Chandler Councilwoman Trinity Donovan walked into the grocery store last week with $29 in her purse and a feeling of uncertainty in her mind.
It was the only money she had for a week’s worth of food, so Donovon, a vegetarian, had to choose carefully. She wanted to buy a large container of yogurt for protein, but it would cost her too much. And she hoped for some juice and snacks, but again realized she could not afford them.
In the end, she settled on some water, rice, dried pinto beans, pasta, oatmeal, peanut butter, a small block of cheese and some fresh fruits and vegetables to get her through the week.
For Donovan, who is the CEO of Chandler Christian Community Center, the recent experience was just an exercise, but for more than 1 million Arizonans, it’s a reality.
The exercise, called the SNAP Experience, began Sept. 3 and ends Sept. 9, and is organized by the non-profit Arizona Community Action Association. The exercise encourages politicians, non-profit groups and the community to attempt to eat for $4.14 cents per day — the average amount a single person on food stamps receives. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and is the name now used in place of food stamps.
“We want people to experience what it might be like to live hungry for a week, and be able to identify some of the barriers and issues that people of low income have to face in their reality for an extended period of time,” said Arizona Community Action Association Outreach and Community Development Manager Angela Schultz.
About 140 people statewide participated in the SNAP Experience, including Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and State Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe. [**]
For Mendez, the experience was a reminder of what his family went through growing up with a single mother and four children in his home.
“I grew up on food stamps, so I know what it’s like to live in a family that depends on that kind of supplement just to cover the necessary food budget for a month,” Mendez said. “Now that I have this voice and this platform, I’m going to be working on legislation that highlights what families are going through.”
Mendez said the hardest part of the exercise for him was that to save money he had to follow a more planned out meal schedule. He also missed his morning cup of coffee.
Mendez said the experience was a good reminder, but still not nearly as difficult as life is for those living in poverty, who often must rely on public transportation and don’t always have easy access to grocery stores.
“There are many parts of the Valley that are food deserts,” Mendez said.
A food desert is a geographic area where residents have limited or no access to fresh and healthy food options due to the absence of grocery stores within a convenient distance, according to the non-profit Food Empowerment Project.
Schultz said this is the fourth year the Arizona Community Action Association has held the SNAP Experience, but this year it was especially important to raise awareness.
On Nov. 1, the 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary increase to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits is scheduled to end, meaning that on average, a family of three will see their benefits reduced by $29 per month, Schultz said. On the national level, there are talks of cutting SNAP benefits as well, although a bill has not been introduced.
“We are trying to get the information out to help families know that this is coming,” Schulz said, “because they budget their food money based on what their SNAP budget is.”
Since SNAP benefits are often not enough to cover a family’s food needs, Donovan said her organization often fills the gap by providing monthly food boxes and weekly fresh food, which is donated from restaurants and businesses. Last year, Chandler Christian Community Center distributed about 16,000 boxes to 10,000 people.
Donovan said the food boxes are healthy and nutritionally balanced, which Mendez said is important, because people don’t always know how to make good food choices.
“If kids are not eating right, there are going to be things that will complicate their life later on,” Mendez said. “I have family members with health problems directly tied to the fact that we did not know what we are eating.”
Schultz said the national obesity epidemic is changing the way hunger looks.
“You think of really thin people who are starving, but what we’re seeing is you can buy Doritos and Coke and buy empty calories that are going to fill you up and be empty calories,” Schultz said. “If people look like they’re well fed, it’s because they’re eating high-calorie, low-nutrient foods.”
**Correction [Sept. 10, 2013; 11:10 a.m.]: Due to an editing error, the original version of this story incorrectly labeled the political party affiliation of Arizona State Rep. Juan Mendez. Mendez is a Democrat from Tempe. The Tribune regrets the error.