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SNAP Judgment

A week on food stamps shows MED students the program’s limits

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At 6 feet and 200 pounds, Fabian Chang must fuel an ample frame for the grind of medical studies. Yet for one week in December, he ate only what he could buy for $30. That’s the average weekly benefit paid nationally under the federal food stamps program, says the School of Medicine student, whose week was an odyssey in belt-tightening.

Chang (MED’16) conceived this “SNAP challenge” (SNAP—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—is the food stamps program’s formal name) for himself and others on the Medical Campus, and during last month’s weeklong regimen, he didn’t go hungry. But he discovered, as have families on food stamps, that fending off an empty stomach means making do with a malnourishing menu. His fresh food ran out by day five, leaving him to end the week subsisting on eggs, bread, rice, and pasta.

“I was able to get enough food,” he says, “but it was definitely difficult to maintain a healthy diet.” And with the expiration of the portion of the Obama stimulus devoted to SNAP, things like coffee were an unaffordable luxury.

In advance of continued congressional debate over whether to cut SNAP, about 15 MED students and deans took the SNAP challenge, sponsored by the school’s Student Nutrition Awareness & Action Council. The goal was to raise future doctors’ awareness of the nutritional challenges faced by poor patients.

Boy, was it raised.

“My body feels BAD,” one participant wrote on a blog set up for the experiment, after just two days on her regimen. “I’m not sure if the food has gone bad or was low-quality to begin with, but after my lunch of beans and meat yesterday around 3 p.m., I felt physically ill at school and had to come home to take a break and drink lots of water. I also notice that because my meals aren’t nutritious, no matter how much I eat, I don’t ever feel satisfied.” Another blogger reported that the experience prompted her to volunteer at a food bank.

Indeed, while few Americans starve—there’s an obesity epidemic, notes SNAP challenge taker Dan McGrail (MED’16)—shopping becomes stressful on a tight budget. “It is really difficult to walk through the store and pass up on items like bread because you think it will put you over budget,” McGrail says. “It is a challenge to obtain a healthy meal.” (A Harvard study corroborates the unhealthy aspects of eating under the constraints of SNAP, while also noting that it is possible to go hungry on the program: recipients may run out of food at month’s end, since benefits are paid at the start of each month.)

Before embarking on the challenge, Iris Trutzer (MED’21) confessed to feeling terror at a mere $30 budget, mitigated only by the fact that she knew she’d be able to eat normally again after seven days. “We all have to keep in mind that we’re not living like a person who lives on SNAP benefits,” she said. “We’ll be off this in a week, and we’re also living with a full kitchen in a house that has heating and no utilities insecurity, no housing insecurity. So we’re doing this very much in a vacuum.”

While student participants interviewed hoped to increase awareness of how paltry the SNAP food allotment is, their main goal was to show their aspiring-doctor peers that the condition of malnourished patients is not necessarily the patients’ fault. “Increasing the empathy of future health care providers—understanding where patients are coming from, the challenges they face—will hopefully help us be better providers of care,” McGrail says.

“For some of our kids in our clinic, SNAP can be a lifeline,” says Megan Sandel, a MED associate professor and a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center. Some of her patients have had problems ranging from inactivity to disruptive school behavior after their families’ food stamp benefits were cut, she adds.

Chang borrowed the one-week-on-SNAP idea from U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who had done it while serving as mayor of Newark, N.J. It has been an education unlike that of medical school, teaching Chang the fine art of food budgeting: “The cheapest meat pieces are these chicken leg quarters that are like a dollar a pound.…If you budget those chicken quarters, you can get two meals out of them.” Frozen and in-season vegetables are also good buys, he discovered, but “fruits are a luxury.”

Canned beans, a good protein source, are more expensive than dried ones, but don’t need cooking, he notes. But he’s also learned that splurging to save a night’s cooking is a privilege denied those on SNAP.

“If you’re on that tight budget of $30, you have to cook every meal,” he says. “It gave me a level of understanding about people who may be at the poverty line who are struggling to make ends meet, and they might have two jobs—where do they find the time to cook all the food and plan?”

Read the Boston University SNAP Challenge blog.

22 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

22 Comments on SNAP Judgment

  • Sara on 01.14.2014 at 8:36 am

    Terrific piece. Thanks for writing it.

    • Justin on 04.01.2014 at 6:32 pm

      yes! very good article

  • Donna on 01.14.2014 at 9:30 am

    My class in the School of Social Work did this last fall. It is really difficult, and my experience was similar. Bad food, high in sodium and not enough money for fresh fruits and vegetables. One of the ingredients in the cheap peanut butter I bought was anchovies. Stopped eating it at first, but then when I was hungry without any fruit to eat, peanut butter with anchovies was fine.

  • jjj on 01.14.2014 at 9:52 am

    Very interesting piece, although I feel like it is a bit of an emotional “ra ra foodstamps” piece which doesn’t present many reasonable objections to the program.

    For example, it is so large:

    http://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/snapsummary.htm

    Its hard to imagine that 1 in 6 American’s really need food stamps for their food; maybe I am just living in the wrong places with the wrong people, but this number feels ridiculously large to me.

    • Tatiana on 01.14.2014 at 11:01 am

      It is hard to imagine because you are privileged enough to never need it. Stop assuming everyone is like you

      • Kevin on 01.14.2014 at 4:55 pm

        It’s difficult both to sympathize with those who aren’t receiving enough government subsidies to eat fully nutritious meals and also to be convinced that the program isn’t too expansive.

        If the government should be doling out checks to people to help them buy food, the people should be the ones whose lives would be in danger if they didn’t receive the aid, not simply those with hard lives that could use an extra bit of funding to make ends meet.

        Those on food stamps should not have access to television, internet, cell phone service, or vehicles. Anyone who can afford any of these amenities should be spending those funds on food instead. That would certainly lead to a lower number than 1 in 6 Americans.

        Even with just these truly desperate people, should the government guarantee a fully nutritious diet that will maximize their health by supplying them with a wide variety of fresh food items instead of the cheaper canned options? I don’t think the taxpayers should be liable to fund such an expensive undertaking.

        • Jonathan on 01.14.2014 at 5:38 pm

          Television and internet are 2 great sources of information, culture and frankly, release, that should be available to all, poor or not. Helping the poor make responsible choices regarding TV and internet would be more helpful than prohibiting access. If you feel like poor people should only have to work and have no source of entertainment, then I guess we will have to agree to disagree. Frankly, I don’t think that would be good for the mental health of those involved. Especially considering the limited alternatives available to those lacking access and or time for other forms of entertainment.
          With regards to car ownership, the majority of poor in the US now live either in rural or suburban areas. This is a major shift from how the poor used to be geographically distributed. Because the US is absurdly underdeveloped with regards to public transportation, car ownership isn’t just a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity in many areas.
          Next, Kevin, how do you propose the poor should communicate if they don’t have cell phones? Land lines are just as or more expensive than basic cell phone packages. And not owning a phone in this country in this day and age can be an impossible burden. It diminishes employment opportunities (have you ever tried to get a job without a phone? How about calling off work because of illness? Do you send a letter? What if your child is ill?)
          Many people like yourself judge the poor without any sense of what they go through. You make pat judgements from a place of complete ignorance, both of their difficulties and of your own privilege. I applaud the people in this article for at least attempting to understand some of the problems those who live in poverty face. I spent much of my adolescence in poverty and am profoundly grateful for my parent’s dedication in trying to give their children a better life and for the assistance the US government gave them (sometimes grudgingly). Eventually, we were able to pull ourselves out of our situation, so much so that I can now attend a ridiculously expensive institute of higher learning. But I never forget where I came from or what it took to get here. You and many others really need to work on your lack of perspective.

        • BU Student on 01.14.2014 at 8:37 pm

          It has nothing to do with sympathy. Sympathy means absolutely nothing.
          You are correct if you say it is difficult to empathize — but that’s only because you apparently are privileged enough to NEVER need aide like this in order to survive.

          Please remember that food is not the only thing necessary to be successful in this country. How can you expect someone to have a decent job, where they might work enough to get off of SNAP, without internet, cell phones, or a vehicle??
          Your stipulations are ridiculous and, again, come from a privileged point of view.

          My reply isn’t meant to be an attack, but a reason for you to begin to acknowledge the privileges you have and to hopefully work towards having more EMPATHY for your fellow humans.

        • Jenny on 01.15.2014 at 12:51 am

          Are you listening to yourself? You do realize that cell phones, the internet, and transportation are vital to having and holding down most jobs today, right? Many people do not live in areas with reliable public transportation, for one thing. People are also capable of receiving gifts or of saving up at some point to have bought something special. Those on food stamps can spend funds on whatever it is they need.

          The purpose of food stamps IS to help people make ends meet, because a lot of the time, that’s exactly what keeps them from starving. People have bills to pay, including internet and phone bills and car payments, not to mention housing and utilities. Life takes a lot of money, even for the things you expect. If reducing the cost of food helps keep everything together for people who have hard lives, then we should be giving them that help.

          I say this as a taxpayer. I WANT my money to be going to these programs.

    • Suds on 01.15.2014 at 12:02 am

      I am a BU undergrad and my family depends on food stamps. You would never be able to tell that I come from a low-income family.
      Empathy is a hard skill, but I suggest you learn to think from a different point of view.

  • Sarah on 01.14.2014 at 9:57 am

    As a BU graduate student, I give myself a $100/mo grocery budget. Granted, I eat out 1-2x a month outside of the budget, but $120 for one person per month is possible. You buy what is on sale, and I am definitely able to work within that kind of budget and eat fresh fruits and vegetables.

    • Reggie Jean on 01.16.2014 at 11:27 am

      Regretfully, many people on food stamps don’t have the time and to wait for necessities to be on sale or access to high quality stores to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. There is often only one convenient supermarket in low-income neighborhoods.

  • D. O'Donnell on 01.14.2014 at 10:14 am

    I second it on being a terrific article. With all the propaganda and politics of ‘food stamps’ – and abuse no doubt does occur –
    1. We KNOW there is a need for such a program
    2. The US does have an overabundance of food
    3. The program IS generally bare-bones – a standard political compromise that many a political blow-hard would do well by walking in the shoes of those on the program – and truly limiting yourself to the confines of the benefits of this needed program. It is not easy. It is VERY HARD.
    Thank you.

  • ab on 01.14.2014 at 4:24 pm

    it’s hard to feel sorry for food stamp receivers when i stand in line behind them at speedway while they buy pop and chips and candy with their food stamps and shell out the cash for cigarettes and blunt wraps (all while i smell weed on them). I go to school full time and work full time, but i somehow still make too much to qualify (at minimum wage) and my cabinets are pretty bare. people arent meant to subsist on food stamps alone, that’s why it’s supplemental. but you can be smart and feed yourself healthily on about that for a week if you know how to shop smart

    • Reggie Jean on 01.16.2014 at 11:31 am

      Sounds like a generalization based on your individual experience. I am sorry your cabinets are bare, particularly if you have children to feed.

  • Will on 01.14.2014 at 5:43 pm

    It is certainly hard to eat well on a low income, but not impossible. It involves a number of skills people learn growing up or figure out on their own, but many low-income individuals don’t get the chance to do either.

    There’s actually a GREAT non-profit called Cooking Matters that targets this exact issue right in MA. They use real-world training on food budgeting and healthy cooking. My favorite one of their programs actually takes participants to a grocery store in their area and walks them through reading labels, picking out food, and then making a meal that feeds at least 4 people for $10. Awesome stuff.

    http://archive.cookingmatters.org/what-we-do/our-program/

    They’re looking for donations and volunteers!
    http://archive.cookingmatters.org/get-involved/volunteer/

  • wb on 01.15.2014 at 3:21 am

    The SNAP benefit level is $43/week effective Nov. 2013 in Massachusetts.

    It was $30 in 2012; assistance level is adjusted to reflect costs by state and, presumably, inflation for basic food staples. Trying to eat for $30/week is much more difficult in Boston (Dec. 2013) than current benefit.

  • John Doe on 01.16.2014 at 11:38 am

    So is this $30/week per person?

    My wife and I live in the middle of Boston and support ourselves on roughly $50 a week in groceries. We cook roughly 90% of our monthly meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner), and we eat a mostly vegetarian diet (we eat meat; we just choose to eat less of it for monetary reasons).

    I’m not suggesting that the $30/week budget is adequate, but I’m wondering if this experiment reveals more about the lack of food education in our country than the actual poverty problems.

    Our diet consists primarily of fresh vegetables supplemented with starches, dairy, and protein from beans and (on-sale) meat. Fresh produce and fruit are very obtainable on a tight budget; the key is to buy seasonal/on sale (quality produce can general be found for less than a dollar a pound depending on the season–right now winter squash and root vegetables are in season and therefore cheap..and last week Shaws/Star had chicken breast for 1.98 a pound), shop smart (for example, devoting time once a week to go to Market Basket in Somerville where prices are much lower than whole foods, trader joes, shaws), and plan your menu. Also your freezer is your friend for beans, frozen veggies, and bulk purchased on sale meat.

    I realize meal planning, cooking, and rigid shopping schedules are not feasible options for everyone (young children, single young adults, etc), but I believe in the importance of food education.

    One last note, eating (halfway) healthy on a budget (and sticking to said budget) takes practice!

  • JRR on 01.18.2014 at 12:18 am

    I think the point is that SNAP is intended as a supplement. Yes, there are some folks who must depend on it solely for their nutrition, and that would be a challenge, but, as several people state, it IS possible. The problem is the misuse of the program. I have seen many a patient in clinic who is on SNAP and also has a very nice iphone and is sporting a very expensive, professional manicure. Personally, I have an old flip phone, and it works just fine. There are several people living across the alley from me who are on SNAP and have housing supplements but also have very large flat screen TV’s and fancy computers. It is situations like this that anger people. Some people truly need the help, but there is a lot of abuse out there.

  • Melanie on 01.12.2015 at 5:29 pm

    According to a commentator, internet access is a luxury I shouldn’t be able to have if I’m on food stamps. I do freelance writing to pay the rent, and I do it over the internet. I spend 8 hours a day on it, in addition to my job hunting (which you have to do online now…most companies don’t accept printed resumes anymore). The library has a 30 minute time limit per patron. You’d prefer my disabled husband and I be homeless rather than have the luxury of being my able to make money? Ok, if you’re willing to pay the $62,000 that every pair of homeless people costs taxpayers each year in medical bills, police costs, and other expenses. The cost of our food stamps is $4200 per year, but if punishing us for being in a bad situation because someone ran a red light and ended my husband’s ability to work is more important to you than your money, I guess I can’t argue with that.

  • Melanie on 01.12.2015 at 5:30 pm

    Supplement for what, exactly? The cake, candy, and rotten veggies you get from food banks? The money we can’t spend on food because every penny that comes in goes to keeping us from sleeping on the streets?

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