By Oishee Sen
I’m going into this SNAP challenge very much afraid that I’ll pull a Gwenyth Paltrow and buy seven limes and a bundle of kale, or something equally inexplicable. I’ve never had to budget my meals on $4.16 a day– the average allowance received by someone on SNAP benefits. Like Paltrow, I want to participate in this challenge for a host of good reasons, but I do so from a position of privilege. My mother always taught me to scrutinize every price tag, buy in bulk, spot expiration dates and open egg cartons, gently brushing each egg to one side or another to make sure none stick to the bottom like they tend to do if they’ve cracked. But we never shopped with a budget. My parents worked hard to reach a point in their lives where they could afford to buy food without worrying about how much it costs. They also each remember standing in line for rationed rice on the streets of Kolkata, India, and how the bags they hauled home, which were expected to sustain their families for weeks at a time, were always weighted down with pebbles.
Why should anyone, ever, go hungry? How, in America, where my parents came to escape hunger, does one in every seven households experience food insecurity? Part of the answer, of course, lies in the fact that plenty of people in America experience food insecurity (which is characterized by limited or uncertain ability to acquire nutritionally adequate foods) without experiencing hunger. Out of the 14.3% of Americans who experience food insecurity, 8.7% experience low food security, which implies that the variety and quality of their diets leave much to be desired, but they still eat more or less regularly. It’s hard to conceptualize how people can be food insecure when they clearly have food in their hands. But that still leaves 5.6% who routinely experience hunger. I’ll ask it again– why should anyone in this country ever go a day without eating?
Some people would answer that this simply isn’t the case– that food stamps are “the latest middle-class entitlement,” as a Wall Street journal recently claimed, and that they are especially wasted in the 27 states that allow families with incomes over 130% of the federal poverty line to enroll in their programs. Just for reference, the federal poverty line for 2015 was $24,300 for a household of four, so I’ll leave you to wonder if four people can get enough to eat on $31,590 a year. That’s not enough income to afford my one bedroom in an apartment I share with two other people. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that 85% of people on food stamps earn below the federal poverty line, and only 72% of those who are eligible for food stamps are actually enrolled.
This completely blows my mind. But as a person who has never had to consider where my next meal will come from, it also literally does not compute. I can’t understand what it feels like to worry about my next meal, and I don’t ever want to make the mistake of trivializing that struggle. In this issue, as with so many others in public health, I don’t want to use my position of privilege to obscure or ignore problems that seem difficult to change. And I want to understand what food insecurity feels like to the best of my ability so that I can feel guilty about it even if I can’t immediately change anything. People talk a lot about “entitlement” in snide tones, but I still think Americans, like my parents, are entitled to eating healthy food without worrying about the price. Like my parents, who could never put a face to the person who siphoned rice from their rations and made up the weight with stones, Americans who are struggling with food insecurity are right to suspect that somewhere, somehow, someone is stealing from them.