September is National Hunger Month. This month, hundreds of food banks and food pantries around the country are engaging members of the community, local businesses, and public officials in their work. It is an opportunity to encourage people to act on hunger – an issue that plagues our nation.
Here, in our state, the network of eight Feeding America food banks, more than 350 food pantries, and another 700 partner agencies have leveraged new corporate partnerships, enhanced awareness of hunger issues in Iowa, and increased their volunteer base.
Knowing the impact Hunger Action Month has had on the state, I thought I would step up and take part in the SNAP Challenge this week. I was looking forward to the challenge to see just what my body (and mind) could sustain. Now, four days into the challenge, I have to recall my “looking forward to the challenge” statement. I have to realize that there are more than 46 million Americans (408,000 Iowans) participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The average benefit (nationally) per person is $133.41 per month ($4.50 a day) and in Iowa the average benefit is just $121.20 per month. It was an inconsiderate mindset of mine to “look forward to the challenge”. For millions of American, hunger is a reality every single day.
Earlier this week, I took my $31.50 (average weekly SNAP benefit) to Fareway Food Stores to purchase food for the week. I quickly learned the challenge presented to SNAP participants.
It’s great that fresh produce is situated near the front door of most stores; though the cost of fresh produce quickly adds up. I bypassed this section at first and gathered other items to make sure I could prepare meals for five days (with a few days of left-overs). After searching for the best deals, I went back to pick up a few fresh items. You may also notice a bag of cookies in the picture. Though some may frown on this, I wanted to show that cookies in moderation are ok; this was the very last item I picked up … and they were on sale. A few of the more nutritious items I picked-up, include: frozen vegetables, fresh bananas, low-fat yogurt, skim milk (99-cent half gallons), oatmeal, eggs and potatoes. I also went with whole wheat when my budget allowed.
I learned a few things during my shopping trip:
- In order to maximize SNAP dollars, budgeting and meal-planning is essential. I did not plan meals, nor did I carry a calculator. After keeping track of meals and tracking a running balance in my head, I was ready for a nap.
- The most nutritious food is the most expensive! I understood this before but did not fully realize the impact until I worked with a definite budget.
- Prioritizing and cost-benefit analysis is present in every decision. Do I want to spend an extra $1.49 on whole wheat bread when I can get white for $1.27? Should I just get boxed macaroni and cheese for $0.88 or spend another $2.00 on noodles and sauce? Do I have room in my budget for fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables/fruit? I found myself running all over the store trying to decide on the best combination.
- Maybe the toughest challenge I encountered was seeing other parents/families with a cart full of food – much of the food did not seem to be a necessity. I shopped alone. I can’t imagine the feeling if my two young daughters were with me. It would be difficult to explain why we couldn’t get chocolate milk or ice cream.
It has been a difficult week eating what I purchased, but I am managing. I am managing to keep myself upright over the course of four days. Too many families have to sustain this real-life challenge for months at a time. These families – the children, adults, and seniors – that have to live with this every day deserve better! Hunger doesn’t have a face. Hunger lives in our community, in our schools, in our neighborhood. Individually, I can’t solve hunger, but together – as one united force – we can sure start a movement. Will you join me in the fight against hunger? It’s time we all have equal access to food.
Written by Cory Berkenes, State Director of the Iowa Food Bank Association.