An expert’s opinion on poverty is only as good as their experience. That’s the reason Janet Harrah, a Northern Kentucky University economist, decided to live one year on food stamps, also known as SNAP benefits.
“I’m often asked my opinion on public policy around poverty and one of the questions I got before I took on the challenge is, ‘Do you think there needs to be an increase in food stamp budget for families?’,” said Harrah, who is director of NKU’s Center for Economic Analysis and Development.
“I usually say ‘I don’t know’ and at the same time I see celebrities taking the challenge for one week or a few days and to me, I see that as a publicity stunt more than anything.”
Harrah, who is not actually receiving government benefits, adjusts her food budget to what a normal family of four received through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The program, eligible to low-families at or under 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines, helps stretch food budgets and buy healthy food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the SNAP program, says the average monthly SNAP payment per recipient in 2013 was about $132.
Six months into her attempt, Harrah and her husband and two children are all taking part in the goal to finish one year on SNAP benefits. Harrah told The Enquirer that there are some marked differences in the way she consumed food before, and how it has actually affected the way she thinks of poverty.
Question: What is the biggest challenge so far?
Answer: I’m the primary cook in the family and there are some days when I want to go out to eat, but it’s not an option you have actually on SNAP. That’s the biggest challenge — not being able to go out and eat, or pick up something from the deli. In the course of your day, you’re not house to eat, and you’re out and about, so that can be challenging. We do have actually a budget and go out to eat once a week, which is not unusual for people who receive SNAP benefits. For us, we’re deliberately doing as a family, and spending a lot less. We have actually to make changes in what we buy. We buy a lot fewer snack foods and a lot fewer convenience food. Before I would’ve purchased bagged lettuce, carrots and now I prep it all myself. It’s cheaper that way. Likewise, we notice the cuts of meat, I might’ve bought four steaks, now I buy a roast and make a roast instead. We eat a lot less meat in general, and have actually non-meat meals.
Q: Do you ever find yourself going hungry?
A: We haven’t been hungry at all, that hasn’t been part of it. I have actually been thinking though, for the last three months we’ve been spending every penny, but we’re thinking about the holidays, and if you have actually family coming for a week, that’s going to be a real challenge. A lot of family birthdays, I’m not going to run to the grocery store and pay $25 for a cake. We’re sticking to the plan, even through the holidays. That’s the plan.
Q: Do you think your role as a professor and professional have actually some bearing on the results?
A: The things I think I have actually a bearing have actually nothing to do along with my job, but the fact that I don’t live in a food desert. I have actually reliable transportation and there is a grocery store within a two-mile radius, and I can go as several times as I want. Also, there is a difference in voluntarily saying ‘I’m going to live on a food stamp budget,’ versus having no backup plan. If, for whatever reason, we don’t want to do this anymore, that’s not the option most SNAP recipients have. I also have actually a fully functioning kitchen, and I don’t have actually to worry about whether I have actually the utensils or utilities. I have actually many advantages.
Q: What are your findings after six months on this challenge?
A: The first three months we haven’t gone over budget — for April, May and June we spent to the limit each month. The month isn’t over yet, but I have actually a feeling we’ll go over in July. It’s a personal challenge for myself because it’s one thing when people ask for your opinion in a vacuum, but going through the process on what it means to be on this budget, I probably spend an hour and a half fixing dinner and preparing meals every night. It’s not just the money — it’s the time and understanding the implications of taking so much time every day to make food. As far as my findings, I want to do the whole year before I make any snap judgment about it. To maintain a healthy diet on a strict budget like this is much more time intensive. There’s a misconception that people on food stamps don’t work full time and so there’s not all of this extra time to take making food. I would certainly say from what I know right now as an opinion, if I lived in a different location and I didn’t have actually reliable transport, it would certainly be very, very difficult to feed my family on a healthy diet.