Author: Damian Mendieta
In Southern California, where nothing but the sunshine is cheap, $4.50 doesn’t go very far. A Metro day pass, a gallon of premium gas, a Starbucks venti frappuccino, and a medium salad at the Marketplace all sport a $4.50 price tag. For single-person households in the United States, $4.50 is also the daily payout of the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (S.N.A.P.), known unofficially as the food stamp program.
So difficult is the task of eating well on food stamps that San Francisco filmmakers Yoav and Sarah Potash were compelled to record themselves trying for their 2010 documentary “Food Stamped.” In the film the couple attempts what they dub the “Food Stamp Challenge” — the arduous task of subsisting on just $4.50 a day.
As part of Food Justice Month this past October, Occidental’s Leadership Development group invited the Potashs to a screening of “Food Stamped” in Johnson Hall on Oct. 26. After the screening, the college unveiled its own first-annual Food Stamp Challenge.
For one week, starting Sunday, Oct. 30 and ending Saturday, Nov. 6, participants were to spend no more than $4.50 on food for the day. By agreeing to enter the challenge, they were forbidden from consuming food from a personal stock, taking handouts from friends and family or utilizing their meal plans. Using an online database of nutritional information, participants also had to plan out what types of foods to purchase in order to maintain a balanced diet of starches, proteins, fibers and vital fruits and vegetables. As an incentive, those who completed the challenge successfully were entered in a raffle for a $50 FLEX account prize.
Office of Student Life Assistant Director of Student Organizations and Leadership Development Justin Gerboc organized the Food Stamp Challenge. During the week, Gerboc maintained a blog on the College’s Food Justice Month website through which participants could comment on their experiences.
Before beginning the challenge, some participants expressed concern that their personal food budget of $80 per week, or approximately $11 a day, would be trimmed by more than half due to the challenge.
Other students expressed reservations over the required fingerprinting component of the challenge.
Until this fall, recipients of CalFresh, California’s own food stamp program, were required by state law to submit their fingerprints prior to receiving aid. Critics of the law characterized it as a way food stamp recipients were treated as criminals. In September, state legislators passed California Assembly Bill 6 (also known as the CalFresh Act of 2011), which eliminated the fingerprinting requirement. Last month Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill. For some, requiring fingerprints was just another form of injustice toward S.N.A.P. recipients; for others, it was simply a common procedure which many individuals go through to receive government aid or a job.
In order to make Occidental’s challenge more realistic, Food Stamp Challenge participants were also mandated to provide fingerprints to Campus Safety. Some students pulled out of the event due to their unease about giving their fingerprints. Others were fine with the protocol.
“I don’t think it is that big of a deal to require fingerprinting in order to receive state aid. I’ve been fingerprinted before and I understood that it was to guarantee that the tutoring program that I volunteered for received a high caliber of tutors,” participant Teresa Eilers (junior) said. “It’s fine for food stamp recipients to go through some work to receive aid.”
The reasons Occidental students gave for participating in the challenge varied. One participant, Devin Weil (sophomore), said she was interested because of her past experience learning about food justice through the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI). “Starting in my freshman year I began working in the garden through F.E.A.S.T. and Well Fed,” she said, “I gained an immense appreciation for the time and care it takes to grow great, nutritious food.”
Weil said she knew limiting her food intake would be difficult, especially in a college environment. “I will try not to be tempted by the free food that is offered by the school through hallspreads and my friends. This challenge is definitely not going to be easy and I foresee myself being very hungry throughout this week, but I will try not to crack under the pressure,” she wrote.
Eilers said her experience studying abroad in Kenya motivated her to attempt the Food Stamp Challenge. A typical breakfast in Kenya, she said, consists of white bread with margarine and a cup of chai tea. Eilers said that since she had grown accustomed to small, simple meals while abroad, she would be able to adjust to the challenge’s tight budget. “Studying abroad in Kenya last semester gave me a new perspective on how to eat cheaply,” she wrote.
U.E.P. major Morgan Flake (senior) pooled a week’s worth of food stamps to go grocery shopping at the beginning of the challenge. “I bought organic milk, organic yogurt, sliced turkey, vinegar, risotto, iceberg lettuce, apples, mozzarella, six bananas and broccoli for $23. I didn’t find it too difficult to limit my budget, but it will be a very boring week of meals,” she said. “It probably won’t be as much food or as much variety as I’m used to, but I was happy that I could still buy some organic foods that I don’t feel comfortable eating regular versions of.”
By day two, Flake reported that she was beginning to understand some of the hardships that S.N.A.P. recipients face. She explained that it was especially difficult one night when her friends went out to dinner and she couldn’t eat the same food as the rest of them. She said it made her notice how someone on food stamps might feel socially alienated. “It’s important to remain conscious of these effects when interacting with those around you,” Flake said.
Gerboc did not participate in the challenge, but he posted on the blog daily. His posts provided commentary from the perspective of someone who ate “normally” during the week. He relayed his experience of eating meals made up of foods that are typically too expensive for S.N.A.P. recipients to afford on a regular basis and noted that his own household of two tended to purchase more than the essentials. “We often prepare more food than is necessary,” Gerboc wrote.
ntary also riffed on the food security that most people have and take for granted. “It’s amazing how this week has really highlighted the luxury I have of being able to just stop and pick up some take-out,” Gerboc wrote. He added that having access to a virtually endless supply of food often means that much of it goes wasted. “As we wrapped up a meal, I realized we had just thrown out about half of the rice that was in each of our Panda Bowls,” Gerboc wrote. “That probably could have been two more servings of rice.”
Gerboc’s posts also discussed how food stamps could make pursuing a healthy lifestyle difficult. Gerboc said his weekly workouts would not be possible without his easy access to food. He consumes snacks between meals to supplement the energy he needs in order to stay in shape, but for people on food stamps, it would be difficult to snack throughout the stay and maintain a consistent workout schedule. Gerboc’s point is supported by numerous recent studies which show parallel trends in obesity among low-income individuals.
The Food Stamp Challenge forced participants to select meals on a low budget, but it also challenged participants to consider the lives of individuals who are dependent on food stamps. Hard labor and double shifts may be typical for low-income workers and keeping their energy up may prove difficult if they perform arduous activities at work.
By the sixth day, some participants noticed that with careful budget management, eating healthy on $4.50 a day wasn’t completely impossible. “I think I’ve been eating healthy enough,” Eilers said. “I didn’t really have enough money to buy meat, but I think it’s fine to be mainly vegetarian.” She said she hoped S.N.A.P. was not the sole source of income allocated for food for food stamp users.
Although there were a few minor slip-ups here and there by some participants, most stuck to the S.N.A.P. budget for the entire challenge. As the seventh and final day came to a close, participants reflected on their week.
Eilers said she refused to let her roommate purchase food for her at a nearby taco truck one day in the week. “I said no, and she said that she was impressed that I’m staying true to the challenge. The week has been a challenge but doable,” she said. “If I had to purchase everything I ate with food stamps, I would be able to survive.”
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