SNAP Challenge week points up the politics around food

SNAP Challenge week points up the politics around food
Dinner at the office: A small bowl of warmed over spaghetti.

Last week, The Chicago Reporter team looked at the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

I took on the SNAP Challenge, trying to eat for one week on the SNAP allotment for an individual—in Illinois that comes to $35 a week, or just $5 a day.

The experience was excruciating, and enlightening.  I learned that, in a world of food abundance, SNAP is never enough.  I crashed after five days. I am fortunate. I can return to a life of food abundance.  Too many cannot.

Surviving on SNAP means eating lots of beans, canned vegetables and tons of carbohydrates.  I had to skimp on pricier fresh fruits and vegetables.  Fresh fish and meats were out of the question.  There are so many things you want but can’t have.  So many “no’s.” Too many “cannots.”

Food is personal, and hunger stifles the spirit.

On $5 a day, there’s little room for treats, sweets, even coffee.  I couldn’t afford to buy coffee, even to brew at home.

I skipped meals to stretch my budget. Hunger takes a physical toll.  I had headaches, was sluggish and cranky.

The challenge’s most daunting rule: no “freebies.” You can’t accept free food from family and friends.

I attended a mid-afternoon meeting at the Field Museum.  I had skipped lunch to conserve my cash. I was greeted by a succulent spread of savory cheeses, cookies, and condiments, and loads of hot coffee. Don’t touch!

SNAP recipients don’t have access to such “comps.”

“There’s something so incredibly cruel about the fact that you have to think so hard, and so often, about the food choices you are making,” said Kate Maehr, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, who just completed her 5th challenge.

We are indeed cruel to the poor.

Last week the Reporter team took to Twitter, Facebook and Vocalo to tell the SNAP story. Some Facebook commenters chastised the poor, admonishing them for receiving federal benefits.  Too often we make SNAP judgments about the poor.

Nationwide, nearly 72 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children, according to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C., think tank.  More than one-quarter of participants are in households with seniors or people with disabilities.

On average, an individual must make no more than $15,000 to qualify for the benefit.  One in six people who live in Cook County don’t know where their next meal is coming from, according to the food depository.

They are your neighbors.

Last year, the depository distributed 64 million pounds of food to people through its network, which includes more than 400 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters. In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, there were 5.5 million visits to the area pantries.

These pantries are lifelines.

I have lived around the corner from the Lakeview Food Pantry for years, but never stopped in—until I did the challenge.

 I found a group of cheerful volunteers handing out bags and boxes of canned goods, fruits, and vegetables, and bunches of late-summer flowers, a bright treat for the needy.

My final lesson: Food is political.  On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut $39 billion in SNAP funding over the next 10 years.  The Republican leadership argued there is too much fraud and abuse in the program.

The legislation now moves to a congressional conference committee.  Let’s hope SNAP advocates are up to the fight.


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