“Finish your food because there are starving kids in Africa.” This is what my mother used to say to me as a young girl. The reality is that hunger is not only an issue in developing countries, but believe it or not, it exists in our local community.
To say living off $4.14 a day for 31 days was hard would be an understatement. It was indeed a challenge, but it was a much-need one and it was one which allowed me to experience what millions of people face each day. I decided to challenge myself to live off $4.14 per day for a month as opposed to a week to really step into others’ shoes.
Prior to beginning my Food Stamp Challenge, I wanted to educate myself about hunger and what it really was. I had no knowledge about hunger in Colorado other than that it existed. I wasn’t quite sure how prevalent it was in my community or just how much it affected people’s lives.
While working as a waitress, I witnessed tons of perfectly edible food head towards the trash each night. This was upsetting, because while the establishment I was working at was throwing away food, I knew there were families all over Colorado that were going without. I wanted to find out what was being done in my community and how I can help remedy this problem.
To do this, I volunteered with Hunger Free Colorado and joined the Hunger P.O.D. Squad, and I also did some research on my own. I wanted to understand the problem before I challenged myself to live off SNAP/food stamp benefits for a month.
The time came to live off $4.14, and I knew I had to prepare myself for this lifestyle change. I made calculations to figure out how much I was able to eat with the money. I had to figure out what food I was going to eat, because although I was going to eat differently, I still wanted to make my meals to be nutritional.
Right off the bat, while at the grocery store, I had to make choices that I never had to make before. I was asking questions that questioned the importance of a particular item. Questions like, “Do I really need this?” or “Maybe there is a cheaper alternative.” I found myself taking longer to shop due to the complexities that came with shopping on a low budget. I tried my best to incorporate fresh produce and whole foods, but I ended up buying frozen items so that it can last longer. I strategically bought items that work well with multiple dishes. Foods like rice, tomatoes, bananas, oatmeal, and peanut butter. To my surprise, I quickly reached my grocery budget and was unable to buy all of the items I had originally planned.
Within the home, I found that preparing my meals each night became time consuming as well as a test of my cooking skills. Because I had a limited variety of foods, I was constantly figuring out how I could make do with so little. It was a constant battle in the kitchen. As each night passed, my options dwindled and so did my appetite. As you can imagine, my meals became similar to one another very quickly. The lack of variety and the frustration led me to sometimes not eating. Eating became more of a necessity rather than for enjoyment. Each day, I prepared my meals and with each meal, I gained a deeper understanding of how hunger affects everyday life.
If I failed to prepare my meals at home, I suffered the consequences at school. There were days where I did not eat anything until I got home after work, (which sometimes was at 7pm at night). It was in these situations when I realized how hunger inhibits the learning/work environment. I could not concentrate or focus on the tasks that were assigned to me. All I could think about was what and when I was going to eat. I also noticed that food was all around me, and if only I had the means to purchase it, I could have easily satisfied my hunger. The lack of nutrition and food caused me to become irritable towards others, tired, and I noticed drastic changes in regards to my digestion pattern. Again, eating became necessity. I needed fuel for my body and mind.
Not being able to participate in eating out with friends or family made me realize the power that food holds. Food really does bring people together. It is a social and communal gathering. When I did go out with friends, you’d find me sipping on water or eating my packed lunch. I noticed that people felt bad for me when I wasn’t able to spend money in restaurants, and they would offer to buy me a meal. I, of course, declined. However in those moments, I felt vulnerable and a little bit embarrassed. It is uncomfortable to have to depend on others for a basic necessity such as food. When eating out with my family of 5, I noticed how easily they were able to spend double-digit amounts of money on food. I often compared how much I was able to eat with well under $4.14, though it was a challenge, and imagined how much they could save had they planned their meals and ate from home.
My biggest take away is that hunger is alive everywhere you go. There were many times where I physically felt hungry and no one knew except me. From the outside, I looked like I was well fed. This made me think of all the other people that may look well-off but are struggling on the inside.
Now that I am off the Food Stamp Challenge, I realize that food is such privilege when it really shouldn’t be. I am more cautious of the things I buy, the things I put into my body, and I am empathetic to the people around me who may not have the means to get access to healthy, nutritious food.
I am glad I took on this Challenge, for my eyes have been opened to the lifestyle that people face; that hunger exists in Colorado.
I encourage others to take on the Food Stamp Challenge as well. During my Challenge, I received many comments about how others felt like they would never be able to live off $4.14 a day and how it would be so hard. And I think that’s the point. It is nearly impossible to function and live a healthy lifestyle when all you have is $4.14 a day for food. But in reality, there are people who live off such a small amount every day, and unfortunately, it’s not by choice.
But I also know that there are solutions to this problem. Volunteering with Hunger Free Colorado has allowed me to gain a different perspective on the positive impact we as individuals are able to make. I believe the first step is to let others know that hunger exists. Many people are blind to this, but I was able to witness and experience it firsthand.
Throughout the Food Stamp Challenge I was hungry for food, but now that it has ended, I realize I am hungry for change.
This blog post was contributed by Amanda Aflague, an 18-year-old from Highlands Ranch. She is a Hunger P.O.D. Squad member and a volunteer with Hunger Free Colorado. We appreciate her sharing her experience!