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After spending several years in social services, Nicole has finally followed her lifelong dream of being a full-time writer. In addition to her work for The Hudsucker, Nicole is also a staff writer for Womanista. An avid comic book fan, BBQ aficionado, professional makeup artist and first-time mom, Nicole can be found exploring Kansas City rich history when she's not blogging about suburban life at Suburban Flamingo.

Food Security: Taking the Food Stamp Challenge

Depending on which source you look at there are approximately 47 million Americans receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits or, as it’s more commonly called, food stamps. Seventy-six percent of that 47 million are families that include a child, someone who is disabled, an elderly person or some combination of all three. Forty-seven million is a large number, but according to Feeding America there is still more need for SNAP benefits than the program can fill both in terms of households that need assistance (57% percent of the people who are food insecure don’t even qualify for SNAP) and in terms of the benefits received not being enough to sustain. The national average benefit for a single person on SNAP is $133.85 per month. That number shakes down to $4.46 a day.

My daily latte costs more than that.

In my job as a victim’s advocate I encounter poverty every day. Most of my clients are struggling economically as they work to heal from the trauma of their individual stories. Many are SNAP recipients and there is always a surge of relief on the faces of the women I work with when the designated day of the month that their benefits renew. They make arrangements to go to the grocery store, eager to buy what they hope will be enough food to get them through to the next month. Inevitably, though, these same clients reach the middle and end of the month trying to patch together meals with what they have left. Even seeing it up close, watching people dance with the danger of not having enough to eat I find myself sometimes wondering why they bought certain things or why they ran out of benefit. Mine is professional curiosity; I like to understand so I can help them come up with strategies to make their small funds last longer, but the rest of society doesn’t have the luxury of the up-close look. The public perception of a person or family on assistance is often less kind. As I was researching for this article a friend of told me that their family receives benefits, something they don’t disclose because “people have assumptions about the ones getting assistance.” I realized that though my assumptions err on the helpful side they are still assumptions.  So I decided to change that.

Harvesters is a community food network program in the Kansas City and Kansas area serving 26 counties and feeding 66,000 people every week. They encourage people to understand food stamps better by taking a Food Stamp Challenge and living for five days on the money that a person receiving food assistance would. A few weeks ago I decided to take this challenge in the hope of having a better understanding of what it is to rely on food assistance in order to nourish myself.  I used the averages provided by Harvesters: $31 per week for a single person in Kansas (the actual challenge suggested $50, but I wanted to see what the average amount would do as opposed to maximum benefit.) I downloaded a handy recipe book. I made myself a list of what I might want to eat for the next five days and off I went.

Credit: Bear Cupboards Delivery

Credit: Bear Cupboards Delivery

Reality set in very hard and very quickly. While I could eat on $31 for five days it wasn’t going to be pleasant. For starters, I have celiac disease so I have to pay very careful attention to what I eat so as I don’t ingest gluten.  I live on gluten-free waffles, special gluten-free crackers, and spices and mixes that are safe for me to eat. These things cost more money than normal food. One package of gluten-free waffles would have wiped out most of my allotment for one day of the challenge and that package would have lasted maybe three days. My backup plan of a gluten-free cereal was out as well.  I quickly dismissed most of my ideas of meat as well. The pork chops I had been considering were going to be well out of budget.  I realized very quickly that I was going to have to eat simple foods with very little variation and instead of fresh produce or even frozen I was looking at canned food. Had I been able to eat gluten I would have been stocking up on highly processed foods and white bread because those were vastly cheaper. I ended up with some rice, a package of ground beef, several cans of beans and vegetables, a package of shredded cheese, a small container of sour cream, a package of chicken, eggs, two packets of gluten-free taco seasoning, a half gallon of milk, a couple of bananas, and the cheapest coffee I could find.

Day one I felt like I was doing fairly well. I had some eggs and a banana for breakfast alongside my coffee that I put some milk into.  I skipped lunch largely because I had slept in that day and wasn’t hungry until dinner. Dinner was tacos and my plan was to get three meals out of the tacos: dinner that night, lunch and dinner the next day. I went to bed that night feeling pretty good about it all. Day two, however, I realized that it was going to be far harder than I thought. I had been very hungry  at dinner and eaten more of the taco dish than I anticipated which meant I could have either a very tiny lunch and a very tiny dinner or a big lunch and hit up something else for dinner. I opted for the latter, after my breakfast of eggs, bananas and coffee. For dinner, I did something with chicken and rice in the crockpot. I was fed, but was definitely missing out on a soda or a snack.

Day three I realized that I had consumed too much of my dinner yet again which meant I had fewer leftovers than I thought. This also meant that with three food days left I was going to be out of meat. I also noticed that by eating scrambled eggs for breakfast two days in a row, I had eaten half of my dozen eggs. I made my breakfast, drank my coffee, and opted to skip lunch so I could have dinner.  Not having lunch made me tired, crabby, and less focused. What should have taken me half an hour to work on took two hours. I was so hungry when I got home that I barely even heated my dinner.

Day four I ate the rest of the eggs, saved the banana for lunch, and had no earthly clue about dinner. In fact, I didn’t make it to dinner. I was hungry and crabby and miserable and decided that I didn’t have to do this “stupid challenge” so I caved in and went to Chipotle. I ate the biggest burrito bowl I could get them to make and while my stomach felt sated I felt guilty. Millions of people manage to do day in and day out something I couldn’t even do for five. I couldn’t live on $31 a week for food. I meal plan every week for myself, but I couldn’t plan accurately enough for so little money. I ate the way I am used to eating and the food ran out fast. By the time I adjusted my intake I was running out of food and skipping meals made me unhappy. It impacted my mood and my intelligence. It made everything harder and I caved in, running away from the struggle to the nearest fast food place I could find.

My clients can’t do this. Millions of Americans and others like them on similar assistance programs worldwide can’t do this. If I had had children, I would have not eaten at all just to make sure they had food and it was a sobering thing to realize.

So what did I learn in my failed challenge? The most important thing I learned is that food stamps are not enough to adequately provide food and nutrition to the food insecure. The cost of food is too high for the amounts provided to be adequate. Along with that the foods that one can afford on assistance aren’t very good for you and if you have an allergy or a special dietary need your options are highly limited. If I could have eaten any of it, cheap cereals, bread, and frozen foods would have greatly padded out my food plan, but they would have been empty calories and chemicals. I also learned that one has to be very diligent and smart eating on a food assistance budget. You have to make hard choices and carefully control portions in order to make the food last. And when it doesn’t?  The dread and panic of not having enough to eat as a person who had the ability to just run to Chipotle was uncomfortable. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like if I had had no option. The deprivation piece was also pretty jarring. The soda I got with my burrito bowl tasted like heaven to me. The latte I got after was even better.

I have gained a new respect for people utilizing assistance to meet their food needs. I no longer will work with my clients with the question of “why did you choose to spend your benefits on that?” Instead, I will ask them about their needs, their wants, and how they are working with what they have to achieve those wants and needs so that I can help them find additional ways to meet them. Being able to have a Coke is a human dignity that I didn’t realize before this challenge. I also won’t subconsciously judge people for loading up their cart with the processed foods. We eat what we can afford. It’s that simple. I can afford fresh food, lattes, and Chipotle.  I am spoiled and privileged beyond what I ever knew.

Next month I will take on global food insecurity without safety net services like SNAP. I will be participating in the Live Below the Line challenge through the Global Poverty Project, attempting to live on $1.50 per day for five days.

For more information visit Live Below the Line or Harvesters’ Food Stamp Challenge.

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