Reporter meets challenge; dines on $4 per day

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 8:53 p.m.

One woman, one week and a $4-per-day food budget.

While my friends and family were unsure of my motivation, this reporter just wanted to experience the reality for more than 40 million Americans who are in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program, is the largest federal nutrition program benefitting people and families with low income.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, the average monthly benefit per person in Pennsylvania enrolled in SNAP was $128.40 for the 2011 fiscal year, which breaks down to about $4.14 per day for food.

So for seven days, I gave myself a $28 food budget and started my SNAP Challenge. I followed the rules as per the USDA guidelines and spent my budget on bread, cereals, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish poultry and dairy products. SNAP benefits cannot buy alcohol or tobacco products; nonfood items such as pet foods, toiletries, paper products or household supplies; vitamins and medicine; or even prepared food such as rotisserie chicken or a pre-made sandwich.

While the SNAP Challenge concept receives a lot of criticism for its flaws and inaccuracies of what true clients experience, the basic premise is based in reality: It's not easy.

This holiday season, Gateway Newspapers is highlighting local nonprofit groups supporting the needs in its local suburban communities and the difficulties they face.

According to Jennifer Kissel, director of communications at North Hills Community Outreach, in Hampton, the top two biggest challenges faced by people in need in northern Allegheny County over the past years is providing food for themselves and families and paying their utility bills.

“A lot of the … need expressed is (because of) unemployment or underemployment,” Kissel said. “They just don't have the money to grocery shop.”

Each month, the North Hills Community Outreach's two food pantries, located in Hampton and Bellevue, serve on average 500 families per month. About 60 percent of the families served by North Hills Community Outreach food pantries also are enrolled in the SNAP program.

“Food pantries exist when that (SNAP) is not enough,” Kissel said.

Local food pantries generally give clients a certain quantity of items depending on the family size including cereal, vegetables, beverages, soup, fruit and produce as well as pasta, sauce, peanut butter and jelly, among other miscellaneous items depending on the pantries' supplies.

The amount might seem meager until you try to create a grocery list to the penny.

The most time-consuming part of my SNAP challenge turned out to be creating that list. I labored over store sale flyers, prices and quantities trying to get the most out of $28.

I realized that with the money I could have saved by receiving just one jar of peanut butter from a food pantry, I could have purchased four cans of vegetables.

Through the week, I was often hungry and consumed with thinking about food. Do I have enough to make it through the week? How much can I eat today and still have enough to make it through the week?

I couldn't afford the variety in my diet that I had taken for granted.

In fact, I realized I had taken a lot for granted. I had the benefit of a reliable vehicle that enabled me to get to a discount grocery store instead of relying on the local dollar store or big box superstore, which were within walking distance or along a bus route.

During my weeklong challenge, I did not once worry about how I was going to pay my rent or utility bills.

And I didn't have to worry about how to feed a growing child, which accounts for almost 50 percent of the clients that SNAP benefits.

Was it possible for me? Yes. Is it preferable or easy? No.

But, this also is coming from someone who only had one problem to concentrate and one person to worry about and who knew she only had to do it for a week and had an “out” if she failed.

And while SNAP is not intended to cover a participant's full food budget, the reality for many Americans is that after other bills are paid, including rent, utilities or medical expenses, there is no money left over.

In the Pine Creek Journal coverage area, the North Hills Community Outreach programs, including the food pantries and utility assistance, served more than 1,600 families in the 2011-12 fiscal year, including 469 families from Shaler Township, 238 from Hampton Township, 122 from Richland Township and 29 from Pine Township.

With the growing number of people in need, local nonprofit organizations have a corresponding need for donations to continue to serve them.

“We need the support of the grass roots community because while we get some government funding and some foundation funding, we're not a national organization,” said Fay Morgan, executive director of the North Hills Community Outreach.

Of the organization's $1.8 million budget needed to serve more than 6,000 households in need each year, 39 percent came from individual or local business donations.

“We're a northern Allegheny County organization, so we need individuals and businesses to give what they can share,” Morgan said. “There are 108,000 homes in northern Allegheny County, and only 6,000 families who come for help, so if everyone shares some food and coats and funds, there would be enough to help the people who need help.”

At the end of my seven-day challenge, I felt a little guilty going and splurging on a gourmet hamburger that cost almost one-half of the past week's food budget knowing many people, including 165,000 neighbors in Allegheny County receiving SNAP, did not have that luxury.

So, I plan to donate the money I saved on groceries for the week to my local food pantry and hope readers will remember their neighbors this season and give what they can to those in need.

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or

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