Peter Konwerski: Surviving on food stamps

For the past 15 years, I have taught a course, titled Empowerment for Social Change, in the GW Human Services Program. This year, as students planning Hunger Week worked to apply Saul Alinsky’s practical primer, Rules for Radicals, to their campus and community organizing, they encouraged me to take the Food Stamp Challenge. The concept sounded simple enough: eat for a week on a budget of $28.75, the rate set for an individual on food stamps.

Looking back on the week, my wife and I did survive but only because we merely ate and never dined! For us, the challenge meant going with less food and making very different choices. We cut our purchases and were forced to forgo a normal diet of organic eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, and my own personal pleasure: a daily dose of orange juice.

In our house, we never think twice about green vegetables or fresh fruit. While we hit the grocery jackpot at Magruders, where we picked up plentiful produce by the pound, sticker shock sent us to make a return at Safeway, when we inadvertently spent $1.29 per piece instead of $1.29 per pound on three overpriced citrus that cost nearly a day’s worth of our funds ($3.87).

We are lucky to always know from where our next meal will come, but this week we made particular plans to stretch our meager meal money, cutting coupons, doing research, having unlimited access to personal transportation, and extensive shopping options. These are luxuries few homeless or hungry people really have.

We also had ample options for free food at numerous institutional events. While we tried to keep the spirit of the week, we did scavenge desserts to bolster our limited homemade lunches. Through the week I also encountered supportive colleagues who picked up the tab, as well as students who brought cupcakes to class.

In the end, the challenge forced me to think about the small stuff I missed in our effort to make the most of $1.36 per meal. This included salt and pepper to flavor a chicken, parmesan cheese on my pasta, sandwich bags, napkins, dish soap, and salad dressing. To meet the challenge we went without, because these items were beyond our basic budget.

Whether you take the Food Stamps Challenge this week, participate in Slam Hunger Monday or Donate a Can Tuesday, attend the Hunger Banquet Wednesday, meet the Faces of Homeless panel Thursday, participate in Project PB&J on Friday, or Walk for Hunger Saturday, I can assure you the programs you encounter will help you appreciate the small stuff too.

The writer is an adjunct assistant professor of human services and associate vice president for Student Academic Support Services.

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