The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 5

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 5: Let Them Eat Ramen Noodles: One Week Living on $28.30 of Food


In this chapter, author Joel Berg discusses his experience eating on an average food stamp allotment for a week - the so-called SNAP Challenge.  Because it's a short chapter and due to the lengthy discussion to follow, here I will only highlight some notable passages from the chapter.
[I]n May 2007, I asked a local official in New York, Eric Gioia, a frequent ally in antihunger fights, to join me in giving it a try. ... My main goal was to dramatize the need to raise the average benefit size. ... I learned that it's one thing to speak, write, research, and think about what it's like to use food stamp benefits, but it's another thing entirely to actually live on them.

I came to better understand that, when you are poor, many life choices, including food choices, are made for you, and that it takes a great deal of time - the one thing that poor people often have even less of than money - to find, purchase, and prepare meals that are both affordable and nutritious.

I winced when I read that a group in Minnesota claimed that one week on the challenge would teach people "what being hungry is really like."  That's like saying you know what it's like to be pushed out of a plane without a parachute because you once rode a rollercoaster.

Food insecurity isn't just a bit of bureaucratic nomenclature.  And it's not just about not having enough food to eat.  It's a feeling, both physical and psychological, and not a pleasant one.

Last year I took part in a course on food environments, and as part of the coursework read this chapter of Berg and conducted a brief SNAP challenge.  I then wrote a lengthy essay about the experience.  As such, in this discussion I will share share parts of the essay that best capture the experience.  You can read the entire paper here. 
I recently set out to determine the average cost and quality of the food I regularly eat, and to determine how closely my current eating habits could be sustained if I depended solely on food stamps for my daily food needs.  To do so, I first tracked my everyday eating for three days.  I then completed a four-day “SNAP Challenge,” where I ate only what food I could afford on a food stamps budget.
Such challenges have been undertaken by numerous activists, advocates, politicians, and others looking to shed light on the realities of the U.S. food stamps program.[1], [2], [3]  I also attempted to look at the environmental factors that become barriers to healthful eating, for SNAP recipients and for all American communities.
For days one through three of this project, I continued to eat my normal daily foods.  For the next four days, I ate only what I was able to purchase at a cost of no more than $6.09 per day.  Throughout the seven days I kept a log of all food eaten, to provide a basis with which to compare my eating habits with and without a SNAP budget.
I completed four days of the challenge on my planned diet.  I was hungry and headachy the entire time.  I wished most of all that I’d worked some sugar into my budget – unsweetened oatmeal and yogurt are harsh to my spoiled palate.  When I set out I wanted to do the challenge for seven days, but I felt so unwell (whether from restricted eating, other factors, or a combination, I do not know) that I cut it off after four.
Due to my background, skin color, and many other reasons, my few-day experience living the SNAP Challenge could not in any way be construed as representative of what someone depending on food stamps really experiences.  Even though I may have felt some deprivation when compared to my normal life, I still depended on layer upon layer of privilege in its exceedingly short execution.
The effects of my background were evident in both the foods I chose, and where I purchased them.  I went to a Whole Foods market, which I defend with the following information: 1) It is located less than a mile from my house, making it reasonable to walk or bike there, 2) it is located in a low income neighborhood where many shoppers do in fact use food stamps, and 3) I am assuming that I’m still me, with my knowledge and dietary preferences, and have through one of many easy twists of fate wound up living on minimum wage.  That knowledge and those dietary preferences were, of course, gleaned through life-long advantages.

Additionally, I was not exposed to the social stigma that comes with pulling out a Louisiana Purchase card at the register.  The weight of both the perceived and actual judgment that comes from cashiers, fellow shoppers, and more broadly from traditional and social media and from society as a whole, is no doubt crushing to those depending on food assistance to support themselves and their families.  Because I look as though I “belong” at Whole Foods, with my tattoos and hip haircut and clothes from H&M (and white skin), and of course did not have to pay with SNAP, I was immune to this effect.

As of June 2014, the State of Louisiana was providing monthly food assistance through its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to 365,002 households,[1] amounting to approximately 920,000 individuals.[2]  An estimated 22% of Orleans Parish residents, including a startling 49% of its children, rely on SNAP benefits through Louisiana’s “Louisiana Purchase” federally funded program.[3]  Tellingly, this accounts for 32% of New Orleans’ black community, but only 3% of its white residents.3

The realities of food stamp allocation raise concerns regarding nutritional insufficiency, the short and long term public health impacts of that insufficiency, and the disparate impacts among difference races and classes of current SNAP policies.
Participating in this challenge has supported my existing belief that something in our food provision system must change.  Whether by creating policies to enforce payment of a living wage minimum, increasing food stamps allotment, or some combination of these along with other supports such as improved school meal programs, all people in our society must be afforded access to sufficient, healthy foods.  That access currently does not exist, and its absence will no doubt lead to public health issues in the coming years.

Personally, I think the SNAP challenge is a great idea. Some people's minds will never be changed, and as noted by both Berg and myself living on a SNAP budget for a week cannot show a person what it's really like. However, it can improve our ability to empathize, and that is always worthwhile. I hope to engage in an extended SNAP challenge sometime this year, and I'll be asking y'all to join in!

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