It was about a week ago that I decided that I would participate in what has been dubbed the “food stamp challenge.” My inspiration to join the challenge was Newark Mayor Cory Booker who recently announced on Twitter his own intentions to spend a week living with a food budget of just $35. I love Cory Booker. I mean, of course, I love Cory Booker. I’m only human. Which, actually, Booker might not be. He might not be human because Superman wasn’t human, was he? And Booker is about as close to Superman as a politician gets. Anyway, with Booker as my guiding light, I decided that I too would live off $35 a week. I would further keep to the limits suggested by the official SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Challenge and not eat any food that I had purchased before I started the challenge and not accept any offers of free food or drinks. I was ready to do this. I had started menu planning. This week was really going to teach me something. This week would put everything into perspective. This week was going to be awesome. I could totally spend the week on $35 and make delicious and nutritious meals. I was going to kick this challenge’s ass.
And it was that final thought that stopped me. It was that final thought—that I would somehow win this challenge—that made me, frankly, kind of disgusted with myself. And I didn’t quite understand why, at first. After all, my intentions were good. Not noble or anything—I’m not that obtuse—but they were definitively good. I wanted to better understand what it meant to really curtail spending on necessities. I wanted to walk in someone else’s shoes and learn what it meant to make decisions that I was not used to making. Empathy and understanding are not bad things. But they are, ultimately, limited things because there is no way to get the full experience of what it means to have a low enough income that you even qualify for the SNAP program other than, you know, actually having that income. Poverty is relentless and is, all too frequently, a lifelong struggle. I had been prepared to challenge myself for a week. Seven days. That’s nothing.
One of the things that I thought about when I was still planning on doing the challenge was how exactly I would manage to stretch a $35 food budget over a full week. I was sure I could do it. I could eat brown rice and beans for a week. I love lentils. Grilled cheese was another option. I didn’t even have to get the good bread and cheese that I always do. I’d totally revert to Kraft Singles for a week. I thought the hardest thing would be abandoning coffee. But then I realized the hardest thing would be giving up alcohol. Not that I drink as much alcohol as coffee. But I am totally a social drinker and I am a very social person. Especially for a writer. Especially at this time of year. And, most of the time, I don’t even buy my own alcohol. So there’s that. But, I was supposed to be living off nothing but what I purchased myself with that $35. So, no alcohol for me. I’m going to repeat that. No alcohol for me. And so I started to think of the challenge as a test of endurance, a sprint from one Monday to another. I could do it. Once again, I realized that I was missing the point and had to ask myself why I really wanted to do this.