An interfaith group of Upper West Side congregations is urging members to spend five days on a food-stamp sized budget of $5 per person per day.
The "SNAP challenge," running from Monday to Friday this week, is a response to cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides credits for buying food to low-income households. The cuts are slated to go into effect on Nov. 1.
"In Judaism, we say that every man is made in the image of God," said Rachel Makleff, a member of the Romemu Synagogue on the Upper West Side. "For us, this is very important—if everyone is made in the image of God, why should some of us go around with not enough food to eat?"
Makleff's synagogue is one of eight congregations participating in the challenge.
The expiration of funding that the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided to SNAP will decrease the national average in benefits from $4.50 per person per day to $3.70.
Participants said that the difficulty of buying food on such a tight budget surprised them.
"It was interesting to see what wasn't in the shopping cart," said Emily Trubey-Weller, a vicar at the Trinity Lutheran Church on the Upper West Side. She and her husband, who is also participating, bought "almost no fresh vegetables, no leafy greens."
"We're accustomed to being able to get things like milk and yogurt, and we didn't have any dairy products in our cart," Trubey-Weller said.
Marsha Ra, a member of the Congregation of Saint Saviour at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, experienced similar challenges with the budget constraint.
"It was very hard to buy fresh fruit or vegetables," Ra said. She is a vegetarian, but she noted that for SNAP recipients, meat was prohibitively expensive. "One piece of fish is $5, and there goes your food for the entire day!"
"I can't imagine how a family with a teenage boy could make this work," she added. "A kid could never even have cookies!"
Some said they found the challenge practically impossible.
"I'm 74 years old and 114 pounds, and I have a degree in health administration," Makleff said. "I spent weeks finagling with Excel spreadsheets, and I am going to run out of food before the end of the week."
Makleff said that, despite her fortunate circumstances—a freezer, plus the ability to plan in advance and bargain-hunt—"there is no way to make this work."
Neeraj Kaushal, a professor at the School of Social Work who has researched food stamps, said that the cuts were untimely.
"In 2009, we expected that the economy would improve and need would go down," she said. But instead, "what we've seen is that while we no longer have a recession, employment has not picked up."
Kaushal said that programs like SNAP could help the economy, especially when poverty levels remain so high.
"When the government gives money to poor families, they will spend it all on food," Kaushal said. "They won't save it. It's great stimulus."
Rev. Samuel Smith, assistant priest at Saint Michael's Episcopal Church, said he shared concerns about public policy and food access.
"People should be allowed to have fuel to be able to live," Smith, who will be taking on the challenge next week, said. "The reality is that we're being stingy about that as a nation. It's important to feed people. It's also important to try to stop the systems that keep people hungry."
Smith's congregation actively works on this issue in the community—its food pantry is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and it also runs a Saturday soup kitchen that feeds 150 to 200 people weekly.
"We have a community responsibility to make sure that everyone is fed," Smith said.
Though participants acknowledged that the five-day challenge cannot truly simulate living in poverty with SNAP benefits as the only source of funding for food, they are convinced that the experience has value.
"I don't have much imagination," Ra said. "Unless I actually experience something, I can't imagine what it's really like."
Smith said that empathy was an important objective.
"We don't always see the people who are really suffering," he said. "Or they're right in front of us and we still don't see them."
Participants said they hope that this experience will serve as an inspiration to take action when it comes to raising SNAP benefit allowances.
"This project is a springboard," said Makleff, stressing that completing the challenge was not the congregations' final goal. "It has to be a springboard—if not, we're just pretending that we care. We have to go beyond that."
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