Why I'm Not Down With Food Stamp Challenges

Want to know what it’s like to live on food stamps? Ask the 46 million Americans who do it everyday, not as a “challenge” or for publicity but because they can’t afford food.
Publish date:
December 3, 2012

Starting tomorrow, New Jersey Mayor Corey Booker is taking the Food Stamp Challenge. In May, celebrity chef Mario Batali pulled a similar stunt. He, his wife and their two teenage sons ate on the equivalent of a food stamp budget for one week.

Other people have done it, too -- a mayor in Phoenix, the head of the Catholic Charities in Washington, and even the entire greater Philadelphia area was invited to give it a try. Apparently, the Food Stamp Challenge is an actual thing -- a “trend,” according to Wikipedia -- in which a family of means chooses to purchase food using only the monetary equivalent of what a family that size would receive in federal food stamps (about $4 a day per person, depending on what state you’re from).

Dear Mr. Mayor and anyone else: Want to know what it’s like to live on food stamps? Read this, this or this -- or ask the 46 million Americans who do it every day, not as a “challenge” or for publicity but because they can’t afford food.

Speaking as someone who’s been on food stamps -- as a child and again, more recently, as an adult -- such challenges are no adequate comparison to the experience of being poor and living with food insecurity. Living just one week or even one month on less, you are not -- as Batali says -- “walk[ing] in someone else’s shoes.”

You have no idea -- and the lessons you tell us you learn prove this.

It is no discovery to poor people -- for example -- that foods that are labeled organic, or anything which describes itself as pesticide- or hormone-free, are more expensive, which Batali identified as one of the major lessons he learned by the end of his week. Batali also bemoaned giving up lattes, beer, wine, soda and snacks, and admitted that he sacrificed some of his standards for food quality and nutrition to ensure that he and his family would have enough food for every meal.

“Many people don’t realize that food stamp recipients often can’t go out to eat,” said Father John Enzler, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C, who did the Food Stamp Challenge in October. “You can’t go to restaurants,” he said. “You can’t have a beer. You can’t go out with your friends.”

As a matter of fact, Father, many people do realize this. 46 million, to be exact.

Father Enzler said that the Food Stamp Challenge helped him to “get a sense of what it’s like” for those who struggle to stay well nourished in the U.S., but from comments like that I have a feeling he’s still got no idea what it’s like.

Neither does Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, I imagine, who lived on a food stamp budget for a week in September. Stanton, who blogged during the experiment, reported feeling tired and found it “hard to focus” the one morning that he left the house without breakfast, saying he hadn’t had the time that morning to prepare a cost-effective meal.

“It’s only for a week,” he went on, “so I’ve got a decent attitude. If I were doing this with no end in sight, I probably wouldn’t be so pleasant.”

I guess that’s why poor people are sometimes unpleasant. Anyone who’s ever had to skip a meal -- and that’s everyone, I suppose -- knows that hunger can sometimes make you this way. It can make you weak, irritable and unable to concentrate.

But prolonged lack of adequate nutrition can do a lot worse. It can cause increased susceptibility to disease and reduced ability for the body to heal. In some, it can cause obesity. Some studies say that hunger in childhood can result in hyperactivity, aggression and other anti-social behaviors, making literal changes to your brain chemistry that can last all your life.

When I worked as a public school teacher in the South Bronx, where 90% of the children were entitled to free lunches, many of my students regularly came to school unfed. Some were weak, irritable and unable to concentrate day after day. Hunger pangs confused for stomach aches was a major complaint. Hungry kids kept their heads down and did not participate, or would get a pass to the nurse.

No wonder many failed classes and scored poorly on standardized tests. No wonder the drop-out rates for low-income students are five times greater than everyone else. No wonder poor children become poor adults.

There’s a big difference between being someone who is "challenging" themselves and has all the immaterial benefits of being not-poor, and being someone who is truly poor, and who's suffering and has probably at other times in their life suffered from lack of food. It's like Tyra Banks putting on a fat suit and acting like she gets it.

To be sure, I believe that people who participate in such experiments are well intended. Batali, for example, was raising awareness about potential cuts to the food stamp program in New York. Stanton was participating in National Hunger Awareness month. Most celebrities or public figures who participate in the Food Stamp Challenge do so in order to raise awareness or money. They want to use their privilege and platform to do good.

Booker assured reporters, “this will not be a gimmick or a stunt,” describing it, instead, as an opportunity "for us to grow in compassion and understanding" and dispel stereotypes.

But if you have to ensure people that what you’re doing is not a gimmick, it just may be a gimmick -- and even if you’re well intended, those intentions may fail. The best people to dispel stereotypes, I always say, are the people who are truly affected by them -- not the people who try them on for a week.