Challenge Challenge

From Google:
ˈrēˌsôrs, rəˈsôrs
  1. a stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization in order to function effectively.

Who out there has done a SNAP challenge? For those who don’t know: People not receiving SNAP benefits eat for a week on a typical SNAP allotment, blog about it, make it through (or not), and end up with a better understanding of what it means to have limited access strictly to food resources.

I haven’t done it, at least not for a long time. My own challenge with SNAP was less experiment, more reality. 23 years ago, I was let go from my job, pregnant, and eventually a single, way underemployed mom to one in Chicago. I/we spent about 18 months on what were then called “food stamps”.

At the beginning of those 18 months, I knew NOTHING about budgeting, food, cooking, or nutrition. NOTHING. I never bothered to learn. I came from a household where food and access to it was a given, ate more than enough food in the dining hall at school, and once I was on my own, ate mostly fast food and rarely cooked. I had no idea how to shop for or cook anything except for boxes of pasta.

By the end of those 18 months, I knew more. Thanks in large part to my friend T, who was also an occasionally-employed single mom, I learned how to shop the bulk bins and make meals from what I bought, I learned how to deal with imperfect produce, I learned how to make soup, I learned to like some foods I thought I despised, and I learned how to swallow hard and budget. I also learned how to accept the generosity of others – among other things, my roommate let me use her pots and pans, and friends would invite us over for dinner. These friends, this education T dropped on me, that access to utensils – these were resources that food stamps couldn’t buy. Friends and knowledge and pots and pans are pretty much priceless when you’re broke and trying to feed yourself and your kid.

I was 24. I was angry and sad a lot of that time because of a breakup, and I had no idea what I was doing. I made some dumb mistakes along the way, for sure. But I had the resource of a tiny, supportive community, and I was determined my situation would eventually change, because I ALSO had the resource of a college degree. And my situation eventually did change. However…


… which is why I wonder whether the SNAP challenge would be an even more effective and comprehensive awareness-raising tool if, in addition to finding out what the SNAP allotment is for a week, those doing it also blindly draw a circumstance or two or three. Some suggestions:

Car in the shop means taking public transportation to work, plus however much the repair cost (if it got done).

Forgot lunch at home? Don’t eat lunch, plus throw away the food that went bad. 

Go home puking from food poisoning (see above), but if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.

Go to an event you normally wouldn’t attend because the food is free.

Spend all remaining cash on diapers and detergent and toothpaste, which aren’t covered by SNAP. 

Someone lectures you, loudly, about how their tax dollars shouldn’t pay for the birthday ice cream in your cart.

Extended family does not want to know about your “situation”. It’s not that they don’t care, they just don’t know how to deal with it.

Break your only baking dish. Buying a new one would require a couple bucks and a trip to the thrift store, which will take 2 hours you don’t have right now.

The burners won’t fire on the stove and the landlord isn’t returning your call.

Your childcare provider abruptly decides they “can’t do this anymore” and suddenly you’re without someone to take care of your kid not just tomorrow, but for the foreseeable future.

[I should add these are far from the worst circumstances one could find oneself in.]

Food stamp challenges are solid, if basic, awareness tools, especially in terms of experiencing situational hunger, boredom with what’s available to eat, and deepening compassion for others. But what would a two week challenge look like? What about doing the challenge for a month, which is how benefits are distributed? I know – who has the time or energy to deal with that? Um, exactly.

Something else to consider: In terms of the social, cultural, educational, emotional, and other effects of wondering if you’ll have enough to eat – one week with limited access to strictly food resources doesn’t present a full picture. When I found the photo of the food coupon above – this is what they looked like in the early 1990s, before the EBT cards were introduced – I caught my breath. I looked at photos of other denominations of them. Unpleasant memories of having to count those things out at the checkout, followed by other unpleasant memories, came rushing back.  I felt my eyes well up. THAT WAS 23 YEARS AGO.

Anyway. My interest and work in food and learning how to grow it, prepare it, preserve it, eat it, share it? That doesn’t come from being a dyed-in-the-wool “foodie”, because I will freely admit I didn’t really give a shit about food until I didn’t have it; I cared about music and that was pretty much it.  My interest and work have branched in many different directions since then, of course, but it all stems from the experience of not having enough, feeling ashamed for asking for help, feeling completely disempowered in so many ways, and, now, wanting to help others NOT feel disempowered in whatever way I can.

Things are different now, for which I am eternally grateful, but for so many others, they are not, and it’s not getting any easier to climb out. HUNGER IS THE SYMPTOM OF A MUCH LARGER PROBLEM. We have a lot of work to do and problems to solve that have more to do with work and money and power than people not having enough to eat. Taking a food stamp challenge and giving to your local emergency food provider is a good starting place.

Please don’t let it be the finish.

12 Replies to “Challenge Challenge”

  1. LISA! This is fantastic and such a more nuanced and deep and humane explanation of the realities of living and feeding yourself on food stamps. Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Said this on the FB and I’ll say it here: this if great writing and one of the best perspectives I’ve read about this issue yet. Every time I see one of those “celebrities are taking the SNAP Challenge” stories, I want to puke. Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Thanks, Pam. <3

      FTR, I'm totally AOK with celebrities taking the SNAP challenge, but I'd love it if the challenge were laid out in a truly more challenging way beyond access to food resources. It's one thing being hungry for a few days in a comfortable home with reliable transportation AND the understanding you can quit any time. It's quite another to experience hunger with other uncertainties. Have you ever read Barbrara Ehrenreich's Nickeled & Dimed?

  3. Hey Lisa,
    Thanks for sharing your story. I saw the Goop article and was half–WTF–and half–well good that she is raising awareness around the issue. Your post brings so much more to the story. Also, as a fellow (former) Urbana foodie this brings a politics to that culture that can sometimes be lacking.

  4. I like your added circumstance idea, but the real issue is that it’s still an optional challenge that can only begin to create sympathetic thought. The reality of being on SNAP is walking a line of shame and delight, because those benefits are often the one reliable thing in your month, and if/when you realize that it’s unnerving. This piece is amazing, and very close to my own experience. XO

    1. You’re right, of course, and I considered that as I was writing. But if we’re gonna play, I’d like for the game to have more variables. 🙂

      This part of your comment:

      “The reality of being on SNAP is walking a line of shame and delight, because those benefits are often the one reliable thing in your month, and if/when you realize that it’s unnerving.”

      It’s the best part of this post, hands down. I wish we’d lived in the same city then…

  5. I love this beyond words. If only our politicians that seem to be in a daily battle to take more away from those who need it could have this perspective the discussions of cutting benefits would stop.

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