Hunger challenge highlights struggles of families on SNAP

As a sports nutritionist, Susan Kundrat said a part of her mind is always on coming up with healthy meals. That task became more challenging last week, though, when Kundrat and her family took part in the SNAP Hunger Challenge, in which participants try to spend only $5 a day on food.

People who took the challenge tried to live like people do every day who are in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

Kundrat can recite a litany of nutrients she and her family did not get enough of during the week: calcium, zinc, iron and vitamins A, C and D. At the store, she bought less dairy and meat and a smaller variety of produce, instead purchasing cheap, starchy foods like pasta and potatoes.

“Maybe you can eat enough on this type of plan, but you can’t eat well enough,” she said. “Everybody deserves high-quality food and everybody deserves good nutrition.”

Tracy Smith, state director of Feeding Illinois, said at a hunger conference Monday that even short periods of food insecurity would cause health problems later in life.

This can be especially problematic because not everyone who is food insecure qualifies for SNAP benefits, and those who qualify sometimes do not apply because they do not have enough time, transportation or the language skills necessary to fill out the 12-page application.

Cheryl Precious, director of marketing and development for the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, said the agency works directly with potential applicants and with other hunger-related local organizations to help those who may qualify get through the application process. To qualify for SNAP, applicants’ gross monthly income must be below 130 percent of the poverty line.

Those who are food insecure — determined by an 18-question test — do not always qualify for SNAP benefits or other hunger-relief programs. For them, Smith said, the food bank and other agencies are the only way to get enough food.

Things are worse now than they have been in the past, Smith said. With the bad economy and talks of deficit reduction, SNAP and other programs receiving federal funding are often on the chopping block.

“We’ve been around the state in the last two months, and in virtually every community we’re in … we get the same story,” Smith said. “It’s never been this bad, they’ve never served this many people and the shelter never goes empty.”

Jessica Simpson, SNAP outreach coordinator at the food bank, said there are also problems with the stigma of being on the SNAP program.

Simpson, who was on SNAP benefits last year because a family member was laid off, said people do not realize that most people who receive SNAP are hard-working people who cannot afford food on their own.

Kundrat said the SNAP Hunger Challenge was difficult for her and her family but she was aware how much harder it would be for someone actually receiving SNAP benefits.

“I think if we had to do this all the time, that would be hard,” she said.

Kundrat’s 10-year-old daughter asked her if they could make pumpkin bars as a special treat because the family had come under its $5 limit each day. Kundrat and her daughter made the pumpkin bars with ingredients bought from the leftover money and what they had in the house.

“One thing my daughter said was, ‘Mom, we should do this more often. Look at all the money we’re saving,’” Kundrat said. “(After the challenge is over) maybe one day a week, try to be this careful about spending money and think about where that money could go. We’re probably being very wasteful with our food.”