HEATHER DENKMIRE

Real poverty is more than a food stamps challenge, lasts longer than a week

Posted Nov. 06, 2013, at 10:54 a.m.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland.
Contributed photo | BDN
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland.

She said she was “doing the SNAP challenge,” and I almost lost it right there on her Facebook page. She’s a good-hearted and well-meaning friend, and I don’t doubt she will learn from her experience just like SNAP challenge participants Gail Roller and Sheila Littlefield did as Partners for a Hunger-Free York County when they honored Food Day by living for a week using the SNAP budget of $4.50 per person per day.

I want to be glad people are trying to understand what living on SNAP benefits is like. I really do. But instead of being glad, I’m filled with frustration.

These particular participants are not at fault. And, in the end, the trendy flurry of these “challenges” has the potential to open conversation paths that weren’t open before. My criticism is that it’s really hard to replicate the authenticity of needing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The trouble I have with the SNAP challenge is visceral. I never, ever want to go back to the place I was when I had to ask for food stamps.

Writing this column is difficult because I am upset about people who are essentially tourists checking out poverty, no matter how well-meaning they are. Intellectually, it reminds me of being in the sixth grade in West Hartford, Conn. We climbed onto a bus that drove over to Hartford for a tour of the city. We saw human beings living their lives in run-down housing on unkempt streets, and the adult at the front of the bus told us this was urban “decay.” We saw what I now would describe as gentrification and were told this was urban “renewal.” It took me 10 years to look back on that experience and realize how wrong it was.

My body is tight with fear as I try to recall the experiences of applying for SNAP benefits, how the SNAP challenges are nothing like the real thing. I want to explain what it’s really like when desperation overwhelms, and there are no choices. I want to scream: It’s not even about the $4.50 per person per day for food!

Of course it’s challenging to buy enough food with such a small amount of money. It’s not the money, though, that constitutes life on food stamps. It’s everything else. It’s no time, no energy, no hope. It’s living in scarcity, living with tunnel vision simply to survive.

Add to that the fact that many people are starving. Starving, not just uncomfortable. I’m one of the lucky ones. It was very bad for me, but, even at the worst, I had food for my daughters and me. This is not the case for many people. They don’t have “food insecurity.” They have malnutrition and sometimes near-starvation.

I want to be wrong. I want people to be so moved by their experiences in the SNAP challenge that they give hundreds of thousands of dollars to food banks, or they become activists fighting to change governmental policies or volunteers giving day-to-day support to people who need help. I want to believe the lessons learned by the tourists will last and make a difference in the lives of actual poor people.

I’m afraid the SNAP challenges may do more harm than good. When people with the resources choose to participate, they will do so with advanced notice, with opportunities to plan, with relatively few stressors in their lives and, of course, with the knowledge that it will get better in a very short period of time. It’s likely people will finish the challenges, thinking, “Yeah, that’s hard, but it’s manageable.” And, perhaps this is the worst part, they may feel they’ve done their good deed, and they will go on to be able to sleep well at night without taking any further action.

When my Facebook friend announced her participation, I did what I could to restrain myself in my response. I know she and many others who are doing the challenge want to understand poverty. They care. They want to do what they can to make life better for their neighbors. As I said, my response is visceral. While not clinically post-traumatic stress disorder, simply recalling what it was really like back then — and my case was one of the milder ones — causes me to feel disconnected to everything around me. I’m nauseated and shaking.

What they are doing is not close to the real experience of needing food stamps. There’s no humiliation, there’s no desperation, and, most of all, there’s no helplessness.

I’m not suggesting the SNAP challenges stop. However, there has to be a way to make sure people who live in the reality of needing food stamps are heard. Important conversations are happening, and that’s good. As far as I can tell, despite all of the publicity about these challenges, it seems that the real people living in poverty are still voiceless.

Maybe that’s what it comes down to. I’m scared these SNAP challenges will make it even easier for well-meaning financially stable people to keep conversations about poverty and food “insecurity” on comfortable intellectual levels, while the real people who do the best they can surviving without enough money for food remain mute.

Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at column@grantwinners.net.

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