WASHINGTON – Feeding a family on $5 a day is not a challenge for thousands of families, it’s a necessity. Even in affluent Montgomery County, thousands struggle to live on the federally funded supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP, known to most people as food stamps.
In an effort to draw attention to the needs of residents in need, Montgomery County Councilmember Valerie Ervin came up with the idea of the SNAP Challenge: Get public officials to try to pay for their meals on just $5 a day.
The program is designed to to make an impression on lawmakers to influence their policy-making decisions.
“Roughly 34 percent of our kids are in poverty, and about 80 percent of those kids receive free lunch, not just free and reduced lunch,” says Montgomery County School Superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr who is taking part in the SNAP Challenge.
To underscore the scope of the issue, Starr says the number of kids qualifying for free and reduced meals in Montgomery County is greater than the total number of students enrolled in D.C. public schools. Montgomery County has 149,000 students enrolled.
Day one of the challenge kicked off with a trip to the grocery store. Starr looked closely at the prices of fresh fruit and noted, “I’m trying to find things that are both healthy and filling.”
Councilmember Ervin ticked off the items in her shopping cart — dried black beans, tuna and a whole chicken.
“This chicken is special to me,” she jokes. “It was half price! I’m going to roast it when I get home tonight and make it last for four days. I can do a lot with a chicken,” she says.
Council President Nancy Navarro says the challenge reminds her of her college days and later, working out a budget as a new parent. The challenge is proving even more daunting 20 years later.
“I can barely afford fresh vegetables, and it’s really amazing. I didn’t realize how expensive, for example, milk was … because now you shop and you just do it,” she says of the SNAP budget.
There were some special challenges for other participants.
Councilmember Nancy Floreen, a breast cancer survivor, found that milk was out of the picture. She was intent on getting five fruits and vegetables a day into her diet which, she found, meant heading to Costco. Even buying in bulk, Floreen had to pinch pennies to stick to an anti-cancer diet.
Finding healthy foods was also a challenge for Board of Education President Chris Barclay who has diabetes.
The focus should not be on the participants or the novelty of the challenge, Ervin says. While it’s a helpful exercise, the real focus should be on the perspective it provides.
The reminder that Montgomery County, as wealthy as it is, also has many families who struggle, is the lesson Ervin says. And managing on a tight budget isn’t nearly as easy as some might think.
Navarro says the image of the county needs to be grounded in reality.
“Yes, we’re the economic engine of the state, but we also have needs and we need to come together and address them,” she says.
For the participants of the SNAP challenge, the five day event ends on Friday. But for those enrolled in the SNAP program, the challenge takes place every day, Ervin says.