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Thoughts on Making the Hunger Challenge a Bit More Challenging

The Hunger Challenge is an annual event put on by United Way of King County (WA) in which people volunteer to live on a limited food budget of about $7 a person/day for several days in order to gain empathy with people who are living on SNAP (food stamps). Some people wrote, made videos, etc. about their experiences.

As you might imagine, this was executed with varying degrees of success. Some people wrote excellent posts with recipes, resources, strategies and tips for eating on the cheap. Others shared just how difficult the entire thing was for them, some of them before the challenge even started. Yes, really. The response also swung widely with accolades being heaped upon a few bloggers for making it through a single day to, perhaps my favorite, "Poverty isn't a f*cking writing prompt." (Thank you, Miss Britt.)

I did my share of snarky tweeting about stunts and playing at poverty while the challenge was going on and while I do regret that a few friends thought I might be talking about them (I wasn't), I stand by it. I find it offensive to have people pretend to a life that you know is extremely difficult and come away after 72 hours (or less) saying "it's easy." Whatever the intent, it seems dismissive and diminishes the experiences of people who lived it to the benefit of those who write about one small, and highly mitigated, aspect of it on the Interwebs.

However, amd importantly, I also understand that this was not the intent of the individuals who participated in, and wrote about, the Hunger Challenge. Yes, many of the issues people had with the Hunger Challenge came down to what individual bloggers wrote, but I am not calling them out. (Look ma, no links!)

 Instead, in the spirit of fighting the real enemy, and recognizing that while United Way is considering changes they are plannng on doing this again next year, I offer suggestions for structural changes in the Hunger Challenge in order to make it just a wee bit more realistic.

TIP   If your exercise in empathy pisses off the people whose lives you are trying to understand, you might be doing it wrong.

A few thoughts on how to make the Hunger Challenge more authentic:

  • Food budget—According to United Way the average monthly SNAP benefit for families is about $245. My Google-fu failed me on drilling down on this, but since 245 is over the max for one person, if we assume that is for two people, it's about $4 person/day. This is very different from the 6-7 per person/day allowed by the Hunger Challenge. Let's be generous, go with four bucks a day food budget, and see how that works.
  • Contextualize the challenge—When I was on food stamps I didn't have a car, lived 30 miles from a decent grocery store and shopped at the tiny local store I could walk to. I read at least one person who went to five stores to spend sixty dollars. What the hell? How about one car trip to two stores max or two trips on public transit, anything else to be done on foot?
  • Make it Longer—Five weekdays, when office coffee is free and people are busy is nothing at all like a long weekend with no money, no coffee, and nobody to hang with because your friends all have cash to do stuff. So how about if the Hunger Challenge starts on a Friday and spans two weekends for a total of 11 days? Make it last a couple of isolated weekends in addition to the weekdays when there are lots of people to cheer you on.
  • Make the money run out—For an 11 day challenge, I think that two days without money for food would approximate what many folks go through. For each child in the family, one adult should skip an extra day's food money; pretend it's the 28th, you have hungry kids and 5 bucks in SNAP benefits. Eat a cracker.
  • Cheating—I find this interesting. There were half a dozen simple rules and some people were breaking them on the second day but there was serious pushback against calling it cheating. Whatever you call it, there is no flouting the rules in SNAP. Stealing from the Federal government is a crime! Tsk, tsk. Tweeting that you used your SNAP card for ready to eat food, an espresso or a Lunchable from the vending machine—assuming someone played along with the misuse—could get you, at minimum, booted from the program. It should get you kicked out of the Hunger Challenge as well, leaving you with no more food budget for the duration. That's the nicest thing that would happen in real life.

TIP If you find yourself asking "Is this cheating?" on twitter, it's probably cheating.

  • Stigma—When I was on food stamps, we got colorful scrip that bore more than a passing resemblance to Monoply money. The restrictions on purchases were different, too. No imported food, for one thing. (Imagine a ban on imported food now, there'd be little to eat in many places. How things have changed.) I'm not sure how to approximate this but am open to suggestions.  
  • Sharing—You are not allowed to give any food purchased with SNAP with anyone who is not a member of your household. This means that, technically, you can't give a friend who stops by so much as a cup of coffee, let alone a cookie. I am not claiming that this is how it works, but it is technically a crime and you can be kicked off the program. This might also help with the stigmatization when you have to explain to your child's friend that they can't have a snack.

A few thoughts for Hunger Challenge participants:

  • Please give us insight into why you are doing this, what you hope to learn and what you plan to teach. There were some excellent posts this year that worked a specific angle: local, organic, quick, involving kids and so on. As far as I saw, none of these sites were singled out for criticism.
  • Think before you complain about missing your latte. Sure it's an easy target for snarky tweets, but you drew it on yourself. Remember it's a few days out of your life, not your real life. Also, boredom on day two…really?
  • You are neither brave nor dedicated for sticking it out when you are sick, working late or have other reasons you'd prefer to grab a roasted chicken at the store. SNAP doesn't have sick days when they deliver free chicken soup. Since there's no prepared food you still have to cook. Sucks, huh?
  • If you find yourself being hassled, consider it part of the challenge. It can be uncomfortable, but you're probably only on the other side of the keyboard reading a tweet you don't like. People on public assistance are constantly being told how they are doing it wrong. Simply splitting your grocery purchase into food and not-food is a silent declaration that you are on SNAP leading some people to judge your purchases, sometimes out loud, rudely and to your face, or worse, your child's face.

Some of this may seem harsh for a little exercise in empathy, but if your point is to understand the experience, this is part of it. Public assistance is not as generous as you think, comes with a larger context and is unforgiving when it comes to not playing by the rules. If you are going to bother to play the game, then play the damned game.

Now that I have had my say, I encourage you to browse the Hunger Awareness Week archives at United Way's blog for a great collection of posts on hunger, the Hunger Challenge, and (admirably) the opposition to this year's challenge.

What are your thoughts on the Hunger Challenge? I'm guessing you have some and that's what comments are for!

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