What the Food Stamp Challenge May Do … and What It Can’t

October 13, 2014

D.C. Hunger Solutions invited me to take the Food Stamp Challenge last week. I’d be joining not only fellow District residents, but also Maryland and Virginia residents who’d been recruited by similar Food Research and Action Center initiatives there.

I took a pass. Truth to tell, I couldn’t see myself living on a $33 grocery budget for the week. For food maybe. But doing without the rich, dark coffee I drink from morn to eve? No way.

I told myself that taking the Food Stamp Challenge wouldn’t achieve anything anyway. It’s supposed to raise awareness of hunger — and more particularly, the woeful insufficiency of SNAP benefits.

Well, I already know that, as a long stream of posts indicates. And I felt that I’d bore friends and followers by blogging, tweeting, FaceBook posting, etc. about my daily trials. Do you really care that I scraped the bottom of the peanut butter jar for lunch or how I suffered from caffeine withdrawal syndrome?

Maybe if I extracted lessons, the way D.C. Hunger Solutions’ Executive Director Alex Ashbrook has. But that didn’t occur to me. I suspect I would have been too grumpy and jittery for contemplation anyway.

Rationalizing perhaps. But I still can’t get on board with the notion that the Food Stamp Challenge raises awareness of what it’s like to depend on SNAP benefits — an inherent flaw acknowledged by D.C. Hunger Solutions itself.

On the one hand, those who do depend on SNAP don’t buy food for only a week. They’ll have some oil on hand to fry up potatoes — perhaps some rice and beans in the cabinet because they stocked up during a sale.

Or in some cases they won’t because, unlike any Food Stamp Challenge participant, they don’t have transportation to get to a grocery story (and home with all the bags) — or because they don’t have a kitchen to cook in.

More importantly, their food stamp challenges go on and on. It’s one thing to dine on ramen noodles for a couple of nights. Quite another to know you’ll be serving ramen noodles to your kids for the indefinite future.

Blogger Professor Tracey captured this difference back in 2009, when she critiqued a month-long Food Stamp Challenge undertaken by a reporter.

“He always knew the experiment would end,” she wrote. “I would be willing to wager for the majority of people living on public assistance that for them one of the most disconcerting aspects is having no idea when they will be able to stop relying on public assistance, if ever.”

And, of course, SNAP recipients can’t quit or cheat, as we know some Food Stamp Challenge participants have — and can guess others did as well.

Finally, we need to recall that the amount participants are challenged to live on is a fourth of the average monthly SNAP benefit. That’s about $33 here in the District and nationwide — somewhat less in Maryland and Virginia.

But the average is considerably lower in some states — barely over $29 in three. And all the averages are just that. Lots of SNAP beneficiaries receive much less — as little as $16 a month in all but two states.

This, we’re told, is one reason that only a third of seniors who’d be eligible for SNAP benefits apply, even though many others can’t fend off hunger without groceries from a food pantry. Paltry SNAP benefits also help explain the reliance on nonprofit feeding programs, of course.

Here in the District, the DC Council has budgeted enough in local funds to raise the minimum SNAP benefit to $30 a month — thanks to a campaign spearheaded by D.C. Hunger Solutions.

It has also adopted the mayor’s proposal to raise the minimum LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefit. This will preserve the somewhat higher SNAP benefits some residents have received because — again thanks to D.C. Hunger Solutions — it adopted the so-called “heat and eat” option in 2009.

Nine of the 15 states that had adopted “heat and eat” have done the same, putting House Republican leaders into an awful snit.

Did policymakers shore up SNAP benefits because they’d learned from the Food Stamp Challenge?¬† Hardly. But notwithstanding all that I’ve said, I suppose it’s possible that policymakers and others who can get their stories into major media may, if only briefly, call attention to the benefits problem.

And I suppose it’s also possible that living for a week on a food stamp budget may put fire into the briefly-unsatisfied bellies of some Challenge participants who’d been content to leave advocacy to others.

Yet a series of polls tell us that more voters than not already think the federal government should spend more to combat hunger. Did this matter to Congressional Republicans — House members, in particular — when they set out to slash SNAP spending for the next five years?

When I shared my reservations about the Food Stamp Challenge with an anti-hunger advocate, she said, in so many words, “The people who should take it won’t.” I think they won’t care about the experiences of those who do either.

They’re ideologically driven to cut safety-net spending and will rationalize that however they can. But there’s animus against poor people in some quarters too. They don’t want to work. They use their SNAP benefits for liquor, lap dances, etc. rather than to feed their children. They [you can fill in the rest].

Darned if I know what we can do to persuade these folks that no one wants to depend on public benefits — or that everyone should have enough to eat, every day of the month, fresh fruits and veggies included

Make the Food Stamp Challenge a qualification for public office?



What Good Is The Food Stamp Challenge?

March 14, 2010

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.