In Chicago, during the week leading up to Thanksgiving and Chanukah, more than a dozen volunteers participated in the Jewish Community SNAP Challenge. Participants pledged to live on just $31.50 for an entire week, the equivalent of $1.50 per meal, the average food budget of a food stamp recipient. While not all participants were able to adhere to all of the requirements of the Challenge, all emerged with a better understanding of what life is like for millions of Americans living on food stamps. Through the SNAP Challenge, participants found a meaningful way to demonstrate their personal commitment to understanding hunger in the United States.
The Chicago community will take on the Jewish Community SNAP Challenge again on March 7-13, 2014, as part of the JUF Hunger Awareness Project. Read on to learn about the experiences of four of the participants who took on the Challenge this past fall.
To learn more about the SNAP Challenge and other hunger-related programs, visit www.juf.org/hunger. You can also email Stephanie Sklar, director of Domestic Affairs for the Jewish United Fund's Jewish Community Relations Council, at JCRC1@juf.org or call (312) 357-4770. For more frequent updates, follow @ChicagoJCRC on Twitter.
From Awareness Comes Action
By Ellen Hattenbach
Hunger is everywhere, from grocery stores desperately trying to fill local food pantries, to victims of natural disasters with nothing to eat, to those down on their luck with no income and children to feed, to the elderly who desperately need our help. Hunger transcends geography, race, religion, gender, education, and even class.
But while hunger is everywhere, the solution is right here too. There is sufficient food in America and in Chicago to feed all. As Jews, we are commanded to let all who are hungry come eat. We are commanded to end hunger.
As chair of the JUF Hunger Awareness Project, I agreed to take on the Jewish Community SNAP Challenge.
In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, I had to radically change the way my family ate. Grocery shopping for three of us for under $95 to last a whole week was not easy. Scouting for on-sale items and using coupons was a must, but we still couldn't afford meat or kosher products. To meet the budget restriction, I skipped breakfast altogether.
Lunch posed a different set of challenges. While business lunches were usually quite lavish, the SNAP Challenge denied me this luxury. Instead, I browned-bagged my lunch and drank water.
For dinner, my family ate small portions with no seconds. Needless to say, our pantry felt paltry.
Socially, I felt more isolated. No Shabbat dinner with friends. No dinner out on Saturday night. No girl-talk over lattes at Starbucks. I attended an event at Spertus but I couldn't eat. I imagined what a mother on food stamps would say if she were there, "May I have a container to go? I need to feed my child."
And then came Thanksgiving. How can anyone serve a Thanksgiving meal for under $15? I knew that if I were on food stamps, I would have had to seek out free food at a food pantry, such as EZRA Multi-Service Center or The ARK. People who look just like me must do just that.
Participating in the SNAP Challenge left me with a heightened sensitivity to the hunger pains, isolation, humiliation, and sadness that those who are hungry experience daily. Taking the Challenge is only a start to understanding a situation that must end. First comes understanding, and then comes action.
Let's set the table together, keep our hungry neighbors nourished, and let all who are hungry come eat.
Ellen Hattenbach is theChair of the JUF Hunger Awareness Project, a JCRC Vice Chair for Domestic Affairs and is theDirector of Strategic Marketing at Frost, Ruttenberg & Rothblatt, P.C.
The SNAP Challenge in Challenging Times
Food generosity is grounded in the goodness of the world. So, why is it that SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, was cut in November and will likely be cut again? One reason is that spending for SNAP has grown over the past four years as more Americans became poor. Also, the Farm Bill, including SNAP, is up for reauthorization this year and has become a target for budget hawks. Finally, there is a public perception that the program is too generous.
I am testing out that theory by taking on the Jewish Community SNAP Challenge.
A week on the SNAP Challenge means shopping in the neighborhoods where the only available discount grocery stores are stocked with sad vegetables and junk food. I would have had to skip my stockpile of coffee beans, wine, and frozen chocolate chip cookies, a dinner party, and two work-related meals.
Shopping for a family of three on a weekly budget of $94.50 ($31.50 per person) equated to rice, potatoes, oil, generic peanut butter, mac and cheese boxes, frozen OJ, milk, eggs, cheap bread, and elderly-looking carrots. Dinner is built around what the Dining section of the newspaper calls comfort dishes. Six days into SNAP, we are gaining weight. Maybe that is why so many people coming out of the discount grocery store are obese. And yet at times, I'm still hungry because I can't afford a snack in between small meals.
My dad grew up poor in the Depression. He never talked about those days, though it seemed to be the reason he always chose the cheaper option: a secondhand car or a small house with one bathroom. But his cardinal rule was never to skimp on food. For him, being rich meant rich enough to buy whatever food he wanted.
The almost 48 million children, seniors, disabled, and working poor Americans who rely on SNAP will never be "rich enough" as long as they depend on SNAP. Even in families where the adults are working full time, SNAP isn't enough because their food allotment is carefully ratcheted down for every extra dollar earned. And even with SNAP benefits, many families run out of food early in the month, which means one or two weeks of food pantries, soup kitchens, and empty stomachs every month.
Food insecurity, buried deep in their consciousness, will always be part of their psyche, just as it was for my dad.
Those who say that the SNAP program is too generous should try it for a week.
Suzanne Strassberger is theAssociate Vice President for Government & Community Partnerships at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Taking the SNAP Challenge as a Team
By Mark Cahill & Lindsey Bissett
Mark and Lindsey, a local couple, decided to take the SNAP Challenge together. Here is what they had to say about the experience:
Mark: Lindsey and I are both creative, pragmatic, and thoroughly enjoy cooking. When you combine these particulars, you will understand our approach to the SNAP Challenge. To us, the most practical and cheapest way to meet this challenge would be to buy nothing pre-made and make multi-purpose items ourselves. In addition to keeping our costs down, it also meant our meals were a little healthier. With flour, which is cheap, we could make loaves of bread, pizza dough, soups and stews.
Lindsey: Mark makes this sound so perfect! He failed to mention that he'd never made bread before without a machine. I actually looked at the finished loaf and said, "Oh, you're not going to bake it?" But that was it, a flat disc of… bread?
Mark: Had we bought only a loaf of sandwich bread, we would have been out twice the amount of money, with an item that had only one use.
Lindsey: But our taste buds would have remained intact.
Mark: At the end of the week, we found that we were actually quite successful. However, we also knew that we were very fortunate, since we knew how to make these meals and were a short walk from affordable and healthy food.
Lindsey: There was only one day where I found myself hungry, but I didn't want to overeat and then not have enough another time, or then be eating a portion of Mark's food. So I was really hungry and cranky. During the week, I made several sacrifices, like declining a lunch invitation with friends, and not grabbing a coffee in the afternoon, but to truly not be able to do those "simple" things all the time was unfathomable for me.
Mark: Despite what we thought was a success, we still felt a bit psychologically drained. The largest take away from the experience was that it - outside of work - consumed the majority of our day. We spent all evening chopping and stirring and then thinking about what we'd make the next day. We spent an entire weekend afternoon baking bread. One week of living off the average food stamp budget was an interesting challenge, but after that it's just a burden. Neither of us could imagine doing it all the time, like the millions of Americans on food stamps do every single day.
Lindsey Bissett is an Associate Production Manager for JUF News Publications. Mark Cahill is an Architectural Designer at Kaufman O'Neil Architecture.