As the author of “The Non-Consumer Advocate”, I know a thing or two about food stamp challenges. I’ve both hosted and participated in them for three years running, so I was excited to hear that Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, was doing his own SNAP Challenge. I live in Portland, Oregon, which is about as far as you can get from New Jersey without saying “Aloha,” but hunger in America hits all fifty states. (More than 15 percent of Oregonians receive some level of help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or “SNAP.”)
My goal in running my SNAP Challenges has been to both raise awareness of the difficulties that low income families face, and also to help people learn to eat healthy within a limited food budget. I then ask that participants take any money saved from the project and donate it to their local food bank.
My family of four includes two active teenage boys, each of whom eats roughly the same amount as Scooby Doo and Shaggy combined, so the daily $4 per person budget is far from easy. And although this year’s SNAP Challenge lasted just a single week, previous years have been month-long projects. And let me tell ya’, those months last a good long time. But that’s how it’s supposed to be. If these challenges were easy, then they’d be pointless.
Plan a meal and it doesn’t turn out like the pretty picture in the cookbook? There’s no ordering a pizza, you still have to eat it, pretty or not.
What I’ve learned is that eating on a $4 per day budget is possible, but it takes an enormous amount of planning, shopping and prepping. Have a crazy day and want to grab some takeout? Sorry, but you still have to make dinner from scratch. Plan a meal and it doesn’t turn out like the pretty picture in the cookbook? There’s no ordering a pizza, you still have to eat it, pretty or not.
I’ve also learned a lot from my readers, many of whom are working with less than the allotted $4 per day. My urban Portland neighborhood is within easy walking distance of two different grocery stores, and I’m just a few miles from at least four others. I have choices, and importantly, I own a reliable car. I can buy sale cheese from one shop, and then drive another mile to take advantage of 59¢/pound apples from another store. But many Americans live in areas where there’s just a single grocery option, and transportation issues make sale shopping unrealistic. It’s not uncommon for urban low income neighborhoods to not even have a grocery store at all, making healthy eating on a budget near to impossible.
For those whose SNAP Challenges are daily life rather than a blog project or a media experiment, there is no finish line. No pats on the back for a job well done. And there are certainly no fun media opportunities to discuss the issues of food security. Yet these issues need to be talked about and stereotypes addressed, which is why I applaud Mayor Booker for taking on his project. With more than a million Twitter followers, Booker has the unique opportunity to get people talking.
If you’re able to fill your refrigerator with healthy delicious food without worrying about being able to pay your rent, you are lucky. And if your children’s only complaint is that you bought Grape Nuts instead of Frosted Flakes, then they are lucky.
And because I feed my family on a food stamp budget just a single month out of the year, we are lucky.
What do you think about the Food Stamp Challenge? Would you try it?