Hunger Awareness Project

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.

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