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Could you eat well on $4.50 a day?

4 min read


September is Hunger Action Month and for the past several years, people around the country including lawmakers have taken up the SNAP Challenge, named after the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program that’s better known as food stamps.

Typical food stamp recipients  get an  average of about $31.50 per person per week for food. While some argue that the word “supplemental” means the program is designed to flesh out meager food budgets and not replace them entirely, it’s clear that too often families are struggling to feed themselves on that bare bones budget. One in six Americans, including about 17 million children, don’t have enough to eat, according to the USDA and the non-profit Feeding America.

High profile people from Newark Mayor Corey Booker to Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich to San Francisco chef Lincoln Carson have accepted the challenge to try living on $4.50 per day for a week, to gain insights into the struggles faced by so many Americans whose food budgets don’t stretch any further.

The issue is especially significant this year. Congress has opted to untie SNAP from the Farm Bill, making it more likely that a renewal of the $80 billion food stamp program will come with cuts at a time when a record number of Americans are depending on the benefit, as The New York Times documented in  a story earlier this month. The debate comes as 48 million Americans are receiving food stamps, a number that shot up during the recession years and includes people from many walks of life and many parts of the country — more than half the counties with the highest concentration of food-insecure households are rural counties, the story points out.

The New York Times also reported on an ad campaign launched by  Feeding America and the Advertising Council to highlight the problem of childhood food insecurity in America and win support for private-sector solutions including the 200 U.S. food banks, supported by Feeding America, which supply food to 61,000 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters across the country. The Times also talked with some critics who acknowledge the good works of the food bank network but worry the campaign will reinforce the idea that the private sector can solve the problem alone. “As much as we wish we could solve hunger through charity, it’s not enough. We need to invest in government programs and living wages, and not hope some angel will deliver a bag of food to the back door,” said Mariana Chilton, an associate professor of public health at Drexel University.

For obvious reasons, food is a key issue for restaurateurs and chefs — it’s at the core of their mission in life. Many participate in Share our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, and some are also now joining public officials in taking up the SNAP challenge.

Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich took up the challenge on Friday and began blogging about it on LinkedIn last week as he shopped for the bare necessities and documented the effects of living without coffee and eating carb-heavy meals that drained him of the energy he typically has to give to the job of running a national restaurant company.

Shaich pioneered the Panera Cares cafe concept in several U.S. cities, where those who can afford it pay what they can and those who don’t have the price of a meal can get one anyway. On Day 3 of his challenge, he writes a bit about that experience and how it illustrates the diverse faces of hunger, including the story of the well-dressed unemployed man who came in for lunch at least once a week so he could eat before his job interviews without taking food away from his five children. “At Panera Cares, I have learned that appearances are not always what they seem and everyone has a story to tell,” he writes.

In San Francisco, Michael Mina pastry chef Lincoln Carson was also dining on $4.50 a day last week, as was San Franisco Business Times reporter Renee Frojo who interviewed Carson about his experience. Carson started the challenge by hitting several grocery stores to comparison shop and, even with the innovative talents that come with culinary training, he expressed surprise at how challenging it was to eat on such a small budget. He also shared an insight gleaned not in the front of the house but in back.

“In a lot of restaurants where we have family meals, employees are using that [to] supplement their income and food budgets at home. They take huge plates. And frequently if there are leftovers, they take those home, as well,” he said.

Have you taken the challenge? Could you do it? Tell us about it in the comments.