The ACAA 2012 SNAP Challenge was created by ACAA and participants were drawn primarily from ACAA staff and our Board of Directors. This is an archive of posts from the 2010 Challenge.
If you are interested in viewing our 2010 SNAP Challenge blog, please visit http://acaachallenge.wordpress.com/
SNAP as Social Insurance
Americans are quite risk-averse and we love to have insurance. We spend thousands of dollars every year on all types of insurance: health insurance, life insurance, car insurance, renter’s insurance, professional liability insurance, flood and fire insurance, travel insurance. We buy warranties on our MacBooks, our cars, and our phones. Some people even have health insurance for their pets. The list goes on. The purpose of insurance is to smooth consumption over time and over different states. We want to enjoy a relatively consistent quality of life, even when unexpected, costly things happen to us. In order to maintain that consistency, we’re willing to pay a smaller, regular amount of money ahead of time for use in the event that, God forbid, the dreaded thing occurs. We join with lots of other people to do this so that a third party can apply the law of large numbers and accurately estimate the risk and the expected payout. The third-party conveners, insurance companies, tend to make some money on the deal because we are incredibly risk averse, but basically, this is how insurance programs of all types work.
Though we may not always think of it this way, the government is one of the great insurance providers in this country. The government provides Medicare and Social Security, insurance against outliving your saved resources. Unemployment, insurance against the event that you’re temporarily without work. Disability, insurance against the event that you are permanently without work due to a debilitating condition. The “social safety net” in the US is actually made up of a large number of social insurance programs. The government usually takes on a social insurance program when private provision fails in some way; the premiums are mandatory taxes and the payout is available to anyone who finds him or herself in the adverse state (read: becomes “eligible” for benefits).
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) is one such social insurance program. We, taxpayers, pay into the system so that, in the unlikely event that our household resources are cut, we can still eat. We pay a small premium for the program in taxes and, in exchange, we are eligible to receive a payout in the adverse state. We are legally entitled to receive this assistance from the government because we are legally required to pay taxes.
It is curious to me, then, that there is so much stigma around the use of SNAP benefits. We do not look down on people who send in claims to their health insurance companies to pay for doctors visits. We would not begrudge a family their homeowner’s insurance check after their house burned to ashes. We don’t hesitate to send our Apples back to the factory when the screen cracks or the fan makes a strange-sounding whirr. In fact, we feel entitled to do these things because we bought insurance. We paid in, we should get the pay out. In fact, I would venture to say that we would think a friend unwise if he paid for those repairs out of pocket while he had a warranty on file. The gift of social insurance is that, as citizens and taxpayers, we always have a warranty on file in the event that something should happen.
Almost all able bodied adults have, at some time, paid something in the “system” and therefore deserve to reap the benefits of that contribution. It is high time that we stop treating SNAP users as anything less than rational, responsible, proud individuals who know their rights and expect, like we all do, for our government to make good on its legal obligation to protect us from the worst-case scenario. We are all insured; we need to stop judging and villifying those who seek to call on that insurance for help.
My ideas about food stamps before the challenge were minimal. I, luckily, did not have to think about how they affected ME or my family. I knew many of the families we served were using food stamps and that many more of them qualified than were enrolled.
When presented with the challenge, I was pretty confident our family could do it as we had a food budget and had usually eaten pretty healthy. Well, we did it, but not without a lot of thinking, planning, rethinking and not going out….something that has become our “treat” to ourselves.
Since the challenge I have a heightened awareness about how easy it is for me to just go buy what I want, eat what I want and not worry. That is no longer the case. I am MUCH more cognizant of others’ struggles in this area and I am more mindful of what I spend and eat.
When I committed to participate in the Food Stamp Challenge I thought, no big deal I like beans and rice, I can stretch my food budget and make this work. What I learned was how far out of touch I was with the reality many of our clients face every day. I spend an amazing amount of money on “luxury food items”, those things which do not necessarily nourish my body but I have become accustomed to the taste or convenience of the items. I also realized much of my social life revolves around food. I meet friends over lunch to visit, my kids will call and ask me to meet them for coffee, and when I am tired and headed home after a long day at work I would rather go out to eat than shop and prepare a nutritious meal on $2.50. Things I learned about myself; I am cranky when I do not get the food I am accustomed to, I depend on comfort foods to see me through challenging times, and I am not a skilled bargain shopper. I am glad I took the challenge and will encourage others to do the same.
Shift of Views
Before starting my internship with ACAA I hadn’t given much thought to what the SNAP program actually provides to the individuals and families that are using it. Overall I viewed the benefits as a positive way to maintain a healthy diet. My views quickly shifted as I began to think about personally experiencing a week on a Food Stamp budget. My thoughts about maintaining a healthy diet throughout the week went out of my mind when I was going through the grocery store. I found myself choosing foods that I knew would last longer and make me feel fuller, and they were not necessarily the best for me. My experience made me realize that it is extremely difficult for families that are on Food Stamps to maintain a healthy diet.
I also thought about how difficult it would be for families that were on their own without other supports. Thinking back to when I was growing up, I cannot remember a time that I was hungry or went without a meal. My mom was a single parent who worked at least two jobs to support my sister and me. I can remember shopping with my mom at a place similar to a food bank in Iowa. Looking back, my grandparents were a huge support for us and I don’t know what we would have done without them. We would often go over to their house for family dinners throughout the week. Now I realize that that support must have been a huge help to my mom and one of the reasons that prevented her from having to apply for food stamps. In trying to connect my experience I realized that many of the families that are on Food Stamps do not necessarily have the support system that I did so they are not able to receive free dinners throughout the week. I am truly humbled by the families that do whatever they can to feed their children.
Throughout the week I was surprised about the amount of money that I typically spend on meals, and the number of times that I go out to eat or have food provided for me. As a student I am constantly on the go between school, my internship, and work so I typically take the ‘easy route’ and grab something to eat between running around and it most definitely adds up. I was almost embarrassed about the amount of money that I would typically spend and the things that I would eat. I especially noticed a difference in my eating habits on the days that I wouldn’t have any food with me and I became hungry. Instead of walking to the restaurant or vending machine I would wait until I got home to eat my food that I was able to purchase for the week. This experience helped me open my eyes to what it is like for a person who is not able to take the ‘easy route’ and what they may through. I also realized just how much extra time and effort has to go into shopping and planning so that people have food when they get hungry. Although I feel like I was able to experience what it was like to be on Food Stamps for a week, I don’t think that I have anywhere near the understanding about what the Food Stamp participants truly go through day in and day out. I am truly thankful for the experience and I hope that I can use my new awareness to better serve families that I come in contact with throughout my future.
As I mentioned when I first began planning for this event, I immediately put myself in a place of scarcity. I knew I would have to “go without” certain foods and experiences, I knew that I would likely get hungry at times during the week, and I knew that when I shopped, I would go for the cheapest items possible, and likely not eat healthy meals.
I found myself upset and sometimes angry that this level of funding is thought to be appropriate for an individual to live on for a week — and I spent the $30, not the $21. I did have some food left, and was ultimately surprised that if I made meals that lasted a while, I could get by fairly comfortably. However, I did get bored with those meals – white chicken chili is good once or twice during the winter, but daily for a week is a bit much.
I had occasional thoughts about just quitting the Challenge – but didn’t.
While I don’t consider myself a “foodie” by any stretch of the imagination, I did miss going out to eat, I missed an occasional glass of wine, and I missed the social interaction that takes place around eating.
However, and more importantly, this exercise made me face a number of issues.
· I do not ever want to be in the situation that would require me to be on food stamps, for that would mean that I would have much more going on in my life than not being able to eat and drink in a manner I choose.
· I feel reinvigorated about developing some strategy to help members of our community understand the plight of the low-income, and feel some empathy and then support for them as valuable individuals deserving of an opportunity to become “successful” or return to a life of success/abundance.
· I also feel reinvigorated about how to change opinions and destroy the myths about families in poverty. I am not ignorant to the fact that in any system (look at banking) there are those who take advantage and manipulate their circumstance. However, they are the minority and need to be dealt with appropriately. Those who are honest and living by the rules deserve our trust, our respect and our friendship and support.
· We all have a lot of work to do, in what appear to be difficult times – a $1.3 billion state budget deficit. But persevere we must, and succeed we must.
My thanks to Heidi, Marie and Katie for their work to make this Challenge happen and to bring this experience to ACAA. My thanks also to those of you who participated.
I am truly grateful to you all for the work you do every day and the interest you have in making Arizona a place where everyone can Thrive.
During a difficult time in my life and my family’s, food stamps were a true blessing. It was a relief to know I did not have to worry about where my family’s next meal was going to come from. There were other things as head of household of a low income family I had to worry about for example: paying rent, utility bills, clothes and etc. While being on food stamps, I knew in my heart that it would only be temporary. I knew this was not the ultimate plan for me and my family. Although I am no longer eligible to receive food stamps due to becoming a full-time employee, we as a family still live on a food stamp budget. My children are enrolled in the reduce lunch program at their schools. I do though have a little more freedom to purchase what I want to purchase instead of having to limit myself. The food stamp challenge reminded me that God is definitely moving me glory to glory. I was once on food stamps and, yes, although I am still on a food stamp budget I am still moving forward.
During the challenge I realized that shopping for one was more difficult and more boring. For example, as a family you are able to pull your money together so you have more options. It was also refreshing to witness others’ willingness to do the challenge and gain an understanding of the people they serve. Thanks to all of you who participated!
Thoughts on the SNAP Challenge
People with medical issues must have a hard time meeting their nutritional needs like me who has diabetes
I forgot one day & went out to lunch & that put me behind on budget!!!!
I do not make grocery lists or budget my food so this was a wake up call on how much I really spend!! It is better not just to go up & down the aisles throwing anything you want in the cart. They must really have to be careful.
There are lots of items you cannot buy with SNAP that you need on a regular basis
Meal planning made a difference
No impulse buying was really hard!!!
I was coming back on vacation the first day & airport food was expensive & fast food was cheapest but not the best nutritionally.
I found it is easier to buy economically for a larger group than one?
My overall impression of this “challenge” made me respect their ability to feed their families on this limited budget but we are failing them on their health
Challenge Week Reflection
Pick up the pear and feel the weight of it in my hand.
Put the pear back on the shelf.
Pull out the spinach, notice it’s wilting around the edges, and decide it’s salvageable.
Take pear out again and decide half of it, sliced, will be enough of a salad topping.
Package second half in plastic baggie and wish I could eat it.
Add a handful of grapes, cottage cheese and dressing.
Wish I had some protein to add.
Eat salad and notice that I am still hungry. As in: as I finish the last bite I can still feel my stomach growling which is no doubt a cumulative effect of not having enough to ever really feel satisfied all week.
It’s like this at every meal for seven days. Every time I open the fridge or the pantry, I am mentally calculating out my choices to try to determine which one is smartest. Which one will maximize my food most effectively? How can I stretch two pears and two bananas so that I have some fruit every day? Should I eat the celery in egg salad, or dipped in peanut butter? If I have the corn tonight, am I really going to regret that choice come Saturday? Is there any way around this persistent headache and the gnaw in my belly that seems to have found me sometime Tuesday afternoon and hung around all week?
Every decision during Challenge week has felt momentous. It took me 40 minutes of grocery shopping (alone, because if my two kids had been with me it would have easily taken me twice as long) to spend twenty one dollars and twelve cents. Forty minutes of walking up and down aisles, selecting a food I like that was a good price, and then seeing how many other foods I liked at a good price I could match it with to get the most meals from the least ingredients. I put several things back. I chose packaged over fresh more than once. I left out meat (thank goodness I am nearly vegetarian so I didn’t miss them too much) and dairy, save for some eggs and fat free cottage cheese. I sacrificed volume for healthfulness and while it’s not a decision I regretted, it is one I doubt I would make week after week if I was on Nutrition Assistance benefits. There was some sort of smug satisfaction in being able to eat healthy foods for $21 a week at first. There was a pride in the nutritious foods and absence of junk or filler.
And then, by Thursday, the smug satisfaction was gone and replaced by regret that I hadn’t found a way to buy something – anything – that would feel like a ‘splurge’. I turned down free food several times. I went to dinner with family and pulled out a baggie of cut celery and a plastic container of peanut butter, and washed it down with water while they ate wings and nachos and lush salads tossed with bright and beautiful strawberries and golden pecans, dripping in sinfully mouthwatering dressing and accompanied by a steaming hot piece of bread so slathered in garlic I could still smell the smell when I went to bed hours later. And as the weekend approached, my positive attitude waned.
By Thursday night, I was dreading the weekend.
By Friday, I was feeling depressed. Heavy on my mind were thoughts of all the things that would change in my life if I had to live like this every week. The times I would have to say no to my kids or send them to bed knowing their blooming muscles and growing bones had not received enough nourishment that day and their bellies would be growling them to sleep. The every day pressure of worrying whether we’d have enough food to last the day…the week…the month. Saying no to an ice cream cone on a Saturday afternoon or an invitation to the State Fair (because who wants to go there and just have water?) or a leisurely breakfast of piping hot pancakes topped with a scoop of whipped butter and drenched in heavenly maple syrup all served with a fresh cup of coffee. Yes, by the time Friday had arrived I was feeling sorry for myself. I was almost feeling a bit depressed about the whole thing.
I realize this sounds trite. I realize that this was one week of my life, and that many people live with more difficult circumstances than I did, but they are not pretending. And so I worry when I tell people that this was my experience that I am coming off as elitist and priveleged and totally out of touch with the true experience of a family struggling to put food on the table.
That doesn’t make the way this Challenge made me feel any less real. This Challenge, for me, was not pretending for a week. I put myself in the shoes of someone receiving Nutrition Assistance as well as I could, and as a result by Thursday I was feeling helpless and sad.
We hear a lot of rhetoric about ‘those people’ on Nutrition Assistance. We hear about how ‘they’ are lazy. Fat. On drugs. Selling their benefits for a carton of cigarettes or a 12 pack. Living off the system. Not contributing to society. I always wonder with that last one whether a person might be deemed a better contributor to society when they have the inability to eat.
What we don’t hear is this: ‘They’re our mothers. Fathers. Sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles. Your grandma. Your neighbor. Maybe your co-worker or even your best friend. Some of them got there, to a place where they are putting food in the fridge thanks to Nutrition Assistance, by way of hard luck. Some got there by way of generational poverty. Some were born into it and some fell into it. And of course it’s also true that for some, a bad decision got them where they are.
We talk a lot about the choices people make. The choices we perceive them to have made which no doubt (we say) got them in this situation in the first place. We love a good Cinderella story in this nation. We want to hear that this little girl was born into nothing, got pregnant at 16, dropped out of high school and then, through sheer hard work and nothing short of that, pulled herself up by her bootstraps and made good. And now? Now she’s running an inner-city school and keeping kids off drugs!
We never talk about how this pulling-up-by-bootstrap is supposed to happen when that little girl doesn’t even own boots.
I saw a news story online recently, and maybe you did too? http://thinkprogress.org/2010/10/27/popaditch-21-dollars-comfortable/
And I almost laughed, except that it’s actually not at all funny. It’s condescending and judgmental and atrocious. And it’s running rampant, this attitude that ‘they’ are living off ‘us’ and as such ‘we’ need to tell ‘them’ how to live. We need to make them uncomfortable. We need to tell them no to soda. We need to teach them how to eat healthy foods. It’s about choices, after all, and if ‘they’ made the choices ‘we’ tell them are best, ‘they’ could eat healthy food inexpensively, get a great job and live the American Dream. Only, the American dream for far too many in Arizona right now is less “two kids, dog, white picket fence” and more “job that pays bills, food on table, and house not in foreclosure”. We are disappointed because we perceive that they made bad choices, so we deem it best to take away their choices altogether.
I’ve heard more than once, from people from all walks of life, that it can’t be ‘that hard’ to live on a smaller budget. That every day, families make choices that are difficult and trim the fat and tighten their proverbial belts and that if people only tried, they could live on beans and peanut butter sandwiches and in-season fruits and veggies. And I can’t say that I disagree entirely, except that it’s just not that simple. When the choices your family is making aren’t whether to go out to eat tonight or stay home and have leftovers, but instead are whether that pear should go on tonight’s salad or be packed with tomorrow’s lunch, the dialogue has to change. We have to stop thinking of how it’s affecting us to ‘pay for’ these families to eat, and instead think of how it would affect us if they couldn’t. How would we feel if we knew we were sending our kids to school with a balanced lunch, only to sit beside a classmate whose family couldn’t afford to send their child with more than a simple peanut butter sandwich? How would we feel if the tables were turned, and that was our sweet preschooler showing up with nothing more than two thin slices of white bread smeared thinly with peanut butter? How hard would it be to go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, and have no hope of ever being able to change our circumstances?
People will tell you it’s about choices in life. If you do the right thing, you can have it all. If you go to school. If you work hard. If and if and if and then. So why do so many hardworking families find themselves wondering where their next meal is coming from? Who would choose that?
Weekly food log for Challenge Week:
B: 2 scrambled eggs, water
L: 1/2 a wheat pita with panut butter and banana slices, grapes, water
D: 1/2 a Pasta Roni with frozen brocolli
B: 2 scrambled eggs, water
L: Leftover Pasta Roni, grapes, water
D: Egg salad on 1/2 a wheat pita, 1/2 a pear, water
B: 2 scrambled eggs, water
L: Egg salad on 1/2 a wheat pita, grapes, water
D: Spinach salad with 1/2 a pear, handful of grapes and dressing, 1 cup of fat free cottage cheese, 1 small potato cooked with olive oil and spices
B: 2 scrambled eggs, water
L: 1/2 a wheat pita with peanut butter and banana slices, grapes, water
D: Egg salad on 1/2 a wheat pita
B: 2 scrambled eggs and water
L:Egg salad on 1/2 a wheat pita, grapes, water
D: Celery and peanut butter, water
B: 2 scrambled eggs, water
L: 1/2 a wheat pita with egg salad, pear
D: Corn on the cob, spinach with dressing, 1/2 a Pasta Roni, small potato cooked with olive oil and seasonings
B: Cottage cheese, water
L: 1/2 a Pasta Roni with frozen brocolli
D: No food left for dinner