I asked Melody to write a guest post today summarizing her experience with the food stamp challenge. You can read about her experience here:
Food has always been a huge part of my life. I love trying new restaurants and I like to be in the know when it comes to what restaurants and chefs are doing in Tulsa. I eat when I’m happy and I eat when I’m sad and stressed and celebrating and commiserating. I get a lot of joy out of eating and out of appreciating the work and ingredients that go into making good food. So when I was trying to pick a non-profit board to join, signing on with the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma (“CFBEO”) seemed like a no-brainer. I knew the president of the board at the time and I liked the idea of working with an organization that focused on getting food to those who need it. Although I had no idea when I signed up the magnitude of the hunger issue we were facing.
While I had always known that hunger was out there, before I joined the board of CFBEO I had no idea to what extent it was impacting those around me. I live in the United States of America. I just assumed that something like hunger would not be a significant issue for our country. Heck, I was throwing away food every week that I wasn’t eating in time before it went bad. How could there be a major hunger issue in Oklahoma, let alone in the US?
As it turns out, Oklahoma is one of the hungriest states in the country, according to information gathered and reported by Feeding America. In Oklahoma, 1 in 5 adults deal with hunger insecurity, not knowing where their next meal is coming from. This increases to 1 in 4 when talking about children in the state of Oklahoma. These numbers are 1 in 6 adults and 1 in 5 children for the nation as a whole.
The reasons for the large number of people who are going hungry are endless. I’m not here to debate whether it’s the person’s fault for ending up in that situation due to poor money management, or the economy’s fault for being so bad the last few years, or the government’s fault for not offering adequate programs to help the hungry. There are lots of reasons why people end up in need. The real issue, in my mind, is that these people have need. However they got there, they are there. And, for me, someone who loves food and for whom food takes up such a large part of my life, having people go hungry and who have such a love-hate relationship with food due to the lack of it, that need is something I want to try to better understand and help with, as much as I can.
There are options available to people who are struggling putting food on the table. One of those options is SNAP (previously food stamps), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, overseen by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. In Oklahoma, a single person gets approximately $4 a day in SNAP benefits to be used towards the purchase of food.
$4 a day.
In order to try to grasp what people on SNAP deal with on a day-to-day basis, I took the SNAP Challenge. This involves living on the SNAP benefits for your area for a certain period of time – 2 days, a week, a month, etc. I did the two day challenge and so started the night before with $8 and a trip to the grocery store.
I normally love the grocery store. I can, and do, spend hours going up and down every aisle looking at new products, checking out the specials, finding things I want to try. Even if I don’t get something from every aisle, I still like to check all the aisles out – what if I miss something?? Going to the grocery store with my SNAP money in hand was nothing like my normal experience. It was stressful and nerve racking. I was counting every penny of the items I put in my cart and seriously considering whether the items I was selecting would provide nutritional benefits while also being sufficient enough to keep me full throughout the day but would also keep me from going over my allotted spending money. I got to the checkout line and I was pretty sure I was over but I was hoping I wasn’t over by too much. I ended up being exactly $1 over the limit. So I asked the checkout person if she would take off the two $0.37 cheese sticks I had selected to go with my lunches. It was embarrassing and frustrating to have to ask, but I didn’t want to be that far over my limit. Taking those items out, I ended up $0.19 over and I decided that was good enough. This is what I took home with me:
4 bananas (my only fresh produce)
Kraft spaghetti in a box
A can of tomato paste
A can of green beans
3 packages of Buddig lunch meat
A loaf of white bread
Lots of carbs, lots of sodium, not a lot of nutritional value. But it only cost me $8.19! My planned menus for the two days were exactly the same each day – I was going to make use of peanut butter I already had on hand and make peanut butter, banana sandwiches for breakfast. Lunch would be a sandwich with lunchmeat only and dinner would be half the box spaghetti with half a can of green beans. I could also have a banana as a snack during the day since I got 4 of those. Not a lot of variety and let me tell you, I was starving by midafternoon after only having a sandwich for lunch, no chips or anything. Plus, the lack of variety in having to eat the same exact set of meals two days in a row was monotonous and seemed to actually exacerbate the hunger I felt.
I also ran into issues I hadn’t considered before. The second day of my challenge we had a potluck at work for the CFO’s birthday. I had to go outside the $4 challenge for his birthday – I’m not creative enough to come up with something to bring on $4 and feed myself that day! The whole thing got me thinking though – with 1 in 5 Oklahoma adults impacted by hunger, that means some of my coworkers could be affected as well. How do people on SNAP handle things like work/church/friend potlucks, lunches, birthdays, holidays, etc? It must be so much stress for them to try to figure out ways to participate without spending too much and without letting on that they are struggling to put food on the table. The only good thing would be that things like work potlucks would be an opportunity to get more food than a normal day!
The first night of the SNAP Challenge I went to a fundraiser for CFBEO where there was free food. I ate as much as I could without embarrassing myself and seriously considered taking some for the road in a napkin. Had I had family waiting for me at home that I knew was hungry, I most definitely would have been filling up my purse with the free food to take home to them. I love events with free food as it is, if I had to live on SNAP benefits, I think I would become a regular at any and all events that offered food. Although I also have to admit I felt a certain amount of anxiety when I was loading up my plate at the food table – what if someone asked me why I was getting food? Would someone be able to tell I hadn’t eaten that much that day? I was scared of being called out and someone potentially finding out I didn’t have enough to eat – and I was doing the challenge on purpose! It wasn’t my everyday life, and yet I still felt embarrassed and nervous.
There are lots of things about hunger that I haven’t even mentioned yet. Like the fact that hunger and obesity rates are linked due in large part to the fact that the cheapest food is also the unhealthiest. Or the fact that children who go hungry struggle in school and have higher instances of health problems than children who don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. And don’t even get me started on the fact that beginning November 1st, SNAP benefits are decreasing approximately $36 for a family of four due to the expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 increase in SNAP benefits.
If you want to know more information, I would recommend checking out the documentary “A Place At The Table”. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and provides an eye opening view of some of the people who are dealing with hunger every day. Even if you don’t agree with some of the politics discussed in the movie, it’s worth checking out for the discussion of things like food deserts and to learn about people like Rosie, a little girl who is trying her best to stay positive despite not getting enough to eat every day.
There are people and programs out there that are trying to make this situation better. CFBEO can take a $1 donation and provide 4 nutritious meals because of it. During fiscal year 2013, CFBEO distributed more than 17.2 million pounds of food. The Cherry Street Farmers Market here in Tulsa has a Double Up program where they give people on SNAP benefits twice the credit to use towards buying fresh produce. “A Place At The Table” talks about local churches and other organizations providing free meals on a regular basis to anyone who needs them. And there are ways to help the situation that don’t involve giving money. CFBEO relies on the help of thousands of volunteers every year. You can work in the kitchen, making meals with fresh produce that would otherwise go to waste that are then frozen and distributed to local food pantries and other organizations to provide to people in need. Or you can help sort donated food. You can work in the garden behind the CFBEO building, weeding, pruning and picking. Any of those things and more are needed on an almost daily basis.
If nothing else, please take some time and learn about the issue and the number of people affected by it. It’s no longer an issue that is relegated to the fringes of society. To those people who live in “poor” neighborhoods or who didn’t graduate from high school, let alone college. This is something that is affecting people from all walks of life. It could be someone from your church. Or someone from the office. Or your next door neighbor. One day it could be you.