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The SNAP Challenge: A True Wake Up Call

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A little over a week ago I wrote a piece on here about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and how cuts to it show how heartless those in Congress (namely the Republicans) are. After writing that piece and being rather fired up, I decided to enter into the SNAP Challenge.

I documented the whole thing, meal by meal, on my personal blog, but felt that some of the take aways were important to share on a broader scope, especially given some of the many misconceptions so many people were spewing in the comment section of my original piece.

It should first be noted that a person like me, who is not eligible for SNAP, cannot fully comprehend what it is like to be on that program. People on SNAP have many other stresses in their day-to-day lives that I don't. I have an apartment, am able to pay my bills, have a full-time job with benefits, and above all else I had a set end date for this challenge to be over. I only had to live on SNAP for a week and then I could go back to spending far too much money on food.

That all being said, I do believe I learned a great deal about what it's like to be on SNAP and it just made me a fiercer advocate for the program.

The Feeding America SNAP Challenge recommended you live off of $31.50 a week or $1.50 a meal. Given the recent across the board cuts to SNAP, I decided to tweak that number to reflect the new average for an individual, which gave me $28.70 to spend on food for seven days. Everything, minus a cucumber and a bag of baby carrots, were processed, boxed or canned. I had no fresh fruits. The only meat I could afford were hamhocks and ground turkey (and that was just because there was a great sale at my grocery store on the turkey). I had an egg each day for breakfast and a white bread sandwich with some sort of "ham" product at lunch. Nights were filled with boxed macaroni, canned vegetables and whatever I could turn the meat into.

Despite probably eating the same number of calories as I usually do, I found myself always hungry. Everything I ate was garbage and just filled with sugar and empty calories. Not to get too TMI with it all, but I definitely noticed my digestive system taking issue with what I was eating. In that quick period of time not eating fresh food I was already seeing changes in my body. Can you imagine being a child and the "SNAP diet" is all you've ever known? It isn't surprising we've seen such upticks in children with cholesterol issues or with Type 2 Diabetes.

Hunger is an all consuming feeling. When you're hungry that's all you can think about. I never once felt full or even satisfied after a meal on the challenge, and it's no wonder that so many children can't learn because they're too hungry. I work for an understanding organization that does a lot of advocacy around SNAP and they were all fully supportive of my doing this challenge, and understood my productivity might be down for the week. A single mother on SNAP working two part time jobs wouldn't have that luxury. Being constantly tired was another consequence of my diet. Five out of the seven nights on the challenge I went to bed a good two hours earlier than I normally do and found it even harder than usual to get out of bed in the morning (I am admittedly not much of a morning person to begin with). To have to function always hungry and always tired was a huge challenge. It is mind boggling to think there are people who do manual labor (instead of sitting at a desk) feeling like that every day.

It also isn't any wonder that many of those on SNAP are obese and have numerous health problems. Eating healthy is expensive even if you go to a regular grocery store and not some of the more fancy organic ones. I could've fairly easily eaten every meal on the McDonald's Dollar Menu for $28.70 or could've bought 10 boxes of Hamburger Helper and been done with it. I wanted to try and cook as much as possible, because I love to cook and wanted to see how feasible that would be. However, that's not always something those on SNAP can or are able to do. Also, it is clear that those on SNAP want to eat healthy, but are completely limited by the costs. In my first post-SNAP Challenge meal I loaded up on fresh food and vegetables, and for that one meal almost spent the entire allowance I had for when I was on the challenge. While having farmer's markets accept SNAP (some even doubling the benefits) is a huge step in the right direction and a really awesome thing to see, not everyone has access to those places.

There are also a lot of misconceptions about the program. One being that there is a lot of fraud. That is just blatantly false. Compared to many other government programs SNAP is efficient and effective, keeping 4 million people out of poverty in 2012. The other is that it is just a bunch of lazy deadbeats on the program. Also false. The vast majority of households (76 percent) include at least one child, an elderly person, or someone who is disabled. Also, most households that receive SNAP have at least one adult employed.

The bottom line is that after living off of SNAP benefits for one week I don't understand how someone could do that for any prolonged period of time, especially considering most benefits are used up by the third week of the month, leaving people even hungrier than before.

Almost a quarter of all U.S. children live in poverty and go to school hungry. It isn't any wonder why this country lags behind other countries when it comes to education.

If we want to set our citizens up for success (especially our future generations) we have to first nurture their bellies before we can expect them to nurture their brains.