This week, several members of The Women’s Foundation staff are participating in the Food Stamp Challenge, an exercise organized by D.C. Hunger Solutions that educates the public and raises awareness of the benefits of food stamps and the challenges recipients face while eating on a very limited budget. The staff will be sharing their experiences on this blog.
I am midway through the Food Stamp Challenge—eat for a week for $30 per person, the average amount a person receives in food stamps in DC. I am fortunate that one son and my husband agreed to do it with me. This meant I could afford to buy a pound each of kidney beans (for chili), black beans (for tacos) and split peas (for soup), as well as packages of rice, white flour (biscuits, muffins) and cornmeal (corn bread with chili—yum!), allowing for greater variety in our meals than is possible for my colleague who is “going it alone.” And I’m fortunate that my son is vegetarian and my husband and I often cook without meat, so I could leave meat out of the budget without missing it. And it really helps that during the first couple decades of our marriage we skated very close to the edge of poverty, so I know a few tricks about stretching a food budget—including actually enjoying leftovers!
All that said, I’m very conscious that we are playing a game this week. We question the rules: Does gum count? Do kids’ week-time lunches count? Why can’t I eat cookies my colleague brought to the staff meeting? We cheat—one colleague with a glass of wine, me with a daily teabag provided at work. We complain about fairness: Why should I let that onion I bought last week go bad instead of putting it in my soup pot? But mostly, we know there’s an end: After seven days we can go back to “normal.” We can eat fresh vegetables and fruit every day—even twice a day if we’re so inclined. We can choose the low-sodium organic tomato sauce if that’s our preference. We can go out to lunch with colleagues. The “game” is over.
Not so for tens of thousands in our area—not just for those on food stamps, but also for the working poor. For them, this “challenge” is life. The rules are immutable. There’s no cheating. When the budget’s been spent, there’s no stocked pantry to fall back on; there’s no “My son had a football game and had to have high-quality protein to do his best;” there’s no luxury of ordering pizza when you come home too tired to cook.
Donna Wiedeman is the executive assistant to the president at The Women’s Foundation.