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Using the Food Stamp Challenge to Teach About Food Justice

May 9, 2013

food-stamp-challengeMost—but certainly not all—of my students are comfortably middle class. This means that they have never really had to think about where their next meal might come from. That’s what makes the food stamp challenge such an interesting exercise for a course in food politics.

The food stamp challenge was started by NGOs to draw attention to the difficulty of surviving on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). While SNAP is an important component of food security for millions of Americans, the benefits are often too low to allow families to purchase a wide array of health and fresh foods. But most of the discourse around “welfare” in the United States focuses on welfare abuse—“welfare queens”—rather than on the millions hardworking Americans who, after paying for housing, electricity, transportation, and other basic expenses, have little money left to spend on food.

The Food Stamp Challenge gives students an opportunity to get a glance of what like is like for the millions of Americans who depend on the SNAP program to make ends meet. The official Food Stamp Challenge asks participants for one week to spend no more than $4 per day on food. As one website notes, http://frac.org/initiatives/snapfood-stamp-challenges/ “Challenge participants find they have to make difficult food shopping choices, and often realize how difficult it is to avoid hunger, afford nutritious foods, and stay healthy.”

There are a good number of supporting materials available to administer the Food Stamp Challenge. The Hatcher Group developed a toolkit for Members of Congress.  The FRAC has also published materials to facilitate groups undertaking the Food Stamp Challenge.

As part of the class, I ask students to keep track of what they eat for the week, and to share tricks with their classmates. Some students really embrace the challenge. Others find it too difficult and quickly drop out. In either case, at the end of the week, we have a classroom discussion about how it went, the challenges they encountered, and what they learned about living on SNAP. I also make sure that students consider not just what they ate, but how they ate during the week. The limited budget often makes it impossible to eat out with friends, something most students have not necessarily considered. Students are often energized by the activity, and some even go on to work with our local food bank on issues of local food insecurity. For some students, the exercise may hit a little too close to home. So while it’s an engaging activity, care must be taken in deploying it.

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