This past week, a few colleagues and I participated in a Food Stamp Challenge, where for one week we lived as if we were receiving food stamps. The average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) allotment for a single person for one week is only $31.50, which averages out to be $4.50 a day and $1.50 a meal.

I knew this would be a tough undertaking, but I was not prepared for just how challenging it would be. I do not enjoy cooking and although I try to go food shopping on a weekly basis, I often do not plan out my meals ahead of time and instead end up picking up something quick for lunch or dinner.

However, upon starting the challenge I learned that in many states, food stamps cannot be used in restaurants or to buy prepared food. While the federal government gives states the choice to allow the homeless, elderly, and disabled to use their SNAP benefits at restaurants, only a handful of states have taken advantage of this option. After learning this, I decided that if I wanted to really understand the experience of Americans receiving SNAP benefits, I needed to try to avoid eating out altogether for the remainder of the challenge.

Not being able to eat out was challenging as the closest grocery store to my apartment is a mile and a half away, and without a car I found myself lugging the heavy groceries onto the metro or walking. There was also the time factor. Besides the time it took to get to and from the store, I realized how much time and preparation it takes to plan ahead for every meal, and I was only preparing meals for myself, not a whole family.

However, having the ability to prepare, cook, and store food is a luxury I had that homeless families and individuals often lack. Even if they are living near a grocery store, they are often living in temporary situations that that do not have a kitchen or even a microwave or refrigerator. I realized that if I did not have access to a grocery store or kitchen throughout this challenge, I don’t know how I would have fed myself. If children were involved, I have no idea how I would have kept them fed.

This is a terrifying thought, yet it is the challenge that homeless families and individuals face every day. Working as an advocate on behalf of the homeless and those at-risk of homelessness, I have always been sympathetic to the struggles of those less fortunate. Yet it took this challenge for me to also be empathetic.

SNAP is a lifeline for millions for Americans. It has responded to the economic crisis and the rise in unemployment by keeping millions, including over 20 million children, from going hungry every day. In fact, because SNAP has responded so well and appropriately to the recession, enrollment has risen 53% since 2007. While SNAP can still be a lifeline for homeless Americans, the only way to truly prevent homeless families and individuals from going hungry is to ensure that they can utilize their SNAP benefits for prepared food.

Luckily for some homeless individuals, a few states are working on ways to ensure that SNAP benefits are used for healthy prepared food. For example, Rhode Island is launching a pilot program that will allow the homeless, elderly, and disabled to use their SNAP benefits at four Subway restaurants in Providence.

We should look to these programs as potential ways to combat hunger and ensure that all Americans have access to not only enough food, but food that is nutritious and will support a healthy future.

For More Information:

“Food for Thought: First Focus Takes on the Food Stamp Challenge”

Food for Thought: Our Nation’s Safety Net, at $31.50 a Week