Students to live on food stamp budgets for a week

At least 30 students will cap their weekly meal budgets at about $31 starting Tuesday – the maximum weekly food stamp allotment – to raise awareness of the challenges low-income families face.

Five seniors launched the GW SNAP Challenge – named after the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – as a project for world-famous chef José Andrés’ class. Students will cut off their GWorld and debit cards for one week, aided by organizers who will share suggested grocery lists including low-cost items such as rice and canned foods.

Each participant will be allowed $31.50 a week, less than half of a sophomore’s weekly dining plan. The daily allowance is less than the price of a burger at J Street’s Metro Diner or a burrito at Chipotle.

“This challenge doesn’t reflect the struggle that they go through from day to day,” senior Tae Min Kim said of the millions who live on a SNAP budget. “It’s only a small and incomplete glimpse into the challenges that they face day in and day out, but I think it brings us a little closer to the struggles they face.”

Kim said he pitched the idea after taking the SNAP challenge earlier this semester as part of a nutrition class at GW.

“You’re constantly hungry,” Kim said about his experience living on a budget of $4.50 per day. “You end up drinking a lot of water because you have nothing else.”

He recalled facing a “different type of pressure” when walking by his favorite restaurants knowing that he couldn’t eat there, not because he was dieting or trying to eat healthier, but because it wasn’t in his budget.

In addition to the hours of planning a meal schedule and comparing prices at local grocers, Kim said he struggled to maintain a healthy diet. He said he averaged just 1,400 calories per day, well below the American Heart Association’s recommended daily calorie intake of about 2,400 calories for the average male.

The group of seniors is also hoping to raise awareness of the program, lobbying at least eight Congress members and asserting that more cuts to the federal aid program are not the answer.

While SNAP benefits were safeguarded from the program, Congress slashed $110 million from the program’s education budget.

Those budget cuts disproportionately affect the District, which in December 2012 recorded the highest rate of SNAP participants nationwide at 23 percent, according to the Food Resource and Action Center.

Two weeks into their campaign, the Elliott School of International Affairs majors have used Twitter to stir the interest of political leaders such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who made headlines when he lived on less than $30 in groceries for a week as pressure mounted to cut the federal budget in the face of the impending 2013 fiscal cliff.

Chair of GW’s Urban Food Task Force Diane Knapp, the wife of University President Steven Knapp, also pledged her support shortly after the campaign launched. Knapp told The Hatchet that she would try to live on the SNAP budget for at least one day.

The group’s initiative has also attracted the attention of groups such as Sustainable GW, D.C. Hunger Solutions and D.C. Central Kitchen through social media.

“That was a huge push for us to see the support and encouragement,” Ran Wei, one of the organizers, said.

Sophomore and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Peter Sacco said he decided to take the pledge because he spends time helping low-income families as a coordinator for nonprofit LIFT-D.C. He created a blog to document his week living on a SNAP budget, and will write about program misconceptions, such as claims that recipients spend their benefits on cigarettes, alcohol and other non-food items.

“It’s one thing to be the college student who goes in to work, helps them fill out this application and then goes home [to a big dinner], because you just have that disconnect,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I see what they go through every week?’ ”

This article was updated April 8, 2013 to reflect the following:
In the photo caption, The Hatchet incorrectly spelled the names of Tae Min Kim and Marielena Faria. They have been corrected. We regret this error.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.