When I first learned of the food stamp challenge I thought it would be an easy assignment. In 2010 (my first year out of college) I lived on a food stamp budget for a year while working for AmeriCorps. I learned quickly that stretching $200 a month took preparation and resolve. Each trip to the grocery store was a calculated expedition that involved critical thinking and strategy. My mantra was “buy what I need, not what I want.”
After each trip ample time was required to prepare food for the week ahead. Pasta with chicken and pesto was a favorite. A hefty batch of this could last me four or five days. Beans, rice, eggs, milk, bread, and tap water rounded out much of my diet that year. As much as I wanted to use my food stamps to buy ice cream, organic milk, frozen pizza, or fruit, I had to stay on budget and only buy what I knew would last. This was difficult at first, but got progressively easier over time. At the end of that year I felt I had mastered the art of the food stamp budget. I was so competent that frozen pizza, organic milk, ice cream and fruit became part of my diet. Needless to say this assignment did not scare me. I even welcomed the challenge and felt that in my paper I could offer helpful insight into completing it successfully.
Unfortunately, that was a different time. I never considered the significance that a stable living environment has on ones ability to live healthily and within their means. My current living situation is unstable. I live in an apartment owned by my parents in Central Square. During the summer my mother rents the apartment out four days a week to pay for my sisters education. This has left me scrambling for places to stay until I move to Washington DC in August. For the past two months I have slept on couches at many different houses. Sometimes I need to find a new place to stay each night. This has been both fun and difficult. I’m lucky because of the willingness of my friends to take me in, but at the same time it has been hard. Moving around so much is exhausting.
The food stamp challenge could not have come at a worse time for me. Our place has been rented all week and I have been scrambling around, working two jobs and completing a busy course load. With such a fluctuating schedule I have found it to be incredibly difficult to shop, prepare food, and keep food refrigerated to last me a week. I have not had access to Tupperware, a regular refrigerator, stove or cooking supplies. Because of this I have had to buy all my food day of.
At first I lamented the idea that the assignment was unfair to me at this time. I felt angry that I was being expected to sacrifice my lifestyle when I was already experiencing an unstable living environment. I quickly realized however that many people on food stamps might be in similar situations and most likely have it worse. With this in mind I forged forward attempting to stay within my budget. This proved extremely difficult.
I have made a concerted effort to eat less and stay as close to my $33 a week budget as possible, but I have gone over. Roughly, I have spent about $9 a day bringing my total to $63. I cut my meals down to about two a day (which I believe to be considerable), only drink tap water, and have eaten smaller portions at mealtime. The result of this has been me feeling hungry a significant amount. Cliff bars have been a huge help. I spend $1.89 for a bar that fills me up for hours while giving me energy to exercise and be active at work. I have eaten a significant amount of pasta as well. However, about once a day I have been so hungry that I purchased a meal of some sort: a hamburger, Panini, or pasta dish. This has really been out of desperation.
It has been interesting to see that most of my emotions during this assignment have been negative, manifesting as frustration, embarrassment, anxiety, and even shame. Probably the most prominent emotion I felt during this assignment was anxiety. During the times when I saw people eating big meals with beverages and getting seconds without reservation I became anxious. I knew that I could not afford to eat the same thing and I did everything I could do hide this fact from these people. It may have been the beginnings of shame. My experience with this assignment lasted a week. Many people do not have this luxury. Being surrounded by this feeling everyday could lead to severe anxiety and inferiority issues for me.
I felt so confident initially but grew increasingly incensed at my inability to complete the assignment successfully. I recorded in my observations that “hunger is a powerful thing” and I realize that it can be my biggest motivator. It is hard to concentrate on the everyday tasks of leading a healthy productive life when I felt hungry. All other tasks were put on hold my hunger was dealt with. All I could think about was when and where my next meal would come from. My work ethic, job performance, and overall health suffered. My hunger was alleviated somewhat on the days when I had to work for long hours. I work as a caterer and a basketball coach and both jobs lend to being active. This helped me forget my hunger and plow through some of the days without feeling too feint.
This project relates back to the Core Competencies in a few ways. Applying critical thinking to inform and communicate professional judgment this week has been important in my quest to be successful. Attempting to live off $33 a week requires a sufficient amount of critical thinking in order to stay within the parameters of the assignment. Planning ahead and researching the most effective method of food stamp living has helped me understand, from a theoretical perspective, the SNAP program and its affect on social work.
Engaging diversity and difference in practice is another Core Competency that I experienced during this experience. Living off this budget helped me recognize the extent to which a culture’s structure and values may oppress, marginalize, alienate, create, or enhance privilege and power (NASW). I was struck throughout this week by how hard it was to stay on budget without a stable living situation. Ironically it may be the people who lack a stable living situate who need food stamps the most and $33 a week is simply not enough. Luckily I was could afford to go over the budget and feed myself and survive the week without too much hardship. But, if I was given $33 and literally had nothing else to live on I might have been in real trouble.
My view of the food stamp program has changed drastically since completing this assignment. I believe that this program marginalizes people with unstable living conditions. Simply put, it is unrealistic. It is hard to critique a program that provides assistance to so many people but with so much money being spent in other areas (i.e. the military) I feel that this program should be drastically overhauled. The type of lifestyle this budget allows for leads to health concerns, negative social stigmas, and anxiety. With more than half of the people on food stamps being children it is in our nations best interest to increase the amount of money recipients receive (HYPERLINK “http://www.frac.org/”http://www.frac.org).
This has been an eye opening experience. I learned a lot. I learned what it felt like to be hungry for a week. I learned what it felt like to see other people eating to their hearts content while being hungry. I learned how hard it is to regularly exercise, eat healthily, and indulge while on this budget. This has been a wonderfully informative and eye opening experience.