Thoughts After the Food Stamp Challenge

$4.60 per day.

This is the amount that the American government has deemed acceptable to give to those in need to spend on food. In a country where more than one in six Americans has reported that they do not have enough money to afford food for themselves or their families (Food Research and Action Center, 2013), how can we possibly let this stand?

In doing research about food stamps and looking at what foods my roommate and I buy, I’ve realized that there are so many things in my kitchen that are way over the allotted amount. My roommate and I also had a moment this week in which my social justice ideas conflicted with the ideas behind this challenge. Barilla pasta recently came under fire for its views on homosexuality and gay marriage. As we were walking down the pasta aisle, we stopped to get some for dinner. My roommate looked at the pasta and said, “We can’t get barilla, they don’t support homosexuality”. So instead of buying the box of barilla pasta for about $1.50, she grabbed the more expensive, organic, multigrain pasta that was priced at around $3.50. And I stood there, not knowing what to say. In my head, I was thinking, “Okay, we’re boycotting a company that’s doing something bad” but I was also thinking, “If I were on food stamps, I couldn’t even think about that”. It was a very disturbing thought for my sociological mind.

Many of my friends and classmates are doing the challenge and, while I am not participating, I have seen firsthand what it is like for them. These are healthy college students and professors who are surviving on $4.60 per day. When I see them in class, they are tired and often unable to think straight. And these are people who are doing this for one week. Imagine what it is like for someone who does this all the time.

And there are people who often struggle even more, such as those with specific dietary needs. On the CalFresh application (the application for those in California to receive Food Assistance), the only specifications that are listed are whether someone in the household is disabled, elderly, without money for food, homeless, or a migrant/seasonal farmworker. If someone has celiac disease, they are unable to put that on the application. For someone with celiac disease, finding gluten free foods can not only be difficult but also far more expensive. Many of our STEP students have been talking about the kinds of foods that are helping them to keep their food within budget and many of these foods include gluten. If someone with celiac disease does not have enough food, it can result in malnutrition very easily.

There is also another problem: immigration status. The Food Stamp program does not help those without legal permanent residency in the United States. According to the CalFresh application, “immigrant parents may apply for CalFresh benefits for their U.S. citizen or qualified immigrant children, even though the parents may not be eligible for benefits”. While this is good news for immigrants who need to use food stamps to feed their children, they may not apply for themselves. At $4.60 per person, with only their children (possibly) eligible, it is not possible for them to feed their entire families. There is also a part of the application that says that the information on this application “may be shared with federal, state, and local agencies”. And while it says that Immigration Services “cannot use the information for anything else except cases of fraud”, this still may deter immigrants from filling out the application, even if it is for their legal citizen children.

How can we help with ensuring that all people who live in our country have enough food to put on the table? For one thing, food stamp challenges call attention to the problem of the money allotted for food stamps and why cuts to this money cannot happen. $4.60 per person, per day is in no way enough for anyone in this country. Add to that the problems with dietary needs and for those without citizenship status and we are looking at large numbers of people who are not even being assisted by food stamps.

If you are not participating in the food stamp challenge but want to help, here are a few things you can do:

  1. Something I’ve recently thought of is looking in those old coupon circulars that are probably sitting in your mailbox right now. If those are things you throw out every time you see them, maybe pick it up and browse through it. Look at coupons for food items (think fruits and vegetables, maybe canned goods, or other simple meal bases) and cut them out. Search online for places that need coupons or call your local homeless shelter. Churches and religious groups will often take them as well to donate to parishioners.
  2. Head to your local grocery store and buy a gift card in any amount. Give it to someone in need.
  3. With cuts to food stamps, food banks are in high demand, meaning they need more donations and volunteers. Go through your kitchen and find food to donate, go on a grocery shopping spree for canned goods, or even volunteer some time! Make sure you check with the local food bank to see what kinds of food they need. Canned goods are often best but always ask first! And if you work in an office or at a school, organize a food drive or a day of service to help. More people means more of an impact!

There are so many ways to make an impact, and you don’t have to stop at just one!

-Sociology student

Food Stamp Challenge

Successfully completing the food stamp challenge was exactly that, a challenge. When I first began to devise my plan I was confident that I could live on $4.35 a day. I tried to look at it more like an intense diet. My initial plan was to eat the same meal for breakfast lunch and dinner each day. Every morning I would have a chiobani greek yogurt (price 1.69ea, 1.00 for 10). This was the first of my many obstacles. I was told to stay with in a ~$20 limit, but here is where people, depending on their circumstances, have out side sources of what the government likes to call “informal income”. So I figured I could stretch my $20 a little further. Then for lunch I bought chicken (8.93, 1.78/day), but that only allowed me one chicken breast per day, which is obviously not up to nutrition standards of a balanced meal. For dinner I bought cans of Progressive Beef & Vegetable barley for 2.86 a can. The math adds up to 5.64 a day, which is over my budget and proves that the money provided to welfare recipients for food, is not enough. With a budget that low, the amount of calories eaten does not meet the healthy average of 1200 for women and 1500-1700 calories a day for men. For some one who does not have that extra money, their more economical options are limited. It’s no wonder why welfare recipients are vulnerable. Not only could I not meet my necessary calorie intake, but I also noticed that I was more tired, less focused, and irritable when I did not eat enough food. 

-Sociology Student

Day 7 of the Food Stamp Challenge

The biggest lesson the Food Stamp Challenge has taught me is this: I can survive off $4.55 of food a day (that’s my whole week of food [minus two cups of rice] in the photo above)—but, that’s about all I can afford to do when I am beleaguered by hunger all day. 

Everything edible has turned into a pricetag—usually one far beyond my means on the Food Stamp Challenge.  And this has made me ask myself what I might do if I was permanently on SNAP/ CalFresh.  I used to wonder why anyone would ever shoplift a candybar or a pack of gum, or why folks were always hustling—at the bar, at the shop, with each other.  Now I see more clearly how long-term persistent hunger might drive me to do things I would not otherwise consider, and how doing that could really erode someone’s dignity.

Without sufficient nutrition, I’ve also been unable to concentrate, to be affable with others, to share or even feel giving.  This has caused me to look at many “troublesome” youth, unpleasant customer-service workers, and “apathetic” poor people with new eyes.  How many of these “difficult” people are really just folks in need of adequate food?

Finally, all this has helped me truly understand how depriving so many of Americans of sufficient nutritional assistance robs all Americans.  Because, yes, one can survive off $4.55 a day—but one cannot flourish.  A hungry person is in no shape to even imagine how they might use their talents and abilities to help contribute to and build a healthy society.  And when you consider that 1 in 4 children live in a SNAP-dependent household, it’s not hard to see how SNAP cuts hurt all of us by thwarting an entire cohort of potential leaders, artists, and innovators.

Day 6 of the Food Stamp Challenge

I took up the food stamp challenge. I can’t sugarcoat the experience: I was more or less in pain during all my waking hours. At one point, I asked my 9 year old son if he wanted to join me for a day. He flatly said “no,” and gave me a look like “Are you crazy?” He and I began this whole process by searching the supermarket aisles for the cheapest foods (which was a learning experience, too), and he witnessed my daily descent into misery. At some point, he remarked that he thought the food stamp policy was “really, really mean.” He was amazed that this is the way things are.

On Thursday, I tried something different. I ate $2.14 of food (basically, rice, beans, and eggs), imagining that were I truly a SNAP/Calfresh beneficiary I may want to divert some of my benefits to buy my son some snacks or drinks that he wouldn’t otherwise be able to enjoy. I became sickened with a sense of the very basic and visceral dilemmas families have already faced and outraged that they will endure this in more severe ways in the days to come. And yet, honestly, I couldn’t maintain this upset for very long. I tried. But it takes energy to get pissed. I was weakened by the hunger; I was also weary of it all. In retrospect, I realize the hunger made me so self-focused that it was not always easy to think of the very people whose condition is the focal point of this project.

In my own limited way, I have a deeper sense of “what I’ve always known.” I know I can’t change the world with this experiment, but maybe now I’m a little more enlivened to its significance, maybe “I can” is turning into “I must.”

Day 5 of the Food Stamp Challenge

Yes, I'm hungry. This challenge confirms what we already know: $4.60 a day for food is not enough. Despite the realness of this challenge, my participation in it does not fully reflect the reality of the situation. I entered it as a well-fed, healthy person who knows that, after the challenge is over, I will be able to eat whatever--and whenever--I want. Yet, I'm hungry. It's distracting, weakening, and angering. It helps me understand the decisions people make in order to stave off hunger and put food on the table.

I planned my budget and menus before Monday, and was convinced I could purchase enough healthy food for the length of the challenge. I purchased a bag of beans, rice, and eggs. I also found some cheap pieces of chicken and splurged on spinach ($1.99 for a small bag). In my calculations, it was enough for two full meals for the five days of my challenge. Despite this plan and my choices, I soon realized the limits of my options and how they did not consider unplanned incidents.

Day 1 was a lesson in portion control, since I take for granted that food will always be there for me, no matter how much I decide to eat on a particular day. If I run out of something, I just go to the store and buy more. On day 1, I realized I "accidentally" ate half of my bag of rice! So, I had to have smaller portions for the rest of the week. On day 2, I ruined (okay, okay--I admit it--I'm not a cook!) my hard-bolied eggs. Don't ask; just know they were inedible. There went my breakfast for that day. Today was a long day and I had to walk 45 minutes to get to BART. By the time I got home at night, I was starving and ate all remaining portions of my chicken. Including Friday's portion. I'm on day 4 and looking rather sadly at what's left for Friday--not much.