Thursday, November 20, 2014

Oh SNAP! What can you really buy for $4.15?

Photo found on the USDA webpage "Supplementary Food Assistance Program"

On the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) webpage there is a colorful picture of a mom holding a baby and picking up a red apple with bright green veggies in the background. Under the picture there is a description, “SNAP offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities.” SNAP, formerly known as the federal Food Stamp Program, is supposed to act as a safety net for financially struggling families who cannot afford food.

Our friends at the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project took on the “SNAP Challenge" a week long educational exercise where participants can only spend $4.15* a day on food, simulating a SNAP food budget.

The Playtime Project staff shared with us their reflections during their in-office "SNAP Challenge":

Grocery item #1: Oodles of Noodles, $0.67

I am doing the Food Stamp challenge for lunch this week and was not prepared for how impractical it is to eat lunch for $2.50. I went to the grocery store and looked at a cucumber for some veggies...more than $2.00. I went to the canned bean aisle. Again, most of the beans were more than $2.00! I got the beans thinking I would divide it up for a couple meals with rice. The next morning as I was dashing out the door, I realized I needed to season my bland lunch so I sauteed a slice of onion and bell pepper. If I really wanted to save money, I would have to buy dry beans and bulk to soak them. I don't feel like I have the time and patience to do that now, so how practical is it for single parents in homeless shelters to soak beans and saute vegetables on their way out the door?

As I looked around the store feeling more and more deflated about my options, I could "get" in a more visceral way, how much sense it makes to buy "Oodles of Noodles," chips and soda to keep bellies full. It takes energy and time and creative thinking to cook healthy food on a budget and I could feel myself giving up and giving in to what is more practical for a busy live. It is easy to take for granted how many choices money can buy.
- Jamila Larson, Executive Director and Co-founder

Grocery Item #2: Elbow Macaroni, $2.88

As I think over the past couple of days during the Food Stamp Challenge, I have a greater appreciation for the quality and abundance of food I have been privileged to have over the years. Shopping on $22.50 for the week was difficult. While I usually purchase numerous fresh fruit and vegetables, I realized that on a food stamp budget that just wouldn't be possible. Instead I purchased items that I felt would keep me full for the week. That meant a lot of carbs (with rice and pasta), and canned chili/beans. The items I bought did not provide a lot of diversity for meals, I was going to have rice or noodles for the next week.
- Joel Schwarz, Development Manager 

Grocery Item #3: Dried Bag of Black Beans, $1.72

As a employee for a direct service and advocacy organization working with families experiencing homelessness, I consider myself to be relatively well informed about the diverse and broad issues affecting the homeless population. That being said, participating in the SNAP challenge has given me a greater appreciation for the daily challenges that living in poverty brings. The foods which were most affordable and within my budget for the week were those that required a lot of preparation - a bag of dried beans, rice, pasta, and soup. I am fortunate to live in a house with an appropriate kitchen and 9-5 job that afforded me the time and resources to make those decisions. I'm also a single, young professional without children, whose needs I would also need to meet. It is hard to imagine a family that might have the time and energy to make the same food choices that I had made. Week after week, month after month, it is easy to understand that individuals and families would prioritize getting children to and from school, after school programs, searching for an apartment or job, and other necessary tasks over elaborate meal preparations.

It is no surprise that children who experience homelessness go hungry at 2 times the rate of their housed peers. Obesity and nutritional deficiencies are common among the children we serve, but I find that it is the limited choice in food and nutrition over lack of will that contributes to the problem.
- Kelli Beyer, Communications and Outreach Manager

*SNAP benefits are affected by a person’s income, number of family members, additional assistance benefits, and a variety of other factors that require complex calculation. $4.15 represents the average daily benefit.

This piece is part of our month long blog series for "Homeless Youth Awareness Month." Continue reading to learn more about the challenges homeless youth face in the District. A special thank you to Homeless Children's Playtime Project for sharing their experiences with us during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.  Read the Playtime Project's blog to learn more about their ongoing work to bring healthy play experiences to children experiencing homelessness. 

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