Friday, February 27, 2009

Understanding Hunger - First Hand

Sean Callebs at CNN is conducting a pretty interesting experiment: he's living off of food stamps for a month.

Of course we call them 'food stamps' out of habit, now is actually called the 'Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program', or SNAP. Callebs has to cheat a little, because he actually doesn't qualify for the SNAP program. He's is living off of the monthly allocation for a single person, which is $176.

Here are a few entries from his blog on the experience:

February 26
"For dinner, I made grilled chicken, rice, and green beans. Oh, I am almost out of milk, juice, and the little packets of knock-off Crystal Light that I have been using. I still have $16.10 left. I know I am going to have to buy more milk and perhaps a couple of other items to tide me over.
I will make it through the month. I actually feel pretty good about that. I know I have received a lot of email from people saying, $176 I started with was a lot of money for one person. But, I had to totally overhaul the way I have always eaten, and I will remind you the folks at the Department of Social Services here in Louisiana didn't think I would make it through the month."

February 25
"A lot of people have said if I want to experience the hardship I need to extend the experiment. Try living on food stamps for two months, or three months.

"There are so many things that have changed in the way I eat. I am constantly thinking about what I have left in the fridge and on the shelf. I think about how much money I have left. I think about ways of making my meals more diverse with the limited items I do have. In short, it just wears on you having to constantly worry there may not be enough, or it simply isn't what I want to eat. And mind you, I am just one person. I can't imagine how agonizing it must be for families to have to deal with this stress day in and day out worrying about how they are going to feed their children.

"Remember, here in Louisiana one in six receives some kind of assistance in the form of food stamps. And, 31-million people across the country do the same."

February 22
From an email

"From Tennessee, Julie is critical of the notion that food stamps are supposed to be a supplement. She says, "I read about food stamps supposed to be a 'supplemental' program and not the only way people buy food. That is a joke. People who truly need food stamps are using them as the ONLY means of food purchase (Unless they use food banks).""

It's very easy to be critical of poor people. To consider them drags on society and talk about what they 'should' do. That perception changes when you meet them, when you work with them as they try and pull themselves out of poverty, when you have relationships with them. Or as in Sean Callebs case, try and walk in their shoes.

That's getting a lot easier for some Texans. By the end of 2008, almost 3,000,000 people were participating in SNAP. A 25% increase over the previous year. What is interesting is that only about a third of those eligible for SNAP/food stamps, actually participate in the program, and only 56% of the working poor (families in which at least one person is employed), is a participant.
There are any number of reasons for this. Obviously the economy is an overwhelming factor. The country has had an increasing poverty rate for years, but the economic collapse of 2008, placed a number of people who never expected it in application lines.

But the fact that there aren't more people making application for SNAP, also has contributing factors. Texas' outsourcing the application process has produced inefficiencies in the administration of nearly all social services. Lack of outreach and education regarding who qualifies for the program is also at issue. Pride is probably also a cause. But the facts are, for all those receiving assistance there are a lot of people in Texas going hungry, unnecessarily.

The rest of us who go to bed at night on full stomachs, should think more about the fragile nature of our prosperity. Another respondent to Callebs blog is getting it: "Sue has been following the blog this month. She's someone who has never had to worry about food stamps, or where the next meal will come from, but like so many people, she is shopping a bit differently these days. She writes in: "Thank you for taking the time and energy to give the rest of us a bit more of an awareness of side of life most Americans can't even begin to comprehend. I have had lean times in my life, but never have I felt the crushing burden of not knowing whether I would eat today, or whether I would be able to find shelter for myself on a cold night.""


You can read my monthly column in the Dallas Morning News here.

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