Annette John-Hall: Lessons of the Food Stamp Challenge

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Mayor Michael Nutter attempts to shop for less than $35 for a week's supply of food at Shop Rite on 52nd Street. (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)

I’ve learned plenty of lessons while taking the weeklong Food Stamp Challenge. Talk about a roller-coaster. A weekly food budget of only $35 had my feelings running the gamut, from hunger to resentment, pressure to determination, and finally just plain ole orneriness.

But no matter how hollow and angry I got, the one permanent takeaway I’ll have is a profound sense of gratitude.

Grateful that I’m able to eat whatever I want. Grateful that I can afford fresh fruits and vegetables. Grateful that I own a car so I can drive to stores and comparison-shop. Grateful that for me, the challenge was just an experiment.

“There’s a big difference in choosing to do it and having to do it,” says Carey Morgan, executive director of the Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

She’s got that right. We’re so preoccupied with chopping up the fresh dill for the salmon that we tend to take basic things — like stretching meals for the entire week — for granted. It’s a daily struggle for the more than 475,000 Philadelphians who use food stamps, 600,000 including the folks who live in the suburbs. The majority of recipients are seniors and children.

And to think that starting Tuesday, people’s ability to put food on the table will be further compromised with the implementation of the assets test. In yet another swift kick of the poor to the curb, the Corbett administration has mandated that people under 60 with more than $5,500 are ineligible for food stamps (for folks over 60, it’s $9,000).

God forbid you’d have the freedom of a nest egg. Who needs to save anyway for things like college, a house, or funeral expenses? Just keep dipping into those savings until it’s gone. Prescriptions or food? Mortgage payment or food? Heating bill or food?

That’s not a challenge. That’s a hardship.

Focus and organization

Sponsored by the anti-hunger coalition and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Food Stamp Challenge asked participants to live on $35 a week or $5 a day — the average benefit a person who is on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, receives in Pennsylvania. I participated with several other media members, including Radio Times host Marty Moss-Coane of WHYY, and community organizers and politicians, such as U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.

If we dined out, we had to count it toward our $35 allotment (in real life, SNAP recipients are prohibited from using benefits to buy any food that can be eaten in the store, such as deli food). Spices and condiments were the only additional foods we could use. Free food was a no-no.

I spread the shopping circulars out on the kitchen table like I was charting a reconnaissance mission. Eating on $5 a day requires serious strategizing.

First stop: Shop Rite, where I bought a roaster chicken-in-a-bag for $9.99. I spent the rest of my money at Bottom Dollar Foods.

I ate chicken — for dinner, on sandwiches and in salads — spaghetti, peanut and jelly sandwiches and oatmeal, every day, all week.

On Day 4, already on carb overload, I couldn’t shake the mental and physical fatigue of eating the same thing. I looked in the mirror. My skin had lost its glow.

Is eating on $35 a week doable? It is — if you’re willing to sacrifice fresh fruits and vegetables for protein and carbs, traditional meal-stretching foods. It requires supreme organization and focus, which not many of us have on our best days. Let’s face it: How many of us have brought food for the week only to go out for dinner or stop for McDonald’s because we don’t feel like cooking? Not a whole lot different from low-income folks who choose McDonald’s regularly for convenience and affordability.

To encourage nutritious choices, the city has been working hard to establish more farmers’ market in low-income neighborhoods and to get corner stores to install refrigerated display cases so they can sell healthy foods, such as yogurt. Still, that won’t do much to ease the huge hit SNAP recipients will surely take when congressionally enacted budget cuts — $14 billion over 10 years — take effect next year. That means benefits for a family of four will be reduced by as much as $60 a month, marking the first time there’s ever been a reduction in food stamps with no change in a family’s circumstance.

People need SNAP to eat. But somehow, the twisted perception is that food-stamp recipients live high on the hog.

Try low on 70 percent hamburger meat.

All I had to do is walk in the shoes of the food-insecure for a week and I barely made it.

It’s easy to pat your foot with annoyance and judgment as someone in front of you in line puts food back because they can’t afford it.

It’s something else entirely when you have to do it yourself.

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.