Could you feed yourself on $4 a day?

Julie Risinger, D.O.'18, challenged the DMU community to live on just $4 a day.

Meeting one’s nutritional needs on $4 per day is reality for the more than 45 million low-income people — about one in seven Americans, many of them children — who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the largest nutrition assistance program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To understand what that might be like, several DMU students attempted the “SNAP Challenge” — feeding themselves on just $4 a day — for four days during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

Here, second-year osteopathic medical student Julie Risinger reflects on her experience with the challenge. She is president of DMU’s Homeless Community Outreach, a campus organization that visits homeless individuals in Des Moines every week.

Half-eaten hot dog
Cheap foods like hot dogs are high in sodium and may exacerbate health issues for SNAP recipients.

The night before the SNAP Challenge started, I ran into other students at the grocery store, all trying to shop on the four-day $16 budget. We scavenged the store looking for the lowest prices on the most substantial food. I found myself more overwhelmed than I expected trying to balance health, cost and calories to get me through the week.

Everyone seemed to have a loaf of white bread, eggs, bananas and rice or pasta. Additional items varied from canned/frozen/fresh veggies, beans, milk, some sort of meat, instant coffee, soup and peanut butter.

From my first breakfast, I was already disappointed with my food choices. I found out the six instant coffee packets I bought for $0.99 made only six ounces each. It also was the worst coffee I’ve ever had. To get the caffeine I needed to keep trucking through med school, I resorted to more sugar packets than I normally use. I thought of the homeless individuals we visit who regularly drink instant coffee to stay warm, with lots of sugar I’m sure, and what that would mean to be diabetic on top of all of that. It would be extremely difficult to give up the coffee and warmth to watch sugar intake.

The salt in the cheap crackers, mac and cheese and hot dogs I purchased for my lunches made me drink copious amounts of water. One hot dog had 27 percent of the recommended daily sodium intake. They are extremely cheap meals that could be cooked outside on a fire by SNAP recipients who are also homeless. But that much salt intake on a regular basis would no doubt exacerbate high blood pressure and kidney problems.

The hardest part for me was all the planning. Since I had spent my $16 for the week at the grocery store and since SNAP benefits don’t cover prepared food items, I had to make sure when I left the house that I had enough food for the time I would be away.

I didn’t make it all four days. By the third evening, partly due to a cardiology test the next day, I broke down and bought some Pepsi because I had already spent study time that day taking a nap after trying to keep up with just instant coffee. It was eye-opening. Many other students didn’t make it the whole four days either, especially those who have special diets such as vegetarian or gluten-free.

The SNAP Challenge is by no means a perfect simulation of living on SNAP. Individuals receive benefits a month at a time, so it is easier to build a bit more variety in their shopping lists. However, SNAP recipients who are homeless have to plan meals without access to a refrigerator and with only a fire to cook on. Many individuals we visit also must walk quite a distance to convenience stores for much of their food and must carry what they buy, including the water they will need for the day.

We can’t understand all the challenges of SNAP after four days, but I think students, staff and faculty have a little better appreciation for the planning and limits of living on the program. I hope this will stay with us. As future health care providers, it is important we understand the difficulties our patients may face in eating a balanced diet. We must consider asking about their food budget and how that affects their stress level, diet and lifestyle choices.

See more from the #dmusnapchallenge on Storify.

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