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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Food Stamp Challenge

<y we gotta save the children/But first, we gotta save our spoons/I was taught not to waste my food/Even if I didn't like it, every scrap on my plate got chewed/Either you ate, or you didn't eat, the memories are bitter sweet” – Trife Da God, “Grew Up Hard”

The premise of the Food Stamp Challenge struck me as mildly absurd in the context of a world filled with dining halls. All our meals at Carleton are prepaid at the rate of about twenty dollars a day, so my first impression was that it was pretty conceivable to nourish oneself at a rate of $3.15 on top of this.

As our result, I took no time before pointing this out when I first saw the posters advertising the Challenge, which I immediately regretted when I walked around the corner to discover Leah Greenberg, the coordinator of said event, hanging up more posters. Since, due to the Carleton’s small size, I had placed myself in an awkward situation of committing a personal affront, I decided that I probably now had to actually do the challenge to mitigate the problem. After all, I figured, at least I could probably write a column about it afterwards.

I had all kinds of misgivings about actually doing the Food Stamp Challenge, none of which actually had to do with the obvious issue of not eating very much. This problem did not entirely occur to me. It did strike me that it would be impossible to live on $3.15 for a single day since it’s impossible to buy food in single-meal quantities at that low of prices. However, this was not my main worry. Rather, I was concerned with the bourgeois conceit behind the whole affair.

Despite the fact that Leah explained that the day’s dining hall meals were being donated to a local food shelf and, therefore, the challenge did not allow for the obvious crutch I had spotted in my first analysis of the situation, I still felt like there was something unsettling about consciously discarding privilege for the purpose of an entertaining experiment. The plan seemed, albeit on a much less overblown level, equivalent to Marie Antoinette building a village for herself at Versailles to play peasant. My impression of the whole deal was not helped by overhearing someone explain her experience over the phone afterwards by saying that she “was poor for the day.”

We may like to downplay our wealth at Carleton, but the fact remains that we still attend an extremely expensive school that, even with generous financial aid packages, excludes a dominant percentage of the population from affording it. That we can afford to pretend to “be poor for the day” is not a point of pride when there are people who actually are poor every day. Throwing away wealth by renouncing comforts is barely better than throwing away wealth on ostentation.

I headed into doing the Food Stamp Challenge with this mentality, and I was entirely set on learning nothing from it because of my perception that it was foolish. My prejudice was unfair, though, since, although I never lost the impression that I was acting embarrassingly bourgeois, I did actually draw some wisdom from the experience.

The coordinators did an excellent job of providing meals within the allowed budget, so I did not have to deal with the first relevant problem of finding food within the food stamp budget, but I still had to eat the frustratingly small portions of frustratingly unhealthy food for lunch and dinner. Although I knew it in theory, the fact that it is impossible to eat healthy food on a very limited budget was accented by my lunch of peanut butter and jelly on white bread with potato chips.

In general, the Challenge had this effect of making facts tangible for me. I actually was pretty hungry by the time dinner rolled around at 6, and I was looking forward to being able to eat in the dining hall the next day by the end of the night. I felt somewhat defeated by letting the Food Stamp Challenge actually have an effect on my opinions because of my original opposition to the idea. However, the fact is that solving hunger moved up a few priority spots in my mental register of Good Causes, I had the moment of crushing empathy where I reflected on the significance of prolonging Tuesday’s hunger for months or years, and I feel like I understand the problem better now.

Of course, once I decided that I had determined the effects of the food stamp challenge on my opinions, I went ahead and ate a snack because I was so hungry, emphatically proving my point about the hypocritical juxtaposition of the challenge with my privileged lifestyle. It was not my proudest moment. Nonetheless, I got the point. Living on food stamps is not fun, and the challenge to eat on them for a day should not be treated as merely a fun activity or even a notch in the belt of self-gratifying experiences.

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