Challenge for some, way of life for millions: Eating on $5 a day

He had just finished his toast when I dropped it on him.

“Next week, I’m doing the SNAP Challenge!” I announced Friday morning over breakfast.

The husband blinked. He hadn’t had his coffee yet.

“The what?”

The SNAP Challenge. SNAP, I explained, stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. This week, community leaders, politicians, journalists and others will take the annual SNAP Challenge, and pledge to limit their personal spending for food to the standard SNAP allotment. In Illinois, that’s about $5 per day, per person.

“Five what?”

Five dollars. Silence. He got up and padded around the kitchen.

“Why don’t you take the challenge with me?” I went on. “It would be fun, and then we would have $10 a day to spend on breakfast, lunch and dinner!”

Silence. The husband reached for the coffee maker.

One more try: “Besides,” I quipped, “you might even lose a few pounds, and knock out those love handles!”

He poured a steaming, black cup, gave me a long, dirty look, and walked out of the room.

I guess I’ll be going solo.

My lonely coffee pot. A big cup of black dark roast is always my first thing in the morning.  I can’t afford coffee on a SNAP budget. It’s going to be a LONG day.

My lonely coffee pot. A big cup of black dark roast is always my first thing in the morning. I can’t afford coffee on a SNAP budget. It’s going to be a LONG day.

I start today, and will send regular dispatches from the front, to give you a taste of what it is like to eat on $5 a day, or $35 a week.

The guidelines are tough. Each person can’t spend more than $35/week or $5/day for all foods and beverages. That includes dining out. You can’t eat food that’s already at home before you start. No “freebies” from friends and family. No grazing at work, at receptions, parties, or other places where food might be available.

That takes extremely smart shopping and skillful meal planning. And a mega-challenge for me, since I don’t cook, and eat out for most meals.

My “last meal.”  To gird myself, I headed to Yoshi’s Café Sunday night, for a strip steak au poivre, well-done fries and steamed vegetables.

My “last meal.” To gird myself, I headed to Yoshi’s Café Sunday night, for a strip steak au poivre, well-done fries and steamed vegetables.

To get in shape, I consulted a pro. Kate Maehr, the executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. This will be her fifth personal SNAP Challenge.

On Friday, I asked Maehr if she had any advice for a SNAP Challenge “virgin” like me. “You know, I’ll be honest,” she said in a phone interview. “I really dislike doing it. I’m feeling those knots in my stomach, because I know how hard it is.”

During the challenge, she feels “crabby” most of the time. She was forced to choose food that is high in carbs, low in protein, she said. Little fresh, healthy fare comes on $5 a day.

But her staff and volunteers need “to have that week of attempting to walk in the shoes of the people we serve,” she added. “It’s really important, I think, for all of us to reflect on what that feels like. And how demeaning it can be, and how quickly you can sort of feel hopeless.”

About 47 million people receive SNAP benefits nationwide.

In 2011, 860,670 people in Cook County were unsure where their next meal will come from, according to data released earlier this year by Feeding America, a national non-profit that fights hunger.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee recently passed a farm bill that would make $20.5 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next decade, according to the Food Depository.

The full House will take up the bill this week.

“I find it so troubling that there is this conversation happening in Washington,” Maehr told me. “The truth is there are a record number of Americans who are hungry, because there is a record number of Americans who are in poverty. And we have got to have a conversation about the fact that there is something wrong when you do everything right, and you still can’t put food on your table.”

This week, I will try to walk in those shoes. Look for my reports.

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