The Hunger Challenge

November 12th through the 16th, The Office of Community Engagement staff as well as students and faculty at W&M participated in the Hunger Challenge. Based on Food Research Action Center’s SNAP Challenge, participants were given a meal budget of $4.31 per day, equivalent to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the new version of Food Stamps) benefits they would receive as a single Virginian.  Besides spending no more than $21.55 for the work week, participants were also challenged to eat only food they purchased during that week (no free food offered by others) and keep track of their spending and reflections.

Why did we take the Challenge? I think FRAC explains it best:

“The SNAP Challenge gives participants a view of the struggle to obtain adequate food that is faced by millions of low-income Americans. By living on the average food stamp benefit, Challenge participants find themselves forced to make food shopping choices on a limited budget, and learn how difficult it is to avoid hunger, afford nutritious foods, and stay healthy without adequate resources.”

This is my second year participating in a hunger awareness event, and I again learned so much from the experience. As my colleague Melody already blogged about, most of the lessons of the Hunger Challenge relate to privilege. The trickiness of projects like The Hunger Challenge, or any program that lifts up privilege, is that it lifts up privilege.  I would not have invited the W&M community to participate in living on a SNAP budget if I didn’t assume that at least some members of our community do not live on SNAP benefits, including myself.  And as one blog I read last week put it so clearly, “hunger is not a writing prompt.” But how do we step carefully between not using this to “play at” being food insecure and instead using the Hunger Challenge to push ourselves into recognizing some of privileges which, by the virtue of being privileged, we are likely to ignore?

What’s written below is a collection of my thoughts from my week participating in the Hunger Challenge, which is not the same as a week of actually living on SNAP benefits, being food insecure, or living below the poverty threshold. Writing about my experience, however, is a way for me to remember what I learned during the Challenge and hopefully a spark for you to learn something more as well.  Admittedly my reflections are a bit scattered – focusing becomes much more challenging on a limited and nutritionally poor diet – but perhaps they will interest you in learning more about hunger in America, consider your own role in our food and hunger ecosystem, participate in a Hunger Challenge yourself, or become an anti-hunger advocate.

Hungry Mind
I was prepared to have a few headaches throughout the week thanks to a lower caloric intake and reduced nutrition but was dismayed to fall asleep Sunday evening (Hunger Challenge Eve) with quite a stress head-ache.  My head was throbbing because I’d spent the previous few hours fretting about the Hunger Challenge.  My mind just kept running through the week and lamenting all the food I wouldn’t be able to eat. Had I made the right purchasing decisions? What else did I need to buy? How hungry was I really going to be? Could I do this? I was even fretting about fretting, telling myself, “Dude, seriously! It’s one week. You are a privileged kid who is spending 5 days eating on SNAP benefits; this is a daily reality for 20% of your community.”

While by Day 2, I’m starting to feel a bit more of the physical effects of this Challenge, it’s been the mental component that’s been most challenging.  I am thinking about food almost all of the time. When it’s not meal time, I’m thinking about when my next meal is (and being frustrated that on a reduced meal budget meal times are actually a hard and fast thing—I can’t just eat when I want or even when I feel hunger). Before my meals I find myself wondering if the food I’m going to eat will be filling and how long it will be until I am hungry again.  During meals I find myself both eager to eat and despondent over eating.  Eating is a lot less fun when you are, a) Eating food that you wouldn’t choose to eat without the budget constraints b) Eating repeats of food regularly because buying single serving items is out of the question and c) Knowing that in eating this food you’ll have less to eat later.  When I have the luxury of not thinking about my food, I have the luxury of enjoying my food. Living on a SNAP budget means that a lot of my mental energy is spent thinking about my food choices both when buying and eating.  And spending that mental energy in this manner is stressful.  Because I’m only taking this Hunger Challenge for the week, it’s likely the largest side-effect from this stress will be another headache or two, but as the Food Research Action Center highlights, the stress experienced by low-income and food insecure people, can lead to other effects.

Money is Time
I went on my last “major” shopping trip for the week today (Day 2). I say “major” because I bought all of 7 items, costing a total of $7.66.  Despite the low item count, I spent over 30 minutes in the store and it felt even longer.  Why? First, I was hungry! My last meal of a cup of spaghettios had been a few hours before and those calories had long since been used up.  This meant each item of food I picked up instantly became the idea of the meal it could be cooked into which made me focus on my hunger rather than my grocery shopping.  Second, every item counts.  While I’m already a shopper who operates on a budget, and I consider the unit price of most items I buy, participating in the Hunger Challenge takes that to a whole new level.  For each item of food I considered, I had to spend extensive time evaluating precisely how much it cost, how many meals it would produce, how many times I would really like to be eating that food, how many other items I would have to purchase to turn it into an edible meal, what kind of nutritional value it would yield, was there anything in it that was particularly unhealthy/awful to consume, and if this food would make me less hungry because I was hungry!

I’m sure that over time I would get faster at shopping on SNAP benefits but all those evaluations would still have to be made. It seems obvious that if you’re living on SNAP benefits convenience store shopping can be less accessible due to higher costs, but even the normative level of convenience associated with a grocery store is impeded by the added pressures of food insecurity.

Free Food
The rule of the Challenge I’ve heard the most about is the restriction on eating free or offered food during the week. “Wouldn’t someone on food stamps take any free food they could?” most people ask.  Not having been on SNAP benefits myself, I can’t say for certain, but yes likely they would accept the free food offered. But the free food rule brings up some interesting complications.  First, what kind of food is most often free? There were a couple of events I attended during the Challenge that offered free food: pizza, cookies, soda.  Not exactly the healthiest or even most filling.  Second, it’s likely that someone on SNAP benefits doesn’t work a job where free food is readily available.  Because of this I chose to not take any free food during the week, and was reminded that even working a job where I might have access to food perks isn’t true for everyone.

Let Me Eat Cake!
When I heard that my monthly potluck with a group of friends was going to include cake I wasn’t too upset; I’d told them ahead of time that I would be bringing my own food for the day, but they should still bring their own delicious items to share with everyone else. Getting through lunch and even watching them eat what I’m sure was a delicious chocolate raspberry cake wasn’t too bad (This was Day 1 mind you, by Day 3 I think it would’ve been much harder). Post-lunch, however, we had a long conversation about the challenges in our lives, and after sharing my thoughts and emotions, one thing was clear to me: I had earned a piece of cake! I was surprised how adamant my brain was that food was a just reward for my emotional work (And later, I found myself believing that I deserved a treat for a long day at the office). I remember learning about this in my Social Psychology class all the way back in Sophomore year, about stress eating and reward eating (W&M moment: I just pulled out my old Psych notes to review that section), but this was the first time I was experiencing the reward eating response without being able to satisfy it or at least talk myself out of it based on internal reasoning. Instead, this (albeit self-imposed) external constraint of the Hunger Challenge kept me from that piece of cake.

The impulse to eat cake made me realize another of the many privileges of my personal food security—I can reward myself with food.  I used to celebrate the end of an exam with a cookie and a CW stroll.  It seemed so wise of me to find rewards in items that were simple, cheap, and delicious. But now I recognize that even that simple reward is inaccessible to those who are food insecure. Whether it’s giving yourself a cookie for a job well done, “eating your feelings” after a not so great day, or even just indulging in that impulse buy of a candy bar that makes you feel a little bit rebellious, it becomes much harder to use food for comfort when living on SNAP benefits.

The Last Meal(s)
My first shopping trip for the Challenge was Sunday night, but that night actually consisted of two trips. First, I spent $9.99 on much of the food I would be eating that week (rice, canned veggies, spaghettios.) After loading that bag into my car, I returned to the grocery store to purchase my ‘last meal’ before beginning the Challenge. I spent another approximately $6 on cranberry juice, Stouffer’s mac’n'cheese, and Twix bars.  I share this not so you know what my comfort foods are, but because I want to emphasize that I know this is made up. Taking the Hunger Challenge is not experiencing what it’s like to live on SNAP benefits, to be food insecure, or live below the poverty threshold. As the Food Research and Action Center explains, “While living on a food stamp budget for just a week cannot come close to the struggles encountered by low income families week after week and month after month, it does provide those who take the Challenge with a new perspective and greater understanding.”  Unlike those living on SNAP benefits, I could easily purchase a $6 comfort food meal for Sunday night, and the only thing stopping me from eating that for the next five days was my own decision to stick to the Challenge.

And the privilege of the Challenge’s self-imposed nature hit me again on Friday night when I was on the other side and about to prepare my last Challenge meal. I suddenly found myself thinking, “Why am I eating another bowl of rice with chickpeas? I really don’t want to eat more of this, and what does it matter? What’s the difference between eating “real food” now and in the morning when the Challenge will be officially over?” I had spent the last four and a half days committed to this challenge, making sure to not ‘cheat,’ reading up about SNAP and food insecurity, talking to others about my experience and theirs, reflecting on the privilege the week was making clear for me, and yet in prepping that least meal, with my ‘real life’ so close to returning, a very real part of me wanted to just throw my hands up and eat anything but SNAP food. I hope that moment stays with me because that’s the moment that I walk around with each day:  the privilege to say, “This doesn’t matter” because I have good food in the fridge and I’m tired of rice and chick peas.”  I ate my rice and chickpeas that evening, but today I had a Twix bar.  I know that taking the Challenge comes with the privileges of last meals I get to eat and last meals I consider skipping. It’s up to me to recognize that and stay committed to addressing food insecurity anyway.

If you want to learn more about food insecurity in your community and across the country and what you can do to take action, check out FeedingAmerica.org (especially their Map the Meal Gap project).