Starting last Monday and ending Friday, four Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffers -- along with people all over the country -- adhered to a strict food budget. They and others doing the SNAP Challenge ate on $6 a day, the average amount food stamp recipients receive.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, colloquially known as food stamps, provides benefits to low-income Americans in the form of debit cards that can be used to buy food.
Some members of Congress have expressed concern that recipients become too dependent on the benefit, and there are efforts to cut funding to the program.
The four participants filed daily dispatches on a Post-Gazette blog called "Pittsburgh: 5 Days, 6 Dollars" (post-gazette.com/pittsburghsnap).
Here are their reflections at the conclusion of the SNAP Challenge:
A different look at statistics
Currently, 161,787 people are receiving SNAP benefits in Allegheny County, according to Maria Muzzie of Just Harvest. Since the start of 2013 about 1.8 million people have received food assistance, commonly known as food stamps, in Pennsylvania, she said.
On Sunday, these numbers were merely statistics for me. Six days later, they symbolized something entirely different.
I ended the SNAP Challenge on Friday when I decided to not play by the rules and cheat by eating with some of my co-workers. It wasn't because I suddenly felt uncontrollable hunger but because I really felt that I needed to socialize.
As one of my co-workers pointed out on the food stamp challenge blog that we ran this week, it made us conscious of social aspects of eating. I felt them Tuesday when one of my colleagues brought cookies into the office for her birthday and the day after when the interns gathered together around cookies (again) during a meeting.
Critics of the Challenge say that SNAP is intended to be a supplement to people's food budget, not the entire food budget.
Ms. Muzzie said that in order to qualify for the SNAP benefit, a person needs to have income that is about what a minimum wage earner working 20 hours a week would get. She said that 76 percent of households receiving SNAP include "a child, an elderly person or a disabled person." From her perspective, "SNAP recipients are the working poor and the most vulnerable in society. To those critics who say it's meant to be a supplement I say, 'You try feeding your kids on a supplement.' "
Despite the fact that my experience was a relatively positive one where I managed to eat quite healthy meals overall, I realize that people living with food stamps have to eat certain kinds of repetitive meals. In one week I ate more than 10 turkey-cheese sandwiches, four burritos and almost 3 pounds of potatoes. Variety is definitely a luxury.
-- Nicolas Dubois
The bootstraps myth
If I didn't already support programs like SNAP, after this week I do.
According to advocacy group Feeding America, "SNAP benefits don't last most participants the whole month" and I'm pretty sure that some people (like myself) will have a hard time making it last a single week. An experiment like a SNAP Challenge comes with a basic flaw -- we can't authentically feel the deep anxiety of someone forced to live in poverty. Nevertheless, it's important to walk a mile in someone else's shoes; it's the most important way to further understanding across differences.
Because of the lackluster economy, more people have been forced to join programs like SNAP. According to Feeding America, between 2007 and 2011, the number of food stamps recipients has risen by 70 percent.
But I'm also worried about people who are in need of assistance but don't qualify, thanks to rigid income calculations. SNAP is available to individuals and families that are at 130 percent of the poverty line, but what about families that don't meet the requirement but still can't get all they need? Where does their assistance come from?
We hear a lot about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps -- how anything is possible. But when I was hungry this week, I wasn't thinking about that. I needed to know how my next meal was coming.
-- Curtis Edmonds
One week ago today, the day before I began the SNAP Challenge, I ate a Primanti Bros. sandwich. The sandwich cost $6.69, and it was obviously piled high with chicken, coleslaw and fries.
For the five days to follow, I ate peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. I think I could pile three of those lunches on top of each other to equal the size of my Primanti's feast. I spent $6 per day on my groceries for those five days, meaning I bought a dozen eggs, a box of pasta and a bag of apples for the price of last week's sandwich.
This week was an exercise in cost and compromise, value and variety. I had enough to eat, and my stomach rarely disturbed my co-workers with its grumblings, but I didn't eat produce other than apples.
I ate three meals a day, but I didn't eat snacks outside of meals or prepare a single meal with more than two ingredients.
I boiled a lot of pasta and cooked even more eggs, but I didn't experiment in my kitchen with curry powder and strange sauces and flavor combinations the way I normally love to do.
I spent only 21 cents over my $30 budget, but I didn't eat out more than once, and the bagel sandwich I bought cost one-fifth of my total spending for the week. I resisted the Indian food and baked goods shared by my roommates and co-workers, but I didn't gather with them around our kitchen table or the cookie tray.
If I never eat another egg again, I'll be happy. But not everyone has the luxury of returning to Greek yogurt and fruit for breakfast.
Even though my SNAP challenge is over, the challenges of living on food stamps are still very real for 161,787 people in Pittsburgh receiving SNAP benefits. Their challenge will continue through cravings and cutting coupons, bland meals and diets that aren't balanced.
As I look back on the past five days, I'm hungry for more than just chicken. I'm hungry for a more effective, nutritious solution to the food stamp program.
-- Megan Doyle
A lean week reminds me of normal bounty
Five days, $28.23, two grocery-laden crosstown trips on my bicycle, seven PB&J sandwiches, and an entire bottle of Valu Time Hot Sauce later, I have completed the SNAP Challenge.
Reflecting on my experience eating for a week on $6 a day, I must compare it with all of the weeks I have had so much more.
Born into a middle-class family, I have never relied on public assistance. My mother, up until my adolescence, didn't work and was able to prepare healthy meals for my family, while our income was sufficient to ensure we consistently ate organic foods.
This week, none of this was possible.
While I avoided relying on frozen, pre-made meals, I suffered from a serious lack of variety in my diet. I ate the same breakfast and lunch daily. While dinners varied to a certain degree, I struggled to create complete meals, featuring the vegetables or calcium-rich dairy products demanded by a healthy diet, in addition to the calorie-heavy base ingredients like rice and pasta.
I acknowledge the argument that food stamps are meant as a supplement to a person or family's income. Indeed, as a supplement, my $6 a day might have been enough. But in the far-too-frequent event that someone does not have another source of income to rely on, food stamps are positively insufficient.
-- Lee Purvey
First Published June 16, 2013 4:00 AM