Four dollars. On Duke’s campus, that could get you a single bowl of soup at the Loop. Most of us spend far more than four dollars on each meal we eat, with Duke’s minimum meal plan allotting $20 per day. However, for a great number of North Carolinians, four dollars is all they have to feed themselves each and every day. Four dollars is the daily allowance given by North Carolina’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also formerly known as Food Stamps. In the month of October in Durham County alone, over 44,000 individuals were utilizing SNAP. Hunger and concern for where one’s next meal will come from is a daily reality for too many.
To shed light on how challenging it can be to eat on so restricted a budget, I chose to participate in the Duke SNAP Challenge, hosted this past Wednesday through Friday by UCAE. Armed with my $12, I started my challenge at Harris Teeter, knowing there’d be no way to feed myself on food points with so little. Despite not having much to spend, that trip to the grocery store was one of the longest I’ve taken in a while. Instead of mindlessly browsing the aisles, sipping my Starbucks and throwing whatever looked good into my cart, I spent over an hour scouring the weekly coupon flyer and scanning the shelves for special savings offers. I stood in front of the canned goods for over five minutes, adding together different totals in my head to find the best deal. I circled through the store at least twice, having to take some things back out of my basket to stay under budget and sadly avoiding the fresh produce section in favor of the quantity I could purchase in boxes and cans. At the register, I ended up with a large container of oatmeal, two bags of frozen vegetables, three bananas, two large cans of chicken, a jar of applesauce, two boxes of rice and beans mix, and 70 cents left over. For the three days of the challenge, my single bag of groceries allowed me a banana and a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast each morning and a serving of veggies with a bowl of beans, rice, and chicken for each lunch and dinner. In between meals, I snacked occasionally out of my applesauce jar.
By Friday evening I was in no way starving, but after three days of eating the same three, simple meals, I couldn’t help but think of the variety I would be able to indulge in over the weekend after the challenge was over. I quickly caught myself though as I remembered that what I was treating as a 72-hour “challenge” is a reality that over 1.5 million North Carolinians face 365 days out of the year. While I pile up my veggies in the salad bar line at Penn and swipe my DukeCard at the register without even asking about my total, thousands of families are struggling to put a meal on the table for dinner, let alone three daily nutritious and balanced ones. It’s so easy to fall into the habits of mindless consumption and instant gratification, taking for granted the convenience and variety of food we have surrounding us at Duke. We are quick to grumble about the ABP sandwich line but we fail to recognize that it’s a privilege just to be able to satisfy an afternoon snack craving, that the latte so many of us have consumed before 9am costs more than what a fellow Durhamite might be able to spend on food all day. We’re constantly complaining to one another about how much stress we’re under with all of our exams and final papers, but imagine adding to that the stress of meticulously pinching every penny just to afford lunch, of getting nervous every time you approach the register because maybe you’ll have to leave the line to put something back, of not being able to focus on your work because your stomach is growling but eating is not an option.
I’ll be the first to shamefully admit that I fall into these habits and make these complaints all too regularly. I also know my mere participation in the SNAP challenge does nothing to change the face of hunger in North Carolina or the daily lived realities of SNAP enrollees. It’s what happens now that the challenge is over that matters – approaching my meals with more mindfulness and gratitude, trying harder to eliminate my food waste, spending my food points more sparingly so I can also buy food to donate to Durham’s local food pantries and soup kitchens. As we approach the holiday season, a time that too often celebrates consumption over concern for others, I would invite all of you to do your own SNAP challenge. Or even better, volunteer to take action against hunger in Durham or your hometown. At the very least, challenge yourself to be more mindful and thankful – so when you go to post that foodstagram of your Thanksgiving plate with your #blessed caption, think twice about how fortunate we truly are.