One month later, redigesting the CalFresh Challenge

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It is hard for us to believe that a month has gone by since finishing the CalFresh Challenge.  During mid September more than 60 San Diego County residents were united in eating on a typical CalFresh benefit allotment, just under $34.31/week. Participants were female, male, students, professionals, retirees, of different ethnic backgrounds and different family situations, mirroring the multitude of backgrounds and situations of CalFresh recipients. It's called the CalFresh Challenge because it is exactly that:  a challenge. But through difficulties, Challengers found what we hoped they would find: a brief insight into what a limited budget might make a person feel, think or experience and appreciation for their own situation. 



We would like to thank all of you who participated in the Challenge and a special thank you to all of you who were able to take time from your busy schedules to write about, take photos, and document your experiences for our blog. 

The idea that it was "harder than expected" peppered our blog responses. Finding out their favorite fruits and vegetables were too expensive and needing time they didn’t have in their busy lifestyles to cook more basic ingredients frustrated many Challengers. The inconvenience of having to make a meal from scratch or compare every price at the store is a reality for CalFresh recipients leading busy lives themselves. Convenience is a luxury that they don’t have nor can afford. USDA research shows 64% of SNAP recipients spend 75 minutes a day on preparation, cooking and clean up for meals compared to people from higher incomes that spend 58 minutes on the same tasks.

One of the many "challenges" Challengers faced this week was the unexpected need to cook.

As many challengers quickly found out: convenience is an expensive luxury.  What Challengers lacked in money, they were left to make up with time and cooking skills.  Individuals with experience in cooking beans from scratch or making their own soup were able to plan ahead by preparing large amounts and eating it throughout the week while less experienced cooks or those with limited time were often left to buy food every day.  Having to spend time planning and purchasing food each day ultimately increased stress for many Challengers, as they regarded their quickly dwindling funds and limited food choices.

On a similar note, a hallmark of this Challenge every year has been the rapid change in how  Challengers view food during the week. Even as early as Day 2, Challengers notice that food is no longer a luxury or social experience, it is a burden for which they must think about at least three times a day. It has been described as having an "obsession with food," analyzing quantities, time and necessity, figuring out how much will last for how long and for what price.  For those utilizing CalFresh benefits, these stressors are most often compounded by other worries accompanying living at or below the federal poverty line: including struggling to obtain basic needs like transportation, clothing, shelter, and personal items.

For many of you, the days of stretching dollars and hunger pangs may feel like a distant past; however, we ask that you remember those who continue to live the Challenge we briefly participated in.  What does it mean for a person to live with such a limited budget for an extended amount of time? For some, their creativity may flourish, particularly if they have reason to hope for a brighter future.  For others, it may become another difficult circumstance in an already difficult situation.  

According to the 2010 census, almost one third of people in San Diego County – over 1 million people – live in economic hardship below 200% of the federal poverty line (considered the bare minimum to get one’s basic needs met). 240,000 people are on CalFresh in San Diego County, up by 11% from last year.

That increase is telling: The CalFresh/SNAP program is countercyclical – meaning that it is doing exactly what it was designed to do: expanding to meet the needs of low income people during the recession, and enrollment numbers will automatically decline as the economy improves. Removing people from the program and cutting benefits now will only increase the rates of hunger; it won’t solve our economic woes or the problem of food insecurity.

We know that living on a CalFresh budget is difficult. But we also know that without this program, low income people would likely have little, if any, place to turn for food. Food bank leaders tell us that they already struggle to meet the needs in our communities; if CalFresh/SNAP benefits are cut or eliminated entirely, they won’t be able to fill in the gap. CalFresh is a profoundly important part of the social safety net for seniors, the working poor, and those who are unemployed and seeking jobs with living wages.

Taking the Challenge and knowing the statistics are the first steps. Turning this knowledge into action through advocacy is the next step.

Many representatives in Congress feel CalFresh recipients should live on less than $34.31/week. The Farm Bill is the overarching piece of legislation which allocates money to the CalFresh program (called SNAP nationally), and in case you are not already aware, for the first time in US history, this bill has been left to expire without any form of extension or replacement.  There is tremendous uncertainty about when the Farm Bill will be passed, most of which stems from debates over just how much this program should be cut. Here's the breakdown: 

Congress is divided on the funding of SNAP, with some of the biggest divisions being between Republicans in the House. The Senate-passed version of the Farm Bill cuts SNAP by approximately $4.5 billion over the next ten years. The House Agriculture Committee version cuts $16 billion over the same time period. GOP leadership, however, is preventing a vote on the entire bill because there is such a gap between those who accept the $16 billion dollars in cuts and those who would like to see much more. (Many conservative representatives are suggesting $32 billion but going as far as $133 billion cuts!) The House GOP is trying to avoid a vote on this bill, leaving advocates unsure what will happen.  Please like us on Facebook! Or follow us on twitter to get updates on the Farm Bill and how you can get involved as the bill moves forward!

What you can do now:

-Share your CalFresh Challenge experience with your friends and family

-Volunteer at an organization that helps to reduce hunger in San Diego

-Get involved in legislative advocacy opportunities

Tell your elected officials that you do not want any cuts in the SNAP programs (link to find their federal rep)

-Like us on Facebook and twitter to receive up-to-date policy information and advocacy opportunities

We are so appreciative of all of our Challenge participants, whether you were able to send in blog entries or not. The act of taking the Challenge shows a dedication to understanding people and helping to understand hunger in its most basic form. We hope it has given you as much insight as the blog entries have given the rest of us and we can't wait to see you next year! Please take our extremely short survey on the process and give us feedback so we can make the next Challenge even better. 

Thank you,

The San Diego Hunger Coalition