Rachael Borman, a summer intern at FRAC and a student at the University of Florida, recently took the SNAP Challenge.
I was up for the challenge — the SNAP Challenge, that is. This summer, while interning at FRAC, I have been learning about how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) serves as the first line of defense against hunger for more than 41 million Americans of all ages and in all corners of the country who struggle to put food on the table.
SNAP provides monthly benefits to eligible low-income people to purchase food. The average benefit for a single person is $4.40 per day, or $132 a month.
It got me thinking. Could I get by on that and still eat healthy? No sooner was I scanning FRAC’s website than I came upon their SNAP Challenge, which tests participants’ ability to use the average SNAP benefit as their food budget for one week. By doing the Challenge, participants get a glimpse into some of the struggles facing low-income people, including children, seniors, people with disabilities, and veterans.
I decided to take the Challenge for five days, which meant I could only spend $22 on food during this time.
With a $22 budget, I knew I had to shop strategically in order to avoid hunger and eat nutritious foods.
Every time I added an item to my cart, I put its price into my phone’s calculator so I would know when I was close to hitting $22. I had to put back certain items because they were just too expensive. For instance, I originally grabbed a bag of seven apples for $2.99, but put them back when I found applesauce for $1.99. Every dollar made a difference.
I found myself walking back and forth through the store trying to find the most inexpensive options, while constantly putting numbers in my calculator. The task of trying to balance the cost of items with their nutritional value was difficult. It was not what I would call an easy trip to the store.
When I reached $20.73, I had mostly grains and starches, some fruits and vegetables, a little protein, and no dairy. I realized I could have slightly increased the amount of dairy, fruits, vegetables, and protein in my cart, but grains and starches were cheaper and could be stretched to cover more meals.
My internship at FRAC is run through Machon Kaplan, a program of the Religious Action Center. Each Sunday, Machon Kaplan organizes an event for interns. On this day, Machon Kaplan planned a trip to the National Zoo, with a brunch beforehand. Knowing I would not be able to order brunch, I ate cereal for breakfast and brought two pieces of bread for lunch (one of the people on our trip was allergic to nuts so I had to skip the peanut butter). I was very hungry so I ate my two pieces of bread before everyone received their food. It was difficult to watch everyone eat their food while I sat there with an empty plate. While I told everyone that I was doing the SNAP Challenge and explained what it was, I still felt a little embarrassed.
Today, I woke up at 12:40 a.m. to camp outside the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a once in a lifetime experience to hear the Supreme Court hand down their decisions on important cases. It was definitely worth the loss of sleep; however, staying up all night, eating a minimal amount of food, and not having any caffeine prevented me from being able to focus throughout the day.
Today, FRAC had a “brown bag” lunch for staff with pizza and salad. Because this food was outside my budget, I did not participate. I just sat there, hungry. After work, Machon Kaplan had an event at Ben’s Chili Bowl. I decided not to join the group for dinner. The Challenge has really made me realize how much social life revolves around food.
While I have enough food left to last a couple more days, I do not have enough food to make nutritious meals with fruits, vegetables, and protein.
Today was my last day doing the SNAP Challenge. Three key observations I made throughout the week include:
- It is hard to maintain a healthy diet on such a limited budget because produce and dairy are more expensive than grains and starches and are not sold in bulk.
- Being on a limited food budget, while surrounded by people who are not, can be socially isolating.
- I was very lethargic throughout the week, so it was hard at times to concentrate at work.
Even though the Challenge was difficult, I recognize all of the advantages I had compared to the millions of people who depend on SNAP. For one, I picked the week most suitable to my schedule to do the Challenge. And even when it was hard, I could take comfort in the fact that I only had to live for five days on such a tight food budget. I also had transportation between my home and the grocery store, but for many, the lack of transportation (e.g., not having a car, inadequate access to public transportation) is a huge barrier. Finally, I did not need to shop for other family members, only for myself.
Doing the Challenge made me realize how essential SNAP is for helping low-income individuals and families put food on the table, and that without SNAP, hunger in America would be far worse.
I soon will end my internship with FRAC, but my advocacy for increasing SNAP benefits and investments in other federal nutrition programs — including school meals, afterschool and summer meals, child care meals, and WIC — is only just beginning.