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Three reasons why the Hunger Challenge misses the mark

The hunger challenge is garnering media attention, but does it achieve its purpose?
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Deepen Your Understanding with a Poverty Simulation

This Saturday, September 17, Access of West Michigan and the Food & Nutrition Coalition will sponsor a Poverty Simulation at the Downtown YMCA. To RSVP, email Nicole DeVries at [email protected] or call 774-2175 x 2. RVSPs needed by the 14th.

You might have heard that as part of Hunger Action Week, The Food Bank is challenging the public to feel the effects of food insecurity by limiting their food purchases to $30.59 per person between the 14th and the 20th and talk about their experiences. The Rapidians’ Food Culture Beat Reporter Samantha Dine and Jackie Prins, a GR Press reporter, have shared their story of surviving on $4.37 a day for food. Four dollars and thirty-seven cents per day: based on the monthly average food stamp allotment, $133 per person, this is how much they would have to spend on food if they were on food stamps.

When I first heard about this challenge, it rubbed me the wrong way both on a personal level and on a philosophical level. I even posted on my Facebook wall, “I think I finally realized why these ‘eat on $ a day’ challenges bug me. There is a huge difference between living frugally because you want to and it's a novel experiment and living frugally because you have to. I have lived on ramen noodles and cigarettes and it was not a fun experiment, it was life.”

Yet beyond the distastefulness of reading about people who normally spend $4.37 on a cup of coffee pretending to be poor, I don’t think the focus of this campaign has the effect that its organizers intend.


Reason #1: A frugal challenge in West Michigan?

Let’s face it, we are cheap. Even on the national scene, being frugal is popular as shows like Extreme Couponing give the impression that you can clip a few coupons and stock your car with toilet paper and eat all the junk food you want and practically get money back. My friend Jolon Hull from Savvy Chic Savings was challenging herself to live on $25 a week, not to raise awareness for hunger but to prove that she could. Frugalness is now chic. In fact, a friend of mine who was asked to participate in this challenge said that she and her friends, including the “organic crunchy” ones, don’t spend more than $133 now. So rather than garnering sympathy, the $133 a month per person figure might make frugalistas think it might be pretty nice to be on food stamps. Which brings me to my next reason . . .


Reason #2: Why the emphasis on food stamps?

One might conclude from this experiment that all hungry people are on food stamps. Several years ago I volunteered at a small food pantry and almost none of the clients were on food stamps. (Granted, this was in a rural area, so the statistics might be different in an urban setting). They were grandmothers on fixed incomes who had taken in their grandchildren, but not “legally,” so they didn’t quality for any benefits elsewhere. They were people who had lost jobs but unemployment hadn’t kicked in yet or they were hired at a minimum wage job just below the number of hours where they’d qualify for insurance and they had a medical condition. There were a lot of other issues going on in their lives, and while hunger was a reality, it was far from the most pressing of their issues. Access of West Michigan has an excellent poverty simulation (which, incidentally, is free as part of this Action Week on September 17 from 10-2:30). It’s a lot more work, but also a lot more enlightening (in my opinion) than feeling smug about eating beans and rice for a week.


Reason #3: Simplifying the problem leads to a conclusion that is politically unpopular and incorrect.

I realize that the seeming emphasis on government benefits may be unintentional; after all, if you’re going to challenge people to see what it’s like to be food insecure, you have to come up with the monetary limit somehow. Unfortunately, in our political climate, people are going to simplify the experiment to “see how people live on food stamps.” And if it’s hard, is the answer to increase the amount that people receive? That’s not going to go over so well in West Michigan. The real solution is to support the organizations in West Michigan that are getting to the root of poverty alleviation, those who are in fact behind this whole campaign in the first place. They would be the first to tell you that the answer is not to give out more stuff, but to help people out of poverty. Rather than give a man a fish, teach a man to fish and make sure he has access to the pond, as the proverb goes.


So what’s the alternative? The hunger budget challenge, flawed as it is, has managed to attract media attention. I just hope that the community will use this as an opportunity to explore the reasons and solutions behind hunger in West Michigan, to dig deeper rather than rely on sound bites and photos of lentils to get a skewed image of what being hungry is really like. Because while I’m not a fan of the campaign method, I know firsthand that poverty IS an issue in Grand Rapids; one that won’t go away once the Hunger Action Week is over.

To get involved at a deeper level, I encourage you to volunteer with any of the organizations involved with hunGRy?. They are all doing an excellent job of fighting poverty and hunger in our community, even if the depth of their work isn't represented in the Hunger Challenge.

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Thanks for writing it. I hope it will help encourage much broader conversations about hunger, food justice, and systemic problems/solutions.