The last week of September (Hunger Action Month) was quickly disappearing, and I’d yet to live up to a commitment to participate in the CalFresh Challenge. The challenge, run locally by the nonprofit San Diego Hunger Coalition, was simple: Get through as many days as possible by spending a total of $4.27 on your daily meals.
That small and seemingly random amount is the average daily entitlement granted per person to participants in the CalFresh program, which on the federal level is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and what most of us grew up referring to as Food Stamps.
It is possible to eat for a day on four bucks and change, but it takes plenty of foresight. I started with good intent and ate a banana and drank an Arizona Ice Tea for breakfast, totaling $1.50. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I didn’t plan out any further than that. Nothing had been pre-purchased. I guess I assumed I’d hit the magic convenience store that sold dollar sandwiches, sprinkled with unicorn sea salt. I was hungry, became frustrated and had to eat something so I could get back to work covering the news stories of the day (like the omnipresent presidential debate). What I normally considered to be an inexpensive lunch—pad-see-ew noodles from the Thai place near my office—blew what would have been two full days of budget. I failed.
Far more conscientious about meeting the challenge was Amanda Schultz, CalFresh outreach director for the San Diego Hunger Coalition. Schultz told me how she’d been shopping to fill up her home closet for a weeklong challenge, and had found a coupon for $5 off a $10 purchase of vegetables at Target. The coupon turned out to be invalid. Rather than just buy the veggies she took to the check-out stand, though, she told the Target clerk—in front of a line of customers—to take them off her bill.
“Yes, it was an embarrassing experience, but I had to live by the challenge,” she said. “It was definitely a visceral reminder of the work we do, and what the people in this program sometimes go through.”
Consider me humbled.
As of August 2016, there were 291,649 CalFresh recipients in San Diego County. Of those, 138,680 were under the age of 18 (47 percent) and 24,290 were seniors over the age of 55 (11 percent).
Many of us are familiar with the rules—a recipient can’t use CalFresh to buy alcohol, tobacco or hot/prepared meals (although certain restaurants are cleared to serve warm meals to the elderly, the homeless and people with disabilities). Also not allowed on CalFresh: vitamins and medicines, paper products or diapers.
Some Farmer’s Markets around the county do have a special clearance that allows vendors to accept CalFresh. (Even so, it’s a near-impossibility to eat a healthy diet under current limits.)
The federal assistance allocated to county residents is based on family size, income and other factors. That daily per-person average of $4.27 is down from $4.38 in 2015.
When the national economy teetered on the brink of the Great Recession of 2009, SNAP benefits were increased nationally by $45.2 billion, as part of the passage of the massive American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. When that temporary appropriation for SNAP ran out in November 2013, benefits fell on average by 5 percent for families and for individuals.
There are some champions on the federal level who are in favor of reinstating those SNAP benefits, said Schultz, who singled out Rep. Susan Davis. “But there’s more attention right now on maintaining the existing benefits,” she said. “Congress is not focused on putting those levels back up, even though we’re still in a depressed economy and people are having to rely on these funds for a long period of time, and they don’t reflect the current cost of living.”
Schultz said task at hand is to fight the Republican-led Congress’ inclination to further reduce SNAP benefits.
The CalFresh Challenge did offer a fleeting glimpse at a serious disconnect between the task of holding down a job while trying to feed yourself, or even a family of young children, for $4.27 a person per day.
During Monday’s presidential debate, I listened to see if this issue is anywhere close to being part of the national discussion. The term “income inequality” was mentioned one time by Hillary Clinton. That was as close as it got.
To read about others attempts at the CalFresh Challenge go to: sandiegohungercoalition.org/calfresh-challenge-blog.