The Problem with Food-Stamp Challenges

Politicians and celebrities are trying to live for one week on food stamps, but will this increase advocacy for the poor?

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A person displays a federal food stamps card on February 10, 2011, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

As the outcome of a debate he had with a Twitter follower, Newark Mayor Cory Booker says he will spend December 4 through 11 trying to live on food stamps. Should he follow through, Mayor Booker will be part of a rapidly growing group. In the last six months, mayors in Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Phoenix have also spent a week living on food stamps, as have the governors of Oregon and Colorado. And politicians are not the only ones participating in such experiments. A few months ago, celebrity chef Mario Batali successfully completed a food stamp challenge with his family, and there is a program at the University of Bridgeport that in a few weeks will invite students on the campus to do the same.

There are even groups around the country that help organize community participation in similar efforts. One such group, The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, hosts a blog where people post their experiences. Some happily share the news about how their week-long experience with food stamps led to long-desired weight loss. However, most everyone from celebrities to politicians to regular people agree about how impossibly hard it is to eat healthfully, or even consistently escape hunger, on so little food.

(MORE: One Nation on Welfare: Living Your Life on the Dole)

These experiments are designed to make politicians and the general public more sensitive to the difficulties of living on $4.00 per day, the amount that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides to the almost 46 million people who currently receive benefits. But is it really any surprise how difficult that would be? Proving that those who are wealthy, middle class or famous can live on $4.00 per day may increase empathy, but it will do little to actually help those who need the program most. In the meantime, there is very little public conversation—or legislation—about actually raising the dollar amount for SNAP recipients.

Perhaps this is because, according to a Pew Research Center Survey conducted in April, Americans are deeply ambivalent about the role that government should play in helping the poor. In the Pew poll, 59% of respondents said that the government should provide food and housing to all citizens, but a whopping 71% thought the poor have become too dependent on such assistance, while 52% said we should forgo increased support to the poor if it will increase the deficit.

(MORE: Who Wants to Play the ‘Food Stamp Challenge’?)

In 2011, more Americans said they struggled to afford food more than in any other year since the financial crisis, according to a recent report from the Food Research and Action Center, and earlier this year one in five people surveyed in a Gallup Poll said that they could not always afford to feed their entire family. These are real people who have to negotiate too little food month after month, year after year — not just for one week. According to the National Poverty Center, between 1996 and 2011, SNAP reduced the number of extremely poor children in the United States by nearly 50%. The number of extremely poor households also saw a huge drop, falling to about 800,000 from 1.46 million. An increase in the amount of support offered by the SNAP program would have an even larger impact.

Painter Pablo Picasso once said, “I like to live poor, only with a lot money.” Those who have taken up the SNAP challenge and chronicled their experiences all say that they were tired, couldn’t focus, and were distracted by hunger. Once their week was over, their lives got right back to normal. We can only hope that Cory Booker and others who take up such experiments will become advocates to help raise others out of poverty and not just spend a week walking in their shoes.

MORE: Below the Poverty Line


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If you are not disabled than you are able. Before reading further, define the words responsibility and accountability.

We were all given an education (what you did with it was your own choice)

We all had a choice to be responsible when it came to having children (teens, young adults, married, unmarried, divorced)

We all had a choice on our employment/unemployed

We all have a choice on the lifestyles we chose to live (spending)

We all have a choice on a new employer (better job or lower job) (full time, part time, OT)

No matter what choices you made, you are accountable for the choices you made. 

I am tired of hearing about all the difficulties and excuses. Try working 40 to 60 hours a week and go through all the difficulties I'm reading about (know many single parents doing it). We are all making  sacrifices. We are all stretching every penny. I'm tired of hearing how I'm not paying enough taxes for those making poor choices above. There are too many people abusing the assistance system now. Rid the abuse and and the selling of cards for cash and we can all get a raise. What about all the single mothers collecting assistance while living out of wedlock with a live in making a decent income etc etc etc.

Also, I'm tired of living in a nation of equality and getting less in tax returns than single parents doing the same job making the same income because I chose marriage over children out of wedlock. (Divorce is not an excuse and its also a life choice or the lack of)

States should run assistance stores (create jobs) where the cards can only be used with photo ID. Stores that only sell approved goods. Those that are not disabled should be required annually to take a random drug test (Those working are required to be tested for employment). Disability should not include those with substance abuse issues (another life choice with accountability or the actual lack of). 

I apologize for those with actual LEGIT issues that I have overlooked, but I will not apologize to those that made choices I was responsible not to make. I don't feel that the hard working American laborer who was responsible for his/her actions throughout life should be continually burdened financially with taxes going to those abusing the system and those making life decisions they can't take responsibility for or be accountable for. I find this OFFENSIVE!


StephanieL.Pyke, you are absolutely correct.  I 'm not a American, and I don't live in the US.  I leave in a country with a better safety net than that in the US, but I still live in poverty because I'm on a government disability pension.

This is NOT a fun way to live.  This means counting every penny, and stretching every penny as far as is humanly possible.  I don't drink, smoke, or do street drugs.  I don't abuse prescription drugs.  I don't buy newspapers, magazines, books or music, and I don;'t go to concerts or movies.  My life, therefore, is only slightly more interesting that is that of a monk.

As far as I'm concerned, the more people who try this, even for just a week, the better, just as long as they then start lobbying for better treatment of those who live in poverty.  And unless that happens, the children of such families will continue to need assistance, because they simply cannot get their needs taken care of in a manner that would allow them to concentrate, and to study, in order to pull themselves out of poverty. 


Until you have-HAVE TO- live on food stamps, it is impossible to understand.. Plus the way that these are handled, in a debit card, that allows cash to be withdrawn also, cuts down on the actual amount used for food by some families. I have seen more than one mother trying to pay for a basket of groceries, only to discover that someone else in the family had withdrawn all funds. When I had no income, I was allowed $150 per month for groceries, no cash benefits. I had trouble feeding myself. Had I had children, I would have had a terrible time trying to provide meals, snacks, school lunches, etc. This is a job itself. How do mothers  work, provide meals, and take care of the kids and household? Prepared foods in the grocery--i.e. rotisserie chicken, cooked deli meals--are not allowed for stamp purchase. I wish that some of the religious TV programs we see at night, showing hungry children in third world countries would show the lines at US food banks and the children at school breakfast programs. I know children who didn't want to participate in school lunch programs because there is a stigma in being 'needy'. We have to find a way to remove the stigma, to feed children in this country. Perhaps a program where all school breakfast and lunches are free. I don't have the answer. We need one. The children going hungry are supposed to grow into the leaders of tomorrow.


If there is an underprivileged than it certainly must have an opposite wonder what that could be? Thanks Ms Rooks for shedding some long needed light on such a very complex and volatile issue.


You will never get rid of his problem until people stop thinking of underprivileged individuals as a collective "the poor." "The poor" are individuals with varies circumstances and needs, just like "the rich" or "the middle class." "the poor" can be marginalized, generalized, and villified.It's not fair to simply have to follow the snap card for hunger. If politicians really wanted the experience, they must sever ties with their friends, sell off their houses and try to live for a year on what a person receiving snap is earning, and work where a person receiving snap is working. It's not just the food that's the problem. It's everything. Housing, medical, social connectedness, mobility, food and nutrition, safety, education, opportunity.Let him work a year as a waiter, earning $2.13/hr + tip with a boss that demands you work 80 hours per week with no overtime, no benefits, no days off and gets his rocks off calling you names and berating you in front of nasty, low blood sugar suffering, entitled, tired, impatient, cruel people when you mess something up due to stress, sleep dep and malnutrition,while the illegal immigrants in the back get paid more than you and receive less fuss. And the boss collects tips and steals the majority of it from you and the other wait staff to pay the back, all of whom get paid $7.75/hr or more. Then let him get the indignity of having to use snap and be called lazy and dependent by society in general as you are trying to pay bills and grocery shop in the precious few hours that you are not either sleeping or working. Maybe then he might understand the conditions "the poor" have to face. It's not simply a matter of what we put in our face.


F all of these people. I work hard to provide what I can for my family and in order to keep some food on the table I have to use snap benefits. These people are treating this very serious matter like it's a joke. I personally find this offensive.