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Do "food stamp challenges" help?

Macomb Co.
In Michigan, a "Bridge Card" is used for food assistance.

Newark Mayor Corey Booker did it.

And last week, both Congressman Sander Levin (D-Royal Oak) and Congressman Dan Kildee (D-Flint) did it.

They all made a pledge to live on the average food stamp budget for a week.

That’s roughly $31.50 for a week’s worth of food.

Politicians partake in food stamp challenges to experience what it is like to eat on a $31.50 a week budget.

This is hardly a new sign of solidarity; politicians and other public figures have participated in these "food stamp challenges" many times before.

Food stamp budget cuts

But last week Levin and Kildee participated in the challenge -- joined by many other politicians nationwide -- at a time when cuts are being proposed to the food stamp program.

The Senate recently passed the 2013 Farm Billwhich cut $4.1 billion over a 10 year period from the national food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP).

Earlier in May, the House Agriculture Committee proposed cuts of almost $21 billion to SNAP over a 10 year period.

In 2012, the federal government spent $78.4 billionon SNAP.

Considering about 47.7 million people nationwide (and 1.7 million in Michigan) are currently dependent on SNAP for their daily meals, the proposed $25 billion cuts could impact a lot of people. 

Tweeting about the challenge

Kildee and Levin have actively been using social media to document their week on food stamps.

Below are pictures and tweets Kildee and Levin have posted on their Twitter accounts.


These "food stamp challenges" sparked a lot of conversation in Michigan Radio’s newsroom and on our Facebook page.

Many people feel that while the politicians are well intentioned, living a week on food stamps doesn’t exactly convey the full experience of living in poverty and struggling to feed your family. 

In our Facebook thread Brian Larmor said:

“I don't doubt he (or anyone) can ‘survive’ on $31 for one week, but do that for a year, two years. Then report back about how his health is. It irritates me when politicians make stupid gestures like this as if they're proving a point and then return to their lavish lifestyles.”

And Trevor Ditmar lamented:  

“Living on that is easy if you're thrifty and have some accessibility in transportation, but it doesn't mean much to the rest of us if you're driving to Aldi in a $80k car. Live on [or] near minimum wage for a month and then get back to me.”

Noliwe Rooks, an associate professor at Cornell University, critiques these "food stamp challenges" in an opinion piece she wrote for Time Magazine. She argues the challenges might raise awareness and increase empathy, but they rarely result in honest conversations or policy level changes:

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.

In the case of Kildee and Levin, they are participating in the food stamp challenge primarily to secure SNAP's current funding.

But many of their tweets and social media updates draw attention to the difficulty they face eating on a SNAP budget.

How much do we spend on food?

Let’s break down some numbers.

An individual on SNAP is provided roughly $31.50 a week to spend on food – that’s about $4.50 a day.

The average American spends around $22 a day on food, or $151 a week, according to a Gallup poll done last August.

That’s almost five times the amount of money a SNAP recipient spends a week.

So, how much do Americans spend on food?

And the poorest U.S. households spend a larger percentage of their overall income on food.

See this chart put together byNPR's Planet Money team:

Credit Lam Thuy Vo / NPR
How the poor, middle class, and rich spend their money. Look to the first two rows to see food costs. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So while low income households spend considerably less money on food each week, overall they still spend a larger portion of their income to cover food costs.

Average American spending less on food

Historically, the average U.S. household is spending less on food than ever before. Bloomberg Business created this colorful infographic to represent the trend.

Overall, Americans are spending less on food than ever before

Globally, the average household in the United States spends one of the lowest percentages of their overall income on food, according to the Gates Foundation.

They report that the average American spends 6% of its yearly income ($32,051) on food, whereas the average household in Kenya spends 45% of its yearly income ($541) on food.

To better visualize this stark difference, check out this graph.

So, we have an interesting paradox

The average American is spending less money on food than ever before and much less of their budget than what people worldwide spend.

But despite these trends, the number of Americans dependent on food assistance programs like SNAP indicates that many Americans still struggle to feed themselves and their families.

Looking again to the Michigan Radio Facebook comments, we asked people what they do to keep food costs down. Many suggested cooking most meals entirely from scratch and growing your own vegetables and fruits.

While these solutions are valid, neither is practical for families with caregivers that work fulltime or more than one job. Most commenters came to the consensus that eating healthy and cheap is difficult and often time consuming.

Mayor Cory Booker would probably agree. Below, you can watch him reflect on Day 4 of his food stamp challenge last year.

-Julia Field, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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