The peanut butter tasted exactly, almost sickeningly, like candy. The rice and beans tasted like nothing at all.
More than just occasionally, during my days at work, I would take a mental inventory of what food remained for the week: three bananas, a dwindling Tupperware container of rice and beans, plenty of plain non-fat yogurt. If this were grief, I’d be stuck in anger and bargaining: my stomach madly growling, a lesser version of myself contemplating cheating just for a second cup of coffee.
My friend and colleague at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, LaTonya Reed, held a SNAP Challenge the week of November 4th, to highlight both the automatic cuts to SNAP that went into effect November 1st and the substantial-to-severe cuts that will likely be coming once Congress takes up the Farm Bill again. Since I’ve been edging my way into doing more work on both public benefits and child food insecurity issues in Virginia, I agreed to participate.
SNAP is an acronym for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program–the federal program more commonly known as “food stamps,” through which individuals and families under a certain income level receive monetary assistance (through an EBT card, like a pre-loaded bank card) specifically for food needs, with quite a few restrictions on its use even within that category. A “SNAP Challenge” is an advocacy tool that asks people who don’t need such help to live for a short period of time on a food budget equivalent to what they would receive if they did–in my case, as an individual, about $32/week, or $4.50/day.
Or about $1.40 per meal.
The exercise isn’t meant to truly approximate the conditions under which SNAP recipients live. After all, I was participating knowing full well that it would all end in a week. And though a great number of current SNAP recipients were either working a year ago, or will likely be working within the next year, many families are immersed in the day-to-day struggle of poverty and don’t have the luxury of such a short-term view. Likewise, I not only have transportation at my disposal to shop at whatever stores I choose, I have the time it takes to do so. I also don’t have the pressure of knowing that any extra money I spend on food needs is necessarily a choice to take money away from other vital needs: rent, utilities, or health or childcare expenses. And I don’t deal with the toxic effects of poverty in my daily life, compounding the crisis.
These are just a few examples, but I should make clear–completing this exercise isn’t about appropriating someone’s struggle to allow me to speak from their experience–it is more so an opportunity to offer a small piece of solidarity, and a departure point from which I hope to share a personal view on why we need a robust SNAP program. It’s also a way for people of privilege to help dispel many of the myths and bias around the program by taking a stand and sharing facts and experiences.
It’s fair to say that I went into this challenge a bit of a cynic–after all, I’d been researching and writing about this particular issue for a good number of months, and working on child poverty issues generally for over 5 years now. What could adhering to a typical SNAP budget for a week tell me about families in need that I wasn’t already shouting from the rooftops? What new could I say after this experience that I don’t already know how to articulate?
Turns out, I had–and still have–a lot to learn. I took notes throughout the week, and plotted out some ideas organized into a few categories: privilege, health, practicality and social effects, which I’ll save for Part Two.
Until then, think about what your grocery list would be if you had only $32 for the week, and you weren’t just shopping to “survive the week,” but rather you were trying to eat healthfully on that amount of money over the long-term. Then share your list in the comments.