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A Glimpse into Hunger: My Week on Food Stamps

A Glimpse into Hunger: My Week on Food Stamps

Most of us go an entire lifetime never feeling real hunger. Rather, we learn about the catastrophic impact hunger has on the human body and spirit, and understand intellectually that the present and future are bleak for millions who lack enough to eat.

If we never suffer from hunger or food insecurity, there is no way for us to know entirely how it feels. To experience desperation, one must lack any safety net or escape route, a scenario that cannot be artificially created. Having, but choosing not to use available resources, is totally different from lacking any at all.

However, even if we’ve never known hunger or food insecurity, we can simulate parts of the experience, in hopes of gaining a heightened understanding that can be felt, not just learned. Recently, a group from Community Synagogue of Rye agreed to do just that. For seven days, we lived on the same food budget of an American that receives governmental SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), an undertaking known as the “SNAP Challenge.”

During the SNAP challenge, all food we consumed that week had to be of the type covered by SNAP benefits and could not cost more than the weekly amount that SNAP benefits allow. A few other rules applied, e.g., not to go to restaurants (where SNAP would not be accepted), all intended to mirror the reality of being on SNAP benefits.

My husband and I went grocery shopping before the week began, each spending $38.50 for an entire week’s worth of food ($5.50 per day), hoping our choices would last us seven days. We put every possible selection through a rigorous evaluation process. Products that were “free” (fat free, sugar free, gluten free) or “low” (low sodium, low calorie, low carb… need I go on?) were luxuries we could not afford, as were most all natural, organic and fresh foods.

By day three of the SNAP Challenge, my husband and I realized we were going to run out of meat and vegetables before the end of the week, and we began to shrink our portion sizes accordingly. I remember shuddering when I spilled some orange juice, as I had only bought a quart. Toward the latter part of the week, I remember looking longingly at fresh muffins for sale, knowing not only could I not have one, but that each one otherwise cost half of my daily food allowance.

Overall, we felt anxious and distracted for most of that week, which led me to believe that if this depravation were our ongoing existence, these emotions would be enhanced. Meaning, we would be frightened and our fear would consume nearly all of our thoughts and focus.

Looking back, what I remember most was thinking about and looking forward to the SNAP challenge ending, so I could go back to “normal,” and not go to sleep every night with my stomach rumbling. Yet, that future relief – that end-in-sight – is exactly what people suffering from hunger or food insecurity lack. How does one fill that void?

Judaism teaches us not to refrain from maintaining a poor man and giving him what he needs (Deut. 15:7). People need to believe their current state will improve. Therefore, let’s focus on sustainable solutions with a lasting impact, as opposed to quick fixes that provide for only for today. Sign this petition to let Members of Congress know that you support robust funding for SNAP!

Karen Wallace Lipson is a member of Rye Community Synagogue in Westchester Country, NY. She is active in the synagogue’s Jewish Justice League, a group that advocates for social justice by leveraging the collective voice of congregation members. JJL’s areas of focus include hunger, gun violence, and oppression (women, children, LBGT individuals). Karen lives in Port Chester, N.Y., with her husband Rich. They have four children and two dogs.

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