Food Stamp Challenge seeks volunteers to attempt living for a week on the program.

September is ‘Hunger Action Month’ and to inspire students to take action, UAA is hosting a Food Stamp Challenge.

It is sponsored by the School of Social Work in the Center for Community Engagement and Learning, with the help of the Food Bank of Alaska (FBA).

The goal of the challenge is to encourage students to experience what it is like to live on the food stamp program. In turn, this will hopefully generate a new understanding, and maybe some compassion, for what many fellow Alaskans have to live with.

A study in 2007, gathered by the FBA, showed that an average of over 56,000 people in Alaska participated in the Food Stamp Program. With there being around 686,000 people living in Alaska at the time, over 8 percent used food stamps.

The numbers have most likely increased within the past three years. This amount may not seem immense, but, according to the FBA, “only 59 percent of Alaskans eligible for Food Stamps actually participate in the program.”

This is why they decided to try the Food Stamp Challenge: to help people feel more comfortable using food stamps knowing that others have a better understanding of what they are going through.

“In recent years, different versions of food stamp challenges have been sponsored by food banks and other anti-hunger organizations across the country,” Robin Stilwell, the Director for the Department of Advocacy and Agency Relations, said. “FBA has sponsored two food stamp challenges. In 2009, we had approximately 50 participants, including state legislators.”

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Dr. Tracey Burke, assistant professor for the School of Social Work at UAA, decided to make it an educational project for her class and had them participate in last year’s event. Afterwards, she felt that since there was such a positive response, it would be beneficial if she could host the challenge all over UAA, getting as many students as possible to volunteer.

Although she has no idea what kind of a response to expect, Burke hopes that many students will sign up and use this opportunity to recognize what it is like to live on a limited income. Since many students already have a tight budget due to paying for college, rent and gas, this should be an easy adjustment. For others who don’t have to worry about money, it may be a real challenge.

Helping Burke with the Food Stamp Challenge is Amada Arredondo, a social work major, who participated in the challenge last year. Arredondo will be in charge of most of the compilation and documentation for the project. Robin Stilwell will also be helping by providing UAA with the necessary items and information needed to make this project a success.

The challenge consists of student receiving food stamps based on their financial income, similar to how it is distributed in real situations, and they must live on those food stamps for a full week.

“The average monthly Food Stamps benefit in Alaska is $137.87 per person,” according to the FBA.

This means that the average recipient has $34.46 to spend on groceries per week; what some people spend in single meal. Since few places accept food stamps, the stores that students should choose to buy their groceries from are Red Apple, Carrs, and a few select gas stations/convenience stores.

All items used for consumption, such as drinks, meals or snacks, must be purchased during the week with food stamps. Nothing that was previously bought can be used except condiments and spices.

Chancellor Fran Ulmer believes this will be a very positive experience for students.

“By undertaking the Food Stamp Challenge, individuals are taking a personal step toward understanding those who have limited access to one of the necessities of life – food,” Ulmer said. “My hope is that this experience will motivate participants to look for ways to use their education, talent and privilege to make a difference in the lives of others.”

One of the biggest difficulties that Burke has seen students face is finding the time to prepare these meals.

“Student’s typically don’t have time to prepare a meal and usually resort to eating fast food because it is easier,” Burke said.

Another dilemma that people face is the temptation of grabbing their habitual morning coffee or snacking on something from a vending machine. To help alleviate this lure, they will allow a friend to buy you one lunch that totals $5.00 or less. While $5.00 doesn’t seem like much, it is enough for a slice of pizza from Cuddy Hall, or a basic 6 inch sub from Subway.

“Student’s still learn a great deal even if they don’t succeed in following the plan perfectly. Just being involved in the challenge is rewarding,” Burke said.

A blackboard blog will be set up for all participants to make daily entries about their thoughts and challenges, and post pictures throughout the week. It will be a great place for everyone-, participant or not, to talk and discuss experiences of shopping, cooking and eating using food stamps.

Arredondo is enthusiastic that the blackboard blog will really spark up discussions.

“My objective is for people to become more aware of the limitations that one may have by being on Food Stamps,” Arredondo said. “We become aware by personally experiencing similar struggles or by hearing people’s reflections and challenges. I hope students, faculty, and their families are able to talk openly about their perspective of the challenge. Even if they do not personally participate, having a dialogue is the first step of promoting awareness.”

Students who wish to partake in the Food Stamp Challenge are encouraged to attend the training session being held in the Consortium Library room 307 on Thursday September 23 from 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. or Friday September 24 from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

If you are unable to attend either of the pre-challenge meetings, you can get all of the information by emailing Amada Arredondo at [email protected].

The food stamp challenge for 2010 officially starts Sunday September 26 and runs until Saturday October 2.