Food Stamp Challenge provides new perspective

Congratulations to all of the participants of the Food Stamp Challenge who made it through the week of September 26 to October 2 in one piece. Hosted by the School of Social Work, in association with the Food Bank of Alaska, over 20 individuals volunteered to be challenged to live for a week on $39.14 worth of Food Stamps.


An example of what groceries people generally get while on food stamps. Photo Courtesy of Christina Talbott-Clark.

“’Really? Why?’ or ‘That is weird, you know it will not make a difference by you doing this.’ These are just a few statements I have heard about my participation in the UAA Food Stamp Challenge. I welcome them, for they will be, hopefully, one more person who will hear valid reasons, statistics and a different objective than their own,” Joy Britt said, a public health practice major. “Raising awareness about any issue is a feat in itself and I am very happy that I can participate in such a campaign.”

The shopping was a challenge in itself. Participants had to carefully make sure they had enough food for the week without going over budget. Many spent a good deal of time at the grocery store collecting items, adding up the costs and putting items back that they could not afford.

“I went to the store with a list, but noticed that it seemed to take forever at the store, pricing things and figuring out how they fit into my budget,” Ester Stirret, secretary for the School of Social Work said. “We generally price things at the store to get the best deal, but not because we will go hungry if we don’t plan everything properly. I was there 45 minutes and only had one sack of groceries.”

The next challenge was getting creative with what they are able to eat on a Food Stamp budget, or else meals could get repetitive and influence people to not want to continue.

Aleksandr Pfaffe figured out how to spice up his food.

“Although the diet is quite boring, I figured out a couple of things to offset the mundane-ness of rice and ramen and make meals more interesting,” Pfaffe said. “I put together my own mix of spices for ramen instead of the provided packet. I use a little garlic powder, sage, oregano and sea salt which turned out to be so much better than ‘chicken’ flavor.”

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Others opted to just go for the plain, simple and, most importantly, cheap route.

“For two days, I ate Easy Mac for lunch. It has over 1000mg of sodium, which I know is not the best for me, but you cant beat a fifty cent lunch,” Elisha Waugh, philosophy major, said.

Rice can be a great budget meal, as long as you cook it right. Photo by Ashley Snyder

Another problem observed was portioning and saving the leftovers for another meal. Some great budget dinners were leftovers that were saved for another night, including spaghetti, tacos, chili and stew.

“I’ve rediscovered that I do not know how to cook for two,” Christina Talbott-Clark, Administrative Assistant for the department of languages, said. “If I were doing the shopping today, I’d buy fewer beans and canned items, try to cut my portions down and buy more fresh fruits and veggies,”

Snacks were one of the biggest temptations for everyone participating. Sometimes people don’t truly realize how much they spend and consume in a day, especially from vending machines and cafes, until they experience what it is like to be barred from those places.
“My biggest issue with this challenge was that I couldn’t just randomly walk into some place and get whatever I wanted to have,” Sabine Dresely said. “I realize now, though, how much money I am saving and I will see it as a treat now to eat whatever I want.”

By Wednesday, the majority of the participants were longing for the week to be over.

“As I recall, (Wednesday) is when the challenge became less of an interesting adventure and more of a boring chore, which is probably more like what shopping and eating is for the folks who are really on Food Stamps,” Dr. Tracey Burke said, Assistant Professor for the School of Social Work and one of the hosts of the challenge.

Caffeine was one of the crucial items that most could not fit into their meal plans. The people who have caffeine almost every day were hit the hardest, whether they craved tea, soda or coffee, and it started to have noticeable negative effects.


Tacos are a great budget meal. Photo by Ashley Snyder

“The lack of coffee was starting to hit me. Hard. I made an egg/imitation cheddar melt cheese sandwich, but while my stomach was full, my head was asleep. Not the most productive combination for sitting through classes,” Heather Aronno, journalism major, said. “It would have been swell if I’d thought ahead and at least gotten some black tea.”
Temptations sprouted up everywhere throughout the school. Two examples were the free pizza that was passed out at the Student Union on Monday and the Daily Den’s free food that they distribute

multiple times a day. Just sitting in the cafeteria could drive a hungry person crazy. It makes you stop and wonder how someone who lives on the program can stand being around anyone with food.

To alleviate a little bit of the struggle, $4.50 could be spent on anything, as long as someone else was buying it. Many people took full advantage of this, dividing it up through the week to buy coffee or sweet snacks, but in the end, it still seemed like it was not enough to satisfy the constant cravings.

Before the week was even over, participants were planning what they were going to go out and eat on Sunday Oct. 3, the day after the challenge ended.

“Surviving on this budget is unreal. I couldn’t picture actually living on this kind of budget. I’ve grinded out some tough times, but this by far a unique and challenging one,” Keith Eraso said.
It is a tough life for anyone who lives on Food Stamps, and even though participants only lived for a week on the program, it gave everyone a good sense of what it is like to face the struggle.