When Barbara Taubes, 17, decided to take part in the SNAP Challenge, her family joined. Participants in the challenge are limited to spend $31.50 on food for an entire week, the amount the government allots for its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Taubes said it wasn’t easy. “One night we’d have ziti, another it would be hot dogs,” she said. “We’re used to also having salad and a few sides. We like to eat. But it was ‘We’re just having this [one dish] tonight.’”
When her 10-year-old sister dropped out, Barbara, who lives in Port Jervis, N.Y., understood. “She didn’t really understand the point of what we were doing,” she said. But it made Barbara realize what it might be like for a parent to say to a young child, “‘This is all I have to give you.’ It has to be a hard situation,” she said.
It was a difficult week for six other local teens, in addition to Barbara, who afflicted themselves for the sake of broadening their perspectives and empathizing with those less fortunate. Popularized in 2013 by politicians, and taken on by religious groups and community organizations, the SNAP Challenge highlights the difficulties of purchasing food on the government program’s budgeted allowance of approximately $4.50 per day.
Lauren Plattman, 18, social action vice president of National Federation of Temple Youth in the Garden Empire Region (NFTY-GER), organized the week-long challenge, which culminated in an event at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey in Hillside on Feb. 3. The group packed 7,000 pounds of food to be sent to local food banks around the state.
By the end of the week, “I was feeling deficient, kind of tired and weak,” Plattman, of Berkeley Heights, said. “You have to decide between having a lot of food, a lot of protein, or a healthy well-balanced diet. You can’t do all three.”
The challenge was a vivid contrast between her life and the lives of those who rely on SNAP.
“I realized how much food I’m given and how much food is available to me,” she said. “Walking in someone else’s shoes, you really understand.”
Planning for the week was crucial, she said, and she decided to budget much of her food on carbohydrates such as pasta and potatoes. She also bought some chicken, turkey, carrots, and broccoli.
“Without that preparation, I would have run out of food,” Plattman said.
She will be giving a presentation about the experience at the national midyear NFTY gathering, or Veida, to be held over President’s Day weekend at a Union for Reform Judaism camp in Texas.
The preparation was even more difficult for Hope Hershman, 15, of Colts Neck: She’s a vegan.
“I knew I’d have to be careful to get enough nutrients, so I wouldn’t feel dizzy or pass out,” she told NJJN. In the end, she ate a lot of cereal, quinoa, and broccoli. “I had salad a couple of times and pasta once.” Hershman also ate a container of spinach, two cans of beans, and two mangoes that were on sale, the “cheapest” items she could find, she said.
She considered herself lucky when she found broccoli on sale and bought four bags. “I would usually have two bags that size in a day,” she said. “Instead I had to have half a bag, so I could have enough for a week.”
She acknowledged that she still felt dizzy a few times during the week, but she came out of it with a new outlook.
“I went in figuring I wouldn’t be able to get everything I needed or wanted,” said Hershman. Seeing how little she could afford was “eye-opening.”
“I didn’t realize how expensive things are,” she said.
Some dropped out during the week. One came down with the flu. Another, Erica Milgram, cut her participation down to just two days after someone in her family ate the food she had purchased. On the NFTY-GER Facebook feed, she wrote that after having a can of soup for dinner, a small bowl of cereal for breakfast, and an apple and granola bar for lunch, “I found myself resisting food from others during the day as I was extremely hungry. I am someone who eats a decent amount, so this was quite challenging.”
Two days of the SNAP Challenge was enough for Milgram to realize “how fortunate we are to be able to eat what we want, when we want,” she wrote.
The challenge has been criticized for presenting the SNAP budget as the sole food income for recipients; in fact, it was intended to be supplemental to other income.
Said Plattman, “Obviously there are people who could splurge on some bigger ticket items with an extra $5 or so, but I was taking the hardest approach to it,” by limiting her purchases to the SNAP budget.
The challenge left these teens talking about redoubling their advocacy and tzedakah efforts, from writing to their representatives to renewing volunteerism at local food pantries.
“This made me even more passionate about the things I do,” said Hershman, who volunteers once a month at a soup kitchen.
She suggested that the government ask supermarkets to offer 20 percent off for someone on SNAP, or at least increase the governmental budget “for people with special circumstances.”
The teens need the community’s support to bring about real change.
“I hope other people join in and become advocates, calling their representatives, senators,” said Taubes. “People need help.”