Try eating on a food stamp budget

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Thirty dollars and twenty five cents.

That’s the budget Open Arms is challenging Minnesotans to eat on for one week in November — the average weekly food stamp benefit for one person in Minnesota.

“Our goal is solely to bring awareness to hunger in Minnesota,” said Susan Pagani, communications director for Open Arms, which provides free meals for people with diseases including HIV/AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, and cancer.

More than 500,000 Minnesotans receive food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That number jumped 19 percent between February 2010 and February 2011, due to increased need and changes in eligibility.

This is the nonprofit’s second annual food stamp challenge, which helps participants understand what putting together meals is like for that growing number of Minnesotans, Pagani said. She watched last year as participants blogged about their experience.

“It was really interesting to see people go into the SNAP Challenge with the idea that they could manage this,” she said. “And a lot of people, their first blog posts were about how it took them three hours to plan where they would shop, so they could get the most out of the money they had to spend for the entire week. So that was one epiphany — how much time you would have to invest if you wanted to eat well.”

Pagani also saw participants experience what she calls “shelf shock.”

“People would find themselves in the grocery store negotiating with themselves — well, I would really like some fruit. Well, I don’t want fruit in syrup. Well, I could either buy one pear, or I could buy this can of fruit that’s filled with syrup.”

Many began to understand that some Minnesotans make those kinds of decisions regularly.

“It started to really bring home for them the correlation between health and poverty and food,” Pagani said.

Such challenges are common and have drawn media attention across the country. In the past, a few members of Congress have participated in them.

But the challenges also have been criticized. Some critics say food stamps, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, are not intended to cover all the groceries a person buys. The program is designed to merely supplement a food budget.

But that’s not always the way the benefit is used, argues Pagani.

“I think it’s supplemental in a best-case scenario,” she said. “But if you really look at it, [for] a lot of the people who are using it, it’s their entire food budget.”

Open Arm’s one-week challenge will begin on Thursday, Nov. 17 and end on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24.