Hunger Awareness Project

Taking the SNAP Challenge as a Team

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Mark and Lindsey

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.


From Awareness Comes Action

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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 the Chair of the JUF Hunger Awareness Project, a JCRC Vice Chair for Domestic Affairs and is the Director of Strategic Marketing at Frost, Ruttenberg & Rothblatt, P.C.


The SNAP Challenge in Challenging Times

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By Suzanne Strassberger 

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 the Associate Vice President for Government & Community Partnerships at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.


SNAP Challenge All For Naught. NOT.

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By Ellen Hattenbach

November 4, 2013


While my friends are training for the Chicago Marathon, an admirable feat to say the least, I undertook a different type of challenge: "The SNAP Challenge".

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as Food Stamps, enables nearly 47 million low-income Americans to access food they otherwise would not be able to afford.

This past September, which was Hunger Action Month, I decided to take The SNAP Challenge, which gives participants the unpalatable taste of life that thousands of low-income Chicagoans endure. The average SNAP benefit for an individual in Illinois results in living on just $35 worth of food and beverage over an entire week. Yes, $5 a day. That's what most of us spend on our morning venti skinny lattes. So like any conscientious citizen, I thought the SNAP Challenge would be just that…a snap. And away I went.

But just like the enthusiast who signs up to run a marathon and thinks he/she can complete 26.2 miles on Day 1 of training, I fell short of reaching the finish line. Sure, I started out strong and determined, but quickly hit some unanticipated bumps and stormy weather. I discovered that taking the SNAP Challenge requires advance training and conditioning, a luxury that 1 of 6 hungry Americans don't have.

So where did the hurdles arise? Not with the grocery shopping. For a family of 3, I spent only $95 ($10 under the Challenge allotment). I even resisted stopping at Panera for my daily coffee. So how could I not cross the finish line?

When I made the decision to take the SNAP Challenge for one week, I did not build into the calendar my already-scheduled business lunches and dinners, a rare and precious visit from out-of-town cousins, and the Break Fast I had planned for 14 people (the lox alone put me well over the daily stipend). So, the SNAP challenge beat me 3 out of the 7 days.

But on the 4 days I could comply, I will confess that living on $5 opened my eyes in way even fasting on Yom Kippur could not compete. Stomach burning, light-headedness, shaky and irritable before my next meal…my first attempt was ­not "all for naught". It may not have been marathon training, but it certainly was sensitivity training for what a hungry child or yearning mom or humiliated dad feels like living on a mere $5 per day.

So now what? Well, just because I did not accomplish this round of the SNAP Challenge does not mean I won't try again. I am committed to live on $35 for one week. However, I will have to plan a week when I don't have to schedule business meals, host holiday dinners, or entertain guests in my home. Wouldn't it be great if our hungry neighbors could schedule their hunger too?

Please join me in taking The SNAP Challenge (formerly known as the Food Stamp Challenge) on Nov. 20-27, 2013 and March 7-14, 2014 which gives participants a view of what life can be like for millions of low-income Americans living on a food stamp budget of less than $5 per day. As part of the JUF Hunger Awareness Project, a year-long initiative to raise awareness and mobilize volunteers in the area of hunger and food insecurity, the Chicago Jewish community is committing to taking on the SNAP Challenge. Join us to today and sign up at

Ellen Hattenbach is the JCRC Vice Chair for Domestic Affairs and is the Director of Strategic Marketing at Frost, Ruttenberg & Rothblatt, P.C. This article also appears in the November issue of JUF News.

Feed Chicago

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By Adam Hyman

October 9, 2013

Hunger Awareness

What was I thinking? It is 7:00 am on a rainy, overcast, Sunday morning. I manage to drag myself out of bed, doubting the wisdom of the commitment I made weeks prior to participate in a noble, city-wide hunger relief campaign coordinated by JUF, yet at the same time, determined to resist the seductive beckoning of my oh-so-soft mattress, urging me to remain horizontal, luxuriate under the covers, and outright flake. What impact will my presence and small contribution to this effort really have, in any case? Will it matter one iota that I'm there?

I try to dispel these second thoughts while in transport to the location where I join two other volunteers to cook breakfast and serve the occupants of a local homeless shelter. It would be the grossest of understatements to say that my repertoire in the kitchen is limited. In all frankness, even in my own kitchen, I'm quite simply out of my element, highly likely to botch any dish that cannot be cooked by toaster or hot water, and in need of Google maps to navigate my way around and locate the necessary utensils. But, fate smiled upon me this morning; I was to be on egg duty! That I could handle. After all, as a perennial bachelor, I'd subsisted on eggs for years, made them not only my breakfast, but even dinner on countless occasions. I think I have a pretty good way with a spatula. Buoyed by my capacity to contribute something of actual substance, a sense of calm settles over me as I don my apron, and get to cracking those shells. I feel my participation is now justified.

Mission accomplished, my fellow volunteers and I cheerfully begin serving the occupants, each one of whom expresses appreciation for our modest effort. Each has a story and I'm curious to know it. I want to relate. Have a meaningful interaction. Make a human connection of some sort. Move beyond the formalities. Attempting to do just that, after everyone is served, I help myself to an apple, sit down at one of the tables and strike up a conversation with the others around me. The three of them share remarkable and poignant personal stories and when they conclude, I say to them – quite sincerely, that I had not expected to meet such interesting people this morning. On the heels of my comment, a man behind me at one of the other tables utters something to the effect of, "There's plenty more where that came from." Then he proceeds to supply that plenty. Without disclosing any details that could reveal his identity, let's just say he is highly educated and considerably accomplished in the realm of academia - a former volunteer himself, who recently experienced a severe health crisis and consequently, found himself in dire straits.

As I finally take my leave that morning, it is with the acute awareness that under different circumstances, I could be in his position; that sometimes all that separates the well-off from the indigent is the impact from the unpredictable winds of misfortune.

It did matter I was there. To me.

Adam Hyman is an entrepreneur who, in addition to his involvement with JUF's Young Leadership Division and Feed Chicago, participated in the first TOV Hurricane Sandy Relief Mission this past December.

Feeding the Soul of Chicago

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By Erin Esko

October 17, 2013

soup kitchen

It was an exceptionally rainy night in Chicago. Guests sought shelter from the weather in the lobby or doorway. Ten volunteers from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago arrived at the Marquard Center soup kitchen, a Feed Chicago volunteer activity, part of the JUF Hunger Awareness Project. This project is a year-long initiative to raise awareness and mobilize volunteers in the area of hunger and food insecurity. The JUF Hunger Awareness Project not only includes volunteer opportunities at soup kitchens, but also offers a variety of activities at various agencies throughout Chicago and nationwide.

We, the volunteers, committed our time because we believed in the project's cause. We wanted to make a difference. If 1 in 6 Americans go to bed hungry each night, then perhaps tonight we could devote some of our time to an organization committed to changing that unfortunate statistic. The Marquard Center in Bucktown, as part of the Franciscan Outreach Association, offers dinner service 365 days of the year. That rainy night was no exception. We served around 100 guests. The staff at the Marquard Center welcomed us with open arms, smiles and grace. They had prepared all of the food and we were prepared to serve it, clean the tables, reset the tables, greet guests and fill water glasses. Each guest was treated with respect and the guests treated us in the same way. Just as the center opens its doors to guests from all over, the volunteers were from all sides of the Chicagoland area.

We did not know each other before that night. However, by the end, we were bonded: laughing together, telling stories, helping one another. As the night came to a close and the last guests receded back into the night, so too did us volunteers, surprised to find that the rain had passed. We felt good about having done our part, but understood there was more work to be done.

Erin Esko is currently in nursing school and is working with TOV to plan a volunteer project for her fellow nursing students. Feed Chicago was actually her first JUF event!

Legislators join JCFS/Federation roundtable on hunger

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By Suzanne Strassberger, Associate Vice President, Government & Community Partnerships

August 19, 2013


“This is a very personal issue,” said U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth to a large group of suburban human-service providers in Arlington Heights, “because I was hungry as a child.” Her father struggled for four years, she said, to find a job when she was growing up in Hawaii.

“We lived on food stamps and school lunches.”

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz joined Duckworth at the Aug. 19 roundtable, convened by Jewish Child & Family Services and the Jewish Federation's Government Affairs Committee. They and representatives of several social service agencies came to hear about hunger and poverty among their constituents.

“We see domestic violence victims at risk of returning to their abusers because they can’t feed their children, underemployed and unemployed adults, the elderly, and divorced single parents not receiving child support,” said Amy Rubin, Director of Community Services for JCFS. The JCFS office in Arlington Heights partners with Temple Chai in Long Grove to secure food for clients through the synagogue's food pantry.

This year, the Jewish Federation is sponsoring the JUF Hunger Awareness Project to raise awareness and mobilize volunteers in the area of hunger and food insecurity.

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