By Michelle Sartor
“Can you live on $4.50 a day for food?” That is the question the Community Food Bank of New Jersey asked residents this week. The group organized its first Food Stamp Challenge to raise awareness about the program and show people how difficult it can be to rely on the assistance.
The average New Jersey resident who qualifies for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, receives $31.50 per week to spend on food. A trip to the supermarket becomes more difficult with the limited budget, which can’t be used for all items in the store.
Community Food Bank of New Jersey Director of Advocacy Diane Riley explained that SNAP money can only be used on food and excludes essentials like toilet paper, toothpaste and medicine. Additionally, the funds cannot be used to buy any prepared food or hot food.
Taking a trip down supermarket aisles with a calculator, it quickly becomes obvious that having $31.50 per week for food is challenging. Buying in bulk, which tends to lower the unit price, is nearly possible with such a limited budget, making the task even more difficult.
Riley, who is participating in the challenge, said she had to make tough choices when purchasing food this week.
“I bought a little differently. I took out all the possible extras,” she said. “I really had to think about the fruit and see what was on sale and what I wanted to do.”
She added that she didn’t buy items that she typically has on hand in her home. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, when would I get the oil?’ That’s expensive,” Riley said.
Oftentimes, those who participate in SNAP don’t have enough money to feed themselves for the entire month. They may utilize food pantries, “especially toward the end of the month,” Riley said. She explained that food pantries are used in emergency situations and provide three to five days worth of food.
While SNAP funding has increased, particularly after the state received stimulus money from the federal government, Riley said the program is based on the most minimal food plan the U.S. Department of Agriculture has.
“Food prices have risen far faster than the benefits have risen,” she said.
Riley said the purpose of the Food Stamp Challenge is to raise awareness about the program that is essential for many New Jersey families.
“I think it makes everybody a little more empathetic or understanding of just how much money that is to a household,” she said.
One of the participants in the challenge is Department of Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez. She is chronicling her experience in a blog available on the department’s website and Facebook page and said she believes any campaign that raises awareness about the prevalence of food insecurity is important.
“I think this experience reinforces for me the value of the state’s public and private non-profit food assistance programs. Certainly, I’m far more mindful of food costs,” Velez said. “But I don’t begin to compare my week to what an estimated 2 million New Jersey residents do, every day, in the long term.”
Riley said she is hopeful that once the economy gets better fewer New Jerseyans will have to depend on SNAP. As of September (the most recent data available), 760,000 people in the state used the program, says Riley. Half of those are children. She said two years ago, about 550,000 residents used SNAP.
Riley believes the program is essential to helping those who fall on hard times, relaying a story about a colleague who used food stamps when she was younger and unemployed. The program is meant to provide relief for people in times of need, she explained.
“It’s a lifesaver,” Riley said.