09/21/2012 02:24 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

SNAP Hunger Challenge: Not Really a Poor Grad Student After All

It's ironic that the SNAP Hunger Challenge in Illinois begins on payday.

The same day that I begin a week of eating on a budget of $5 per day -- the equivalent of living off the average food stamp benefit in Illinois -- a stipend is deposited in my bank account. On any other week, this could afford me more than 10 times the weekly SNAP allowance, meaning that not only can I live and eat comfortably as a student, but I can build a savings in the process.

As a graduate student at the University of Illinois, this is the sort of reality that makes me cringe when my peers describe themselves as "poor graduate students."

And while this situation doesn't necessarily reflect all graduate students (let's not forget about student loans or the many grad students who don't receive a stipend), it is certain that most of us live comfortably. As a result, living on $5 a day is going to mean facing some inconvenience this week. In fact, before the week even began, I noticed some potential dilemmas, like what I would do if I hadn't filled up my gas tank on Saturday night, just before the Challenge began, or what the impact of running out of toilet paper or laundry detergent would have on my choices at the grocery store.

But the reality is that families in Illinois and around the country must make some of these untenable trade-offs, choosing between paying for food or things like utilities, gas, rent or medical care.

These sorts of choices are foreign to me, and I'm willing to bet it's the same for most of my peers. But I also know that students care about these issues. Last week on the September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance, students from different backgrounds came together at the University of Illinois to package meals for the hungry in our community. Students from Catholic Service and Justice Outreach joined with students from Illini Hillel and the Muslim Students Association and many others to reflect and build relationships as we remember one of the greatest tragedies of our lifetime.

Being American, they said, is about collaborative action and concern for our neighbors, so the most appropriate thing to do on a day we remember those lost in an attack on America is to serve our neighbors in need. The meals they packaged will go to the local food bank which distributes to food pantries and other hunger relief organizations in east central Illinois.

These students care about taking action against hunger, but their reasons for doing so differ. My friend Kaitlyn describes the way her Catholic tradition calls for service and justice among all peoples regardless of their backgrounds, while my friend Masood quotes a hadith mandating that a true Muslim not let his or her neighbor go hungry. For others in the room it was the principle of benevolence, the notion of tikkun olam, or simply a sense of responsibility toward those in needs. And for a few I've encountered through organizing hunger-fighting service projects, it's because they've been there before -- they know what it's like to not know where their next meal is coming from.

The SNAP Challenge this week is an opportunity to go there -- to walk in the shoes of someone facing food insecurity. And for me, it's an experience driven by yet another concept, demonstrated by the one who fed 5,000 from one boy's small sacrifice and encouraged all of us to follow the boy's example, saying "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

I hope that my peers will join me and take the opportunity to walk in the shoes of our neighbors facing food insecurity. I think we may realize that we're not such poor students after all, but actually rich with the resources to make a difference.