ELKHART — Close to 27,600 people in Elkhart County rely on food stamps to get them from day to day. For a week, I was one of them.
At the beginning of December, I read online that Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., would be living off of $30 of groceries for a week as part of the Food Stamp Challenge, a campaign to bring attention to the struggles of millions of low-income Americans who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. I was intrigued, but I thought it couldn’t be that difficult, or could it?
The average monthly food stamp benefits for a person living in Elkhart County is $130.09, according to the latest figures from the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. That adds up to about $30 for a week, or slightly more than $4 per day. The Food Stamp Challenge has a few rules:
Ÿ All food purchased and eaten during the week must be included in the total spending. This includes fast food and meals at restaurants.
Ÿ No shopping in your own kitchen. Only eat food purchased for the project, meaning you can’t eat any food that you already have at home, except for spices and condiments.
Ÿ Avoid accepting free food from friends, family or at work.
Ÿ Follow SNAP guidelines for eligible foods: No alcohol or tobacco products, no prepared meals that can be eaten at the grocery store and no non-food items like pet food, medicine or hygiene products.
My trip to the grocery store took a lot longer than I thought it would. I bounced from aisle to aisle, comparing prices and crossing foods off my list after I realized they wouldn’t fit into my modest budget. I ended up spending $28.73 on ingredients to make bean and veggie soup, bread, peanut butter, potatoes, a couple of apples and a few other miscellaneous things.
Just a couple of days into the challenge, I knew it would not be an easy week. The monotony of eating soup every day was frustrating, and I was not allowed to grab a cup of coffee on my way to work or satisfy midday chocolate cravings.
Throughout the week, I saw comments from readers on my blog on etruth.com and Facebook about people who abuse the system, buying premium-cut steaks and even selling unused SNAP benefits. On the other side, I also received comments from people who said they depend heavily on food stamps just to survive.
A week on food stamps was not nearly long enough for me to completely understand what it’s like to rely on them day after day, but the point of the challenge isn’t to show that it can be done. This is an everyday reality for more than 40 million Americans who not only face the hardship of putting food on the table for their families but also worry about scraping up enough money to pay rent and fill up their cars with gas to get to work.
If anything came out of this experience, I hope the Food Stamp Challenge started a conversation in our community about poverty and hunger. After all, if no one is talking about it, who is going to listen?