For those of you who are unaware, SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) and is made available to individuals and families in need of an extra safety net support to afford food. That's the practical definition of the program. The impractical, or perhaps more real, definition of the program is that it's a vital, critical, we must have it so our families may eat and therefore learn, live and grow, program; but it is also rough. Indeed, it is not a snap.
In an effort to better understand the challenges faced by the individuals we serve, some colleagues and I at The Cara Program decided to take the "food stamp challenge" - an effort inspired by the leadership team at the Greater Chicago Food Depository (& other leaders in the food bank effort including Mario Batali). Following the GCFD model, our challenge was this: eat on $5 a day for seven days straight, and see if you can hack it.
It wasn't pretty.
When I say that, I kid to a degree, because we were able to do it. (Heck, Mario's posse did it for $31 a week or a buck 45 a meal.) Some of us were experts - having grown up doing this as kids, or having lived through this as adults. Others were more novice - but for all, the opportunity to learn was high, and enlightening, and uncomfortable - the perfect recipe for building empathy. In a nut shell, here were some of the lessons learned:
1. In a society of folks who like to consume in abundance, the reality is we live in lives of waste. You can actually buy a lot of food, and make terrific, family-friendly meals, even on $5 a day. It just requires a lot of pre-thought, which is a euphemism for time - a luxury many of us, in particular those affected by poverty, simply do not have.
2. Frugality is key, though. And it comes with its own special dose of social injustice - felt closely as we counted pennies in line at the grocery store, scraping for every last cent, and as we felt the stares of those before us and after us, wondering why we were wasting their time. We knew that we were feeling just one ounce of the shadow some of our students feel when using their Link Cards, or worse yet, using their cards to purchase what is considered a 'luxury' choice like a bag of potato chips. We were forced then to imagine what it would feel like if our most inconsequential, innocuous choices were always scrutinized by perfect strangers.
3. If you don't have the luxury to plan well (e.g. you are a single parent, juggling job(s), transportation and childcare), you can go - on this kind of budget - very, very hungry. And hunger messes with your mind. It distracts you from your own agenda and makes you focus on its. Hunger is unequivocally trump.
4. And so to quiet your stomach, especially if you don't have the time to stem that tide, you buy what's decent, generic, processed and cheap. The convenience of food is not just intoxicating, it's downright compelling - especially when you have so many other demands tugging at your sleeves. You tend not to eat healthily of course - and you get bored - so utterly and completely bored of eating the same thing over and over again; but, on a fixed income, bulk purchasing on the cheap makes all the sense in the world.
5. Over time, you start to experience food envy - wanting food you cannot have, having your stare linger ever awkwardly over your colleague's meal in the lunchroom, etc.
6. And you become excruciatingly aware of the role that food (and thereby the money needed to buy food with some controlled abandon) is an inextricable piece of our social fabric. It's how we create community, how we remain connected. And if you are the guy or gal who says "I'll just have water" to the waiter, eventually you'll just stop coming, because you'll grow tired of feeling as though you're disappointing your friends, the service staff, your network.
7. Some of our staff began to creatively combat that paradigm, for which I'm super grateful. They quickly realized that although they were resource constrained, that didn't mean they had to lose access to people, so they took the initiative to identify and drum awareness for those great things you can do in this exquisite city for F-R-E-E, and they encouraged their friends to hang with them on their journeys and save their meals for at home.
In a nutshell, we learned that adhering to the food stamp challenge could be done, but has costs that are not just financial, but emotional, social, intellectual and physical. Now imagine all these challenges compounded - ie existing not in the safe ecosystem of a social experiment, but in the brutal reality of your every day life. Overlay this with the challenge of living in a shelter and needing to partition your food from others, or the challenge of living in a neighborhood without a grocery store, and so you travel - by bus(es) x miles out of your way to get lettuce because you want your kids to have a salad.
Imagine all these disparities, all these tough choices, and you are slapped in the face with the reality our privilege extends - far beyond our socio economics, our geography, our block, but deep into our very bellies, it holds onto our core. And as we do all we do to build bridges to opportunity for all, we should realize that so easily our bodies would atrophy under the weight of prepared food, and our minds would flatline if hunger were our coda every hour of every day. And we should use this awareness - this acute and still so small awareness - to get hungry for justice, get hungry to help, get hungry to build solutions that don't just eradicate poverty at the top, but also provide critical supports at the bottom to help those in need.
We did this "experiment' almost a year ago, but the lessons learned and the ick I feel that we had the luxury to do this as research, rather than as life, weighs heavily on me to this day and hopefully for decades to come.
We should get hungry, people. Get hungry and remember that this isn't such a snap, after all.