By James K. Cummings, Board Chair, Nathan Cummings Foundation
This past week, I undertook a “SNAP Challenge” in which I spent the week eating on approximately $5.27 a day — the equivalent of the daily Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) budget (commonly called “food stamps”) for a person living in New York.
The goal was to get a sense of what it is like for so many Americans who have no choice but to rely on government assistance to put food on their tables, with the hope that my journey would help raise awareness, start a conversation and increase public support for food stamps and other critical programs.
I had spoken with several people who were on food stamps at earlier times in their life. While this challenge is clearly not walking in their shoes, it remains a way to bear witness and gives me much deeper appreciation and respect for many who find themselves economically challenged.
The week-long experience was truly eye-opening as I not only struggled throughout the week, but learned more about the kinds of people — and sheer numbers of people — who rely on this government assistance. More than 4 million working Americans — imagine, for example, everyone in the entire Boston metropolitan area — earn below the poverty line, qualifying them for SNAP. Many of them are restaurant workers who serve us food but cannot afford their own. America is among the wealthiest of nations in the entire world, yet 16.7 million of our children are living in food-insecure households.
Getting a small sense of how difficult it is to actually live that reality made the numbers even more disconcerting. I realized how impossibly hard it is to thrive on such a small amount. There were many times I felt hungry, sometimes light-headed, and my energy levels were constantly low. We cannot expect hard-working Americans and their children to live this way.
I am fortunate that this all ended for me Friday, but for so many Americans there is no end in sight. The hunger, the stress of surviving off of just $5.27 a day and the lack of energy that comes from eating so little are persistent problems for too many Americans who don’t have the luxury of quitting the “challenge” after just a week.
I leave this challenge with a renewed sense of urgency to fix this broken system. There is no excuse for this. We must do better.