The truth about the Food Stamp Challenge

Could you live on $1.42 a day?


WEST PALM BEACH, February 26, 2015 – Approximately 47 million Americans depend on food stamps, The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as their primary way to purchase food.

According to Robert Greenstein, the founder and President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP has helped significantly reduce severe hunger and malnutrition in the United States. Extremely poor areas such as Appalachia, the deep south, and the inner cities have eliminated excruciating hunger, according to Greenstein.

SNAP is used only to purchase food. The average benefit is $1.42 per person.

Over 90 percent of SNAP recipients live below the poverty line, according to Greenstein, and 57% of beneficiaries earn less than 50% of the poverty line. The poverty line for a single person is $11,670. For a family of three, the poverty line is $19,790.

The food stamp challenge is an effort for those not on food stamps to understand the truth about the much maligned program. Participants attempt to subsist on $33 a week – which is actually more than the average benefit of $3 a day. Since it’s inception, politicians, journalists, and community leaders have taken the challenge and are uniformly shocked at the realities.

“My husband and I took the challenge for a week, and we found we simply couldn’t afford meat. We ate basically rice and beans for 7 days, and I can’t tell you how glad I was to be done at the end of the week,” says Laura, a 34-year-old clerical worker from Miami.

Skeptics, however, dismiss the challenge. “Look, not to be insensitive, but I see how they actually spend those food stamps,” says Tom, a car salesman from Boca Raton, Florida. “I’ll be in line at 7-11 and they are buying candy and Slurpees. That means they are not exactly starving.”

Comments like that make Belinda shake her head and smile sadly. Belinda, a 22-year-old from Riviera Beach, Florida, has been on SNAP for two years. She is a single mother with three children, all under the age of 7. “I wish that man could follow me around for a week and see my life,” she says, “that just tells me he has no idea.”

Belinda explains that she does buy “treats” almost every month for her kids. She says that when she gets her benefit, she often gets the kids “something special.” She says she knows that those candy bars cut into the monthly budget and that it’s “not smart,” but she also says her kids deserve “something nice” in their lives.

Almost every month, the money runs out a week short. Belinda laughs at herself, saying she knows buying those expensive candies at the start doesn’t help, but she does it to try to make up for the fact that the kids have almost nothing to eat the last week of the month. She says she has tried budgeting and re-budgeting, but she always falls short. That means that the end of the month, they go to food pantries, friends, community outreach or other places to get something for her kids to eat.

“I know it doesn’t make sense,” she says, “but after watching those kids go hungry for four or five days, I want to get them something special.” She stands up straighter, “So sue me.”

Like six million other Americans, Belinda has no other income. She cleans houses when she can, but with no car, no high school education, and three young children, finding work is a challenge.

Belinda says one month, a social worker brought her flour, sugar and other ingredients to make cookies for the kids. Her oven doesn’t work – she uses a cooler as a refrigerator – so she made cookies “like pancakes on the stove.”

Belinda also says her kids go to school every day, no matter how sick they are or what else is going on, because they get a free lunch.

West Palm Beach resident Santrice says the challenge is unrealistic in other ways. “First thing I do when I get my benefits? I sell them,” she admits. “If I buy from the farmers market, I can get more. They don’t take SNAP, so I use the cash.”

But it’s more than that. Santrice, her husband and her four children live in a one-bedroom house with her brother-in-law and her mother-in-law. Both she and her husband dropped out of high school and her husband works as a laborer. She has applied for jobs but is turned down because she has no high school diploma and no GED.

The kitchen at the house consists of a microwave, a hot plate and a dorm-size refrigerator. She smiles, “James got that refrigerator for us. Someone was throwing it out so he carried it home.” James, her eldest, is 11-years-old.

To buy shoes, school supplies, toilet paper, and any other non-food item, she needs cash. “We have a joke around here…’you can’t use SNAP for that.’ Some assistance people heard us saying that and thought we were talking about drugs. Actually, we were talking about tampons,” she explains.

Santrice also takes advantage of the free lunch program fro her kids. “Sometimes they only thing they get to eat in a day is that free lunch,” she explains. She thinks school is important for other reasons. “It’s the only chance they have. They can’t end up like me. Grace already knows her second grade spelling words and she’s only in first grade. We want her ready,” she beams.

But last week, Santrice kept Grace home from school. “It was Valentines,” she explains, looking at her feet, “and we couldn’t afford for her to take in a box of cards.”

“I think the food stamp challenge is a good idea,” Santrice says, “because it gives people an idea. Maybe they can’t understand everything, and I doubt they would go hungry for four days if the benefits run out, but it gives them an idea.”

Belinda looks at her hands for a long time before she gives her thoughts about the program, “I watch my babies cry because they are hungry. I don’t mean they want something to eat…I mean they have had nothing for two days. They don’t understand why some people have big houses and nice cars and new cloths when they eat saltines three times a day. I should have finished high school, but then, my mom should have been alive and my dad shouldn’t have been in jail and my brother shouldn’t have been shot. I really don’t want favors. I want a GED and I want a job. That’s all I want. And yea, I want my kids to have enough to eat and for them not to have to be ashamed.”

She shrugs, “So the challenge is good in some ways, but I know it won’t change things. People will still think I just can get a job and that I’m taking advantage of the welfare system. But they don’t know me, they don’t know my life. It’s good that people are trying this, just to see. But the big difference is that after a week, they can stop. I can’t.”

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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.
  • John Horst

    Absolutely terrific window into this world, Lisa…

    Two things stuck out at me… one mentioned the other not.

    The first is how the benefits do not go far enough to provide the food security they are intended for. There is no way they could, since benefits like this are usually indexed to inflation, and food prices are often kept out of the CPI calculation because they 1) might actually tell the truth about inflation; and 2) will explode the budget if benefits were to actually keep up with prices.

    So prices rise, but those who need support like this cannot even make the basic ends meet. It all drives down to telling the truth about inflation and then letting that truth force the necessary changes in monetary policies so people can actually keep up.

    The second is the GED. Instead of taking this challenge to eat on a SNAP-level budget, why don’t we start a movement of people who will simply come alongside people who need to get their GED and tutor them through the preparations for the test? If we can get them past the GED hurdle, they’ll have a much better chance to regain the dignity that comes from providing for their families.