I have accepted the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest New Jersey's Food Stamp Challenge. Starting today, I have a food budget of $29.40 for the week. To tell the truth, I'm a little nervous about the challenge, but looking forward to raising awareness of the problems caused by food insecurity, and I'm hoping to come out of this week with a better understanding of the difficult decisions made by the hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
I'll be using this space to record my experience throughout the week. Be sure to check back for updates.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is designed to help low-income families with food purchases. The average benefit works out to around $4.20 per day, though some participants receive much less. The benefits available through the SNAP program have been reduced recently, through cuts and reduced eligibility for the "heat and eat" plan. New Jersey is also at risk to lose valuable federal funding for SNAP administration, due to unacceptably long processing delays.
In fiscal year 2013, there were 876,266 New Jerseyans who enrolled in SNAP. Close to half of all recipients in New Jersey are children, and another 14% are seniors. Nationwide, most SNAP benefits do not cover people's needs, with 90% of allotted funds being redeemed within the first three weeks, many turn to food banks to cover the shortfall.
Challenge Rules -
The Food Stamp Challenge laid out by The Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest New Jersey is fairly simple. Everything I eat or drink needs to come out of the budget set for the average SNAP enrollee. This means that for the week, I have a budget of $4.20 per day, which works out to $29.40 for the whole week. Since SNAP benefits cannot be redeemed at any restaurants, dining out will be avoided. In keeping my challenge as accurate as possible, I also will be staying away from accepting food from friends, family members, and co-workers.
Day 1 -
I thought I had it all figured out this morning. For breakfast, I planned a banana and one egg, and packed myself two hard-boiled eggs for lunch. Both relatively filling options, and a carrying a decent amount of protein and other valuable nutrients. Then I woke up this morning and realized I hadn't planned on coffee! Now I'm already scrambling to rearrange my budget, and haven't even gotten through my first meal yet.
Day 1 Update -
Went to the grocery store and picked up my first batch of groceries. Total came to $15.30, leaving me with $14.10 for the rest of the week. Most expensive item? Coffee grounds. Don't know if I could have made it the rest of the day without coffee, let alone the week.
I'll have to go back to use the rest of the week's budget, maybe get some bread to go with the peanut butter...
Peanut Butter Update - I'm just going to eat it straight out of the jar.
Day 2 -
This is tough. I knew the point of the challenge is for it to be difficult, but I figured it would take a little longer to set in. I look at the groceries I have, and my remaining budget, and recognize that my options are all starchy and not well-balanced. That's a major problem with this budget, it forces you to choose between filling and nutritious, and doesn't even seem to be enough for either. Luckily, I only need to feed myself. I can't imagine having to make these decisions while trying to feed a family, especially since I remember what it's like to have a home full of hungry teenagers! Having this hard of a time on the second day, I'm really not looking forward to how I'll be feeling later on in the week. What's worse is that there are thousands of people in our state who have to make these types of decisions indefinitely.
Day 3 -
Munching on another banana. Another problem I'm encountering is the ability to have some variety in my meals. In order to make the budget last, the need to buy in bulk is essential while not very conducive to having many choices. With that in mind, I went to the grocery store last night and spent an additional $10.20, which gives me $3.90 for the rest of the week, and it's only Wednesday. Most expensive purchase this time? Fresh spinach.
Also, my colleagues and I have an op-ed in the Times of Trenton which goes into some of the reasons why we are taking the challenge. There are 1.1 million New Jerseyans who have to deal with food insecurity. It's a large number, which all too often obscures the fact that each one is a someone's neighbor, friend, or family member.
Day 5 -
I was down in Trenton yesterday for committee hearings and had a brief moment of panic when I thought I had left my two hard-boiled eggs at home and would be stuck without a meal all day. That's another struggle that the hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans face. When on this budget, forgetting to bring a lunch isn't as simple as running out to grab food midday. Even outside of the budgetary constraints, in New Jersey, SNAP cannot be used at any restaurants, or to buy any hot food. Maybe the challenge is starting to make an impact, but the witnesses in the Judiciary Committee looked a little different yesterday.
Today, I was very happy to participate in the Jewish Federation's "Hunger is No Game" panel at the JCC in West Orange. We had a very interesting discussion between many of the legislators and community leaders who took the Challenge. Diane Riley from the Community FoodBank of New Jersey was particularly helpful in pointing out that SNAP benefits tend to only cover a little more than half of the people who struggle with food insecurity, and that even without cuts, the value of these benefits has gone down recently as food prices have increased dramatically.
We all encountered many of the same challenges and difficulties over the course of the last five days. The important thing to keep in mind though, is that we are all doing this for just one week. I don't have the added difficulty of trying to feed my family for a month or a year on these extremely low rations. I can't imagine how it must feel for parents whose children are growing up and dealing with constant worries about food.
I also shared some of my concerns over some of the negative comments I've heard about the SNAP program and other nutritional assistance. There are a lot of misconceptions over who exactly benefits from these programs, and how generous they are. Here in New Jersey, 45% of SNAP recipients are children, with another 14% being senior citizens. It's important to remember that nationwide, 76% of SNAP households include either children, seniors, people with disabilities, or a combination of all three. After this week, I have seen first hand the difficult choices many are forced to make when trying to live on this budget, and just how hard it is to find nutritional value on such a small amount of money. I'm glad to have the opportunity to take this challenge, to raise awareness about these realities, and to dispel some of the myths about the SNAP program.
Five days down. Heading into the weekend, I can see the finish line.
In review - Well, the week is over. I recorded a video to discuss some of my final thoughts on the challenge. You can find it here.