Christine Barksdale takes a vegetarian lasagna out of the oven and stirs the remaining tomato sauce on the back burner. She repackages the leftover ingredients — cheeses, peppers, riced cauliflower, greens — and plans how she’ll use them in meals for the rest of the week. It takes a lot of time to plan and prepare to use up every bit of the ingredients in healthy and quick recipes.
An Ithaca city employee and a small business owner, Christine can buy whatever groceries she wants, wherever and whenever she needs. But each September, she takes the SNAP Challenge and buys only what she can afford on the average SNAP allotment — just $4 per person a day.
SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal program formerly called Food Stamps. Anti-hunger advocates use the SNAP Challenge to draw attention to the program’s shortfall —that $4 a day often leaves individuals and families without enough to eat.
“I heard the CEO of Panera had done the challenge and it stuck with me when he said he spent so much time thinking about food — not just about being hungry but how he was going to get enough and how to prepare it,” Christine reflects. “In planning, I had prepared my shopping list for the week. I had made adjustments, because I was going over my limit, when I realized that the large can of organic diced tomatoes was 55 cents over my limit. Having to make changes in real time was frustrating because I have become so accustomed to buying what I want, when I want.”
The first thing Christine realized after heading to four or five stores to find the best bargains was how much time and money she had spent on transportation. She acknowledges the SNAP Challenge can seem like “poverty tourism” for people with abundance; that she’s fortunate to have reliable transportation, gas money, and time to bargain hunt. “Traveling to different stores is time-consuming and expensive. If you’re working two jobs to make ends meet, you don’t have time for that,” she says.
While Christine says it is possible for her to eat well on $4 a day, many low-income households lack basic cookware and storage containers, healthy recipes and cooking knowledge, and time for all the required meal prep and planning.
Christine first started participating in the SNAP Challenge when she was on the board of directors at Loaves and Fishes. In her nine years of challenging herself, she has learned something new each time she does it. The experience keeps her grounded as she continues to work with underserved populations in various capacities throughout New York state.
“I feel the need to do things that keep me connected to the issue,” she says. “I don’t like sitting in rooms making decisions about people who don’t have enough to eat with people who have no idea what that’s like.”