SNAPping Out of It

During the week leading up to Martin Luther King Day, I participated in an event known as the SNAP Out of It Challenge. Sponsored by a terrific organization here in Cincinnati called Community Shares, the SNAP Challenge served as an invitation for the general public to spend $4.50 per day, per person, on food for one week (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was formerly known as Food Stamps). Although I have received SNAP benefits since my VISTA term began last winter, $4.50 is the average amount that Ohioans receive through SNAP—significantly less than my daily allocation. The idea was to adhere strictly to the $31.50 budget for the week, which for most means no outings with friends, no guilty pleasures or sweets, no hosting dinner parties; in essence, no luxuries.

It truly was a challenge for me. I decided to take the healthiest route I could within my budget, which was doable for one week but probably would result in significant weight-loss if I stuck with it long-term. The fruit and vegetable smoothies and lentil soup that I ate all week are some of my favorite meals, but the quantities I was restricted to each day never left me feeling “full.” Not only did I eat essentially the same thing every day for seven straight days, I turned down a few opportunities for social nights out with friends and I experienced fairly strong hunger pangs around 3 PM every day. The loneliness, hunger, and distraction that resulted from my meager food budget was mild but noticeable– and thankfully they are not things I have to deal with day in and day out, year round. I am also fortunate to have a strong support network of family and friends nearby who could (and do) lend me a hand if I ever need it.

We held a culmination event on Martin Luther King Day that included a “health cooking on a budget” demonstration, screenings of “A Place at the Table”, and a potluck dinner with live music and an excellent speaker. The highlight of my evening was a long discussion I had with a woman who I’ll refer to as Grace. Grace and I met at the cooking demonstration. Cheerful, heavy-set, around 60 years old, Grace asked thoughtful questions of our chef, she smiled appreciatively as she sampled our whole wheat pasta with vegetables, and she cried next to me as we watched “A Place at the Table” in the church multi-purpose room. During dinner I asked Grace what she thought of the film and what brought her to the event.  “I have struggled,” she said. “I know what it’s like when you can’t get a break, when you just can’t get ahead.”

She told me about her childhood, how she was one of thirteen children with a single mother. It was tough, she said, but her mother could “make a penny holler”—she taught her children how to live on very little, and that stuck with Grace. A scholarship led her to get a degree in chemistry, and she got a job in a lab at a beauty products company. She got married, had two kids, got divorced, and then got laid off work. After six months looking for a job, she was no longer able to sufficiently feed herself or her kids. When she applied for food stamps, she was informed that she didn’t quite qualify; she still owned her house. The case worker told her that if she sold her house and moved into section 8 housing, she’d qualify with no problem. But all Grace needed was temporary assistance; she refused to sell her house, knowing that before long she could be on her feet again. Fortunately, when her church heard about Grace’s situation, they stepped in to help right away. She got help paying her bills, buying groceries, and was even able to return to school for further professional training.

Her story is ultimately a positive one. Grace is doing well now, and her children have degrees and families of their own. Her story is as old as the hills: a hard-working person who experiences a series of set-backs beyond her control and needs a hand up. But when this woman shared with me, it wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill story of hardships. This was a living, breathing, laughing, crying, thinking, feeling person—and not just a person, but a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend. When decisions are made to cut federal assistance programs, I think it’s partly because people like Grace are thought of in terms of numbers; they are deemed burdens too costly to support; their potential to function in and improve our society is ignored. The Grace’s of our country are left to hope and pray that their church, mosque, or temple might step in and act as their guardian angel. Although the generosity of a church proved to be a solution in this case, we all know that most aren’t so lucky. I feel the need to breathe life into Grace’s story, because recognizing the humanity in each other is the first step towards social and economic justice.



Lentil soup with veggies: A delicious meal, but one that got a little repetitive

 We ended the week with a community pot luck on MLK Day. Lots of good food, friends, and discussion!


 Casey Henry is an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Presbyterian Hunger Program in Cincinnati, OH. She loves running, rock climbing, and using absurd amounts of cilantro in her cooking.