It only took about an hour for the headache to kick in. In committing to the Food Stamp Challenge (eating and drinking for one week on a budget of $31.50, or $1.50 per meal), I thought I had planned out my allotment accordingly. What I had failed to account for in my frugal budget – which omitted all beverages aside from water and milk – was my caffeine addiction. Lesson One of the challenge duly noted.

Lesson Two emerged quickly when I came to realize how undisciplined I often am with my meals…a problematic tendency when there was no extra money for snacks. And if there is one thing a restricted budget requires, it is self-discipline. This challenge was unfortunately – and rapidly – highlighting a number of personal weaknesses, but that was hardly the intended point.

The point was to think bigger. And once I resumed my regular caffeine intake again on Day 2 (at a cost of 40 cents a day, which I offset with reduced breakfasts), I did think. Clearly this budget would get me through the week. Would I eat more if more was available? Sure. But we covered that already in the section on lack of self-discipline, above. Rather, Lesson Three was that as eye-opening as the challenge was (i.e. the $1.50 bottle of water I saw advertised in a vending machine was put into a whole new perspective), in many ways, it was actually way too easy.

Why? Because it’s clear that hunger does not exist in isolation. If you don’t have enough money for food, you probably don’t have enough money for a number of other things. Families that receive food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are by definition living on very low incomes, meaning they are also likely eligible for – though not always receiving (an important distinction) – other forms of support.

I undertook this challenge with my rent, transportation, electricity, and phone already paid off. I did not have to consider which household bill might be more of a priority this month; there were no other trade-offs to make. I also only had to worry about holding myself to a disciplined budget and diet, whereas if I had children, many of my spending decisions would undoubtedly have had to be reconsidered – particularly since the challenge week encompassed Halloween weekend. Yet for too many American families who should have access to the broader safety net, there are too many instances where SNAP is the only support keeping them going. That should not be.

The best part about SNAP is that its design allows it to actually work. In 2010, 46.2 million people lived below the poverty line – for a family of four, roughly $22,000 a year or less. SNAP helped 45.8 million people, including over 20 million children, who otherwise may have gone without, put food on the table each week. Unfortunately, this impressive responsiveness to need is an anomaly within the US safety net much of the time. Despite the continuing recession, our nation’s primary cash assistance program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), served only 4.5 million people last year – reaching less than 10 percent of all Americans living in poverty. Federal housing assistance serves only a quarter of eligible households. Only 1 in 6 eligible children receives child care assistance, to the serious detriment of parents trying to maintain stable employment.

As a result and all too often, SNAP ends up as the primary support for families – a situation that not only was never intended, but one that ultimately leads to a blunting of SNAP’s positive effects. As my colleague pointed out in an earlier piece, an unstable housing situation (and lack of access to housing assistance) may mean a family cannot utilize their SNAP benefits because they simply have no place to cook. Ultimately, child well-being suffers.

To those who seek to scale-back SNAP’s support to families in the context of the current budget debate, with arguments that (at $1.50 per meal) it offers too much, it is worth taking a moment to consider the pieces of our safety net that offer our low-wage families and their children not nearly enough.
For More Information:
“Food for Thought: First Focus Takes on the Food Stamp Challenge”

“Food for Thought: Food Stamp Challenge Helped Me Empathize With Homeless Families and Individuals”

First Focus Resources –

“Living on the Edge: America’s Low-Earning Families”;
“First Focus Policy Recommendations: Food Security”;
“Children of Immigrants and Nutrition Supports”;
“Cutting Spending for Children Will Not Fix Our Budget Problems”.

Additional Resources –

Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap

US Department of Agriculture’s SNAP Information Center