The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Special Report Food Security

How can we understand what our neighbors face?

Experiencing the challenge of living on SNAP


To understand hunger, I had to be hungry.

Before I put pen to paper on these stories, I read the research, listened to the authorities, interviewed the experts, analyzed the data and contemplated it all. It was an immersive experience. Almost.

Understanding a food-insecure person’s struggle, if only in a small way, meant feeling it. Taking the SNAP Challenge — eating on a SNAP recipient’s average allotment of $4.40 per day for a week — was the least I could do.

During the first few days, scrutinizing my food choices was an irritant. I deprived myself of the amount of food I’d usually eat, and it felt like dieting. But by the fourth day, my senses were constantly nagging me. I couldn’t focus. Unaffordable food was everywhere. I felt grumpy and impatient.

By the fifth day, I had a constant headache, and taking two flights of stairs at work meant the burn of fatigue through my legs. I played out different scenarios: I imagined I had no transportation, so I had to choose between a Whole Foods a few blocks away from work and the gas station next door — healthful food from the pricey supermarket versus the two-for-$3 breakfast sandwiches at Speedway. I debated between eating rice and beans together and separately, constantly evaluating how to stretch a dollar.

I experimented with stigma by keeping the challenge to myself and feeling a knot of dread as I walked with colleagues past a Panera around lunchtime. One night, after saving my allotment for a family dinner, I stood up and everything went dark. I didn’t feel the floor when I fell. (I’d later learn about an uptick in hypoglycemia-related emergency room visits by low-income patients toward the end of the month. Benefits, disbursed in a lump sum at the beginning of the month, often are exhausted by then.)

I wanted to remain cognizant that $4.40 wasn’t my daily reality; it was my choice. I felt relief, then guilt, every time I thought about having to feed my son and husband with these restrictions, which is to say I was aware that the people on SNAP don’t get to quit their challenge after a week. I understood the popular running commentary about feeling shamed by privilege. Although mostly, I just felt hungry. It was eye-opening and humbling, yet still just a very small corner of what it must feel like to devote so much time and energy to securing food.

How to take the SNAP Challenge

Born of the “experience is the best teacher” maxim, the SNAP Challenge invites people to understand the obstacles their low-income neighbors face in living on an average food allowance of about $4.40 per day. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, was designed as a domestic hunger safety net.

As the name implies, SNAP is intended to supplement a person’s food budget. The assumption is that a participating family would contribute 30 percent of its net income toward food. However, that level of contribution may be unrealistic because of other expenses and, coupled with rising cost of nutritious food, put the ability to eat adequately and healthfully out of reach.

To explore this daily reality for millions of Americans, follow these SNAP Challenge guidelines:

  • Spend only $4.40 per day or $132 for the month on food and beverages. The challenge typically lasts one week or one month.
  • Avoid free food from family, friends or coworkers. These opportunities might not be present for those in need. The value of all food eaten during the challenge must be accounted for in the SNAP allotment.
  • Eat as nutritiously as possible.
  • Post, tweet or blog about your experience to raise awareness and encourage dialogue.

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