It may sound like a new crash diet: eat no more than $3 worth of food a day. But for Yalies participating in the Food Stamp Challenge this week, their limited diet is not a formula for dropping a few pounds.
The Food Stamp Challenge — organized by Jewish food-advocacy group Mazon and co-sponsored by a number of campus groups, such as the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project — aims to demonstrate to students at Yale what it is like to live off of a food-stamp program. On average, food stamps provide $3 for an entire day’s meals, according to challenge guidelines.
The program at Yale, which runs from Nov. 1 to Nov. 8, invites participants to enroll in the challenge for a period of time ranging from a single day to the full week. Student participants were encouraged to post entries on the Food Stamp Challenge at Yale blog about their experiences on the food budget.
Mimi Lewis ’09 brought the idea for the Food Stamp Challenge to Yale after working for the Food Research and Action Center over the summer. FRAC, a nonprofit organization that seeks to eliminate hunger in the United States, introduced the Food Stamp Challenge in spring 2007 as a dare to members of Congress. FRAC leaders hoped experiencing a day in the life of someone living off of food stamps would encourage members of Congress to consider more carefully the implications of their legislation.
“Can we really know what it feels like to be on food stamps?” Lewis said. “No. But this helps remind us of the challenges other people are facing.”
Lewis said the challenge was originally scheduled for the end of November, when she thought the Farm Bill — the piece of legislation governing food stamps — would reach the Senate floor. But when she received notice that the bill was moving more quickly than anticipated, Lewis rescheduled the program to run concurrently. Lewis said she regrets not being able to publicize the program as much as she had initially planned.
Twelve student participants are listed on the challenge’s Web site, although not all of them ended up actively participating in the challenge. As of Wednesday night, the site had eight regular contributors, some of whom have posted entries with titles such as “Hunger and Overeating,” “Our Challenge’s Challenges” and “What about lunch dates?!”
Michael Long GRD ’08, a frequent blogger who will be on the diet for the full week, posted multiple photos of his low-budget meals, which included a lunch of brown rice, split peas and spinach. Long said he thinks the challenge is a good way to inform Yalies about the difficulty of eating a balanced diet under the national Food Stamp Program.
He said while his first night on the challenge was a shock, he later realized that his daily caloric intake is only slightly lower than usual.
To prepare for the challenge, Long went shopping at Shaw’s Supermarket and paid $21 for all of the food he would eat for the week. Long, who now cannot afford the Subway sandwiches and veggie burgers that are usually a staple of his diet, said he is eating much more rice than usual. But his biggest concern this week is the amount of work that it takes to plan and cook meals on a restricted budget.
Long said the past week has forced him to make critical decisions about what issues are important to him.
“I realize much more acutely what I am going to eat and I am not going to eat,” he said. “I chose regular eggs rather than cage-free eggs because they were cheaper, and in doing so I gave up on animal-rights issues.”
Long recalls spending a much longer time than usual wandering the aisles of the grocery store, finding it difficult to locate the ingredients for a filling and nutritious meal with limited food options.
Several students decided to sacrifice nutrition in favor of quieting a growling stomach. In a Sunday blog entry entitled “Yes, I’m hungry,” Ben Bokser ’09 described getting through the day by eating half a box of cereal and his friend’s leftovers from dinner in a dining hall.
Eliza Schafler ’09 wrote a blog entry entitled “Fast Food is Cheap,” in which she describes surviving off of a hotdog, two orders of french fries, a grilled cheese sandwich and a bagel purchased from the Ezra Stiles College buttery.
But others were more successful in maintaining a balanced diet.
Julia Knight ’11, who participated in the challenge for a day, said her allotment of food for one day was eight pieces of white bread, one-third of a jar of peanut butter and five apples.
“I usually try to eat from all the food groups,” Knight said.
Long said students’ experiences with the program point to the difficulties that people who survive on food stamps must face every day. He said he hopes students realize how easy it is to fall back on fatty, unhealthy foods that can lead to obesity and long-term health problems.
Many students interviewed who did not participate in the challenge said they wish it had been better advertised.
Hyatt Howard ’11 said he was surprised that the program, which he thinks would have had a wide appeal, was not publicized more widely.
“I would have considered participating if I had heard about it,” he said. “I think it’s a good way to observe how other people live.”
The Food Stamp Challenge comes to an end Thursday, the day of the annual YHAAP fast and the Oxfam Hunger Banquet. The banquet aims to raise awareness of hunger issues at home and abroad and this year will focus on how domestic policy influences world hunger. Lewis said two participants of the Food Stamp Challenge will speak at the event about their struggles living on a food budget of $3 a day.
Knight said she had not seriously thought about hunger issues before receiving the e-mail inviting her to participate in the challenge. But her hunger pains inspired her to get more involved in projects to reduce hunger, she said.
“There is a difference between knowing about a problem and actually thinking about it,” Knight said.
This fall, Lewis obtained a $1,200 grant from Mazon to introduce the challenge to the Yale student body. To publicize the campuswide event, Lewis posted fliers and sent out e-mails to a number of student groups, such as YHHAP and the Yale branch of Mercado Oxfam, a nonprofit fair-trade organization.