I was up for the challenge — the SNAP Challenge, that is. This summer, while interning at the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), I learned about how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) serves more than 42 million people of all ages, and in all corners of the country who struggle to put food on the table. This occurs in the form of monthly benefits to eligible low-income people to purchase food. For instance, in DC, a single person receives $22 for five days in SNAP benefits.
This startling figure got me thinking. Could I get by on that amount, and still eat healthy? No sooner was I scanning FRAC’s website when I came upon their SNAP Challenge, which challenges participants to use the average SNAP benefit as their budget for a week’s worth of food. By accepting the challenge, participants get a glimpse into some of the struggles faced by low-income people, including children, seniors, people with disabilities, and veterans.
Many FRAC staff, as well as advocates, Members of Congress, celebrities, and others across the country have participated in the SNAP Challenge, and I was inspired to do the same. I decided to take the Challenge for five days, which meant I could only spend $22 on food during this time.
I decided to do my shopping for the week at Trader Joe’s. With a $22 budget, I knew I had to shop strategically to satisfy my hunger while also making a point to eat nuritiously.
Every time I added an item to my cart, I put its price into the calculator in my phone 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 orginally 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, and 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 veggies, 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 provided more food.
Each Sunday, the Machon Kaplan program organized an event for interns. On this particular day, we had 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. I was very hungry so I ate before everyone received their food. It was difficult to watch everyone eat 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.
I woke up at 12:40 a.m. to camp outside the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its decisions, a once in a lifetime experience. It was definitely worth losing sleep. However, staying up all night, eating a minimal amount of food, and not having any caffeine did not allow me to fully focus throughout the day.
FRAC had a “brown bag” lunch 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 really made me realize how much my social life revolves around food.
While I had enough food left to last a few more days, I didn’t have enough food to make nutritious meals with fruits, veggies, and protein. A week prior, I went to a Founding Fathers forum, where the discussion was about ways to encourage SNAP recipients to buy more produce. For example, Wholesome Wave doubles the value (up to $20) when SNAP is spent on produce at certain stores and farmers markets. There is also the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx) where certain clinics prescribe children fruits and vegetables. Programs like these help to ensure that SNAP recipients maintain a healthy lifestyle.
My last day doing the SNAP Challenge – three key observations I made throughout the week included:
The foods I had left:
Even though the Challenge was difficult at times, I recognize all of the advantages I had compared to many people on SNAP. I had the ability to pick the week to do the Challenge most suitable to my schedule, and even when it was hard I knew I only had to live on a $22 food budget for five days. I also had transportation to take me back to my place after grocery shopping; lack of transportation (e.g., not having a car, inadequate access to public transportation) is a huge barrier for many. And, I was responsible for shopping just for myself, not for other family members.
Doing the Challenge also made me realize how important 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.
Though my internship with FRAC is over, 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.
Rachael Borman is a rising sophomore at the University of Florida, where she is majoring in Political Science. This summer she interned at the Food Research & Action Center. She is from Delray Beach, Florida.