Spending a week on a food stamp budget barely scratches the surface of what it’s like to be truly food insecure. I spent three hungry days, gorged over the weekend, and then spent three more days being hungry. That was all I could take.
The 35.5 million Americans who are food insecure (the USDA’s euphemism for those who are hungry or who live on the edge of hunger) don’t have the luxury of taking time off from not getting enough to eat whenever being hungry becomes too inconvenient. They must face hunger day in and day out, with no discernible end in sight.
$21 is simply not enough to provide a healthy, filling diet for a week, especially as food prices continue to rise. According to a 2007 paper by public health researchers Andrew Drewnowski and Pablo Monsivais, the average price increase in supermarket foods and beverages from 2004 and 2006 was 7.9%. Yet not
all foods increased in price equally, or even at all. The least calorie dense foods (like fresh fruits and vegetables) gained in price by an average of 19.5%, while the most calorie dense foods (highly processed foods full of refined sugars and grains and added fats and salt) actually dropped in price by an average 1.8%.
A large part of that disparity can be attributed to the U.S. Farm Bill. Our government currently spends billions of dollars every year subsidizing commodity crops. In 2005, $9.4 billion was spent on corn alone. In order to be eligible for such subsidies, farmers are not to grow fruits or vegetables. Thanks to our Farm Bill, the price of corn (and wheat and soy and rice) is kept artificially low because farmers are paid to grow lots of it, while the price of non-commodity fruits and vegetables remain high, because farmers are given financial incentive not to grow them.
Our government’s agricultural policy must change. We must stop paying already wealthy factory farmers to grow obscenely vast quantities of monoculture crops. Instead, we should pay them to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, and more of them. With this change, the price of such monoculture crops will go up, and the price of processed foods containing derivatives of those crops may increase as well. But the price of fruits and vegetables would go down, which could present enough of a financial change to our food environment to enable food insecure families to eat better and be healthier.
America’s Food Stamp Program also needs to be revamped so that the average benefit is more than $1 a meal. Most American’s spend more than that on their morning cup of coffee. Opponents of food stamp programs argue that food stamps only encourage the poor to be indigent and lazy. When I was living off $1 a meal, I was tired and distracted by my constant hunger. If I spent my life in that state, I would feel “lazy” too.
I set out on this challenge because I needed a final project for my Psychology, Biology, and Politics of Food class. From reading about other’s experiences on the Food Stamp Challenge, I thought I knew what to expect – smaller portions and wistful glances at other’s meals – but I really had to live it to appreciate just how difficult it is to live with hunger.
Most Americans have been fortunate enough to be unharmed by rising food costs. They may have had to cut back on buying organic fruits and vegetables or have had to cook more and eat out less, but they haven’t had to go hungry. If you’re in that lucky group, I issue you my own challenge: take the Food Stamp Challenge for a week, and donate the money you saved on groceries to a local food pantry or soup kitchen.