[Co-authored by Renata Ballesteros and Rebecca Barker]
February meant lean times for students on the Food Stamp Challenge, a self-imposed restriction of food spending to the levels permitted by government food assistance programs.
Paradoxically, hunger is famous in this country for going unnoticed. But with a soaring rate of unemployment, an economic recession and 46 million Americans — that’s one in seven — on some kind of federal food assistance program, it is an undeniable social problem in the middle of the richest country in the world and in the middle of Anchorage itself. For instance, according to the 2010 Hunger in America Study, the Food Bank of Alaska (FBA) provides food for an estimated 41,200 different people annually in the city, of which 35% are children under 18 years old.
In an attempt to reverse the ignorance, several students at UAA took on the Food Stamp Challenge: a self-imposed restriction on spending to the levels permitted by government food assistance programs.
“The point of the exercise is to raise awareness that hunger does exist around us, even on our University campus, and to bring it to the attention of folks who may rarely have to think about their food in terms of pennies” said Rebecca Barker, Senior.
From Feb. 13 to Feb. 29, participants stuck to a maximum budget of $1.90 per meal, in accordance with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) monthly benefits. The program provides monthly benefits to eligible low-income families to purchase food depending on their income and assets. For a single-person household earning $1,466, the monthly allotment would be approximately $200** (the Congressional Food Stamp Challenge actually limits the participants to almost half that, at $1.00 per meal, so some participants chose to stick to an even more restricted budget). Students only consumed food purchased at locations that accept food stamps. Previously owned foods were excluded, eating in restaurants or on campus was essentially out of the question, and products such as coffee, alcoholic beverages, tobacco, nutritional supplements, health aids were also off the list.
Participants kept a journal throughout the experience and documented the challenges and insights they gained through this exercise. On the last day of the challenge, the students got together to share their experiences and had the honor of meeting Paul Watson, the Food Stamp Outreach Coordinator for the Food Bank of Alaska.
Though the students agreed that they were not significantly hungrier, everybody missed the boost of caffeine or supplements in their diets. “Muscle mass seems to have diminished,” reported Alex Stroebele, “I wasn’t able to lift as much at work because I was weaker and didn’t have a constant level of energy.”
“Life definitely became more stressful. Planning my meals so carefully took up precious time, exercising became a drag when I knew it would make me hungrier, and my social gatherings were significantly limited for lack of money. A diet in a budget took away a big part of my stress outlets” said Renata Ballesteros.
In the end, the lessons learned from the challenge went above and beyond raising awareness about local hunger issues. It gave closer insight of how finances and food fundamentally affect lives; from productivity at work, to emotional stability and social interaction. As opposed to common conceptions, living on food stamps is not pleasant or comfortable and a restriction in diet affects life in much deeper levels than mere caloric intake. Watson pointed out:
“Would you rather have a well-paying job or live on food stamps? The answer should be easy enough after going through the challenge yourself. In my years working with the food bank, I have never met anyone happy to be on food stamps. In fact, the average time that most of our recipients make use of the program is seven months and many of them are indeed employed and have to choose between paying for heating, medicine, rent or food.”
“A big part of the challenge’s purpose is to fight stigmas. There is help out there if you are hungry and there is nothing shameful about searching for it,” pointed out Erica Mitchell, a senior.
In the end, the Food Stamp Challenge adds a new dimension to the question whether government is to aid those in need or if its “safety nets” just create dependency. Perhaps we should ask the same question as American Voices’ Jeff Greenfield:
“What does it tell us about our country that so many require assistance to meet some of the most fundamental of needs?”
-  Portraits of hunger: Stories of Americans on food stamps
-  Hunger In America 2010 Anchorage Hunger Study Results