These were some of the only words my caseworker said to me during my intake at the Illinois Department of Human Services. I could hardly hide my disgust as he revealed a smile and asked me to fork over my stack of papers. His dry, albeit offensive brand of humor was especially jarring after the nearly 2 hours I spent standing in lines and waiting to hear my name called.
I was interviewing as part of my application for food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or “SNAP”). It had been a rough morning of long lines, crying babies, and grumpy staff (picture the DMV on a particularly bad day), but as an AmeriCorps*National Direct volunteer, I was mostly unfazed by the sluggish bureaucratic process. I spent my days running a non-profit community resource center on the North Side of Chicago where I held similar responsibilities to those of my caseworker, so I tried to empathize to his overworked, underpaid demeanor. With a brusque “You qualify,” he approved my application and sent me on my merry way. I was relieved to have a food budget.
I recently found myself in one of my favorite places in NYC — The Union Square Farmer’s Market. As I wandered through the stalls, admiring the colorful varieties of cauliflower and broccoli I reflected on how much my shopping habits have changed. Sure, I occasionally shop at the Green Market at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, but for the past year I’ve purchased most of my produce from the Caribbean market around the corner from my house in Bed-Stuy. Spending almost a year on unemployment and one measly month on SNAP has changed the way that I budget, and the way that I shop for food.
In July of 2011, I found myself in an interesting predicament — I was unexpectedly unemployed. As the thrill of spending work days on the beach turned into weeks and then months without so much as an interview, my meager savings disappeared and my debt mounted. I realized that I would have to get government assistance. I struggled with this realization and put it off until the very last moment, which I learned was a terrible idea because you don’t just get SNAP benefits just because you want them — you have to wait.
It was after Rabbi Ari Weiss bumped into and spoke with Rabbi Steve Gutow of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs on Rosh Hashanah, that he decided to take the Food Stamp Challenge. This means he would have to get by on no more than $31.50 worth of groceries (the average amount of food stamps granted to a qualifying individual) for an entire week. That’s just $1.50 per meal, without snacks. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially since he keeps strictly kosher.
“There were bottles of wine that cost more than $31.50 on the table at holiday meals I had just attended,” Weiss, the director of the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, told the Jew and the Carrot prior to beginning the challenge, which took place October 27 through November 3. Nonetheless, Weiss was determined — despite the extra difficulty kashrut would pose — to join the many others around the country, including many members of Congress and Jewish community leaders, in experiencing what it is like to be one of the 45.7 million Americans who receive Food Stamp benefits and the one in six American households living in hunger.