My problem with the food stamp challenge

I’ve been seeing more friends, classmates and organizations talk about doing the “Food Stamp Challenge.” The challenge consists of trying to eat on an average food stamp allocation, which is $4.50 per day for an individual. According to an email sent out by Catholic Charities Walla Walla, and forwarded to the volunteer listserv at Whitman, the reason for doing this is summarized as follows: “Through this experience we can educate ourselves as to what it means to eat on $4.50 a day, raise awareness in the community, and, in the long term, build understanding that could lead to better programs to assist low-income families.”

I want to be clear: I think the intentions of people participating in this challenge are good (otherwise, there would be no point in writing a critique). Presumably, the goal is that people who participate in this challenge will gain some first-hand awareness that eating on $4.50 a day is hard and spread that awareness to friends and family,¬†ultimately¬†leading to better food policy. Given what I’ve seen of the challenge rules and its marketing, though, I think the net result is more likely to be further depriving low-income people of voice and agency in public policy.

First of all, framing something as a “challenge” and encouraging participants to connect via social media and share stories and recipes with each other makes eating on a food stamp budget sound fun. It probably is fun to do for a week if you’re middle or upper class and don’t normally have to pay that much attention to what you eat. But anyone who has been poor for a significant length of time can tell you that rationing food, skipping meals so you can afford rent or forgoing food so your kids can eat is not fun. There’s nothing glamorous about it. There’s no Facebook page, no support network of people swapping recipes. It’s not a “challenge,” in the fun, reality-TV-esque sense of the word. It’s just survival, and you won’t get any recognition from your friends or family for doing something cool and edgy by making your food budget last for the entire month.

Secondly, the rules and set-up of the challenge make it unlikely to be a very accurate simulation of eating as a low-income person. Rule #3 states that, “During the Challenge, eat only food that you purchase for the project. Do not eat food that you already own (this does not include spices and condiments).” The thing is, spices and condiments are a huge part of what makes food palatable and versatile. They’re cheap in a per-serving sense, but having the capital required to buy a decent set of basic spices is not a luxury that a lot of folks have. It’s way easier to cook healthy, nutritious and diverse foods if you have access to flavorings. Aside from this, lack of money is only one of many reasons why low-income folks often aren’t able to eat healthy food. Time is another huge constraint.

Eating on $4.50 a day is actually pretty easy if you have the knowledge, education and time to cook dried beans from stratch, as my friend Josh discovered. And cooking like that becomes hard, if not impossible, when you’re working multiple jobs, have to provide childcare, are chronically ill or have any number of other life circumstances that many low-income people do. At best, this means the experiences of people trying this challenge won’t be representative of a typical person on food stamps. At worse, this will mean people who try this or hear about others trying it will conclude that it’s not actually that hard to live on food stamps at all.

Finally, and most importantly, I’m sick of the notion that privileged people have to try something themselves in order to see how bad it is. Thousands of people who are actually low-income can and have addressed the fact that our social safety net is insufficient, that food stamps don’t provide enough for people to buy healthy foods, and that there are dozens of other factors which play into food security and access to healthy foods besides income. Everything I’ve written on this post has been said before by people who know far better than I do what it’s actually like to be poor. And too often, the lived experiences of people are ignored in favor of gimmicky “challenges” like this, where people who have never gone hungry a day in their lives suddenly become experts on food policy and the problems with food stamps. Last I checked, which was a few years ago, almost 1 in 8 Americans were on food stamps. There are enough people who have actually dealt with this system to speak to how it works. We don’t need more people to try food stamps before we can take action or make policy about hunger or poverty in this country.

I understand the impulse to try something firsthand to learn more about it. But if you’re going to do the food stamp challenge, don’t act like your experience is a meaningful indication of what a person in poverty actually experiences when trying to eat. And if you’re really determined to solve the issue of hunger in America, pay attention to the next Farm Bill negotiations and call your representatives to tell them not to cut funding for food stamps. Challenge the rhetoric that people relying on food stamps are parasitic, lazy and good-for-nothing. Object to the fact that proposed immigration reform bills won’t allow undocumented immigrants waiting in line for legalization access to social services. Pay attention to the policy and rhetoric that actually shapes the food options that poor people in the U.S. have, and do more than just spending a week eating bulk beans and granola.