It was Day Two of the DC Hunger Solutions [DCHS] Food Stamp Challenge, an attempt by participants to eat on $30 a week. Council member Mary Cheh [D-Ward 3] thought the challenge would be cinch because she doesn't drink coffee or juices, and doesn't eat meat, which is pricey.
But she hadn’t factored in her sugar cravings. Her daily treat – “Grande Hot Chocolate with whip cream,” – wasn’t in the budget, neither were her beloved cupcakes.
“I should’ve bought a cheap brownie mix and half dozen eggs,” said Cheh, 61, who shopped Oct. 9 at Giant on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest. At the register, she exceeded the allotted amount, so she returned a banana. To stay within the budget, she bought lots of pasta and was “heavy on carbs.”
“I was full, but I was not feeling satisfied,” said Cheh whose breakfast consisted of slices of toast, lunch ended up being yogurt and a banana with spaghetti for dinner.
“It’s important to try to experience these things,” said Cheh, who, in 2010 co-sponsored the District’s Healthy Schools Act, which addressed health and nutrition issues for public and charter school children.
Cheh joined city leaders and anti-hunger advocates from Oct. 9 to 15 to accept the pledge to spend $30 a week or $4.28 a day, the average benefit for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], as her total grocery budget. Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, SNAP gives low-income households debit cards to buy food.
The challenge spanned the region with Maryland Hunger Solutions, DCHS’ sister organization, hosting one. Together, there were more than 200 participants across the metropolitan area with 50 from the District. DCHS is an initiative to create a hunger-free society, founded in 2002 by the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit that works on improving public policies to eradicate hunger in the United States.
Challenge participants described experiences in blogs, and others such as John Thompson, director of the D.C. Department on Aging, took to Twitter.
“Just in two days, this experience has been an eye opener,” said Thompson who compromised food choices. “I was purchasing more canned vegetables with higher sodium, no salad mix which was too expensive, [and] one type of fruit [bananas], no snacks, and an excessive amount of noodles and rice on a carbohydrate overload.”
Cheh participated in the challenge alone, but Thompson’s wife, four-year-old daughter and father in Columbia, S.C., also spent $30 per person. Thompson chose to purchase Thai foods.
“I grew up eating Thai food every day as it’s easy to cook and many dishes are inexpensive,” said Thompson whose mother is part Thai and Chinese. “It’s a struggle not being able to have different food choices and no snacks, which makes me a little sluggish toward the end of the work day.”
According to the D.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers SNAP, about 137,000 individuals receive food stamps. Yet, recent U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows one in eight D.C. households struggle with hunger with nearly 19 percent of District residents living in poverty, according to Census data.
“SNAP is making a huge difference to those who have the least, and cutting this program would be devastating for children, the working poor, and seniors,” said Alexandra Ashbrook, DCHS director.
Jessica Luna, DCHS’s anti-hunger program associate, said DCHS decided to host the challenge for several reasons.
“We used it as a platform to raise awareness to the cuts to SNAP in the Farm Bill that would repeal the District’s Food Stamp Expansion Act of 2009, reduce access to SNAP and lower benefit levels for needy families,” said Luna. “This is an opportunity to underscore to those who never worry about their next meal, a small glimpse into the daily struggle facing District SNAP residents.”
Every five years, Congress reauthorizes the Farm Bill, comprehensive legislation that guides funding for most federal farm and food policies including SNAP. Both the Senate and House Agriculture Committee’s versions of the bill contain cuts, including a Senate cut that reduces SNAP benefits for an estimated 500,000 households by $90 a month, and a House cut that ends benefits for a minimum of 1.8 million people.
“I am pleased the challenge is helping to bring awareness about the importance of SNAP as a defense against hunger and steps people can take to ensure SNAP is strengthened, not cut,” said Ashbrook, adding that the challenge culminated in a day of action on Oct. 15. Participants visited D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton to thank her for her support and urged others to contact their congressional members to oppose these cuts.
By Day Four, Cheh hadn’t slipped or cheated and still had enough food to stretch through the weekend.
“I just hope that my small role will serve as an example to others,” she said.