What I Learned in Five Days on a Senior's Food Stamp Budget

Posted by Erika Kelly, Meals on Wheels Association of America's Chief Advocacy Officer on 10/03/2013

Working for the Meals On Wheels Association of America – a national organization with a mission to support local programs and to end senior hunger – the issue of hunger is a part of my daily life. It is my job to help raise awareness, build partnerships and political will to find solutions to reduce senior hunger in America.

So as a part of September’s annual Hunger Action Month and better understand senior hunger myself, I decided to take the Senior SNAP Challenge. It’s called a “challenge” because you attempt to eat as nutritiously as possible on the average daily Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) budget. For a senior living alone, that budget is $4.06 or about $1.35 per meal.

While the problem of hunger in our country is not well known in general, senior hunger may be the most hidden. It’s often found behind closed doors of some of our nation’s most vulnerable and forgotten citizens – individuals whose mobility is limited, may be too proud to ask for help, or have worked hard all of their lives and still can’t make ends meet with their Social Security check. Today, nearly 1 in 6 seniors may not know where their next meal will come from.

As I approached this challenge, I called upon my knowledge of hunger as an issue and reflected upon my own past when living on a tight budget and stretching a limited food supply. Going in, I knew that it wouldn’t be easy, but I thought my own experiences might have somewhat prepared me for the road ahead. I was wrong.

Prior to this week, I had never stood in line at the supermarket with so much anxiety about over whether or not I would be able to afford the few items in my shopping cart. I had never weighed produce like bananas or an onion, because never before had pennies mattered so much in my budget.

Prior to this week, I had never experienced waking up hungry and then feeling the panic of having forgotten my breakfast, a banana, on the kitchen table. And then having to make the decision about whether to eat my lunch for breakfast or go without enough to eat during the workday.

Prior to this week, I had never experienced the social isolation of having to watch my colleagues and friends enjoy a meal together, while I had to turn it away. I had never lost weight, nearly 4lbs, from not eating enough. Or finally, I had never felt a grumbling stomach, incessant headache, fatigue, lack of concentration, and blurred vision for days in a row.

Never before had I actually experienced hunger.

Today, as I write this, I thought the lessons during my Senior SNAP Challenge were probably behind me, but they weren’t. I decided to leave my house and go to my local coffee shop to write this blog. Since the house was a mess, my husband was watching football and I was distracted, I thought a change of scenery would certainly do some good. As I placed my order with the barista, my mind was on what I would write. That was until the barista issued a rude awakening, “Ma’am that will be $8.19,” he said. I felt panic and shame wash over me in the same moment. For the price of a cup of coffee and small sandwich, I had just spent almost half of the budget I had eaten on for the previous week.

It was at that moment I learned just how much this challenge has forever changed me.

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