January 20, 2016

The Do's and Don'ts of the SNAP Challenge

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Gwyneth Paltrow broke the internet with a photo of limes. “This is what families on SNAP have to live on for a week” she tweeted on the first day of her SNAP Challenge. It inspired many criticisms about poverty tourism, celebrity publicity stunts, and the ethics of the SNAP Challenge itself.

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Image via Gwyneth Paltrow

Though the SNAP Challenge often raises awareness about food insecurity, in the wrong hands it can perpetuate stereotypes and overshadow the voices of actual food-insecure people. This got me thinking: Is there any way at all to ethically participate in the SNAP Challenge?

I’ve transcribed hours and hours of interviews with SNAP recipients and food bank clients for MAZON’s This Is Hunger series. It’s absolutely eye-opening to listen to the stories of people doing whatever they can to feed their families. These are Americans from all walks of life, who have found themselves in these frightening situations where they have to make tough decisions every day: Do I buy medicine or food? Do I pay the electric bill or do I buy more fresh produce? They are doing the best they can with what little assistance the government provides them. When asked how they would respond to legislators and others who say that hungry people on SNAP have it too easy, they invariably respond, “Try it yourself and see what it’s like.” It’s a sarcastic retort to their detractors, but it’s also a challenge to all of us. To step outside our own experience and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. 

The SNAP Challenge is like a fast, during which we deny ourselves the food we take for granted in order to reflect on our privileges and ignite our commitment to building a just world. If you include the SNAP Challenge in your broader work for social justice, remember to follow these guidelines. 

The Do’s and Don’ts of the SNAP Challenge

DON’T assume the SNAP Challenge will show you exactly what it’s like to be poor.
Subsisting on $1.40 per meal is just one aspect of poverty. Your fast has an end date, while SNAP recipients continuously live with the uncertainty of where the next meal is coming from. Recognize the privileges that mitigate your discomfort during the SNAP Challenge (employment, transportation, free time, etc.).

DO remember to include advocacy.
Tell your legislators to support SNAP funding. Write letters to the editor and social media posts about the importance of the food safety net. Share links about hunger facts. Educate your social circles about what you have learned. See advocacy in action

DON'T go into the SNAP Challenge expecting to prove food-insecure people wrong. 
They are experts on their own experience. There is nothing the SNAP Challenge will teach you that a hungry person has not already tried to tell the world. You are participating in the SNAP Challenge not to verify their claims, but to walk with them in empathy, if only for a short time. 

DO share your experience.
You may notice things about yourself and the world that you’d taken for granted before. You may confront your own assumptions about hunger and poverty. Pay attention to how hunger affects your emotions and thoughts; imagine living with those effects for months, or years. Share these realizations and encourage others to challenge their assumptions, too. 

DON’T treat it like a game or an adventure.
Nobody wins the SNAP Challenge. Making it to the end of the week is not a victory. Treat it as an exercise in compassion. Treat it as a reminder to pay more attention to the struggles of people living in food-insecurity, and advocate for them. Cultivate admiration for their resourcefulness and strength in extraordinary circumstances.

DO your research.
While you’re sharing your experience, remember to share the words of hungry people, too. Read articles by people who rely on food banks and SNAP. (My Year on Food Stamps and what the Cuts will Mean) Listen to the stories of families suffering from food insecurity, and share those stories on social media. A good place to start is MAZON’s This Is Hunger series

DO consider donating the money you saved.
Take all the money you didn’t spend on food during your SNAP Challenge week, and consider donating it to MAZON

DO continue your advocacy when the SNAP Challenge is over.
When the week is over, you may be able to go back to your regular eating habits, but hungry people all over America must still rely on SNAP. Keep advocating for policies that better serve them. Keep listening to their stories and supporting them. Pledge to join MAZON’s mission to transform how it is into how it should be.