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The Dripby Matt Quinlan9:26 amNov 11, 20130

How I failed the Food Stamp Challenge

OP-ED: A local activist finds out just how tough it is to live on $4.20 worth of food a day.

Above: People lined up for free produce and detergent at a 2012 “Day of Hope” festival in East Baltimore.

In both a challenge to myself and as a gesture of solidarity to the one in eight Marylanders who live on food stamps, I committed, along with the other participants of the Food Stamp Challenge, to spend no more than $30 on all the food I would consume for that week.

Not to ruin the story, but I failed the challenge.

Instead of my regular salads for lunch, I ate rice and beans every day last week. And rather than cereal and tomato juice, I had a banana and glass of water for breakfast.

I was able to get a few apples, a bag of carrots and some peppers – and that was about it. My hunger began keeping me awake as soon as the first day ended.

Within two days I was having difficulty waking up in the mornings, had little energy for my usual exercise, and nearly fell asleep during classes and work meetings. It is known that poverty is a significant determinant of health, and poor nutrition is a primary player.

Can’t Afford to Feed the Family

The Food Stamp Program, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is vital to the nutritional well-being of so many Baltimore residents – one in three of whom is born into poverty.

Nearly a quarter of these children live in a “food desert,” making access to not only healthy food, but to all food, an increased challenge.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, every $1 billion of food demand from SNAP participants generates 3,300 farm jobs.

Food Stamps have been shown to help lift people out of poverty and to improve the overall health of our children. They are a vital resource that should be expanded rather than reduced.

Yet as Congress considers cutting over $40 million from the current SNAP program, I cannot help but think about how this will affect Maryland’s children, many of whom eat on much less than the national average of $120 per month.

As wealth disparities increase, more than one in six Americans now report being unable to afford enough food for themselves and their families, according to a study by the Food Research and Action Center.

According to recent U.S. Census data, 48% of Americans are living at or close to the poverty line. With such volatile housing markets, increasingly high rates of unemployment, and a quagmire of infighting within Washington, these numbers demonstrate an increasing risk of hunger and homelessness for much of our shrinking middle and working class.

Carrot Stick Lunch

By last Friday, I had nearly run out of food. Despite planning out my meals for the week, I found that I simply was not able to stick to a handful of carrots and an apple for lunch.

I cheated twice by buying some snacks and a cup of coffee to help get me through the work day. And when friends invited me to dinner Friday night, I didn’t have it in me to say no, giving in with two days still remaining in the Challenge.

My take away from this is not that I failed, but that I could not feed myself for one week on $30, which is more than many people in Maryland currently receive in SNAP benefits.

I know that this challenge only touches on one small aspect of poverty, but one which I now more deeply understand as extremely significant. It is a fundamental injustice that in the most affluent country in the world so many will go to bed hungry tonight.

Food and nutrition must be seen as basic human rights for all, starting right here in Maryland.

Matt Quinlan is a participant in SHARP (Stop Homelessness and Reduce Poverty), a coalition of service providers and activists across Baltimore fighting to end hunger, homelessness and poverty.

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