What Good Is The Food Stamp Challenge?

Blogger Charlotte Hill challenges us to assess the Food Stamp Challenge–a voluntary effort to live on a food stamp budget, generally for about a week.

The trigger for her posting was a recent article about 15 law students at St. John’s University who tried to live on $5.38 a day (one-fourth of a four member families maximum benefit) for about four days.

Food Stamp Challenge experiments date back to 2007, when the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger challenged community members to “experience the physical, social, and emotional difficulties of poverty and food insecurity by living on a food stamp budget for just a week.”

But they really took off when some Members of Congress and their staff undertook to live on $21 for a week “to raise visibility and understanding around the challenges that millions of low-income American’s [sic] face in obtaining a healthy diet under current food stamp benefit levels.

That was the year that the Farm Bill, which sets standards for the food stamp program, was up for reauthorization. The bill that passed made a number of improvements in the program, including provisions to preserve and, in some cases, increase the value of benefits.

Did the Food Stamp Challenge have anything to do with this? Hard to say.

The Food Stamp Challenge has become a persistent phenomenon. As with the original, you don’t just live on a food stamp budget. You blog about the experience of planning what to buy, shopping and how you feel (mostly hungry and tired). Maybe you make a video or a movie too. Or share recipes and success stories.

Charlotte asks: Is the Food Stamp Challenge “[a]n ingenious effort to raise awareness about the difficulties of eating on a limited budget? Or a well-intentioned but inappropriate concept that just comes across as patronizing?”

I’d begin by asking another question: Whose awareness is being raised? For the St. John’s students, the Food Stamp Challenge was intended as a learning experience for them. On the other hand, the original Food Stamp Challengers viewed it as a learning experience for their colleagues and perhaps us.

I think I can get a pretty good idea of what it’s like to live on a food stamp budget by looking at our weekly grocery store and doing a little math. Of course, it’s not the same as confronting yet another day of peanut butter or running short on food at the end of the self-defined time period. Still, I doubt the experience would change what I think or do.

But let’s say the Food Stamp Challenge is a learning experience, both for those who take it and for those who read what they say. What do people do with the new-found awareness that you can’t eat both well and regularly on a food stamp budget?

Do they advocate for higher food stamp benefits? For more generous appropriations for school, after-school and summer meal programs, WIC and TEFAP commodity purchases? Do they donate to nonprofit dining rooms and food pantries? To organizations that advocate for solutions to hunger?

Say they’re lawyers, as the St. John’s students hope to be. Do they use their expertise to help poor people navigate the food stamp bureaucracy, like Stacey Braverman and Alison Miles-Lee at Bread for the City? Do they provide staff or pro bono support for lawsuits to get applications processed promptly?

Or do they just congratulate themselves for what is, after all, a dubious effort to “get a real-world sense” of how poor people live?

It’s dubious because taking the Food Stamp Challenge is very different from depending on food stamps to feed yourself and your family. If the going gets too tough, you can always quit (or cheat). Even if you don’t, you know the experiment is time-limited. At the end, you can treat yourself to a juicy steak or whatever else you’ve been fantasizing about and go back to eating the way you did before.

“Professor Tracey” itemizes the differences between CNN reporter Sean Calleb’s recent Food Stamp Challenge and actually depending on food stamps. The biggest difference, she says, is that  people who rely on public assistance have no idea when they’ll be able to stop.

Caleb, who did, “faced none of the feelings of depression, sadness, hopelessness, and bewilderment that the average person receiving public assistance must be feeling on varying levels on a daily basis.” Nor “the public humiliation and personal shame” of having to use a food stamp debit card.”

I’m not sure “Professor Tracey” can project herself into the experience of food stamp recipients, any more than Food Stamp Challengers can. But I think she’s on to something.

More people who might have found the Food Stamp Challenge appealing are living the real food stamp challenge now. If “a publicity stunt,” as Congressman James McGovern’s wife called it, can help persuade Congress to permanently increase food stamp benefits and pass a strong reauthorized Child Nutrition Act, I’m all for it.

If it helps reporters deliver good copy and the rest of us learn something–or even just do something different and interesting–that’s okay too.

Let’s just not confuse a short-term, voluntary experiment in deprivation with the real thing.

NOTE: Thanks to Charlotte for getting me to think through my reactions to the Food Stamp Challenge and for links to some of the sources here.

9 Responses to What Good Is The Food Stamp Challenge?

  1. I recieve foodstamps. I never realized how much money we were living off of on a daily basis till after readying this post. I used the calculator to confirm. With planning a family can live pretty well off of them. I will put it this way we do not starve. People assume because we are overweight that we get a large amount. But I call it fillers. I buy a lot of starches to fill us up. Not a healthy choice but it does make things stretch a little further.

  2. […] then of course there are people who question the very idea of the Food Stamp Challenge. Is the point to raise individual awareness […]

  3. Patricia says:

    I am single, disabled, receive $126.00 a month in food stamps & $449.00 a month from SSI. I am a vegetarian so protein (for me) is inexpensive, I make a lot of beans & whole grains which can also be made into veggie/bean burgers and un-meatloaf. I started to grow a vegetable garden what I can’t eat up before spoilage I ‘can’ or dry for the winter. In the winter I grow bean sprouts and have sprouted salads with re-hydrated veggies. A loaf of Whole grain bread cost a small fortune but not if you bake your own once a week or month & freeze it. For me this is do-able.

  4. Sarah says:

    I am a single mother of two children and get food stamps, I get $151 a month, and it is doable, because it has to be, sometimes I find money in my budget from working full time(or an odd job or birthday or chirstmas money) to buy extra, but not usually. I am lucky before I was on food stamps I had a full pantry and cupboards and freezer so that has helped alot. I buy what is on sale every week up to $25 dollars in food stamps, anything else with money(it I have it), that way I usually have some left over for emergencies or for big sales. It is hard to save 1/3 of your food stamps waiting for a big meat sale to fill your freezer. But worth it. With coupons and sales and meal planning its hard but doable.

  5. Kathryn Baer says:

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience, Sarah. It sounds as if you’re managing a difficult situation very well. I do, however, wonder how families manage when the parent doesn’t have a full-time job or any other ongoing source of cash income. I’ll soon be posting an update on food hardship rates in the U.S. They indicate that a very large number of families can’t always buy the food they need.

  6. carolyn says:

    Let us not forget the value of WIC, and school meals when we look at food budgets. Both of these can help by making the Food Stamps stretch. A family of 4 can eat healthy on $200 a month – and WIC and the school meals would be a bonus! Fruits and vegetables in season can be very low cost. I don’t feel deprived for not eating watermellon in the winter – the wait is so well worth it! Tuna was .59 a can at a local store recently and I bought 20 cans. Planning ahead makes the difference between making it and not making it. 4 pork chops were marked down to $1.89 for the package. A pound of sliced mushroom was going for $1.99. Yes, it takes a little work, but I eat well and spend very little money. Also, I would never buy a Birthday Cake or a pre-made pizza on Food Stamps. It would take so much out of the monthly budget. I bought cake mixes a while back for 2/$1.00, brownies same price. These prices don’t happen often so I checked out the expiration date and then bought many boxes. Nice treats for many months. A cake with frosting and sprinkles (by the pound) is a beautiful Birthday Cake. Again, plan ahead.

  7. I love to grow vegetables because I get to save money. One example are green beans and tomatoes. Very easy to plant.

  8. julia says:

    Why not just go over to a food stamp household and see what they are eating? Why have to reinvent the poverty? the pain, the hunger? Go sit down for 10 days and see if you think they are hiding something or needing something. Be brave stand with a food stamp person buying food!

  9. […] long after I started this blog, I raised questions about the value of the Food Stamp Challenge. This exercise, as you may know, calls on participants […]

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