The average Supplemental Nutrition Benefit Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit per meal in the US is $1.86 (source). For the final experiment in our How Can We Help Solve the Hunger Crisis? Quest, we did an experiment to find out what its like to prepare a nutritious, delicious meal for our “Quest family” on that budget.
With ten of us in the class, that gave us $18.60 to work with. The group decided that they wanted everyone to be included – which meant that they had to work around food allergies and intolerances. After their recipe searching, ingredient listing, and store selecting, our meal came in at $14.90. The goal was to make a meal of rice and beans big enough to feed all ten of us. (The rice and beans challenge that inspired us is five days long and has very different guidelines, but we tailored it to our schedule and needs.)
A few students came to the library in the morning to get the rice started in the Crock Pot (we did not have access to an oven). They followed the recipe, put the machine on high, and went to class. When they returned for our time together at 10:30, the rice was still raw. After some reflection, the group concluded that if they were truly relying on SNAP benefits, there might not be a chance to start over – so they were going to work with what they had. They added the rest of the ingredients, added their seasonings, and gave the meal as much time as possible to cook. While the Crock Pot did its work in the corner, we talked. Out of dedication to the experiment, a few students chose not to eat breakfast in the morning. They talked about the differences that that may have caused in their focus, patience, and attitude.
We also watched this this TedTalk from Andie Pinga, called We Should Feed the World More than Just Rice and Beans. This video really got the group talking about one specific phrase that Pina used – “overfed and under-nourished.” What does that look like? How could that be possible?
When it came time to eat our meal, it tasted…. pretty terrible. The rice was crunchy, the onions were raw, and the whole thing was oversalted. But after our discussion and their semester preparing, the kids ate it gratefully anyway. I asked them on their way out, “Was this a failed experiment, or a successful experiment?” They answered unanimously: It was both.
Here are few of our group’s biggest questions and reflections:
- Cooking is hard.
- Cooking using just a crock pot is extra tricky, and unreliable. It would have been much easier with an oven. How can families cook everyday without access to cooking tools? What about families experiencing homelessness or staying in shelters?
- There’s a big difference between fed and nourished. A full belly doesn’t necessarily mean you are healthy or feel good.
- How can you tell if a food is nourishing, anyway? Can you trust it if it says healthy on the box? What if it doesn’t come in a box?
- Sitting and watching others eat while you’re not eating is difficult, socially isolating, and can really ruin your day.
- Even if you follow the recipe, the food won’t necessarily taste good. We were lucky have amazing cafeteria food as a plan B. If you’re using your only money for food for the week and things don’t go as planned, what can you do?
- Eating the same thing for five days in a row, even if the recipe DOES turn out perfectly, doesn’t sound very fun.
- What does it mean that SNAP provides $1.86 per meal but the average cost of a meal in Charlottesville is $2.85?
- What would it feel like to do this much processing, planning, and mental math every single day?