The following post is written by NC State staff member Tracy Dixon, who took the SNAP Challenge to learn about hunger in North Carolina. Sign up for NC State’s Snap Challenge >>>
There’s always something to be learned from walking a mile in another person’s shoes. That’s why for a week in January I took the SNAP Challenge, where I attempted to eat three meals for just $4.25 per day – the typical equivalent received by a person enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).
My goal was to do everything exactly as those receiving SNAP benefits. No using spices or condiments I already had and no accepting of free food (including candy from a friendly co-worker’s desk). Plus, I wanted to eat as healthy as possible. Here’s how it went:
Planning and a lot of it
I planned my meal purchase a week in advance, creating lists of “must have foods” and “nice to have foods.” After running the numbers I felt confident about my shopping list (although, good luck figuring out what the actual tax rate is on food – even a few cents would mean the difference between purchasing an extra item). I prepared myself for the fact that I was going to be hungry and warned those close to me that I might be grumpy. Prep work done…..now to the real challenge.
Day 0 – Shopping day
I walked into the grocery store optimistic for coupons that apply to my list. No luck – I can’t afford a turkey and hardly see how sugary drinks will help me. As I pick up items on my list, I jot down its price to make sure all falls within the budget. The total shopping trip came to $17.94. I have $3.31 left. I can hold onto that in case I underestimated the amount of food I need.
Day 1 – Child hunger is real
I prepared a giant bowl of rice and veggies that I can eat over several days so I don’t have to spend time each day preparing meals. My kids give me weird looks and ask why my meal is different. I do my best to explain global food insecurity to a 2-year old and 4-year old. Puzzled looks all around. After paying the grocery bills for my two, I think deeper about how much food that growing kids actually eat and question if this could ever work on $4.25 a day per person. Later that day, I realize how spoiled I am — I eat sometimes just because food is there, not because I am hungry. Meanwhile, there are people who go without enough food. By the evening, I’m getting a little weak and hungry from the considerable cut to my daily food intake.
Day 2 – How could this work every day?
Thank goodness I don’t drink coffee since I don’t think I could have squeezed that in the budget. Speaking of things I’m grateful for, what would I do if I had food sensitivities or allergies? Allergies provide additional limitations for an already severely restricted budget. I’m a little tired and low on energy. If I had an active job or exercised more regularly, how would I have the energy? And to top things off, I burned my dinner (sigh) but there’s no food to waste so I force myself to eat anyway. I just want a nap.
Day 3 – I just don’t want to eat this
My complaints are petty: “I just don’t want to eat this.” Man, am I selfish. I complain because I don’t like what I have to eat but the fact is, I have food. It has become a mental game not to just grab snacks as I see them lying around. If I eat them now, I might not have anything left by the end of the challenge. I walk with a constant, dull hunger but it is manageable (if I don’t exert too much energy).
Day 4 – The appeal of fast food
It’s petty but please, no more rice. I just want flavor. Hmmm, I’m at day 4 and I still haven’t used my extra $3.31 – that means something new. The responsible thing is to go to the store and stock up on other ingredients that will last into next week. But I’m tired, don’t want to cook and tomorrow is my last day. I can’t remember the last time I got so excited about fast food. It was good, flavorful but not filling. Although I stayed within budget at $2.13, I feel like I cheated and I’m not even full.
Day 5 – Drained
During a meeting with colleagues I stare off into space without realizing it. I don’t think I’ve said a word during this lunch meeting. I’m physically and mentally drained, and it’s only been five days. For me, I’m excited the end is in sight. For one in six Americans there is no end in sight. When my challenge ended at dinner time, I ran for exactly what my body needed: a big leafy green salad with fresh vegetables.
A Week Later
Through this five-day challenge, I learned that living with your focus always on food, hunger and money is not sustainable for individuals or our society. I could not have endured this if I had an active lifestyle or job, had food allergies/sensitivities, had to also feed children or had to do this on an ongoing basis. Yet, no one gets to choose which time in their life is most convenient to be hungry. In just a one-week challenge, I experienced that being hungry makes it harder to meaningfully contribute to work and family. So hunger doesn’t affect just the 17 percent of N.C. households classified as “food insecure,” it impacts our entire community. What are your thoughts about hunger’s impact on a society’s ability to be healthy and thrive?
Try it yourself. Sign up for NC State’s Snap Challenge >>>