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The Hunger Challenge: On Being on Food Stamps For Real

Some folks are participating in the Hunger Challenge and feeding their families on a 'food stamp budget' of about 4 dollars a person a day. This event, being put on by the San Francisco Food Bank is designed to raise awareness of hunger and the overwhelming need to help Americans obtain enough food.

I have mixed feeling about the whole affair.

Awareness is good, but the type of awareness can leave a bit to be desired. People want to try the budget to identify more with the people who have no choice, but the context is so dissimilar as to make it an almost laughable comparison.

It's complicated.

I wrote some thoughts on making the Hunger Challenge a bit more challenging when it was being done in the Seattle area a while back. Those thoughts stand but I have a few more. (Amazing, huh?)

Once upon a time I was a poor single mother and I got food stamps. Not those SNAPpy little credit card things you get now, but colorful play money scrip they used back in the dark ages. It was like shopping with Monopoly money.

This is what I remember about being on food stamps:

  • Waiting until there was nobody in the checkout line because I didn't want to deal with people glaring at my fistful of play money or judging the contents of my grocery cart. (I have since discovered that some seemingly nice people judge other's grocery carts as entertainment. WTF, you guys?) Worse, some people commented about how I was spending 'their tax dollars'...out loud. When I was with my daughter. Some people suck.

  • Checkers asking over the intercom "Can you buy ___ with food stamps?" - because having the store second guess your purchases over the public address system isn't humiliating.

  • Deciding to spend a few extra cents so my bill went over an even dollar amount, netting me a few more coins in change. (This was the only advantage to the Monopoly money, no coins.) Truth be told, there were times I went back for something I 'forgot' because it meant getting change from another dollar. (There were times that 2-3 trips to the store yielded the change to buy a gallon of gas for the car. That was always an accomplishment.)

  • Volunteering at the local food bank to deliver food to local seniors so that nobody would notice that the last box was delivered to my apartment.

  • Embracing a meatless diet, for myself not theKid, because that way she got the good stuff she needed. I also got really good at making it look like I was eating a lot more than I was.

  • Going to bed hungry more than one night in a row so that theKid didn't. I am not talking about that light "I only ate 1600 calories today" hunger. I mean HUNGRY. Like all I had for the last 72 hours was tea and saltines. If you've never fasted for 72 hours, let me tell you something most people won't: it makes you stupid. Your brain slows down and your body is drained of reserves. Watching your mental acuity fade away, along with your path to making things better, is a scary feeling.

  • Standing in a checkout line with my child who really, really wanted some fresh berries for her birthday cake. They cost a dollar, which I could afford. Barely. The only berries in the store were from Canada (about an hour away) and imported food was forbidden. Digging through my pockets, I came up with just enough cash for toilet paper (not optional) and was explaining to a tearful toddler why she couldn't have her 'birthday berries' while the man behind me in line rolled his eyes and sighed impatiently. After one of the longest minutes of my life, a woman reached around the scowling man and handed me $5, smiling at theKid and wishing her a happy birthday. (Nice woman, wherever you are, I owe you.)

This last bit is the sort of deeply painful that leaves me, thirty years later, in tears remembering the horrible feeling of failure that went with not being able to spend a dollar on the one thing my child really, really wanted.

One dollar. Thirty years ago. Tears now. (Lest you think that I am some overly sentimental type that does this a lot, let me assure that I am NOT the sobbing type.)

These experiences are not what I would wish on anyone, yet millions of people are in just that situation. Right now. I can guarantee that someone in your hometown is going to bed hungry tonight.

We have to change that.

My bit of change? I have about 100 pounds of rice, beans and other staples in my garage that I need to take to the local food bank.

Yours? Help out wherever you live by checking with Feeding America (Second Harvest) to find a local food bank that needs your donations and assistance.

Please don't let another child go to bed hungry tonight.

We are better than that.

We can be better than that.

Won't you help?

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