meat if I’m traveling and there’s something notable I want to try.

What are the grocery staples you always buy, if any? I always have staples like bread, pasta, rice, nut butter, eggs, mayo, and multiple forms of cheese in my fridge and pantry.

How often in a week do you dine out versus cook at home? I eat out two to three times a week, almost always because of social plans. With EBT, it’s really hard to justify eating out. If I’m too busy or lazy to prepare something, I’ll get cold prepared foods from the grocery store (sushi, sandwiches, salads, all of which EBT can cover) instead of takeout.

How often in a week did you dine out while growing up? Usually once or twice a week. We didn’t eat out a ton, mostly because my dad has many dietary restrictions. If we did go out to a restaurant, we’d often go to the Cheesecake Factory because its diversity of foods could satisfy the varied preferences of our family. We also had fast food a decent amount: McDonald’s, Taco Bell, In-N-Out, or Costco’s food court.

How often in a week did your parents or guardians cook at home? Almost every day. Typically my mom would stir-fry vegetables and some form of protein. We’d eat this with bread or rice–despite his Chinese upbringing, my dad loves bread, so I grew up eating a lot of various kinds of bread, depending on what phase my dad was going through at the moment. We also had frozen dinners maybe once or twice a week; favorites include the Ling Ling potstickers from Costco and Trader Joe’s cauliflower fried rice.

The expenses

  • Week’s total: $125.74 ($51.62 of which is paid with EBT)

  • Restaurants and cafés total: $66.12

  • Groceries total: $59.62 ($51.62 of which is paid with EBT)

  • Most-expensive meal or purchase: Dinner at 707 Sutter, $22.79

  • Least-expensive meal or purchase: Banana, $0.19

  • Number of restaurant and café meals: 5

  • Number of grocery trips: 2

The diary


The mango mojito is thick and fruity, reminiscent of a mango lassi.

8:02 a.m. It’s exam day! I’ve spent most of the weekend studying and am ready to get my four-hour exam over with. I wake up a little earlier than usual in order to make a heartier breakfast. I toast a slice of sourdough sandwich bread (bought previously from Trader Joe’s, $3.49), smear on some almond butter (bought previously from Andronico’s, $8.99), and slice a banana to put on top (bought previously from Trader Joe’s, $0.19). I linger for a moment to decide if I should have some caffeine. The problem with caffeine is that I never know whether it will give me a nice little energy boost or if it will send me on an anxiety death spiral. Based on how groggy I’m feeling, I take my chances and scoop out a small spoonful of instant cold brew into a travel mug and add in boiling water and a splash of Trader Joe’s coconut and almond creamer. I take bites of my toast while preparing my coffee and packing my backpack. It’s simple, but the sweetness from the banana, savoriness from the sourdough, and nuttiness from the almond butter hit the spot.

11:48 a.m. I finished my exam! My eyes hurt from focusing on a screen for so long, but I’m glad to be done. My friends and I always go out for lunch after exams to celebrate. I finished my exam an hour early–not because I’m fast but because at the three-hour mark my brain got too fried to think anymore–so I head home to wait. I chug an Orgain Plant Protein Shake (previously bought from Amazon with EBT, $24.49 for a pack of 12) to hold me over. It tastes surprisingly okay–fairly sweet and not too chalky. I’ve learned that if I chug it fast enough, I barely notice the strangeness of the vanilla flavor, and if I take a sip of water afterward I barely notice the even stranger aftertaste.

12:57 p.m. My friends finish up, and I bike to meet them in the Richmond neighborhood at Arsicault Bakery, which makes the best croissant I’ve ever had. Their pastries are buttery and sugary with a flakiness and crispness that is unparalleled. After waiting in line for 20 minutes, I order two kouign-amanns ($5 each; my friend Venmos me for one of them) and tuck them in my bag to split with a friend later.

1:20 p.m. The next stop on our post-exam celebration tour is Burma Superstar, a Burmese restaurant down the street. I split a large tea leaf salad and a pitcher of mango mojito with my friends ($22.27). The tea leaf salad, which is mixed tableside, is savory and citrusy, with crisp lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and nuts providing a delightful mix of textures. The mango mojito is thick and fruity, reminiscent of a mango lassi but featuring rum instead of milk and yogurt. Perfect for a sunny afternoon post-exam drink.

2:00 p.m. I meet up at a nearby Whole Foods with another friend who is visiting town. We’ve planned an afternoon picnic so we grab a baguette, some Cabot sliced cheese squares, and a tub of Toom garlic dip. I pay for the baguette ($3.50) and cheese ($6.99) with my EBT card, while my friend covers the Toom.

2:24 p.m. We walk over to Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park. To the sound of bongo drums in the background, we snack on our Whole Foods haul and our Arsicault kouign-amanns while people-watching, catching up, and debating if Taylor Swift has reached her peak cultural relevance. Some other friends join us and bring a 91% cacao chocolate bar and a tiny sample jar of apricot jam for us all to share.

8:59 p.m. I just got back from playing volleyball at my school gym with some other medical and dental students. I pop some frozen Thai shrimp gyoza (previously bought from Trader Joe’s, $5.99 a bag) into the air fryer. The gyoza wrapper gets crunchy while the shrimp filling remains juicy and tender. The air fryer makes the wrapper a little drier than I like, but the convenience in combination with my laziness wins out. For dessert, I have a pumpkin spiced Joe-Joe’s sandwich cookie (previously bought from Trader Joe’s, $4.29 for a pack of 10).

Monday total: $27.27 (plus $10.49 paid with EBT) ($37.76 total)


I gave up cooking for taste early on in medical school–I mostly cook for survival and sustenance now.

9:56 a.m. Even though my first lecture is at 10:10, which is objectively not early, I wake up 20 minutes before I need to leave. I pop a slice of sourdough sandwich bread (previously bought from Trader Joe’s, $3.49) into the toaster oven. I grab the tub of Earth Balance vegan butter from my fridge, rip apart my bread, drag the crusty edges straight into the tub of butter, and eat my bread and butter like one would eat pita and hummus. I wash it down with water that’s been sitting in my bottle since last night and pack the bottle of stale water into my bag before I rush out.

12:20 p.m. I get home after my lecture on pain, which was surprisingly entertaining (our professor played us a TikTok of him rapping about Advil; professors these days are becoming more digitally proficient than I am). If I had to be at school in the afternoon, I typically would have packed a lunch, scavenged for free food, brought an array of snacks to hold me over, or bought food from the cafeteria.

Because I was busy this past weekend studying, I’m glad I get to go home and cook. I roast an onion (gotten last week from the weekly food pantry at school) and two bell peppers (previously bought from Trader Joe’s, $1.29 each). I assemble quesadillas with corn tortillas (previously bought from Trader Joe’s, $1.29), shredded Mexican cheese blend (previously bought from Trader Joe’s, $3.69), black beans (a can from my parents’ house), and the roasted vegetables. It takes about 30 minutes and turns out decent. I gave up cooking for taste early on in medical school–I mostly cook for survival and sustenance now. It’s tasty-ish. (In my book, anything with cheese is at least half-tasty.) And, if I ignore the fact that the vegetables are burnt to a crisp, it’s healthy enough. I also have another pumpkin-spiced sandwich cookie for dessert.

6:56 p.m. I have a Hinge date tonight! Ah! It’s a second date with this guy who my friends and I call “GPT guy” because he works in AI. Before I head out I have a chewy chocolate and peanut butter protein bar (previously bought from Trader Joe’s, $3.49 for a pack of six). I always prepare for the possibility that I’ll be splitting the bill, so it’s in my best interest to eat beforehand so that “I’m not that hungry.”

7:05 p.m. I meet up with “GPT guy” at Ebisu, a sushi restaurant. The space is simple, small, and cozy. We share a sake flight and two specialty rolls: a Dexter Carter (salmon, avocado, shiso, tobiko, and shrimp with sliced lemon) and a Family Affair (tuna, avocado, albacore tuna, yellow onion, tobiko, and scallion topped with aioli). The Dexter Carter roll really stands out: The thinly sliced lemon on top is refreshingly acidic in contrast to the richness of the salmon, while the tobiko adds a delightful crunch. On the other hand, the Family Affair roll is pleasant and satisfactory but more forgettable, kind of like our conversation. After we wrap up dinner, he suggests we get dessert so I bring us to a nearby frozen yogurt shop, Easy Breezy. I get a mix of cookies and cream and vanilla froyo with mochi topping. He pays for dinner ($64.32) while I pay for our froyos ($9.44).

Tuesday total: $9.44


I enjoy some of the office’s eclectic snacks. It’s nice to be the beneficiary to tech’s high salaries every once in a while.

9:57 a.m. I’m running late! I scarf down a banana and take a Trader Joe’s chewy chocolate and peanut butter protein bar to eat in class.

12:43 p.m. Half the fun of feeding myself as a medical student is trying to finesse as much free food as I can. At school we can often get free lunch by attending lunchtime talks, but today I head over to Retool, a tech startup in the city, with my friend, a software engineer who works there. Like many companies in the area, Retool gives free meals to its employees every day, and today is Build Your Own Poke, an office favorite—so much so that the ahi tuna is out when we get there! Instead I opt for a poke bowl with pineapple teriyaki tofu, sweet potatoes, edamame, mixed greens, and roasted gailan.

After lunch I settle into one of the open desks at the office and catch up on recorded lectures as I enjoy some of the office’s eclectic snacks, including an Olive Garden Andes mint chocolate, a Rip Van wafel, and a canned green tea. I also grab a premade wrap and a bag of chips to eat later. It’s nice to be the beneficiary to tech’s high salaries every once in a while.

2:39 p.m. I’m still at my friend’s office. He interrupts me during my Spanish tutoring lesson (which I take on Skype from an empty conference room) to bring me an iced latte from Tartine Manufactory, which his company also pays for. “Lo siento, mi amigo está aquí con mi café,” I stammer to my tutor. I only drink half of it because I feel an anxiety death spiral coming on. I take the rest home.

5:57 p.m. My friend and I are at Golden Gate Park playing pickup grass doubles volleyball, where my friend absolutely smashes the ball, makes unbelievable plays, and carries us to an undefeated day. (He totally did not coerce me into writing that about him.) I’m super hungry by the end, and another friend offers me some Nutella biscuits. They taste of chocolate and butter and have a satisfyingly crunchy exterior with gooey Nutella inside.

6:21 p.m. I head to my school gym for a volleyball match as part of a weekly league. I’m still starving so I take a few bites of the wrap I grabbed from Retool. It’s a vegetable fajita wrap with guacamole and pico de gallo. The veggies are nicely roasted with a touch of smokey heat. I’m surprised the guacamole hasn’t gone brown, and it adds a nice creamy flavor that complements the sharp acidity of the pico de gallo.

9:50 p.m. I’m at home now catching up on some schoolwork. I’m hungry once again, so I make another two quesadillas with the same ingredients as yesterday. I munch on the quesadillas and the leftover vegetable fajita wrap as I sit down to respond to a text from GPT guy in which he says he had a good time but didn’t feel a “romantic spark.” Maybe it’s because I made fun of him about arriving and leaving in an Uber after he went on a 15-minute soliloquy during our first date about his passion for public transportation and urbanism. I contemplate using ChatGPT to draft a response, but its suggestions are cumbersome and awkward. Go figure.

Wednesday total: $0


I watch a school lecture to distract myself from the disappointingly over-boiled broccoli.

11:13 a.m. I finally roll out of bed. Without any morning school obligations, I let myself sleep in. We start clinical rotations in January, at which point I’ll need to start going into the hospital or clinic as early as 6 a.m. Until then, I’m determined to live as unapologetically a night owl as possible. I sip on the leftover Tartine latte from the fridge and eat a Trader Joe’s pumpkin spiced sandwich cookie at my desk while I check my email.

11:41 a.m. I prepare lunch before heading out to campus for a neurology clinical skills session. I boil some broccoli florets (previously bought from Trader Joe’s, $2.49), fry up two eggs (previously bought from Trader Joe’s, $2.99 for a dozen), and toast a slice of sourdough. I season the broccoli and eggs with garlic salt and pepper and top each with a generous helping of sriracha (bought long ago). I use the back of a fork to spread Earth Balance vegan butter on the bread. It’s another “sustenance and survival” kind of meal. I eat while watching a school lecture in order to distract myself from the disappointingly over-boiled broccoli.

5:11 p.m. After an afternoon spent practicing the neurologic exam and discussing patient cases, my classmates and I head to the weekly food pantry hosted by our school. I pick up two onions, a pear, two tuna salad cracker snack packs, and a pack of Triscuit crackers. Today’s haul is smaller than usual, but I learned the hard way that I should only grab things that I can actually see myself eating. (So many apples from the food pantry went bad in my apartment before I realized I don’t really eat apples.)

5:37 p.m. On the shuttle back home, I eat a Trader Joe’s chocolate and peanut butter protein bar.

7:00 p.m. I head over to my friend’s place with the onions I got from the food market. We’re doing pasta night! One friend brings two packs of ready-to-cook one-pot pasta (a linguine with pesto genovese and a risotto with porcini and white truffle oil), another brings some broccoli and potatoes to roast, and another brings leftover drinks from a party she hosted recently. Since all items were purchased with EBT, picked up for free, or leftover from past get-togethers, we don’t bother charging each other on Venmo.

I crack open an aperol spritz as we work together to roast the vegetables and boil the pasta kits. I’m in charge of reading instructions and keeping time. When we’re finished, I help myself to some of the pesto linguine and roasted vegetables. We settle into the couch to eat while watching the new Jennifer Lawrence movie. The pasta is borderline too al dente but the pesto is nice and rich.

10:36 p.m. I’m back home scrolling on my phone and procrastinating doing schoolwork. We underestimated how much pasta we could eat so I’m hungry again. I put some Impossible chicken nuggets (previously bought from Trader Joe’s, $6.99) in the toaster oven and snack on them as I muster up the motivation to review school material.

Thursday total: $0


The broccoli, although still soft, tastes much better covered in the runoff butter.

8:00 a.m. The first 8 a.m. class of the week induces the return of feral med student eating habits that had briefly regressed in my post-exam state. I stuff Triscuit crackers in my mouth as I throw on clothes, pack my bag, and rush out the door.

11:47 a.m. After getting home and taking a much-needed nap, I make another two quesadillas with the same ingredients. The weather today is particularly chilly so I also brew a peppermint herbal tea (from Trader Joe’s) with honey (gifted to me from a market in Marin).

3:28 p.m. I snack on a bag of sea salt and vinegar Kettle chips from the Retool office as I attempt to do more schoolwork.

7:36 p.m. Now that the work day is over, it’s officially Halloweekend! I kick off the weekend by throwing some salmon (previously bought from Trader Joe’s, $5.99) in the oven. The salmon was pre-seasoned with lemon butter, and I add some sad over-boiled broccoli from yesterday to the pan in hopes that it will crisp up and soak up the butter as it melts. I also toast a slice of sourdough sandwich bread and spread some vegan butter on it. The more butter the better!

Because I’m running late, I eat my dinner while doing my hair and makeup for my costume–my friends and I are going as different versions of Britney Spears. The salmon itself is soft and flaky, with a touch of garlic and a light zestiness from the lemon. The broccoli, although still soft, tastes much better covered in the runoff butter.

8:24 p.m. I’m supposed to meet up with my friend to head over to a house party together, but I’m running behind as usual. I ask her to pick up two big bags of chips, one for this house party and another for one later tonight. She picks up cool ranch Doritos and barbeque Lays from a corner store, and I Venmo her $8 to cover the Lays and half the price of the Doritos. The parties were festive, the chips were a hit, and I have a few drinks throughout the night.

Friday total: $8


I’m already flushed from the drinks and the salsa is not helping.

12:58 p.m. I wake up and am harshly reminded why I don’t drink that much anymore. Stumbling out of bed feels like an out-of-body experience. I chug some water and scour my pantry for something easy to eat. I notice the leftover cheese from Monday’s picnic hidden in the back of my fridge and finish it off with some Triscuit crackers.

5:59 p.m. I’m now in Lower Nob Hill where my friends and I are barhopping. We pregamed with leftover alcohol beforehand to avoid spending too much money on drinks. My friend and I are hungry so we break off from the group to a Mexican place called El Super Burrito. Since we are going to dinner soon, I get a single vegetable taco ($6.62) that comes with chips and salsa. It’s cheesy and flavorful with a touch of freshness from the shredded lettuce and pico de gallo. Meanwhile, the salsa that comes with the chips is so spicy that I spend the next 10 minutes trying to keep it together. I’m already flushed from the drinks and the salsa is not helping.

7:23 p.m. We head to dinner finally! I’m not the biggest fan of going out and I’m starting to overheat in my costume, so I’ve been looking forward to dinner the entire time. We walk down the street to 707 Sutter, a Korean restaurant with a lively and casual vibe. I order a vegetable and tofu bibimbap in a clay pot. It comes out piping-hot. While waiting for it to cool, I try the banchan offerings: the kimchi and bean sprouts are mediocre, while the yellow pickled radish and seaweed, which I’ve never tried before, feel delightfully unusual in texture. My bibimbap comes with a fried egg, tofu, carrots, bean sprouts, spinach, mushrooms, radishes, and sauce on the side. The egg is cooked perfectly while the vegetables add a comforting mix of flavors and textures. The sauce is also sweet and spicy, but I wish the tofu were seasoned and crisped up a bit more. Fortunately, the crunchy rice that I peel from the side of the clay pot brings the snappy texture I’ve been craving. Overall, the bibimbap is unspectacular but solid. I enjoy my meal, the service is great, and the vibes are on point.

I put my card down for the bill ($191.84 total), which I don’t mind doing because it means I get all of the credit card points. I use the Tab app to calculate each person’s portion (mine is $22.79) and add the charge to our group Splitwise.

Saturday total: $29.41


Because I don’t know the next time I’ll be able to eat, I make an egg and cheese sandwich.

8:56 a.m. Late last night I received a notification about an opportunity for a donor run at school today. It’s part of a program in which medical students are invited to join an organ procurement and transplant, which involves riding on a charter plane and scrubbing into the operating room. Since school has been fairly light this week, I jump on the opportunity. I’ve been instructed to meet someone to drive me to the airport early this morning. Because I don’t know the next time I’ll be able to eat, I make an egg and cheese sandwich using two slices of sourdough sandwich bread, two eggs, and some Parmesan cheese. It’s inspired by a sandwich I used to buy from a food truck near my college campus in Philly. I take it with me in foil and eat it on my walk to school.

9:38 a.m. While walking to campus, I got a call that the organ procurement had been canceled because the heart was not healthy enough to be transplanted, which apparently happens somewhat frequently. I’m honestly a little relieved to be getting some free time back to relax and catch up on schoolwork, although I feel selfish for feeling that way, as it means that the patient who was supposed to receive the transplant will sadly no longer receive one today. This internal tension is one of the more uncomfortable parts of being in a career where people’s lives are at stake.

I’m back home now, and instead of napping, I drink a La Colombe oat milk double latte (previously bought from Trader Joe’s, $2.99) that I had saved in my fridge for a day like today.

10:00 a.m. I don’t quite feel like studying yet, so I head to Trader Joe’s to buy groceries for the next week. I typically pick up some vegetables, a couple frozen food entrees, a savory snack, a dessert, and replenish any staples I’ve run out of. This week, I grab:

  • Two bell peppers ($1.29 each)

  • An eggplant ($1.59)

  • Three bananas ($0.19 each)

  • Frozen cut white corn ($1.49)

  • An avocado ranch salad kit ($3.99)

  • A palak paneer frozen entree ($3.99)

  • A vegan thai green curry frozen entree ($4.69)

  • Frozen mahi mahi burger patties ($7.99)

  • Sea salted saddle potato crisps ($1.99)

  • Sea salt brownies ($2.99)

  • Minced garlic ($2.49)

  • Oat brown sugar creamer ($1.99)

  • Corn tortillas ($1.29)

  • Sourdough sandwich bread ($3.49)

The total comes out to $41.13, which I pay with my EBT card. Along with the free food that I scavenge throughout the week and the couple meals I eat out socially, this grocery haul should last me until next weekend. This is a pretty typical grocery haul–most weeks I spend about $30 to $60.

12:19 p.m. I’m still really full from the egg and cheese sandwich, so instead of lunch, I snack on saddle chips that I just bought. There’s something about things that are ridiculously salty that make them so hard to stop eating.

5:17 p.m. After spending the afternoon lazing around and completing school assignments, I heat up the palak paneer frozen entree that I bought earlier at Trader Joe’s. Frozen food is a go-to for me when I’m too busy to prepare a meal from scratch. The palak paneer is one of my favorites; it’s warm, nicely spiced, and cozy.

Sunday total: $0 ($41.13 paid with EBT)

Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit